Wednesday, November 1, 2017

PCS union views: A Just Transition and Energy Democracy

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has produced a booklet ‘Just Transition and Energy Democracy’ which says: ‘The real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system— one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work and radically reins in corporate power’.  
It calls for ‘an open and urgent discussion amongst workers is needed to develop an industrial strategy that gives real protection to workers’ jobs, pay and conditions through the economic transition. It means learning from various initiatives like the Lucas Plan, One Million Climate jobs and campaigns and projects taking place in many parts of the world. These are a good start point in formulating an alternative to the anti-worker and environmentally destructive role of the energy giants who wield such economic power; where from the dawn of the industrial age a mere 90 companies are responsible for over two thirds of global emissions.’
PCS says that to meet the UK climate targets as part of the Paris global commitment, ‘we need an energy transition to a zero carbon economy based on public ownership and democratic control of our energy system. A system of energy democracy that will underwrite a just transition for workers and communities across all sectors of the economy and re-vision our public services’.
It goes into some detail of what might be involved, based on the principle of Energy democracy – public ownership and democratic control. It notes that ‘community energy and cooperatives are posited asan example of regaining control. With some success in Germany and Denmark there are certainly models tolearn from. However often these will be small scale, suit certain types of environment, and mostly those with some initial wealth to pool to make them happen. Therefore whilst there is an important place for different models of energy generation and certainly in ruralareas this may make more sense, to address the scale needed including to run our public services of schools, hospitals and transport, the focus for PCS is on the need to remunicipalise our energy system as part of a worker- public partnership’.
It notes that a shift to municipal energy is already happening. Nottingham City council set up Robin Hood Energy in 2015. Leeds City Council have partnered with Robin Hood Energy to establish White Rose Energy. Bristol Energy set up in early 2016, is like Nottingham wholly owned by the City Council on a not-for-profit basis. They are also going beyond a standard business model with wider social and economic aims such as tackling fuel poverty and promoting renewable energy generation. The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan has committed to a municipal energy company – Energy for Londoners – which would be by far the biggest and challenging yet. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) made up of ten councils  is also looking at establishing a publicly owned municipal energy company. Scotland has been developing its own energy democracy programmes through Our Power, a community benefit society owned by a number of local authorities and housing associations. It aims to supply 30% of its energy from renewable sources and equally tackle fuel poverty with a focus on social housing tenants.
These are good starting point, but PCS looks to a much more radical approach nationally. It notes that a key element of the ‘One Million Climate Jobs’ campaign is the creation of a National Climate Service (NCS) similar to the National Health Service (NHS), to ensure there is a body to create the jobs needed to lower greenhouse gas emissions. But it also wants other radical government services, including a ‘Ministry for Climate Change’ (MforCC) that can oversee an energy democracy transition to a zero carbon economy. However as well as needing a body like this for centralised planning it says there is also a need for Commissions to support local democrat control and protect worker and community rights, with the civil service in these new bodies ‘working in the interest of a people service not just a government run public service’.
It’s a brave vision, based in part of work done by Prof. David Hall of thePublic Services International Research Unit (PSIRU).  It would involve breaking up much of what exist at present- the nationalisation and municipalisation of much of the power system, at a cost put at £24bn in compensation to the current owners: Transmission and distribution companies would be brought back into the public sector with new legislation brought forward to enable the creation of regional and local supply companies’. But unlike previous nationalisations, it would be subject to meaningful local worker and community control- and with climate issues being central. That’s a big ask- not all workers or communities may see climate issues as central. However, PCS is convinced that it is both in their interests and necessary:  climate change and the industrial struggle of unions against workers continued exploitation opens up the opportunity to think and develop a strategy and programme that puts workers at the centre of the economic transformation that will be needed’.
So PCS wants a new approach-very different from some of the others on offer. For example, the World Energy Council has looked to three possible futures, using ‘musical , analogies:
Modern Jazz – driven by markets, strong innovation and rapid deployment of new technologies.
Unfinished Symphony – strong states direction with energy policy priorities focused on security and climate change.
Hard Rock – a fragmented world with a weak economy and strong nationalism.
PCS believe there is a fourth scenario, the Brass Band – an energy transition based on real workers participation, public ownership and democratic control – a workers and public partnership.  It notes that ‘A Just Transition’ was a ‘topline’ priority for the trade union movement led by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) at the UN climate talks in Paris, and is recognised in the Preamble to the agreement by way of the following text:“Taking into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities.”
While PCS welcomes that, it says it means nothing ‘without action by trade unions and others involved in labour issues such as those working for social justice to make it happen’. It is certainly trying. It realises that it approach is radical, even maybe utopian, but seeks at the very least to challenge the economic orthodoxy of governments and financial institutions by:
 1.Questioning the claims that cost-cutting means greater efficiency
2.Arguing that civil and public services are vital to the economic, political and social well-being of the nation
3.Arguing for public ownership and control over all aspects of service delivery in the civil and public services
4. Making the case for accountable public services with staff involved through their trade unions building public services for the future, including in the energy transition.

The PCS approach has a lot in common with Corbyn’s views, as reflected in the last Labour Manifesto, but with more details. It will be interesting to see if any of it get taken up by Labour, and by other progressive parties, who do share many of the same ideas about local control. In terms of technology, the PCS certainly backs renewables strongly, is critical of fracking and uncertain about nuclear- much like the Labour leadership, although it is constrained by the strong pro-nuclear position of the GMB, the big engineering union: see my last post in the series.   But the Greens are no so constrained and may want a stronger anti-nuclear line. However, Labour is pushing the ownership issue: the Unions, via the TUC, are are backing that:

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Smart grids- and their limits

Smart grids are integrated power systems designed to allow energy supply and demand to be balanced efficiently, in part by the use of electronic control and management systems. Some of this involves new hardware: energy stores that can be called on when supply is low and demand is high, or back-up plants queued up to meet demand peaks and green energy supply lulls. But some may be just software. For example, variable energy pricing signals sent to consumers may depress demand when supply is low or demand high. This is sometimes called ‘demand response’, and one variant relies on the ability of some domestic and retail  systems (eg freezers) to cope happily for a few hours without power, so that they can be set up to go offline when energy demand is high or supply low. 
The smart grid concept is seen as offering a new more flexible approach to energy supply and use, enabling the wider use of variable renewables and reducing the need for ‘always on’ base-load power. 
There are many practical problems facing the development and integration of such systems, as has already been found with the deployment of the relatively simple smart meters in the UK. The much more complex smart grid will no doubt require even more effort and adjustments, particularly in relation to consumer reactions. For example, consumers may not be happy with interactive load management systems that automatically isolate loads when demand is high- even if that saves them money. It may be better to offer them the choice of pre-setting cut off price levels, and also an over-ride option, so that they can, for example, continue to charge their electric car or run a washing machine even if the price of doing so at that time will be high. There are also issues with the integration of storage into smart grid systems: ideally they should store power when its cheap and use it when its expensive, but, in the case of Vehicle to Grid storage systems, will electric car owners be happy to find that power has been drained out of their batteries if they want to drive somewhere at around peak demand time.  Contractual limits have to be set and consumer friendly interactive control systems developed. Unsurprisingly then, at both the technical and social level, smart grid and demand response systems are currently a big area of research:
However, there is a larger problem. This sort of system can only deal with relatively small and short-term supply shortfalls.  As a review of smart grids posted on the Energy Matters web site concluded ‘no smart grid is smart enough to generate electricity when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine’. That seems clear if there are long lulls, but its actually a bit of a simplification: it may not be the case if the concept of smart grids is expanded. 
It is true that demand management can only shift demand peaks by a few hours or in the extreme (with some industrial-scale interruptible contracts) a day or so. Similarly, storage system like batteries can only meet lulls for a few hours or at best a day or so, whereas there can be long lulls in wind and solar inputs, for several days or even a week or more, sometimes across wide areas.  However, studies have suggested that it will be rare for whole continents to be entirely becalmed and cloudy for long periods, so if they are spread widely enough, long distance HVDC supergrid interconnectors can often deal with lulls in some parts by trading power from where there is surplus to where it is needed. For example, the weather systems differ across Eastern and Western, and Northern and Southern Europe and North Africa. Of course there may occasionally be times, depending on local supply and demand, when there will be little current green energy surplus to trade across the supergrid- and certainly, there can be low wind inputs at times:
That’s where large storage options like hydro reservoir pumped storage and compressed air cavern storage can help (for a few days), pumped up previously using surplus green power. They can supply power locally or via the supergrid to where it is needed. Power can also be generated from stored hydrogen or syngas, these stores being topped up ready for this using gas produced in P2G mode using surplus electricity from renewables previously and run into gas turbines when power is needed.   It’s easier to store gas than electricity (and it can be stored for long times) and even better/more efficient to store heat- so flexible CHP /DH plants with heat stores can also help: their power to heat output ratio can be increased to meet power shortfalls and any heat still needed supplied from the heat store, assuming it has been charged earlier when power demand was low. For the moment, most CHP plants run on fossil gas, but gradually they can be converted to run on biogas and low carbon synfuels/P2G, and solar and geothermal heat can also be used to feed the heat stores. And heat stores can store heat for long periods if necessary, even months. 
This flexible combination of power, heat and gas storage, linked up by supergrids and balanced as far as possible by demand management, expands the smart grid concept, so that, (along maybe with inputs from non-weather dependent renewable sources (hydro, tidal, geothermal, biomass) it should be able to deal with most if not all eventualities. Though that will depend on the economics: some say it will be expensive, others that it will avoid waste, improve balancing and cut costs. The current system is certainly wasteful, and adding variable renewables to it without system changes could be even more so- with surplus output at periods of low demand having to be curtailed. Smart electrical system flexibility can limit that and also some of the need for backup capacity.  Going further, to include heat and gas systems and stores in the mix, along with supergrid trading, should help even more, though as yet the optimal mix is unclear.   
For a review of advanced balancing options see: The Energy Matters post:

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Green gas- the fossil gas to hydrogen option

 Electrification with renewables isn’t the only energy decarbonisation option- gas can also be greened and there are a range of options for how to do this, with conversion to hydrogen currently being talked up:
The H21 plan for Leeds looks to a switch to hydrogen gas for use in the gas network, rather than fossil gas. All domestic gas boilers and cookers would be converted to run on clean-burning hydrogen under the proposal to make Leeds a ‘hydrogen city’. At a cost estimated by Northern Gas Networks of  £2 bn, Leeds would be converted by 2025-30  and this could then be replicated in other major UK cities.  Steam-fed fossil-gas methane ‘reformer’ (SMR) plants around the city would convert methane from the national gas grid into hydrogen with the resultant carbon dioxide captured and piped to offshore undersea geological storage wells:
It’s a bold plan.  Gas conversion SMR technology is well established but CCS is untested on any scale, and cannot deliver 100% carbon sequestration. Moreover, though hydrogen burns without creating CO2, domestic appliances would have to be modified to burn it rather than methane, as they were in the 1970s, when the UK switched from hydrogen-rich ‘town gas’ to methane-rich North Sea natural gas. But that would be less disruptive than installing electric heat pumps in houses for heating and upgrading local power distribution grids to cope with the large extra demand- houses already have gas grid links with modern plastic pipes able to handle hydrogen.
Steam reformation is straight forward and the main current way of making hydrogen: CH4+ H2O > 3H2+ CO2.  However, some say why not use biogas produced from anaerobic digestion of domestic food and farm waste for at least some of the feedstock? Then the CO2 produced will be more or less balanced by biomass is growth- so no CCS is needed:  Or how about synthetic green gas made by electrolysis using surplus electricity from wind farms- the so called Power to Gas (P2G) idea being developed in Germany? That’s based on the the Sabatier reaction: CO2 + 4H2 > CH4 + 2H2O. That will actually be looked at in the H21 programme, but, for now, the H21 team sees P2G as marginal: ‘Renewable based electrolysis could be used, but for the foreseeable future the required quantities do not look realistic’.
So for the moment it will be based on using fossil gas. The H21 team says natural gas (predominantly methane), the lowest carbon dioxide emitter per unit of energy of any fossil fuel, produces about 180 gm/kWh CO2 equivalent whereas hydrogen emits zero (at the point of use). The change over from natural gas to hydrogen has the potential to provide a very deep carbon emission reduction. The true carbon footprint of hydrogen depends on its source. For example, grid power electrolysis has very high emissions whereas hydrogen made from stripping the carbon atom from natural gas has about 50 gm/kWh CO2 equivalent including indirect emissions, a large reduction over the existing unabated natural gas fuel’.
Labour has been pushing green gas generally and a parliamentary group has produced a new report, the Green Gas Book, with a series of essays by MPs and experts exploring the various biomethane, hydrogen, bioSNG and biopropane options.  It includes a chapter on the H21 plan and many mentions of it. The MPs see it, and green gas generally, as better than ripping out existing gas boilers!
There are nevertheless some reservations about replacing natural gas with hydrogen.  Safety issues are often raised, and certainly hydrogen gas, like all flammable gases, needs careful handling.  But being lighter than air hydrogen tends vent out if there are leaks rather than filling up buildings.  And, as already noted, the coal-derived Town Gas used before the UK converted to North Sea gas had a high hydrogen content. However, the chapter in Labour’s booklet by Dr. Keith MacLean from the Energy Research Partnership, notes that ‘Current regulations only allow for 0.1% by volume of hydrogen to be blended into gas supplies. Since the level is much higher in other countries, like Germany where it is over 10%, there appears to be no insurmountable technical or safety reasons for this low limit. Upper ends of estimates of what could be added before adjustments would be required to appliances are about 20% by volume. However, although hydrogen has a high energy density by weight, it has a very low density by volume – about one third of natural gas. Therefore, even 20% by volume would only be equivalent to 6% by energy’.
So he says that ‘considering the supply side and network developments needed to enable hydrogen use in any quantity, it may make better technical and economic sense to convert to 100% hydrogen in a limited number of locations, rather than to convert many more areas for a blended solution, especially if this remains limited to such low levels’.  
A similar view emerged in a UKERC blog: the hydrogen option was an outlier, with the H21 approach only at best reducing CO2 by 59%:
Maybe, but the Leeds H21 team see it as hopefully being replicable in cities elsewhere. Perhaps by then other feedstocks than fossil methane could be used e.g. biogas or P2G syn gas. That would avoid the need for CCS. But it would still be a complex multi-stage process with significant conversion losses, requiring more gas input to get the same heat output as would be available if the green gas was used directly for heating.  Certainly direct use of AD-derived biogas might be an easier option in some locations, and even though the volumes available are limited at present, they could be expanded. Ecotricity, Good Energy and Green Energy are already offering green biogas options to consumers via admixtures in the gas supply, and this route could expand as new biogas plans are developed- Ecotricity is planning to use grass as a feedstock in new gas mills!  
P2G and other syngas routes could also open up. In his chapter in the Green Gas Book Tony Glover, from the Energy Networks Association, notes that ‘National Grid’s 2015 Future Energy Scenarios report highlights the potential for a 10-fold increase in the number of green gas connections to the grid over the next decade, indicating a possible 416 connections by 2025 and 700 connections by 2035. This equates to approximately 40 TWh/year of green gas from AD injected to the grid by 2035, around 5% of the total UK gas demand and around 10% of the UK domestic gas demand. More recent industry estimates, which also include other renewable gases such as Bio-substitute natural gas (Bio SNG) and Power to Gas (P2G), suggest that the full potential of renewable gas may be over twice this level. Additionally, as UK gas demand continues to decrease, this proportion could become much higher’.

For a detailed analysis of all the green gas options and a review of some pioneering examples, see ‘Renewable Gas’, Jo Abbess, Palgrave, so far the definitive text, although this new more technical one looks good too: