Archive for the ‘Electricity Generation’ Category

2022 to 1978: Looking Back and Looking Forwards

May 3, 2022

Friends, it’s been two years since I retired, and since leaving the chaos and bullying at NPL, retirement has felt like the gift of a new life.

I now devote myself to pastimes befitting a man of my advanced years:

  • Drinking coffee and eating Lebanese pastries for breakfast.
  • Frequenting Folk Clubs
  • Proselytising about the need for action on Climate Change
  • Properly disposing of the 99% of my possessions that will have no meaning to my children or my wife after I die.

It was while engaged in this latter activity, that I came across some old copies of Scientific American magazine.

Last year I abandoned my 40 year subscription to the magazine because it had become almost content free. But in its day, Scientific American occupied a unique niche that allowed enthusiasts in science and engineering to read detailed articles by authors at the forefront of their fields.

In the January Edition for 1978 there were a number of fascinating articles:

  • The Surgical Replacement of the Human Knee Joint
  • How Bacteria Stick
  • The Efficiency of Algorithms
  • Roman Carthage
  • The Visual Characteristics of Words

and…

  • The Carbon Dioxide Question

You can read a scanned pdf copy of the article here.

This article was written by George M Woodwell a pioneer ecologist. The particular carbon dioxide question he asked was this:

Will enough carbon be stored in forests and the ocean to avert a major change in climate?

The article did not definitively answer this question. Instead it highlighted the uncertainties in our understanding of the some of the key processes required to answer the question.

In 1978 the use of satellite analysis to assess the rate of loss of forests was in its infancy. And there were large uncertainties in estimates of the difference in storage capacity between native forests, and managed forests and croplands.

The article drew up a global ‘balance sheet’ for carbon, and concluded that there were major uncertainties in our understanding of many of the physical processes by which carbon and carbon dioxide was captured (or cycled through) Earth’s systems.

Some uncertainty still remains in these areas, but the basic picture has become clearer in the subsequent 44 years of intense study.

So what can we learn from this ‘out of date’ paper?

Three things struck me.

Thing#1

Firstly, from a 2022 perspective, I noticed that there are important things missing from the article!

In considering likely future carbon dioxide emissions, the author viewed the choices as being simply between coal and nuclear power.

Elsewhere in the magazine, the Science and the Citizen column discusses electricity generation by coal with no mention of CO2 emissions. Instead the article simply laments that coal will be in short supply and concludes that:

“There is no question… coal will supply a large part of the nation’s energy future. The required trade-offs will be costly however, particularly in terms of human life and disease.

Neither article mentions generation of electricity by gas turbines. And neither makes any mention of either wind or solar power generation – now the cheapest and fastest growing sources of electricity generation.

From this I note that in it it’s specific details, the future is very hard to see.

Thing#2

Despite the difficulties, the author did make predictions and it is fascinating from the perspective of 2022 to look back and see how those predictions from 1978 have worked out!

The article included predictions for 

  • The atmospheric concentration of CO2
  • CO2 emissions from Fossil Fuels

Click on image for a larger version. Figure from the 1978 article by George Woodwell. The curves in green (to be read against the right-hand axis) shows two predictions for atmospheric concentration of CO2. The curves in black (to be read against the left-hand axis) shows two predictions for fossil fuel emissions of CO2. In each case, the difference between the two curves represents the uncertainty caused by changes in the way CO2 would be cycled through (or captured by) the oceans and forests. See the article for a detailed rubric.

The current atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is roughly 420 ppm and the lowest projection from 1978 is very close.

The fossil fuel emissions estimates are given in terms of the equivalent change in atmospheric CO2, and I am not exactly sure how to interpret this correctly.

Atmospheric concentration of CO2 is currently rising at approximately 2.5 ppm per year, and roughly 56% of fossil fuel emissions end up in the atmosphere. So the annual emissions predicted for 2022 are around 2.5/0.56 ~ 4.5 ppm /year, which is rather lower than the lowest prediction of around 6 ppm/year.

The article also predicts that this will be the peak in annual emissions, but that has yet to be seen.

The predictions did not cover the warming effect of carbon dioxide emissions, the science of which was in the process of being formulated. ‘Modern’ predictions can be dated to 1981, when James Hansen and colleagues published a landmark paper in Science (Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide) which predicted:

A 2 °C global warming is exceeded in the 21st century in all the CO2 scenarios we considered, except no growth and coal phaseout.

This is the path we are still on.

From this I note that the worst predictions don’t always happen, but sometimes they do.

Thing#3

The final observation concerns the prescience of the author’s conclusion in spite of his ignorance of the details.

Click on the image for a larger version. This is the author’s final conclusion in 1978

His last two sentences could not be truer:

There is almost no aspect of national or international policy that can remain unaffected by the prospect of global climatic change.

Carbon dioxide, until now an apparently innocuous trace gas in the atmosphere may be moving rapidly toward a central role as a major threat to the present world order.

 

March 2022

April 8, 2022

Friends, Spring is springing, and our first winter with a heat pump is ending.

Overall, it has been phenomenally successful. All the parts of our refurbishment have played their part.

  • The triple-glazing and external wall insulation have reduced the heating power required to heat the house.
  • The solar panels continued to deliver ~5% of our electricity requirements even in December.
  • The battery (a 13.5 kWh Tesla Powerwall) allowed us to download cheap electricity at night and use it to heat the house during the day.
  • The heat pump kept the house warm and delivered hot water, with an average Coefficient of Performance of around 3.5.

In this article I will be looking at figures for the month of March 2022.

When the heating season is a little more over than it is at present, I will write about the winter as a whole.

Solar PV and Battery

Click image for a larger version. This is on the notice board outside my house.

I have put a notice on the front of the house to advertise how little we are spending on heating and running the house. Excluding the standing charges, we spent just £14.34 heating the house and running all the electrical items in the house.

In honesty, I am embarrassed to disclose how little I am spending on fuel bills. I am embarrassed because of the suffering and anxiety that so many people will be feeling now as prices rise.

Nonetheless, when it comes to communicating the wonder of a well-insulated home powered by solar, talking about money is one way to communicate more viscerally than using kilowatt-hours and kilograms of carbon dioxide.

Energy Flows

Click image for a larger version. This graphic shows my best estimate of the energy flows around my house. There are two sources of electricity: the grid and the solar PV system. During the hours when grid electricity is cheap, the grid supplies the house directly and charges the battery. Solar PV supplies the house directly, then if household demand is met, it charges the battery, and if the battery is full, it exports electricity. My analysis suggests that the battery is only 87% efficient i.e. 13% of the energy is lost in the process of charging and discharging the battery.

The graphic above describes the energy flows in the house.

On a typical day:

  • Between 00:30 and 04:30 the house runs on cheap grid electricity, and we time the dishwasher and hot water heating to run over this period. The grid also charges the battery.
  • After 04:30 the battery runs the household and is then re-charged during daylight hours by whatever solar PV is available.
    • If the battery charge reaches 100%, then solar PV is exported.
    • If the battery discharges to 0%, then we run off full price grid electricity.

Analysing the data from the Tesla App, it looks like the battery returns 87% of the charge delivered to it. The system is specified to have a charge/discharge efficiency of 90%. I suspect that extra losses arise from the energy the battery uses to maintain its own condition.

The figure below shows the average pattern of grid use during the month. The majority of electricity is used during the cheap rate period and only a small fraction of full-price electricity is required on days when solar PV generation is insufficient to keep the battery topped up.

Click image for a larger version. This graphic shows the time of day at which the house drew electricity from the grid in March 2022. The vast majority of the electricity was consumed at night to (a) charge the battery and (b) directly operate timed loads such as the dishwasher, washing machine, and heat pump domestic hot water cycle.

Heat Pump

Click image for a larger version. Graph showing internal and external temperatures, and the temperature of water flowing in the radiators during the month of March. Data were collected every 2 minutes. The radiator flow temperature data has been smoothed. It is clear the system operates well to keep the internal temperature constant even as the external temperature varies

The average external temperature was 9.3 °C, but the month started very cold, and then later there were some exceptionally warm days (with cold nights).

The weather compensation adjusted the flow temperature in the radiators to keep the internal temperature at a comfortable average of 21.1 °C

The monthly averaged Coefficient of Performance was 3.75 which is rather more than I had hoped for.

Conclusion

When we installed the battery in March 2021, we immediately dropped of the grid for 90 days: this felt astonishing. But back then then our heating was with gas.

Now our heating and hot water systems are electrical and this adds to the daily load.

As the year progresses, Solar PV generation is growing and heating demand is falling. At some point I hope we will again be able to reduce grid use to zero for an extended period – but it will definitely not be as long as last year.

It was interesting to arrive at a figure for the battery storage efficiency. The figure of 87% was lower than I had hoped for, but since the battery is saving us so much money, it seems churlish to complain!

 

 

Analysis of 16 years of Solar PV data.

March 16, 2022

A friend from North London kindly allowed me to analyse the data they had collected on the performance of their solar PV installation over the last 16 years.

What an opportunity to discover how solar PV panels behave over the long term!

Let me tell you what I found:

The System

Installed in July 2006, the system consisted of 16 Sanyo PV panels, each 0.88 m x 1.32 m with a nominal peak output of 210 W. This implies the panels output was initially ~180 watts per square metre.

They were installed on two adjacent roofs with a tilt of about 30° and facing 25° East of South and with no nearby trees or shading structures on the horizon other than their neighbour’s house.

The data set consisted of roughly 700 readings of the solar generation meter, most of them taken weekly but with a couple of gaps for a few months, and few points that were clearly in error. Rather than try to be sophisticated, I simply omitted points that were obviously in error.

Click image for a larger version. The ‘cleaned up’ data set.

Annual Analysis

One of things I was most anxious to search for was evidence of a year-on-year decline. The annual results are shown below:

Click image for a larger version. Graph of the Annual Output (kWh) of a North London PV system from 2006 to 2021. The dotted line is a linear fit to the data showing a systematic year-on-year decline in output.

It’s clear that there is a systematic year-on-year decline. If we re-plot the data to express this as a percentage we can compare it with what we might expect.

Click image for a larger version. The same data as in the previous graph but expressed as a fraction of the average output over the years 2007 and 2008. The dotted line is a linear fit to the data showing a systematic year-on-year decline in output.

This decline is – sadly – inevitable, arising as I understand it from atomic defects created in the silicon cells by exposure to the UV radiation in sunlight. These defects trap electrons which would otherwise reach an external contact if the crystal had been undamaged.

A decline of 6.1% per decade (0.61% per year) is quite competitive. Older panels showed higher declines (link) and more modern cells claim better performance, but not much better.

For example a 2020 Q-Cells Duo panel (link) specifies 0.54%/year decline for up to 10 years,  i.e. 5.4% per decade.

Click image for a larger version. Extract from a Q-cells data sheet showing expected decline in panel output over 25 years.

Variability

In addition to a linear decline in output the data also shows significant year-to-year variability. I wondered whether this variability arose from the natural variability of available sunshine, or some other factor.

To check this I exploited the EU Photovoltaic Geographical Information System (a.k.a. a ‘Sunshine Database’) which allows the calculation of the output of PV cells at any point in Europe or Africa over the period 2005 to 2016.

I had previously used this database to model the year-to-year variability of sunshine in West London when I was planning a battery installation.

To see if this was the cause of the year-to-year variability I plotted two quantities on the same graph:

  • The so-called ‘residuals’ of the fit to the data in the second graph above.
  • The variability of EU-database data.

The results are shown below.

Click image for a larger version. The variability of the North London PV data and the natural variability of sunshine as retro-dicted by the EU sunshine database

It is clear that in the years for which the two datasets overlap they agree well, suggesting that the variability observed is not due to some other poorly understood factor.

Upgrade?

My North London friend had one final question. Would they avoid more carbon dioxide emissions if they upgraded to modern panels?

To answer this I made two models:

  • The first model assumed that they did not upgrade and the existing panels were used to out to 2050.
  • The second model assumed they were replaced in 2022 with panels which operated with an efficiency of around 200 W/m^2 at peak illumination. This is about 20% more than the panels currently generate.

I assumed that the new panels would embody around 2 tonnes of CO2 emissions because Q-cells suggest their latest panels embody 400 kgCO2 per kWp.

I then assumed that 50% of the generated electricity was exported and 50% used domestically. As the grid currently functions:

  • Exported electricity reduces gas-fired generation which emits 450 gCO2/kWhe.
  • Domestic use avoids consumption of grid electricity with a carbon intensity of around 220 gCO2/kWhe in 2022.

Based on these assumptions, there is small advantage to replacing the panels, but this would not be realised until 2035.

Click image for a larger version. Does it make carbon-sense to replace existing PV cells with new more efficient cells?

One can model variations of these parameters, but the basic result is not affected: the carbon advantage is marginal.

My friend would help the climate more effectively by allocating his capital expenditure to something which might have more impact on CO2 emissions, perhaps buying shares in a wind farm?

But the result that really struck me from this modelling was how great the solar panels were in the first place!

Installed in 2006 and given minimal maintenance, it looks like the existing cells will avoid almost 30 tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2050. Not many technologies can achieve results like that as easily as that.

Will aviation eventually become electrified?

March 2, 2022

Friends. I ‘have a feeling’ that aviation will eventually become electrified. At first sight this seems extraordinarily unlikely, but I just have this feeling…

Obviously, I could just be wrong, but let me explain my thinking.

Basics 

The current technology for aviation – jet engines on aluminium/composite frames with wings – relies on the properties of jet fuel – kerosene.

There are two basic parameters for aviation ‘fuel’.

  • Energy density – which characterises the volume required to carry fuel with a certain energy content. It can be expressed in units of megajoules per litre (MJ/l).
  • Specific energy – which characterises the mass required to carry fuel with a certain energy content. It can be expressed in units of megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg).

Wikipedia have helpfully charted these quantities for a wide range of ‘fuels’ and this figure is shown above with five technologies highlighted:

  • Lithium batteries,
  • Liquid and Gaseous Hydrogen,
  • Kerosene and diesel.

Click on image for a larger version. Chart from Wikipedia showing the specific energy and energy density of various fuels enabled energy technologies.

A general observation is that hydrocarbon fuels  have a much higher density and specific energy than any current battery technology. Liquid Hydrogen on the other hand has an exceptionally high specific energy, but poor energy density: better than batteries but much worse than hydrocarbon fuels.

Lessons from the EVs transition:#1

I think the origin of my feeling about the aviation transition stems from the last 20 years of watching the development of battery electric vehicles (BEVs). What is notable is that the pioneers of BEVs – Tesla and Chinese companies such as Xpeng or BYD – are “all in” on BEV’s – they have no interest in Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles or hybrids. They have no legacy market in ICE vehicles to protect.

‘Legacy Auto’ (short hand for VW, GM, Ford, Toyota etc) had poked their toe in the waters of alternative drive-trains quite a few years ago. GM’s Volt and Bolt were notable and Toyota’s Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car was a wonder. But Legacy Auto were comfortable manufacturing ICE vehicles and making profits from it, and saw these alternative energy projects as ‘insurance’ in case things eventually changed.

As I write in early 2022, all the legacy auto makers are in serious trouble. They can generally manufacture BEVs, but not very well – and none of them are making money from BEVs. Aside from Tesla, they have very poor market penetration in China, the world’s largest EV car-market. In contrast Tesla are popular in China and America and Europe and make roughly 20% profit on every car they sell.

So one lesson from the BEV transition is that the legacy industry who have invested billions in an old technology, may not be the pioneers of a new way of doing things.

Lessons from the EVs transition:#2

How did BEV’s overcome the awesome advantages of hydrocarbon fuels over lithium batteries in terms of energy density and specific energy?

First of all, ICEs throw away about 75% of their advantage because of the way they operate as heat engines. This reduces their energy density advantage over batteries to just a factor 10 or so.

Secondly, there is the fact that ICE cars contain many heavy components – such as engines, gearboxes, and transmissions that aren’t needed in a BEV.

But despite this, BEV cars still generally have a weight and volume disadvantage compared to ICE cars. But this disadvantage has been overcome by careful BEV-specific design.

By placing the large, heavy, battery pack low down, designers can create pleasant vehicle interiors with good handling characteristics. And because the ability to draw power rapidly from batteries is so impressive, the extra mass doesn’t materially affect the acceleration of the vehicle.

EV range is still not as good as a diesel car with a full tank. But it is now generally ‘good enough’.

And once EVs became good enough to compete with ICE vehicles, the advantages of EVs could come to the fore – their ability to charge at home, low-running costs, quietness, potential low carbon emissions and of course, zero in situ emissions.

And significantly, BEV’s are now software platforms and full electronic control of the car allows for some capabilities that ICE vehicles will likely never have.

Lessons from the EV transition:#3

Despite Toyota’s massive and long-term investment in Hydrogen Fuel Cell (HFC) cars, it is now clear that hydrogen will be irrelevant in the transition away from ICE vehicles. Before moving on to look at aviation, it is interesting to look at why this is so.

The reason was not technological. HFC cars using compressed hydrogen fuel were excellent – I have driven one – with ranges in excess of 320 km (200 miles). And they were excellent long before BEVs were excellent. But the very concept of re-fuelling with hydrogen was the problem. Hydrogen is difficult to deal with, and fundamentally if one starts with a certain amount of electrical power – much less of it gets to the wheels with a HFC-EV than with a BEV.

The very idea of a HFC car is – I think – a product of imagining that there would be companies akin to petrochemical companies who could sell ‘a commodity’ in something like the way Oil Companies sold petrol in the 20th Century. BEV’s just don’t work that way.

Interestingly, the engineering problems of handling high-pressure hydrogen were all solved in principle. But this just became irrelevant.

Cars versus Aeroplanes

So let’s look at how energy density and specific energy affect the basic constraints on designs of cars and aeroplanes.

50 litres of diesel contains roughly 1,930 MJ of energy. The table below shows the mass and volume of other fuels or batteries which contains this same energy.

Mass (kg) Volume (l)
Kerosene 45 55
Diesel 42 50
Hydrogen HP 14 364
Hydrogen Liquid 14 193
Lithium Battery 4,825 1,930

We see that batteries look terrible – the equivalent energy storage would require 4.8 tonnes of batteries occupying almost 2 cubic metres! Surely BEVs are impossible?!

But as I mentioned earlier, internal combustion engines waste around 75% of their fuel’s embodied energy in the form of heat. So a battery with the required stored energy would only need 25% of the mass and volume in the table above.

Mass (kg) Volume (l)
Lithium Battery 1206 483

So, we see that the equivalent battery pack is about a tonne heavier than the fuel for a diesel car.

But this doesn’t include the engine required to make the diesel fuel work. So one can see how by clever design and exploiting the fact that electric motors are lighter than engines, one can create a BEV that, while heavier than an ICE car, is still competitive.

Indeed, BEVs now outperform ICE cars on almost every metric that anyone cares about, and will continue to get better for many years yet.

Let’s do the same analysis for aeroplanes. A modern jet aeroplane typically carries 100 tonnes of kerosene with an energy content of around 43 x 105 MJ. This is sufficient to fly a modern jet (200 tonnes plus 30 tonnes of passengers) around 5,000 miles or so.

The table below shows the mass and volume other fuels or batteries which contains this same energy. Notice that the units are no longer kilograms and litres but tonnes and cubic metres.

Mass (tonnes) Volume (m^3)
Kerosene 100 123
Diesel 94 111
Hydrogen HP 31 811
Hydrogen Liquid 31 430
Lithium Battery 10,750 4,300

Now things look irrecoverably impossible for batteries! The batteries would weigh 10,000 tonnes! And occupy a ridiculous volume. Also, turbines are more thermodynamically efficient than ICEs, so assuming say 50% efficiency, batteries would still weigh ~5,000 tonnes and occupy 2,000 m3.

Even with a factor 10 increase in battery energy density – which is just about conceivable but not happening any time soon – the battery would still weigh 1,000 tonnes!.

Does it get any better for shorter ranges? Not much. Consider how much energy is stored in 10 tonnes of kerosene (~43 x 104 MJ). This is sufficient to fly a modern jet – weighing around 50 tonnes unladen and carrying 20 tonnes of passengers around 500 miles or so.

Mass (tonnes) Volume (m^3)
Kerosene 10 12
Diesel 9 11
Hydrogen HP 3 81
Hydrogen Liquid 3 43
Lithium Battery 1,075 430

Even assuming 50% jet efficiency, batteries with equivalent energy would still weigh ~500 tonnes and occupy 200 m3. Even after a factor 10 increase in battery energy density, things still look pretty hopeless.

So can we conclude that battery electric aviation is impossible? Surprisingly, No.

And yet, it flies.

Jet engines burning kerosene have now reached an astonishing state of technological refinement.

But jet engines are also very expensive, which makes the economics of airlines challenging. And despite improvements, jets are also noisy. And of course, they emit CO2 and create condensation trails that affect the climate.

In contrast, electric motors are relatively cheap, which means that electric aeroplanes (if they are possible) would be much cheaper, and require dramatically less engine maintenance. These features are very attractive for airlines – the people who buy planes. And the planes would be quiet and have zero emissions – attractive for people who fly or live near airports.

And several companies are seeking to exploit these potential advantages. Obviously, given the fundamental problem of energy density I outlined above, all the projects have limitations. Mostly the aeroplanes proposed have limited numbers of passengers and limited range. But the companies all impress me as being serious about the engineering and commercial realities that they face. And I have been surprised by what appears to be possible.

Here are a few of the companies that have caught my attention.

Contenders

In the UK, Rolls Royce and partners have built an impressive single-engined aircraft which flies much faster than equivalent ICE powered aircraft.

Their Wikipedia page states the batteries have a specific energy of 0.58 MJ/kg, about 50% higher than I had assumed earlier in the article. The range of this plane is probably tiny – a few 10’s of kilometres – but this number will only increase in the coming years.

This aeroplane is really a technology demonstrator rather than a seedling commercial project. But I found it striking to see the plane actually flying.

In Sweden, Heart Aerospace have plans for a 19-seater short-hop passenger craft with 400 km of range. Funded by Bill Gates amongst others, they have a clear and realistic engineering target.

In an interview, the founder explained that he was focussing on the profitability of the plane. In this sense the enterprise differs from the Rolls Royce project. He stated that as planned, 2 minutes in the air will require 1 minute of re-charging. He had clear markets in mind in (Sweden, Norway, and New Zealand) where air travel involves many ‘short hops’ via transport hubs. And the expected first flights will be soon – 2025 if I have it correct.

In Germany, Lillium are building innovative ducted-fan planes. Whereas Heart’s planes and Rolls Royce’s demonstrator projects are conventional air-frames powered by electric motors, Lillium have settled on completely novel engineering possibilities enabled by electrical propulsion technology. Seeing their ‘Star Wars’ style aircraft take off and land is breathtaking.

Back in the UK, the Electric Aviation Group are advertising HERA as a 90-seater short route airliner with battery and hydrogen fuel-cell technology (not a turbine). This doesn’t seem to be as advanced as the other projects I have mentioned but illustrates the way that different technologies may be incorporated into electric aviation.

What about Hydrogen Turbines?

Legacy Aeromaker Airbus are advertising development of a hydrogen turbine demonstrator. It’s a gigantic A380 conventional jet airliner with a single hydrogen turbine attached. (Twitter video)

Stills from a video showing how the hydrogen turbine demonstrator will work. A single turbine will attached to kerosene driven aeroplane by 2035.

The demonstrator looks very clever, but I feel deeply suspicious of this for two sets of reasons: Technical reasons and ‘Feelings’.

Technical.

  • Fuel Volume: To have the same range and capabilities as an existing jet – the promise that seems to be being advertised – the cryogenic (roughly -250 °C) liquid hydrogen would occupy 4 times the volume of the equivalent kerosene. It likely could not be stored in the wings because of heat leakage, and so a big fraction of the useful volume within an aeroplane would be sacrificed for fuel.
  • Fuel Mass: Although the liquid hydrogen fuel itself would not weigh much, the tanks to hold it would likely be much heavier than their kerosene equivalents. My guess is that that there would not be much net benefit in terms of mass.
  • Turbine#1: Once the stored liquid hydrogen is evaporated to create gas, its energy density plummets. To operate at a similar power level to a conventional turbine, the volume of hydrogen entering the combustion chamber per second will have to be (very roughly) 40 times greater.
  • Turbine#2: Hydrogen burns in a different way from kerosene. For example embrittlement issues around the high pressure, high temperature hydrogen present at the inlets to the combustion chamber are likely to be very serious.
  • I don’t doubt that a hydrogen turbine is possible, but the 2035 target advertised seems about right given the difficulties.
  • Performance: And finally, assuming it all works as planned, the aircraft will still emit NOx, and will still be noisy.

Feelings.

  • I feel this a legacy aero-maker trying to create a future world in which they are still relevant despite the changed reality of climate crisis.
  • I suspect these engines assuming the technical problems are all solved –  will be even more expensive than current engines.
  • I feel the timeline of 2035 might as well be ‘never’. It allows Airbus to operate as normal for the next 13 years – years in which it is critical that we cut CO2 emissions.
  • I suspect that in 13 years – if electric aviation ‘gets off the ground’ (sorry!) – then it will have developed to the point where the short-haul end of the aviation business will be in their grasp. And once people have flown on smaller quieter aircraft, they will not want to go back.
  • Here is Rolls Royces short ‘Vision’ video.

And so…

I wrote this article in response to a Twitter discussion with someone who was suggesting that cryogenic liquid-hydrogen-fuelled jets would be the zero-emission future of aviation.

I feel that that the idea of a cryogenic hydrogen aircraft is the last gasp of a legacy engine industry that is trying to stay relevant in the face of a fundamentally changed reality.

In contrast, electrical aviation is on the verge of becoming a reality: planes are already flying. And motors and batteries will only get better over coming decades.

At some point, I expect that electrical aviation will reach the point where its capabilities will make conventional kerosene-fuelled aeroplanes uneconomic, first on short-haul routes, and then eventually – though I have no idea how! – on longer routes.

But…

…I could be completely wrong.

Heat Pump Explainer

February 24, 2022

Friends, Everyone is talking about heat pumps!

But many people are still unfamiliar with the principles behind their ‘engineering magic’.

This ‘explainer’ video was shot on location in my kitchen and back garden, and uses actual experiments together with state-of-the-art Powerpoint animations (available here) to sort-of explain how they work.

I hope it helps!

 

Nuclear Fusion is Irrelevant

February 14, 2022

Click for a larger image. News stories last week heralded a major breakthrough in fusion research. Links to the stories can be found below.

Friends, last week we were subjected to a press campaign on behalf of the teams of scientists and engineers who are carrying out nuclear fusion research.

Here are links to some of the stories that reached the press.

  • BBC Story
    • If nuclear fusion can be successfully recreated on Earth it holds out the potential of virtually unlimited supplies of low-carbon, low-radiation energy.”
  • Guardian Story #1
    • Prof Ian Chapman, the chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority said “It’s clear we must make significant changes to address the effects of climate change, and fusion offers so much potential.”
  • Guardian Story#2 (from last year)
    • The race to give nuclear fusion a role in the climate emergency

The journalists add little to these stories – they mainly consist of snippets from press releases spun together to seem ‘newsy’. All these stories are colossally misleading.

Floating in the background of these stories is the idea that this research is somehow relevant to our climate crisis. The aim of this article is to explain to you that this is absolutely not true.

Even with the most optimistic assumptions conceivable, research into nuclear fusion is irrelevant to the climate crisis.

Allow me to explain how I have come to this conclusion.

Research into a practical fusion reactor for electricity generation can be split into two strands: an ‘old’ government-backed one and a ‘new’ privately-financed one.

The state of fusion research: #1 government-backed projects

The ‘old’ strand consists of research funded by many governments at JET in the UK and the colossal new ITER facility being constructed in France.

In this strand, ITER will begin operation in 2025, and after 10 years of ‘background’ experiments they will begin energy-generating experiments with tritium in 2035, experiments which are limited by design to just 4000 hours. If I understand correctly, operation beyond this limit will make ITER too radioactive to dismantle.

The key operating parameter for fusion reactors is called Q: the ratio of the heat produced to the energy input. And the aim is that by 2045 ITER will have achieved a Q of 10 – producing 500 MW of power for 400 seconds with only 50 MW of input energy to the plasma.

However ITER will only generate heat, not electricity. Also, it will not create any tritium but will instead only consume it. Following on from ITER, a DEMO reactor is planned which will have a Q value in the range 30-50, and which will generate electrical power, and be able to breed tritium in the reactor.

So on this ITER-proposed time-line we might expect the first actual electricity generation – may be 100 MW of electrical power – in maybe 2050.

And then assuming that these reactors take 10 years to build and that the design will evolve a little, it will be perhaps 2070 before there are ten or so operating around the world.

You may consider that research into a technology which will not yield results for 50 years may or may not be a good idea. I am neutral.

But it is definitely irrelevant to our climate crisis: we simply do not have 50 years in which to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in the UK.

And this is on the ITER-proposed timeline which I consider frankly optimistic. If one considers some of the technical problems, this optimism seems – to put it politely – unjustified.

Here are three of the issues I keep at the top of my file in case I meet some fusion scientists at the folk club.

  • Q is the ratio of heat energy injected into the plasma to the heat energy released. But in order to be effective we have to generate net ELECTRICAL energy. So we really need to take account of the fact that thermodynamics limits the electrical generation to ~30% of the thermal energy produced. Additionally we need to include the considerable amounts of energy used to operate the complex machinery of a reactor. So we really need to consider a wider definition of Q, one that includes the ratio of input to output energies involving the entire reactor. Sabine Hossenfelder has commented on this issue. But basically, Q needs to be a lot bigger than 10.
  • Materials. The inside of the reactor is an extraordinarily hostile place with colossal fluxes of neutrons passing through every part of the structure. After operation has begun, no human can ever enter the environment again – and it is not clear to me that a working lifetime of say 35 years at 90% availability is realistic. Time will tell.
  • Tritium. The reactor consumes tritium – possibly the most expensive substance on Earth – and for each nucleus of tritium destroyed a single neutron is produced. The neutrons so produced must be captured to produce the heat for electrical generation. But the neutrons are also needed to react with lithium to produce more tritium. Since some neutrons are inevitably lost – so the plan is for extra neutrons to be ‘bred’ by bombarding suitable materials with neutrons, which then produce a shower of further neutrons – 2 or 3 for every incident neutron. And these neutrons can then in principle be used to produce tritium. But aside from being technically difficult, this breeding process also produces long-lived radioactive waste – something fusion reactors claim not to do.

If short, when one considers some of these technical problems, optimism that this research path will produce significant power on the grid in 2070 seems to me to be unjustified.

But what about this new ‘breakthrough’?

The breakthrough was not a breakthrough. It was undertaken because the walls of the previous reactor were found to absorb some of the fuel! So this ‘breakthrough’ represented a repeat of a previous experiment, but with new materials in place.

You can relive the press conference here.

Starting with a much larger amount of energy, they managed to produce 59 megajoules (MJ) of energy from fusion in about 8 seconds.

59 MJ is about 16.4 kWh of energy, which is sufficient to heat water for around 500 cups of tea, more than a cup of tea each for all the scientists and engineers working on the project.

For comparison, the 12 solar panels on my house will produce this easily in a day during the summer. To generate the energy in 5 seconds rather than 12 hours would require more panels: a field of panels roughly 200 m x 250 m, which would cost a little under 1 million pounds.

So the breakthrough is modest in absolute terms. But as I mentioned above, after billions more in funding, and another 20 years of research, the scientists expect to extend this generating ‘burn’ from 5 seconds to 400 seconds at a much higher power level.

In my opinion, JET and ITER are a complete waste of money and should be shut down immediately. The resources should be transferred to building out solar and wind energy projects alongside battery storage.

The state of fusion research: #2 privately-backed projects

The ‘new’ strand of fusion research consists of activities carried out primarily by privately-funded companies.

What? If the massive resources of governments can only promise fusion by 2070, how can private companies hope to make progress?

The answer is that JET and ITER were planned before a technical key advance was made, and they are committed to proceeding without incorporating that advance! Its a multi-billion pound version of “I’ve started so I’ll finish“. It is utter madness, and doubly guarantees the irrelevance of ITER.

The technical advance is the achievement of superconducting wire which can create magnetic fields twice as large as was previously possible. It turns out that the volume of plasma required to achieve fusion scales like the fourth power of the magnetic field. So doubling the magnetic field makes the final reactor potentially 16 times smaller!

This also makes it dramatically cheaper requiring amounts on the order of $100 million rather than billions of dollars. Critically, reactors can exploit the concept of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) which can be mass-produced in a factory and shipped to a site. Potentially the first reactors could be built in years rather than decades, and the technology iterated to produce advances.

I have written about this previously. With some qualifications, I think this activity is generally not crazy  (it is certainly much less crazy than JET and ITER) but success is far from guaranteed.

A key unresolved question with this technology concerns its potential timeline for delivery of a working power plant.

The reactors face exactly similar problems to those in the much larger ITER reactor, and these are not problems that can be solved in months. So let’s suppose that the first demonstration of Q>1 is achieved in just 5 years (2027), and that all the technical problems with respect to electricity generation required only a further 10 years (2037). Given the difficulties in planning, let’s optimistically assume that the first production plant could get built just 5 years after that in 2042.

The ‘S’ in SMR means reactors would be small, with a thermal output of perhaps 150 MW and an electrical output of perhaps 50 MW. This is small on the scale of typical thermal generation plant. For example Hinckley C is designed to output 3,200 MW of electrical power i.e. more than 60 times larger than a hypothetical SMR fusion reactor.

So if we assume a rapid roll out and no technical or societal problems, then perhaps these reactors might generate significant power onto the grid in perhaps 2050. Nominally this is 20 years ahead of ITER.

Relevance.

With optimistic assumptions concerning technical progress, we might hope for fusion reactors to begin to make a significant contribution to the grid somewhere between 2050 and 2070, depending on which route is taken.

That is already too late to make any contribution to our climate crisis.

We need to deploy low-carbon technologies now. And if we have a choice between reducing carbon dioxide emissions now, or in 30 – 50 years, there is no question about what we should do.

Cost.

We also need to consider the likely cost of the electricity produced by a fusion reactor.

Like conventional fission-based nuclear power, the running costs should be low. Deuterium is cheap and the reactor should generate a surplus of tritium.

The majority of the cost of conventional nuclear power is the cost of the capital used to construct the reactor. If I recall correctly, it amounts to around 95% of the cost of the electricity.

It is hard to imagine that a fusion reactor would be cheaper than a fission reactor – it would be at the limit of manageable engineering complexity. So we might imagine that the costs of fusion-generated electricity would be similar to the cost of nuclear power – which is already most expensive power on the grid.

In contrast, the cost of renewable energy (solar and wind) has fallen dramatically in recent years. Solar and wind are now the cheapest ways to make electricity ever. And their cost – along with the cost of battery storage – is still falling.

So it seems that after waiting all these years, the fusion-based electricity would in all likelihood be extraordinarily expensive.

Summary.

The idea of generating electricity from nuclear fusion has been seen as technological fix for climate change. It is not.

Even the most optimistic assumptions possible indicate that fusion will not make make any significant contribution to electricity supplies before 2050.

This is too late to help in out in our climate crisis which is happening now.

Additionally the cost of the electricity might be expected to exceed the cost of conventional nuclear power stations – the most expensive electricity currently on the UK grid.

If as an alternative, we invested in renewable generation from wind, solar and tidal resources, together with ever cheaper storage, we could begin to address our climate crisis now in the knowledge that the technology we were deploying would likely only ever get better. And cheaper.

 

 

A Watched Pan…

January 18, 2022

Click on Image for larger version.  A vision of domestic bliss in the de Podesta household. Apparatus in use for measuring the rate of heating of 1 litre of water on an induction hob.

In the beginning…

Friends, my very first blog article (written back on 1st January 2008 and re-posted in 2012) was about whether it is better to boil water with an electric kettle or a gas kettle on a gas hob.

Back then, my focus was simply on energy efficiency rather than carbon dioxide emissions. I had wanted to know how much of the primary energy of methane ended up heating the water. I did this by simply timing how long it took to boil 1 litre of water by various methods.

Prior to doing the experiments I had imagined that heating water with gas was more efficient because the fuel was used directly to heat the water. In contrast, even the best gas-fired power stations are only ~50% efficient.

What I learned back then was that gas cookers are terrible at heating kettles & pans! They were so much worse than I had imagined that I later spent many hours with different size pans, burners, and amounts of water just so I could believe my results!

Typically gas burners only transferred between 36% and 56% of the energy of combustion to the water – the exact fraction depending on the size and power of the burner. Heating things faster with a bigger burner was less efficient. Using a small flame and a very large pan, I could achieve an efficiency of 83%, but of course the water heated only very slowly.

This inefficiency was roughly equivalent to or worse than the inefficiency of the power station generating electricity, and so I concluded that electric kettles and gas kettles were similarly inefficient in their use of the primary energy of the gas. But that using electric kettles allowed one to use the correct amount of water more easily, and so avoided heating water that wasn’t used.

14 years later…

After a recent conversation on Twitter (@Protons4B) I thought I would look at this issue again.

Why? Well two things have changed in the last 14 years.

  • Firstly, electricity generation now incorporates dramatically more renewable sources than in 2008 and so using electricity involves ever decreasing amounts of gas-fired generation.
  • Secondly, I am now concerned about emissions of carbon dioxide resulting from lifestyle choices.

Also being a retired person, I now have a bit more time on my hands and access to fancy instruments such as thermometers.

The way I did the experiments is described at the end of the article, but here are the results.

Results#1: Efficiency

The chart below shows estimates for the efficiency with which the electrical energy or the calorific content of the gas is turned into heat in one litre of water. My guess is these figures all have an uncertainty of around ±5%.

  • The kettle was close to 100% efficient:
  • The induction hob was approximately 86% efficient
  • The Microwave oven was approximately 65% efficient

In contrast, heating the water in a pan (with a lid) on a gas hob was only round 38% or 39% efficient.

Click on Image for larger version. Chart showing the efficiency of 5 methods of heating 1 litre of water. 100% efficiency means that all the energy input used resulted in a temperature rise. The two gas results were for heating pans with two different diameters (19 cm and 17 cm).

It was particularly striking that the water heated on the gas burner (~1833 W) took 80% longer to boil than on the Induction hob (~1440 W) despite the heating power being ~20% less on the induction hob.

Click on Image for larger version. Chart showing the rate of heating for each of the 5 methods of heating 1 litre of water. Notice that the water heated on the gas burner (~1833 W) took 80% longer to boil than on the Induction hob (~1440 W) despite the heating power being ~20% less on the induction hob. Notice that up until 40 °C, the microwave oven heats water as fast as the gas hob, despite using half the power!

Results#2: Carbon Dioxide Emissions 

Based on the average carbon intensity of electricity in 2021 (235 g CO2/kWh), boiling a litre of water by any electrical means results in substantially less CO2 emissions than using a pan (with a lid) on a gas burner.

I performed these experiments on 17th January 2021 between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. when the carbon intensity of electricity was well above averages: ~330 g CO2/kWh. In this case, boiling a litre of water in a kettle or induction hob still gave the lowest emissions, but heating water in a microwave oven resulted in similar emissions to those arising from using a pan (with a lid) on a gas burner.

Click on Image for larger version. Charts showing the amount of carbon dioxide released by heating 1 litre of water from 10 °C to 100 °C using either electrical methods or gas. The gas heating is assumed to have a carbon intensity of 200 gCO2/kWh. The left-hand chart is based on the carbon intensity of 330 gCO2/kWh of electricity which was appropriate at the time the experiments were performed. The right-hand chart is based on the carbon intensity of 235 gCO2/kWh of electricity which was the average value for 2021. Electrical methods of heating result in lower CO2 emissions in almost all circumstances.

Results#3: Cost 

Currently I am paying 3.83 p/kWh for gas and 16.26 p/kWh for electricity i.e. electricity is around four times more expensive than gas.

These prices are likely to rise substantially in the coming months, but it is not clear whether this ratio will change much.

So sadly, despite gas being the slowest way to heat water and the way which releases the most climate damaging gases, it is still the cheapest way to heat water. It’s about 40% cheaper than using an electric kettle.

Conclusion 

For the sake of the climate, use an electric kettle if you can.

=========================

That was the end of the article and there is no need to read anymore unless you want to know how I made these measurements.

Method 

Estimating the power delivered to the water + vessel

  • For electrical measurements I paused the heating typically every 30 seconds, and read the plug-in electrical power meter. This registered electrical energy consumed in kWh to 3 decimal places.
    • I fitted a straight line to the energy versus time graph to estimate power.
  • For gas measurements I read the gas meter before and after each experiment. This reads in m^3 to 3 decimal places and I converted this volume reading to kWh by multiplying 11.19 kWh/m^3.
    • The gas used only amount to 0.025 m^3 so uncertainty is at least 4% from the digitisation.
    • I divided by the time – typically 550 seconds – to estimate the power.

Mass of water

  • I placed the heating vessel (kettle, pan, jug) on the balanced and tired (zeroed) the reading.
  • I then added water until the vessel read within 1 g of 1000 g. Uncertainty is probably around 1% or 10 g.

Heating rate with 100% energy conversion

  • Based on the power consumed, I estimated the ideal heating rate if 100% of the supplied power caused temperature rises in the water by using the equations.

  • I assumed the average specific heat capacity of water of the range from 10 °C to 100 °C was 4187 J/ (kg °C)

Measuring the temperature.

  • For electrical measurements I paused the heating typically every 30 seconds, stirred the liquid with a coffee-stirrer for 2 or three seconds, and then took the temperature using a thermocouple probe..
  • For gas measurements it wasn’t possible to the pause the heating because of the way I was measuring the power. So about 10 seconds before the reading was due I slipped the coffee stirrer under the lid to mix the water.

Estimating the rate of temperature rise.

  • For all measurements I fitted a straight line to the temperature versus time data, using only data points below approximately 80 °C to avoid the effects of increased temperature losses near to the boiling point.

Mass of the ‘addenda’.

  • The applied power heated not only the water but also its container.
  • The heat capacity of the 19 cm stainless steel pan (572 g) was roughly 6% of the heat capacity of the water.
  • I chose not to take account this heat capacity because there was no way to heat water with a container. So the container is a somewhat confounding factor, but allows more meaningful comparison of the results.

Efficiency of boiling

  • I estimated efficiency by comparing the actual warming rate with the ideal warming rate.
  • I then calculated the energy required to heat 1 kg of water from 10 °C to 100 °C, and multiplied this by the efficiency.
  • In this way the result is relevant even if all the measurements did not start and stop at the same temperatures.

Oddities

  • I heated the water in the microwave in a plastic jug which did not have a tight fitting lid. I am not sure if this had an effect.
  • I did notice that the entire microwave oven was warm to hot at the end of the heating sequence.

I’m dreaming of 2026…

December 3, 2021

Friends, a curious thought occurred to me yesterday:

“What would happen if the Hinckley C nuclear Power Station was completed on time in 2025?”

I know it’s unlikely but it is conceivable.

But whenever it does start operating, it will produce an extra 3.26 GW of electricity 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is enough to change the UK electricity generation “market” at a stroke.

 January 2020

To illustrate the effect that Hinkley C will have, I downloaded hourly generation figures for 10 days at the start of 2020.

I picked this range of dates because the data was free – I would need to have paid to obtain more data! But it is sufficient to make my point. Take a look at Gridwatch for monthly and yearly summaries.

I have not plotted all the generating sources or interconnectors bringing us electricity, but instead I have just drawn three curves from the data set.

  • Total Demand
  • Nuclear 
  • Nuclear + Wind

Click Image for a larger version. Generation from the first 10 days of 20 showing electricity from nuclear power stations, the sum of nuclear + wind generation, and total demand. The gap between the black and green curves is filled with electricity from a variety of sources, but mainly with electricity from gas-fired generators.

I have picked these data because of the way the UK grid is run. In simplified form, it works like this:

  • First the grid accepts all the nuclear electricity available. This is because (for technical reasons) nuclear power stations cannot easily change their output.
  • Then the grid accepts whatever renewable energy (solar or wind) that is available. This can be well-predicted a day or two ahead of time.
  • Then, through a complex system of contracts, and “market”-mechanisms, the grid adds electricity from a variety of sources to meet demand. Most of this is usually met by gas-fired generation which emits ~ 450 g CO2/kWh of electricity supplied.

But what would the situation look like if Hinkley C were operating, and wind generation were twice it’s value in 2020?

This situation could hypothetically occur as soon as 2026.

January 2026?

  • IF demand in January 2026 were by chance the same as in 2020, and…
  • IF Hinkley C were generating at full power and…
  • IF wind power was twice what it was in 2020…

…then we would find ourselves in the extraordinary situation depicted in the graph below.

Click Image for a larger version. A hypothetical situation in January 2026 when nuclear supply is supplemented 3.26 GW of generation by Hinkley C, and wind generation is twice what it was in 2020. The gap between the black and green curves is now routinely reversed – indicating a regular ‘oversupply’ of green electricity.

The graph shows that the combination of ‘nuclear + wind would’ regularly exceed demand before considering any other sources of generation.

During these periods demand would be met entirely with low carbon sources and the carbon intensity of UK electricity would fall to pleasingly low values (~50 gCO2/kWh).

And during these periods – shown in blue on the graph above – there would be typically 10 GWh a day of ‘surplus electricity’.

The marginal cost of this ‘surplus’ electricity is debatable, but it is close to zero.

Could this really happen?

Yes. It has already happened briefly this year over the late May bank holiday weekend. And as renewable electricity generation grows, such situations will occur ever more frequently.

And whenever Hinkley C comes on stream – in 2025 or later – such events will inevitably become commonplace.

What are the consequences?

I don’t know!

The electricity “market” operates by complex rules, and as this year’s ‘odd’ May weekend event showed, prices cannot just fall to zero, but actually become negative: i.e. companies will pay you to use their electricity!

But however it is dealt with by the “market” rules, the reality is that the UK will be routinely generating renewable electricity in excess of demand at a cost close to zero. This has consequences at many levels.

  • First of all: from the point of view of investors looking to build renewable generation – solar or wind – they will no longer be able to ‘dump’ electricity onto  “the market” whenever the Sun happens to shine and the wind happens to blow. This will make life more difficult for these investors.
  • Secondly: anyone who can store energy for later re-sale or re-use will have access to very low cost electricity. This represents an opportunity for many nascent industries and technologies.

However the biggest consequence could be a change in conception of how the “market” operates. So far, we have almost always assumed that supply will adjust to meet demand. We have had some incentives to use ‘off-peak’ electricity, but not many.

With an ‘oversupply’ of electricity, there will be opportunities for industries which can adjust demand to meet available supply. If this is implemented well, then the economic singularities arising from a zero price will be avoided – but the energy should still be cheap and it will still be green.

Opportunities

If green hydrogen is ever to play a role in the UK, then this could present an initial opportunity. 10 GWh/night of electricity is sufficient to generate 200 tonnes of hydrogen (@50 kWh/kg).

If EV use grows at the rate that many anticipate, then smart charging at night could help sustain that growth. 10 GWh/night would be enough to deliver 25 kWh (roughly a 50% charge) to 400,000 EVs.

I am sure many more ideas will emerge about how to reap this low-cost, low-carbon harvest.

Conclusion

So the conclusion of my whimsy is that whenever Hinkley C starts generating it will transform the UK electricity supply “market” overnight. And this could happen sooner than I had anticipated.

Whenever it happens, it will significantly reduce the average CO2 emissions from electricity in the UK. But there will also be costs associated with this ‘cheap’ electricity.

You might consider it ironic – and perhaps not a little unfair – that the introduction of some of the most expensive electricity ever put onto the UK grid – EDF are guaranteed ~10.6 p/kWh for all the electricity that Hinkley C produces – will put pressure on generators using wind turbines and solar PV stations – the suppliers of the cheapest energy ever supplied to the grid.

You might consider that this is not how “markets” are supposed to work. That is why I have put every instance of the word “market” in quotation marks. If you know a better word to use, I would love to know what it!

November 2021: Heating and Carbon Emissions

December 1, 2021

Friends, it is December already and I am preparing to hibernate.

But before I curl up and doze, I just thought I would summarise some of the energy statistics for the house in November.

They are actually pretty remarkable: the low-carbon solar-powered world really is here already…

Weather 

The average November temperature in Teddington was a very typical 8 °C, but the end of the month included several colder days with average temperatures of ~1 °C, and minimum temperatures down to -3 °C.

Click image for a larger version. Daily averages of the internal and external temperatures this November 2021. Also shown is the monthly average (dotted blue line) and the internal temperature measured every 2 minutes (black line connecting the red dots).

However, as the graph above shows, internally our house remained at an extremely stable temperature, barely changing day or night.

Electricity

Over the month, the house used 609.4 kWh (~20.3 kWh/day) of electricity. This is roughly double our typical use of electricity without heating.

Click image for a larger version. Remarkably, ~21% of the electricity used in November 2021 came from the solar panels. The bulk (~70%) was purchased off-peak (00:30 to 04:30) and stored in the Tesla Powerwall for use during the day. Just 9% was purchased at peak rates after the battery ran out of charge.

This electricity demand was met as follows:

  • 129 kWh (~21%) came from the solar panels.
  • 428.9 kWh (70%) was off-peak electricity from the grid @5p/kWh = £24.02
  • 51.6 kWh (9%) was peak-rate electricity from the grid @16.26p/kWh =£8.39

The shifting of our time-of-use by using the Tesla Powerwall resulted in the average cost of a unit of grid electricity being ~ 6.2p/kWh.

Added to those costs is the standing charge of 25p/day, or £7.50/month.

Gas

We are still using gas for cooking and through the month we used:

  • 41.84 kWh (~1.4 kWh/day) @3.83 p/kWh = £1.60

Added to this is the standing charge of 23.85/day, or £7.16/month.

Heating & Domestic Hot Water (DHW)

Over the month, the heat pump used 312.1kWh (~10.4 kWh/day) of electricity – about half of the total 609.4 kWh used through the month.

At an average cost of 6.2 p/kWh of electricity, this cost £19.35.

Using this electricity, the heat pump delivered 1128.6 kWh of heat at an average cost of (£19.35/1128.6) = 1.7 p/kWh.

If a 90% efficient gas boiler had delivered this energy it would have used (1128.6/0.9)= 1254 kWh of gas which would have cost £48.03.

So the heat pump delivered savings of approximately 60% over using a gas boiler.

If we had not used the battery to allow the use of cheap-rate electricity, then 312.1 kWh of electricity would have cost approximately £44.76 – roughly a 7% saving over using gas.

Heat Pump Performance

As the graph at the head of the page makes clear, the 5 kW Vaillant Arotherm plus heat pump performed well, providing heating and DHW uncomplainingly even in the cold weather.

Click image for a larger version. COP data from last 12 days of November 2021. The blue dots are hourly averages and the large yellow dots show daily averages. The data include the domestic hot water and anti-legionalla cycles which heat water above 55 °C. The trend line indicates that COP is typically between 3 and 4 for external temperatures between 0 °C and 11 °C.

The key measure of the performance of a heat pump is its coefficient of performance (COP). This specifies the ratio of the heating energy delivered divided by the electrical energy consumed.

The graph above shows how the COP varied hour-by-hour and day-by-day through the last 12 days of November.

It is clear that the COP falls at lower external temperatures. This is because the heat pump has to work harder to deliver the heat across a bigger temperature difference.

  • Outside the external temperatures are lower
  • Inside the heat pump increases the temperature of the water flowing through the radiators to deliver more heat.

More specifically,

  • When the external temperature is ~ 10 °C, the water flowing through the radiators is at ~ 32 °C, a temperature difference of ~22 °C. With this small temperature difference the heat pump can operate with a COP in excess of 4.
  • When the external temperature is ~ 0 °C, the water flowing through the radiators is at ~ 42 °C, a temperature difference of ~42 °C. With this temperature difference the heat pump can only achieve a COP of ~ 3.

Some hourly readings show COP values much less than the trend line. These are hours in which ‘odd’ events occurred, such as de-frost cycles on the heat pump heat exchanger, or re-heating the hot water tank at 55 °C.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Since this is just a monthly analysis, I will consider only the fuel costs and neglecting the embodied carbon in the heat pump etc.. But please be assured, in the fuller analysis this is fully accounted for.

During November MyGrid GB reported the average carbon intensity to be 235 gCO2/kWh whereas Carbon Intensity reported the average to be 191 gCO2/kWh. The graph below shows the hour-by-hour data and the curves look similar but appear to be offset by ~ 45 gCO2/kWh. I don’t know which one is correct but I am going to calculate with the Carbon Intensity figures because they allow me to download half-hourly data for the whole month. The difference between the estimates can be added as a constant. Apologies for the confusion.

Click image for a larger version. Hour-by-hour Carbon intensity data from Carbon Intensity and MyGridGB They appear to differ by a constant additive number of ~ 45 gCO2/kWh. I do not know which one is right.

Analysing the data, I find that the 4 hours of off-peak electricity had an average carbon intensity of 141 gCO2/kWh versus 191 gCO2/kWh for the other 20 hours. (This would be ~ 186 gCO2/kWh versus 246 gCO2/kWh for the MyGridGB estimates.)

Using Carbon Intensity figures I estimate that:

  • 428.9 kWh of off-peak electricity @141 gCO2/kWh released = 60.47 kg CO2
  • 51.6 kWh of off-peak electricity @191 gCO2/kWh released = 9.86 kg CO2

for a total of 70.33 kgCO2 released from electrical use through the month. (92.46 kgCO2 using the MyGridGB data)

The effective carbon intensity would be 146 gCO2/kWh (or 191 gCO2/kWh if the MyGridGB figures were correct)

The heat pump used 312.1kWh of electricity and so released 45.57 kgCO2. Dividing this by the 1128.6 kWh of heat delivered by the heat pump (£45.57/1128.6) = 40 gCO2/kWh. Using the MyGridGB estimate this would increase to 53 gCO2/kWh.

Whichever estimate is correct, this is truly low-carbon heating.

If a 90% efficient gas boiler had delivered this heating it would have released 251 kgCO2.

So the heat pump emitted around 20% of the CO2 which would have been emitted by using a gas boiler.

Even if we had not used the battery to allow the use of cheap-rate electricity, the carbon savings would still be dramatic.

Summary

As I wrote the other day, I am relieved to find that all the investments I have made in my home are working – the house is emitting just a small fraction of the CO2 it emitted previously, with absolutely no loss of quality of life.

  • The triple-glazing and external wall insulation reduce heating demand by half
  • The solar panels are still delivering 20% of our electricity demand in November!
  • The battery allowed me to time-shift the use of low-carbon off-peak electricity.
  • And the air source heat pump operated with more than 300% efficiency even on the coldest says.

Time to snuggle up…

The Role of a Battery in Meeting Winter Electricity Demand

November 26, 2021

Click Image for a larger version. The 23rd November 2021 was a glorious day in West London.

Friends, these last few days of November have finally been cold enough for all the parts of my plan for a low-emissions home to come together.

  • The triple glazing and external wall insulation are reducing the heating required to keep the house comfortable.
  • The air source heat pump is reducing the amount of energy required to produce that heat.
  • The battery is charging itself at night on cheap electricity and running the house during the day, only running out of charge in the evening.
  • And on sunny days, the solar panels are topping up the battery during the day!

And so far, nothing major has gone wrong!

In this article I will outline the role of the battery in all of this by looking at how the battery operated during two recent quite chilly days, one sunny and one dull.

Battery: Capacity

The battery is a Tesla Powerwall 2, with 13.5 kWh of storage. This is large for a domestic battery but still only 25% the capacity of a typical mid-size EV battery.

We use about 10 kWh/day of electricity for day-to-day living, and in summer the battery and solar PV allow us to operate off-grid for almost 6 months.

But now we are heating our home electrically, and expect to have to provide around 50 kWh/day of heating – something achieved using around 15 kWh/day of electricity using an air source heat pump.

So winter demand is expected to be around 25 kWh/day of electricity – roughly twice as much electricity as the battery can store.

So in winter the main role of the battery is to allow us to buy cheap rate electricity, and then use it later in the day, minimising the cost of the extra electricity we are using for heating.

Battery: Losses

Intrinsically, battery cells can only store DC electricity, but the Powerwall needs to store and discharge AC electricity.

So the Powerwall, includes an AC to DC converter on its charging input and a DC to AC converter (called an inverter) on its output. Overall, it promises to deliver back 90% of the electric energy stored in it.  Tesla call this ‘90% round trip efficiency’.

Additionally the battery requires power to maintain itself: it needs to keep its internal controllers going, and to operate a heating and cooling system to maintain the battery at a suitable temperature during charging and discharging in order to ensure the longevity of the battery. Tesla guarantee that the battery will retain 80% capacity after 10 years.

These two effects – round trip efficiency and self-consumption – make it difficult to estimate the so-called ‘state of charge’ of the battery (SOC) i.e. how ‘full’ it is. This is because energy stored in the battery seems to slowly disappear and it is not clear quite how to account for that.

So I have crudely approximated both effects by a simple average power loss in the battery, typically between 100 W (2.4 kWh/day) and 150 W (3.6 kWh/day). I have then adjusted this rate to make sure the Powerwall is ’empty’ at approximately the observed time. The Powerwall also reports what ‘it’ thinks it’s internal state of charge is.

Household Demand

The graph below shows that household demand on Tuesday 23rd November 2021 and Wednesday 24th November 2021 was broadly similar.

Click Image for a larger version. Household demand on the 23rd and 24th November. Most of the roughly 1 kW of demand is from the heat pump (~0.6kW).

Normal non-heating household demand is typically ~10 kWh/day but on these days, the house used ~24 kWh of electricity with ~15 kWh being used to operate the heat pump to provide hot water and space heating:

The battery itself seemed to consume about 3 kWh with probably ~1.3 kWh of that being round-trip losses, and 1.7 kWh (~70 W) being self-consumed to maintain its temperature and operating system.

State of Charge

The graph below shows both my estimate of the state of charge of the battery (i.e. how full it is ) through each day. Also shown as red dots is the self-reported state of charge of the battery.

Click Image for a larger version. The estimated state of charge (SOC) of the battery (kWh) during the 23rd and 24th November. The green line is my estimate and the red dots show the battery’s self-reported estimate. Also shown is the solar power (kW) during the day which was substantial on the 23rd – enough to meet household demand and partially re-charge the battery – but not very substantial on the 24th. The green dotted line shows how the battery would discharge if there were no ‘solar boost’

The overall uncertainty in my estimate of the state of charge is quite large – perhaps about 0.5 kWh – as shown by the fact that on the 23rd the battery apparently ‘overfills’ and the 24th it ‘underfills’. However my estimates do coincide reasonably well with the Powerwall’s own estimates.

  • On the 23rd, the battery was initially not quite empty and then charged at approximately 3.6 kW using off-peak electricity available from 0:30 to 04:30. It discharged during the day at around 1 kW, and then after being boosted by 7.4 kWh of solar PV, ran out of charge between 23:00 and 24:00. That evening I was obliged to purchase only ~ 0.5 kWh of full-price electricity.
  • On the 24th, the battery was initially empty and then charged at approximately 3.6 kW using off-peak electricity available from 0:30 to 04:30. Discharging at ~1 kW as on the 23rd, but with just 0.94 kWh of ‘solar boost’, it ran out of charge between 18:00 and 19:00. That evening I was obliged to purchase ~5.4 kWh of full-price electricity!

Because the battery had been fully charged and emptied on the 24th, I could evaluate its round trip efficiency using data reported by the battery itself. It reported that it had received 13.4 kWh of charge and discharged 12.1 kWh – just over 90% of the charge, which is in line with specification. But I do not think this figure includes ‘self-consumption’ which I believe appears as a ‘phantom’ domestic load.

Click Image for a larger version. Grid use during the 23rd was almost exclusively during the cheap rate when the battery was charged while using cheap-rate electricity operate the domestic load, including a dishwasher cycle. On the 24th the battery ran out in the early evening and around 5.5 kWh of full price grid electricity was used.

This behaviour makes sense in general terms. If the battery is full (13.5 kWh) at 4:30 a.m., and demand is around 1 kW, then we would expect the battery to run out 13.5 h later i.e. around 6:00 p.m.. Each kWh of solar generation delays that time by an hour.

Costs & Carbon Emissions.

In the Table below I have summarised as best I can the costs and carbon emissions arising from the house on these two days and compared them with two alternative situations:

  • The first imagines that we had the same solar PV, and heated the house with a heat pump but with no battery.
  • The second imagines that we had the same solar PV, but heated the house with a gas boiler.

Click the image for a larger version of the table. Entries associated with burning gas are coloured in blue. Calaulations are bsed on Electricity prices of 5p/kWh (off-peak) and 16.3 p/kWh (peak) and gas prices of 3.83 p/kWh.

The analysis and evaluation of the alternative scenarios is tedious beyond measure, so allow me to simply summarise.

In terms of money:

  • The battery saves lots of money every day, with or without the ‘solar boost’.
  • It makes the use of an ASHP not only low-carbon, but also very cheap.

In terms of carbon dioxide emissions:

  • The battery reduces ‘my’ carbon dioxide emissions by optimally capturing solar energy.
  • On dull winter days the carbon dioxide emissions would be similar with or without a battery.
  • Using an ASHP – with or without a battery – drastically reduces carbon dioxide emissions compared to using a gas boiler.

Summary.

As I have commented before, the battery is primarily a financial investment.

In summer:

  • The battery it allows me to fully utilise the solar PV, taking the house essentially off-grid for around 6 months.
  • This saves me hundreds of pounds a year.

In winter:

  • The battery it allows me to fully utilise the small amount of solar PV available, and to time-shift the use of off-peak electricity.
  • This also saves me hundreds of pounds a year.

The apparent savings in carbon dioxide emissions associated with using a battery are illusory and in fact the battery is really an additional electrical item using power and causing further emissions.

The solar PV provides low-carbon electricity, but without a battery, any mismatch between production and our domestic use of electricity is expensive.

  • Overproduction of electricity is exported to the grid and I get 3p/kWh.
  • Underproduction of electricity requires me to import from the grid and I must pay 16.3p/kWh.

So without a battery, the low carbon dioxide electricity is still used and still helps the planet, displacing generation from gas-fired power stations. But I don’t get much benefit for it!


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