Where will the batteries come from to meet this huge storage demand? Most likely from a range of different technologies, some of which are only at the research and development stage at present.
Our new research suggests that “proton batteries” – rechargeable batteries that store protons from water in a porous carbon material – could make a valuable contribution.
Not only is our new battery environmentally friendly, but it is also technically capable with further development of storing more energy for a given mass and size than currently available lithium-ion batteries – the technology used in South Australia’s giant new battery.
Potential applications for the proton battery include household storage of electricity from solar panels, as is currently done by the Tesla Powerwall.
With some modifications and scaling up, proton battery technology may also be used for medium-scale storage on electricity grids, and to power electric vehicles.
During charging, the water molecules in the battery are split, releasing protons (positively charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms). These protons then bond with the carbon in the electrode, with the help of electrons from the power supply.
In electricity supply mode, this process is reversed: the protons are released from the storage and travel back through the reversible fuel cell to generate power by reacting with oxygen from air and electrons from the external circuit, forming water once again.
Essentially, a proton battery is thus a reversible hydrogen fuel cell that stores hydrogen bonded to the carbon in its solid electrode, rather than as compressed hydrogen gas in a separate cylinder, as in a conventional hydrogen fuel cell system.
Unlike fossil fuels, the carbon used for storing hydrogen does not burn or cause emissions in the process. The carbon electrode, in effect, serves as a “rechargeable hydrocarbon” for storing energy.
What’s more, the battery can be charged and discharged at normal temperature and pressure, without any need for compressing and storing hydrogen gas. This makes it safer than other forms of hydrogen fuel.
Powering batteries with protons from water splitting also has the potential to be more economical than using lithium ions, which are made from globally scarce and geographically restricted resources. The carbon-based material in the storage electrode can be made from abundant and cheap primary resources – even forms of coal or biomass.
Our latest advance is a crucial step towards cheap, sustainable proton batteries that can help meet our future energy needs without further damaging our already fragile environment.
The time scale to take this small-scale experimental device to commercialisation is likely to be in the order of five to ten years, depending on the level of research, development and demonstration effort expended.
Our research will now focus on further improving performance and energy density through use of atomically thin layered carbon-based materials such as graphene.
The target of a proton battery that is truly competitive with lithium-ion batteries is firmly in our sights.
The sustainability of our buildings is coming under scrutiny, and “green” rating tools are the key method for measuring this. Deakin University’s School of Architecture and Built Environment recently reviewed these certification schemes. Focus group discussions were held in Sydney and Melbourne with representatives in the field of sustainability – including government, green consultancies and rating tool providers.
Two main concerns emerged from our review:
Sustainability ratings tools are not audited. Most ratings tools are predictive, while those few that take measurements use paid third parties. Government plays no active part.
The sustainability parameters measured only loosely intersect with the building occupants’ sustainability concerns. Considerations such as access to transport and amenities are not included.
Each green rating tool works by identifying a range of sustainability parameters – such as water and energy use, waste production, etc. The list of things to be measured runs into the dozens. Tools differ on the parameters measured, method of measurement, weightings given and the thresholds that determine a given sustainability rating.
Government practice, historically, has been to assure building quality through permits. Planning permits ensure a development conforms with city schemes. Building permits assess structural load-bearing capacity, health and fire safety.
All this is done off the plan. Site inspections take place to verify that the building is built to plan. But once a certificate of occupancy is issued, the government steps aside.
The sustainability agenda promoted by government has been grafted onto this regime. Energy efficiency was introduced into the residential building code in 2005, and then into the commercial building code in 2006. At first, this was limited to new buildings, but then broadened to include refurbishment of existing structures.
Again, sustainability credentials are assessed off the plan and certification issued once the building is up and running. Thereafter, government walks away.
We know of only one longitudinal energy performance study carried out on domestic residences in Australia. It is an as-yet-unpublished project conducted by a retiree from the CSIRO, working with Indigenous communities in Far North Queensland.
The findings corroborate a recent study by Gertrud Hatvani-Kovacs and colleagues from the University of South Australia. This study found that so-called “energy-inefficient” houses, following traditional design, managed under certain conditions to outperform 6- and 8-star buildings.
Sustainability tools must measure what matters
Energy usage is but the tip of the iceberg. Genuine sustainability is about delivering our children into a future in which they have all that we have today.
Home owners, on average, turn their property around every eight years. They are less concerned with energy efficiency than with real estate prices. And these prices depend on the appeal of the property, which involves access to transport, schools, parks and amenities, and freedom from crime.
Commercial property owners, too, are concerned about infrastructure, and they care about creating work environments that retain valued employees.
These are all core sustainability issues, yet do not come up in the rating systems we use.
If government is serious about creating sustainable cities, it needs to let go of its limited, narrow criteria and embrace these larger concerns of “liveability”. It must embody these broader criteria in the rating systems it uses to endorse developments. And it needs an auditing and enforcement regime in place to make it happen.
Most people agree we need modern, comfortable, eco-efficient homes. This article is not about the relatively few, new, demonstration “eco-homes” dotted around Australia. It is about the rest of our housing.
These mainly ageing homes might have had energy efficiency improvements done over the years, but invariably are in need of upgrading to meet modern standards of efficiency and comfort.
Since 2006, all new-build housing must meet higher energy efficiency standards. But we add only around 1% to the new housing stock each year.
Policies to improve energy efficiency in the other 99% are more fragmented. The focus is almost entirely on market-based incentives to “retrofit”. By this we mean material upgrades to improve housing energy and carbon performance.
These impressive numbers describe a nationally important intervention. But does this mean we will soon all get to live in eco-homes, rather than just a lucky few?
Current retrofitting activity has occurred unevenly and may contribute to longer-term inequalities.
For example, rebates for deeper retrofits often are more accessible to the better-off home owners. They have matching cash and also rights to make major upgrades (as opposed to renters). This entrenches the existing reality that low-income renters tend to live in less energy-efficient homes.
Similarly, in the UK, retrofit incentives haven’t always successfully targeted those most in need. The distribution of costs has contributed to pushing up energy prices for those already in energy poverty. In Australia, up to 20% of households were already in energy poverty before recent price rises.
Thus, if poorly targeted and funded, energy efficiency initiatives might make existing dynamics worse and add to the cumulative vulnerabilities of housing affordability stress.
We cannot effectively monitor this. This is because Australia has no robust, longitudinal national database of property condition. There is no established, widespread practice of property owners obtaining property condition reports that set out the energy-efficiency performance and the most viable improvements that could be made.
This means we do not have a systematic way of knowing what we should do next to our homes, even if we are lucky enough to own them and have some cash available, as well as the time and motivation to retrofit.
To the rescue, at least in Victoria, is the new Victorian Residential Efficiency Scorecard. This is an advance on previous attempts (as in the ACT and Queensland) to develop comparable assessments of the energy efficiency and comfort levels of your home. Although voluntary, the scorecard will provide owners with a report on their home and a list of measures they can consider to transform it “eco-homewards”.
So, is the scorecard the answer to our problems? Will it bring forward the date when we can all live in comfy eco-homes? It will certainly help.
The European Union has had a mandatory system since the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive. The evidence suggests this has raised awareness of energy efficiency by literally putting labels of buildings in your face when you are deciding where to buy. It’s much like Australians have become used to energy efficiency labels on fridges and other appliances. However, evidence of this awareness actually leading to upgrade activity is more mixed and, in some cases, disappointing.
In short, we need the scorecard and should welcome it. However, we also need a set of other measures if we are to make the transformations to match our national policy objectives and our desires for a comfy eco-home.
What else needs to be done?
The research agenda is also shifting to explore the social and equity dimensions of the retrofit transition.
In areas where installation work on energy-efficiency/low-carbon retrofits is increasing, how is this working in households? Who makes decisions? How do they decide and with what resources? What or who do they call upon? And, more broadly, what are the positive or problematic consequences for equity and, therefore, for policy?
Emerging retrofit technologies and behaviours have broader social and economic contexts. This means we need to understand the wider meanings and practices of homemaking, the uneven social and income structures of households, and the home improvement service industry.
While the retrofit transition is arguably under way, its consequences and dynamics are still largely unknown. We need to refocus away from simply counting solar systems towards understanding retrofitting better. This depends on understanding both the households that are retrofitting their homes and the industries and organisations that supply them.
To get energy policies right and overcome energy poverty, we need to bring together studies and initiatives in material consumption, sustainability and social justice.
Can you see a window as you are reading this article?
Windows have been ubiquitous in society for centuries, filling our homes and workplaces with natural light. But what if they could also generate electricity? What if your humble window could help charge your phone, or boil your kettle?
With between 5 billion and 7 billion square metres of glass surface in the United States alone, solar windows would offer a great way to harness the Sun’s energy. Our research represents a step toward this goal, by showing how to make solar panels that still let through enough light to function as a window.
The economics of renewable energy are becoming increasingly favourable. In Australia, and many other parts of the world, silicon solar cells already dominate the rooftop market.
Rooftop solar power offers an increasingly cheap and efficient way to generate electricity.
But while great for roofs, these silicon modules are opaque and bulky. To design a solar cell suitable for windows, we have to think outside the box.
When we put a solar panel on a roof, we want it to absorb as much sunlight as possible, so that it can generate the maximum amount of power. For a window, there is inevitably a trade-off between absorbing light to turn into electricity, and transmitting light so we can still see through the window.
When thinking about a cell that could be fitted to a window, one of the key parameters is known as the average visible transmittance (AVT). This is the percentage of visible light (as opposed to other wavelengths, like infrared or ultraviolet) hitting the window that travels through it and emerges on the other side.
Of course we don’t want the solar window to absorb so much light that we can longer see out of it. Nor do we want it to let so much light through that it hardly generates any solar power. So scientists have been trying to find a happy medium between high electrical efficiency and a high AVT.
A matter of voltage
An AVT of 25% is generally considered a benchmark for solar windows. But letting a quarter of the light travel through the solar cell makes it hard to generate a lot of current, which is why the efficiency of semitransparent cells has so far been low.
But note that electrical power depends on two factors: current and voltage. In our recent research, we decided to focus on upping the voltage. We carefully selected new organic absorber materials that have been shown to produce high voltage in non-transparent cells.
When placed in a semitransparent solar cell, the voltage was also high, as it was not significantly lowered by the large amount of transmitted light. And so, although the current was lowered, compared to opaque cells, the higher voltage allowed us to achieve a higher efficiency than previous semitransparent cells.
Having got this far, the key question is: what would windows look like if they were made of our new semitransparent cells?
Do you see what I see?
If your friend is wearing a red shirt, when you view them through a window, their shirt should appear red. That seems obvious, as it will definitely be the case for a glass window.
But because semitransparent solar cells absorb some of the light we see in the visible spectrum, we need to think more carefully about this colour-rendering property. We can measure how well the cell can accurately present an image by calculating what’s called the colour rendering index, or CRI. Our investigation showed that changing the thickness of the absorbing layer can not only affect the electrical power the cell can produce, but also changes its ability to depict colours accurately.
A different prospective approach, which can lead to excellent CRIs, is to replace the organic absorber material with one that absorbs energy from the sun outside the visible range. This means the cell will appear as normal glass to the human eye, as the solar conversion is happening in the infrared range.
However, this places limitations on the efficiency the cells can achieve as it severely limits the amount of power from the sun that can be converted to electricity.
So far we have created our cells only at a small, prototype scale. There are still several hurdles in the way before we can make large, efficient solar windows. In particular, the transparent electrodes used to collect charge from these cells can be brittle and contain rare elements, such as indium.
You live in one of the sunniest countries in the world. You might want to use that solar advantage and harvest all this free energy. Knowing that solar panels are rapidly becoming cheaper and have become feasible even in less sunny places like the UK, this should be a no-brainer.
Despite this, the Australian government has taken a step backwards at a time when we should be thinking 30 years ahead.
Can we do it differently? Yes, we can! My ongoing research on sustainable urbanism makes it clear that if we use the available renewable resources in the Sydney region we do not need any fossil resource any more. We can become zero-carbon. (With Louisa King and Andy Van den Dobbelsteen, I have prepared a forthcoming paper, Towards Zero-Carbon Metropolitan Regions: The Example of
Sydney, in the journal SASBE.)
Enough solar power for every household
Abundant solar energy is available in the Sydney metropolitan area. If 25% of the houses each installed 35 square metres of solar panels, this could deliver all the energy for the city’s households.
We conservatively estimate a total yield of 195kWh/m2 of PV panel placed on roofs or other horizontal surfaces. The potential area of all Sydney council precincts suited for PV is estimated at around 385km2 – a quarter of the entire roof surface.
We calculate the potential total solar yield at 75.1TWh, which is more than current domestic household energy use (65.3TWh, according to the Jemena energy company).
If we install small wind turbines on land and larger turbines offshore we can harvest enough energy to fuel our electric vehicle fleet. Onshore wind turbines of 1-5MW generating capacity can be positioned to capture the prevailing southwest and northeast winds.
The turbines are placed on top of ridges, making use of the funnel effect to increase their output. We estimate around 840km of ridge lines in the Sydney metropolitan area can be used for wind turbines, enabling a total of 1,400 turbines. The total potential generation from onshore wind turbines is 6.13TWh.
Offshore turbines could in principle be placed everywhere, as the wind strength is enough to create an efficient yield. The turbines are larger than the ones on shore, capturing 5-7.5MW each, and can be placed up to 30km offshore. With these boundary conditions, an offshore wind park 45km long and 6km wide is possible. The total offshore potential then is 5.18TWh.
Altogether, then, we estimate the Sydney wind energy potential at 11.3TWh.
We can turn our household waste and green waste from forests, parks and public green spaces into biogas. We can then use the existing gas network to provide heating and cooling for the majority of offices.
Biomass from domestic and green waste will be processed through anaerobic fermentation in old power plants to generate biogas. Gas reserves are created, stored and delivered through the existing power plants and gas grid.
Using algae arrays to treat the waste water of new precincts, roughly a million new households as currently planned in Western Sydney, enables the production of great quantities of biofuel. Experimental test fields show yields can be high. A minimum of 20,000 litres of biodiesel per hectare of algae ponds is possible if organic wastewater is added. This quantity is realisable in Botany Bay and in western Sydney.
Shallow geothermal heat can be tapped through heat pumps and establishing closed loops in the soil. This can occur in large expanses of urban developments within the metropolitan area, which rests predominantly on deposits of Wianamatta shale in the west underlying Parramatta, Liverpool and Penrith.
Where large water surfaces are available, such as in Botany Bay or the Prospect Reservoir, heat can also be harvested from the water body.
The layers of the underlying Hawkesbury sandstone, the bedrock for much of the region, can yield deep geothermal heat. This is done by pumping water into these layers and harvesting the steam as heat, hot water or converted electricity.
The potential sources of energy from hydro generation are diverse. Tidal energy can be harvested at the entrances of Sydney Harbour Bay and Botany Bay, where tidal differences are expected to be highest.
Port Jackson, the Sydney Harbour bay and all of its estuaries have a total area of 55km2. With a tidal difference of two metres, the total maximum energy potential of a tidal plant would be 446TWh. If Sydney could harvest 20% of this, that would be more than twice the yield of solar panels on residential roofs.
If we use the tide to generate electricity, we can also create a surge barrier connecting Middle and South Head. Given the climatic changes occurring and still ahead of us, we need to plan how to protect the city from the threats of future cyclones, storm surges and flooding.
I have written here about the potential benefits of artificially creating a Sydney Barrier Reef. The reef, 30km at most out at sea, would provide Sydney with protection from storms.
At openings along the reef, wave power generators can be placed. Like tidal power, wave power can be calculated: mass displacement times gravity. If around 10km of the Sydney shoreline had wave power vessels, the maximum energy potential would be 3.2TWh.
In the mouths of the estuaries of Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay, freshwater meets saltwater. These places have a large potential to generate “blue energy” through reverse osmosis membrane technology.
To combine protective structures with tidal generating power, an open closure barrier is proposed for the mouth of Sydney Harbour. The large central gates need to be able to accommodate the entrance of large cruise ships and to close in times of a storm surge. At the same time, a tidal plant system operates at the sides of the barrier.
All these potential energy sources are integrated into our Master Plan for a Zero-Carbon Sydney. Each has led to design propositions that together can create a zero-carbon city.
The research shows there is enough, more than enough, potential reliable renewable energy to supply every household and industry in the region. What is needed is an awareness that Australia could be a global frontrunner in innovative energy policy, instead of a laggard.
Last Friday, the “world’s largest” lithium-ion battery was officially opened in South Australia. Tesla’s much anticipated “mega-battery” made the “100 days or it’s free” deadline, after a week of testing and commissioning.
Many are now watching on in anticipation to see what impact the battery has on the SA electricity market, and whether it could be a game-changer nationally.
The Hornsdale Power Reserve
The “mega battery” complex is officially called the Hornsdale Power Reserve. It sits alongside the Hornsdale Wind Farm and has been constructed in partnership with the SA government and Neoen, the French renewable energy company that owns the wind farm.
At first blush, some of these numbers might sound reasonable. But they don’t actually reflect a major role the battery will play, nor the physical capability of the battery itself.
What can the battery do?
The battery complex can be thought of as two systems. First there is a component with 70MW of output capacity that has been contracted to the SA government. This is reported to provide grid stability and system security, and designed only to have about 10 minutes of storage.
The second part could be thought of as having 30MW of output capacity, but 3-4 hours of storage. Even though this component has a smaller capacity (MW), it has much more storage (MWh) and can provide energy for much longer. This component will participate in the competitive part of the market, and should firm up the wind power produced by the wind farm.
In addition, the incredible flexibility of the battery means that it is well suited to participate in the Frequency Control Ancillary Service market. More on that below.
The figure below illustrates just how flexible the battery actually is. In the space of four seconds, the battery is capable of going from zero to 30MW (and vice versa). In fact it is likely much faster than that (at the millisecond scale), but the data available is only at 4-second resolution.
Frequency Control and Ancillary Service Market
The Frequency Control and Ancillary Service (FCAS) market is less known and understood than the energy market. In fact it is wrong to talk of a single FCAS market – there are actually eight distinct markets.
The role of these markets is essentially twofold. First, they provide contingency reserves in case of a major disturbance, such as a large coal generation unit tripping off. The services provide a rapid response to a sudden fall (or rise) in grid frequency.
At the moment, these contingency services operate on three different timescales: 6 seconds, 60 seconds, and 5 minutes. Generators that offer these services must be able to raise (or reduce) their output to respond to an incident within these time frames.
The Hornsdale Power Reserve is more than capable of participating in these six markets (raising and lowering services for the three time intervals shown in the illustration above).
The final two markets are known as regulation services (again, as both a raise and lower). For this service, the Australian energy market operator (AEMO) issues dispatch instructions on a fine timescale (4 seconds) to “regulate” the frequency and keep supply and demand in balance.
The future: fast frequency response?
Large synchronous generators (such as coal plants) have traditionally provided frequency control, (through the FCAS markets), and another service, inertia – essentially for free. As these power plants leave the system, there maybe a need for another service to maintain power system security.
One such service is so-called “fast frequency response” (FFR). While not a a direct replacement, it can reduce the need for physical inertia. This is conceptually similar to the contingency services described above, but might occur at the timescale of tens to hundreds of milliseconds, rather than 6 seconds.
The Australian Energy Market Commission is currently going through the process of potentially introducing a fast frequency response market. In the meantime, obligations on transmission companies are expected to ensure a minimum amount of inertia or similar services (such as fast frequency response).
I suspect that the 70MW portion of the new Tesla battery is designed to provide exactly this fast frequency response.
Size matters but role matters more
The South Australian battery is truly a historic moment for both South Australia, and for Australia’s future energy security.
While the size, of the battery might be decried as being small in the context of the National Energy Market, it is important to remember its capabilities and role. It may well be a game changer, by delivering services not previously provided by wind and solar PV.