Aussie invention could save old coal stations by running them on zero-emissions ‘Lego’ blocks



Authors provided

Erich Kisi, University of Newcastle and Alexander Post, University of Newcastle

As climate change worsens, the future of fossil fuel jobs and infrastructure is uncertain. But a new energy storage technology invented in Australia could enable coal-fired power stations to run entirely emissions-free.

The novel material, called miscibility gap alloy (MGA), stores energy in the form of heat. MGA is housed in small blocks of blended metals, which receive energy generated by renewables such as solar and wind.

The energy can then be used as an alternative to coal to run steam turbines at coal-fired power stations, without producing emissions. Stackable like Lego, MGA blocks can be added or removed, scaling electricity generation up or down to meet demand.

MGA blocks are a fraction of the cost of a rival energy storage technology, lithium-ion batteries. Our invention has been proven in the lab – now we are moving to the next phase of proving it in the real world.

Steam billows from a coal-fired power station
MGA blocks promise to give new life to old coal stations.
Themba Hadebe/AP

Why energy storage is important

Major renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power are “intermittent”. In other words, they only produce energy when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Sometimes they produce more energy than is needed, and other times, less.

So moving to 100% renewable electricity requires the energy to be “dispatchable” – stored and delivered on demand. Some forms of storage, such as lithium-ion batteries, are relatively expensive and can only store energy for short periods. Others, such as hydro-electric power, can store energy for longer periods, but are site-dependent and can’t just be built anywhere.




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If our electricity grid is to become emissions-free, we need an energy storage option that’s both affordable and versatile enough to be rolled out at massive scale – providing six to eight hours of dispatchable power every night.

MGAs store energy for a day to a week. This fills a “middle” time frame between batteries and hydro-power, and allows intermittent renewable energy to be dispatched when needed.

Researchers Alex Post and Erich Kisi, look at a MGA block.
Researchers Alex Post and Erich Kisi. The company is looking to built a pilot manufacturing plant in NSW.
Authors provided

How our invention works

In the next two decades, many coal-fired power stations around the world will retire or be decommissioned, including in Australia. Our proposed storage may mean power stations could be repurposed, retaining infrastructure and preventing job losses.

For coal stations to use our technology, the furnace and boiler must be removed and replaced by a storage unit containing MGA blocks.

MGA blocks are 20cm x 20cm x 16cm. They essentially comprise a blend of metals – some that melt when heated, and others that don’t. Think of a block as like a choc-chip muffin heated in a microwave. The muffin consists of a cake component, which holds everything in shape when heated, and the choc chips, which melt.




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The blocks don’t just store energy – they heat water to create steam. In an old coal plant, this steam can be used to run turbines and generators to produce electricity, rather than burning coal to produce the same effect.

Courtesy University of Newcastle.

To create the steam, the blocks can be designed with internal tubing, through which water is pumped and boiled. Alternatively, the blocks can interact with a heat exchanger – a specially designed system to heat the water.

Old coal plants could run on renewable energy that would otherwise be switched off during periods of oversupply in the middle of the day (in the case of solar) or times of high wind (wind energy).

Our research has shown the blocks are a fraction the cost of a lithium battery of the same size, yet produce the same amount of energy.

Coal worker
The technology may help prevent job losses in the coal industry.
KYDPL KYODO/AP

Proving MGA blocks in the real world

Our team perfected the novel material through research at the University of Newcastle between 2010 and 2018. Last year we formed a company, MGA Thermal, and are focused on commercialising the technology and conducting real-world projects.

In July this year, MGA Thermal received a A$495,000 grant from the federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, to establish a pilot manufacturing plant in Newcastle, New South Wales. This project is due to start operating in the second half of next year. The goal is to begin manufacturing a commercial quantity of MGA blocks economically, at scale, for large demonstration projects.




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MGA Thermal have partnered with a Swiss company, E2S Power AG, to test the technology in the rapidly changing coal-fired power industry in Europe. Beginning next year, the testing will include retrofitting a functioning coal power plant with MGA storage. This will also verify the economic case for the technology.

We are aiming for a cost of storage of A$50 per kilowatt hour, including all surrounding infrastructure. Currently, lithium-ion batteries cost around A$200 per kilowatt hour, with added costs if energy is to be exported to the electricity grid.

So what are the downfalls? Well, MGA does have a much slower response time than batteries. Batteries respond in milliseconds and are excellent at filling short spikes or dips in supply (such as from wind turbines). Meanwhile MGA storage has a response time above 15 minutes, but does have much longer storage capacity.

A combination of all three options – batteries, MGA/thermal storage and hydro – would provide large-scale energy storage that can still respond quickly to fluctuating renewable supply.

Courtesy University of Newcastle.

Safe and recyclable

MGA blocks are safe and non-toxic – there is no risk of explosion or leakage, unlike some other fuels.

The blocks can also be recycled. They are expected to last 25-30 years, then can be easily separated into their individual materials – to be made into new blocks, or recycled as raw materials for other uses.

Like any new technology, MGA blocks must be financially proven before they’re accepted by industry and used widely in commercial projects. The first full-scale demonstrations of the technology are on the horizon. If successful, they could allow coal-fired power plants to be used cleanly, and provide hope for the future of coal workers.The Conversation

Erich Kisi, Professor of Engineering , University of Newcastle and Alexander Post, Conjoint Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

NZ introduces groundbreaking zero carbon bill, including targets for agricultural methane



Agriculture – including methane from cows and sheep – currently contributes almost half of New Zealand’s greenhouse emissions.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Robert McLachlan, Massey University

New Zealand’s long-awaited zero carbon bill will create sweeping changes to the management of emissions, setting a global benchmark with ambitious reduction targets for all major greenhouse gases.

The bill includes two separate targets – one for the long-lived greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, and another target specifically for biogenic methane, produced by livestock and landfill waste.

Launching the bill, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said:

Carbon dioxide is the most important thing we need to tackle – that’s why we’ve taken a net zero carbon approach. Agriculture is incredibly important to New Zealand, but it also needs to be part of the solution. That is why we have listened to the science and also heard the industry and created a specific target for biogenic methane.

The Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill will:

  • Create a target of reducing all greenhouse gases, except biogenic methane, to net zero by 2050
  • Create a separate target to reduce emissions of biogenic methane by 10% by 2030, and 24-47% by 2050 (relative to 2017 levels)
  • Establish a new, independent climate commission to provide emissions budgets, expert advice, and monitoring to help keep successive governments on track
  • Require government to implement policies for climate change risk assessment, a national adaptation plan, and progress reporting on implementation of the plan.



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Bringing in agriculture

Preparing the bill has been a lengthy process. The government was committed to working with its coalition partners and also with the opposition National Party, to ensure the bill’s long-term viability. A consultation process in 2018 yielded 15,000 submissions, more than 90% of which asked for an advisory, independent climate commission, provision for adapting to the effects of climate change and a target of net zero by 2050 for all gasses.

Throughout this period there has been discussion of the role and responsibility of agriculture, which contributes 48% of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions. This is an important issue not just for New Zealand and all agricultural nations, but for world food supply.


Ministry for the Environment, CC BY-ND

Another critical question involved forestry. Pathways to net zero involve planting a lot of trees, but this is a short-term solution with only partly understood consequences. Recently, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment suggested an approach in which forestry could offset only agricultural, non-fossil emissions.

Now we know how the government has threaded its way between these difficult choices.




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Separate targets for different gases

In signing the Paris Agreement, New Zealand agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C and to make efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. The bill is guided by the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which details three pathways to limit warming to 1.5°C. All of them involve significant reductions in agricultural methane (by 23%-69% by 2050).

Farmers will be pleased with the “two baskets” approach, in which biogenic methane is treated differently from other gasses. But the bill does require total biogenic emissions to fall. They cannot be offset by planting trees. The climate commission, once established, and the minister will have to come up with policies that actually reduce emissions.

In the short term, that will likely involve decisions about livestock stocking rates: retiring the least profitable sheep and beef farms, and improving efficiency in the dairy industry with fewer animals but increased productivity on the remaining land. Longer term options include methane inhibitors, selective breeding, and a possible methane vaccine.

Ambitious net zero target

Net zero by 2050 on all other gasses, including offsetting by forestry, is still an ambitious target. New Zealand’s emissions rose sharply in 2017 and effective mechanisms to phase out fossil fuels are not yet in place. It is likely that with protests in Auckland over a local 10 cents a litre fuel tax – albeit brought in to fund public transport and not as a carbon tax per se – the government may be feeling they have to tread delicately here.

But the bill requires real action. The first carbon budget will cover 2022-2025. Work to strengthen New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme is already underway and will likely involve a falling cap on emissions that will raise the carbon price, currently capped at NZ$25.




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In initial reaction to the bill, the National Party welcomed all aspects of it except the 24-47% reduction target for methane, which they believe should have been left to the climate commission. Coalition partner New Zealand First is talking up their contribution and how they had the agriculture sector’s interests at heart.

While climate activist groups welcomed the bill, Greenpeace criticised the bill for not being legally enforceable and described the 10% cut in methane as “miserly”. The youth action group Generation Zero, one of the first to call for zero carbon legislation, is understandably delighted. Even so, they say the law does not match the urgency of the crisis. And it’s true that since the bill was first mooted, we have seen a stronger sense of urgency, from the Extinction Rebellion to Greta Thunberg to the UK parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency.




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New Zealand’s bill is a pioneering effort to respond in detail to the 1.5ºC target and to base a national plan around the science reported by the IPCC.

Many other countries are in the process of setting and strengthening targets. Ireland’s Parliamentary Joint Committee on Climate recently recommended adopting a target of net zero for all gasses by 2050. Scotland will strengthen its target to net zero carbon dioxide and methane by 2040 and net zero all gasses by 2045. Less than a week after this announcement, the Scottish government dropped plans to cut air departure fees (currently £13 for short and £78 for long flights, and double for business class).

One country that has set a specific goals for agricultural methane is Uruguay, with a target of reducing emissions per kilogram of beef by 33%-46% by 2030. In the countries mentioned above, not so different from New Zealand, agriculture produces 35%, 23%, and 55% of emissions, respectively.

New Zealand has learned from processes that have worked elsewhere, notably the UK’s Climate Change Commission, which attempts to balance science, public involvement and the sovereignty of parliament. Perhaps our present experience in balancing the demands of different interest groups and economic sectors, with diverse mitigation opportunities and costs, can now help others.The Conversation

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Eighteen countries showing the way to carbon zero


Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Jan Ivar Korsbakken, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo, and Robbie Andrew, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo

Eighteen countries from developed economies have had declining carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels for at least a decade. While every nation is unique, they share some common themes that can show Australia, and the world, a viable path to reducing emissions.

Global CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels continue to increase, with record high emissions in 2018 and further growth anticipated for 2019. This trend is linked to global economic growth, which is largely still powered by the burning of fossil fuels.




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Significant reductions in the energy and carbon intensities of the global economy have not been sufficient to trigger decreases in global emissions.

But 18 countries have been doing something different. A new analysis sheds light on how they have changed their emission trajectories. There is no “silver bullet”, and every country has unique characteristics, but three elements emerge from the group: a high penetration of renewable energy in the electricity sector, a decline in energy use, and a high number of energy and climate policies in place. Something is working for these countries.

Australia was not part of the study, as its CO₂ emissions from the burning of fossil fuels remained largely stable over the study period 2005-2015 while the country’s economy grew. However, emissions of all greenhouse gases across all sectors of the economy (including land use change) declined over most of the same period, a trend that reversed in 2014 since when emissions have increased.

Why did emissions decline?

The 18 countries shown below all peaked their fossil fuel emissions no later than 2005 and had significant declines thereafter to 2015, the period covered by our study.

Changes in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion for 18 countries with declining emissions during 2005-2015. Countries are ordered by how soon their emissions peaked and began to decline.
Le Quéré et al. Nature Climate Change (2019) based on data from the International Energy Agency @IEA/OECD

Uniformly, the largest contribution to emissions reductions – about 47% – was due to decreases in the fossil share of energy production, while reductions in overall energy use contributed 36%.

However, there are large differences in the relative importance of the factors that drove emissions reductions in the various countries. For instance, reduced energy use dominated emissions reductions in many countries of the European Union, whereas a more balanced spread of factors dominated in the United States, with the single largest contributor being the switch from coal to gas. Emissions reductions in Austria, Finland and Sweden were due to an increased share of non-fossil and renewable energy.

Interestingly, our analyses suggest that there is a correlation between the number of policies to promote the uptake of renewable energy and the decline in the 18 countries.

The declining emissions were not caused by the consumption of products produced elsewhere during the period examined. Earlier in the 2000s, this practice of outsourcing emissions to other countries (for example by moving manufacturing offshore) was a significant driver of emissions decline in many developed countries. But that effect has diminished.

The lasting consequences of the 2008 global financial crisis on the global economy however did have an impact, and partially explained the reduced energy use in many countries.

How significant are these emissions declines?

Emissions declined by 2.4% per year during 2005-15 across the 18 countries.

One could argue this decline is not particularly meaningful because global fossil fuel emissions continued to grow at 2.2% per year during the same period. However, this group of countries is responsible for 28% of the global CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels. That is a sizeable fraction, and if the decline continues and further intensifies it can have a significant impact.

The 18 peak-and-decline countries also played a part in the stalling of global emissions between 2014 and 2016 while the global economy continued to grow, a combination that showed, briefly and for the first time, what accelerated decarbonisation would look like. While China did not have 10 years of continuous declining emissions (and hence it was not part of the group of 18 countries), it was the biggest contributor during this stalling.

There is no guarantee that the declining trends will continue over the coming decades. In fact, our global 2018 carbon budget report showed that some of the more recent country trends are fragile and require further policy and actions to strengthen the decreases and support long-term robust decarbonisation trends.




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If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, it seems some countries have already begun walking that road. Now we all need to start running decisively.The Conversation

Pep Canadell, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Professor, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Jan Ivar Korsbakken, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo, and Robbie Andrew, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shorten says Australia should have net zero emissions by 2050


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Labor will commit to the goal of Australia achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and embrace the ambitious target of cutting emissions by 45% on 2005 levels by 2030.

Unveiling the opposition’s policy positions ahead of next week’s international climate conference, Bill Shorten on Friday will condemn the 2030 target the government is taking to Paris as “pathetic”.

He will say that within its first year a Labor government, guided by its 2030 and 2050 goals, will announce an emissions reduction target for 2025.

Australia’s pledge for Paris is to reduce emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030.

The latest announcement further sharply differentiates Labor’s climate stand from the Coalition’s. It has already committed itself to an emissions trading scheme. The 2030 target will be a test for it with the business community.

Shorten says that achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is an ambitious goal. “This means by 2050, every tonne of pollution we produce will need to be balanced by sequestration, offsetting or purchasing.”

It “will demand major technological transitions in a range of industries”.

But changing technology, modernising fuels and embracing clean energy does not mean trading away prosperity, he says in his address for the Lowy Institute.

He points to ClimateWorks modelling based on net zero emissions by 2050 that forecasts the Australian economy would still be 150% larger than now. “With the right plan and the right approach, Australia can lower emissions and lift economic growth. We can cut pollution and create jobs,” Shorten says.

He says achieving net zero emissions would require embracing everything from switching transport, industry and buildings to biofuels, gas and carbon-free electricity to reducing agricultural emissions through better land management, farming practices and increased carbon forestry.

Labor will use the Climate Change Authority’s recommendation of a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030 on 2005 levels as the basis for its consultations with industry, employers, unions and the community.

“We will undertake this process mindful of the consequences for jobs, for regions and for any impacts on households.

“Our target will work in concert with our 2050 objective, and our strategies for managing transitions within particular sectors.”

Environment spokesman Mark Butler will lead the consultations, starting immediately, and report back by March.

“A 45% baseline reduction would be an ambitious target for Australia, particularly on a per capital basis,” Shorten says.

“But we should not shy away from ambition.”

The government’s own modelling found that the economic impact of a 45% target would be minimal.

Labor would support a pledge and review process every five years, to help Australia track its commitments and respond to international action.

Malcolm Turnbull will attend the start of the Paris conference on Monday. Shorten is also going to Paris.

In a swingeing attack on Turnbull, Shorten says Turnbull “is flying to Paris carrying Tony Abbott’s climate sceptic baggage.

“The prime minister will walk onto the aerobridge with a pathetic target in one hand and an expensive joke of a climate policy in the other.”

“The Abbott-Turnbull 2030 target puts Australia at the back of the international pack. It falls well short of Australia’s obligation to help keep warming below 2 degrees on pre-industrial levels,” Shorten says.

“Under Direct Action, it is taxpayers, not polluters, who pay to reduce emissions at a signifiant cost to the budget.”

Shorten says no-one had delivered a more incisive critique of Direct Action than Turnbull who labelled it “an environmental fig leaf to cover a determination to do nothing”.

“He had the courage to tell the truth when he was a backbencher, with nothing to lose. Yet now, when power is in his grasp and the evidence is in front of his eyes. He cannot admit what he knows in his heart and head to be true.”

Despite the government’s “accounting chicanery” Australia’s emissions are going up not down, Shorten says.

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The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.