Tag Archives: Renewable energy

Waste products after-market: EV’s Lithium Ion Batteries

Intercon wrote an interesting article today highlighting a solution for the high cost of electric vehicles: by transitioning drained lithium ion batteries from used EVs to function as stores of energy for alternative power sources such as wind and solar.   As Intercon notes, the high cost of manufacturing lithium for EVs can be subsidized by the aftermarket sale to energy producers:

Estimates in vehicles prices have seen these costs naturally passed onto customers to make EVs just as expensive—if not more expensive—than comparable gas vehicles or hybrids. But an afterlife for batteries that paid dividends could put a dent in those high costs for producers and consumers alike. Apparently, when batteries degrade from levels necessary for driving they still hold large amounts of charging capacity (perhaps as high as 75%)—a commodity that could be captured by another industry. Realizing an after-market value of batteries could shift some of that excess cost away from customers into other willing buyers at wind or solar farms. According to GM, the situation is a triple-win because although deconstructing the batteries to safely harvest their components is possible, it is expected to be intensive in both labor and capital.

Intercon believes that the greatest benefit alternative energy producers stand to gain is to provide a store of energy for a more reliable source of energy.

At the same time, renewable power has its own drawback, namely its intermittent nature. Wind turbines and solar farms can provide power that is clean but often unreliable. The result is needing large amounts of dirtier power kept in the grid spinning reserve (plants that are running but not producing electrons for the grid) meaning that the net benefit of the greener installations is marginal. When paired with power storage, however, renewable energy advances quickly against into the marketplace. Power storage systems made up of recycled EV batteries could help the output of renewable systems remain more consistent allowing for more grid systems to be powered down. The UK Times reports that 25 recycled car batteries could store up to 1 MW of power and yet may be an incremental additional cost added to a wind turbine.

While novel in it’s pursuit, I see some issues with the idea for this as a magic bullet for alternative energy. If lithium ion batteries can retain their value past being used in an EV, wouldn’t the value be more useful in consumer electronics? Spreading the bulk of the car battery across more sell-able units  would bring economies of scale, decrease cost per unit and increase margins. Given the high value of lithium, any discount on used lithium would nonetheless still make it expensive, making it a boon for already struggling clean energy providers to compete with cheap, dirty power. It would only make economic sense to push an after-market of used lithium towards consumer electronics rather than utilize them in alternative power schemes.

This is a consequence of the power industry’s structure, not exactly a failed idea.  This would be a great way to utilize post-consumer material for efficient means (if it is possible) in order to help cushion the cost of utilizing lithium ion batteries as a store for power.  Of course alternative energy providers would want whatever is available now, but can’t due to cost.  A lot will depend on the shape of the power industry in the future, which is currently unknown at the moment, but positive given the newly awaited American Power Act.  This shouldn’t detract from the fact that lithium in EVs is  still recoverable for after-market uses, (either for renewable power or consumer electronics) which should help cushion consumers from high lithium prices, making the shift to EVs more attractive.  Not everyone will be able to get a Tesla, (Pictured above) but Nissan’s new Leaf is a start.

Breakthrough Spotlight: Biofuel from microbial organisms

Unlike cellulosic ethanol made from foodstuffs and grasses, bio-fuel makers are on their way to creating a commercially viable bio-fuel made from microbial organisms. From Techpulse 360:

Now a third-generation of biofuel makers is showing progress with novel laboratory work. This new wave is a sharp departure from the ways of the past and has interesting potential. It hopes to simplify manufacturing by avoiding the fermentation step of first and second generation companies and convert organisms directly into fuel using just carbon dioxide and sometimes sunlight.

It is an exciting prospect. Not only could these new ventures remake an industry, they could open the door to new ways to store solar energy (in a fuel!) and help remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Why is this a breakthrough relative to other bio-fuels? Most of it has to do with the ease of implementation within our existing infrastructure and limited burden on current resources.

Renewable sources of energy such as solar are geographically specific and currently, are unable to effectively store the energy on a large scale for that energy to be transported elsewhere.  While bio-fuels capture that energy from the sun and transforms into an effective storage vehicle that can be easily implemented with our current infrastructure, bio-fuels created from foodstuffs and grasses put a strain on available land and resources, usually translating into higher prices for food. Combine that with several production steps to create it, and you can see where bio-fuels become economically disadvantaged.

With microbial organisms such as these, the combined inputs of solar power and carbon dioxide add the benefit of reversing our carbon emissions. Add the fact that bio-fuel can already be easily implemented within our infrastructure and you can see why commercially viable bio-fuels from microbial organisms are a breakthrough.

The End of Cheap Coal

One of the reasons why the push for Cap and Trade was a good idea was it would not only internalize the cost of carbon emissions, but it would also raise the price of energy created from coal.   With higher prices for kilowatt per hour from coal energy, cleaner energy sources would become competitive.  Currently, cleaner energy sources can barely compete with coal, with exceptions of course.  But if legislation wasn’t going to push up the price of burning coal, then in the long-term, rising international demand would.  That time is now.

In 2009, China has ceased to export coal and has now began to import it.  According to the financial times, in 1993 the same happened to oil.  China’s oil imports exceeded what was being imported and the consequence was a climb in the average oil price, all too well known thanks to oil spiking at $150 a barrel in 2008.  China had been using more oil than it could produce in order to fuel its large amount of economic growth, and oil wasn’t the only commodity.

China isn’t the only player.  India as well as the emerging markets have offered its heavy share of the demand, tipping trade balances toward imports and helping to drive up commodity prices for oil and building materials.   The same is expected for coal.

This is good news for America, which contains the largest coal reserves in the world.  This is also good news for the coal industry, as it will be able to profit from an uptick in prices.

This is not so good for the coal power industry, especially in America.  While the coal industry will benefit in developing nations who have already increased the capacity to burn coal for energy and produce steel from coke, the developed world already faces pressures for pursuing greener technologies instead of burning coal.  And the coal power industry should be scared: the only thing keeping them from not succumbing to the powers of green energy is price, which is now soon to change.  With coal prices higher translating into higher per kilowatt hour energy costs that begin to be on par with greener technologies, the coal power industry will have a tough fight.

Green technologies already have the leg up of being green and renewable.  Obama’s recent moves to push for nuclear energy, which would already be competitive given Obama’s plan, and the ARRA’s subsidizing of renewable resources like wind and solar significantly put the government against the coal power industry.

The government’s backing of renewable energy certainly distorts what the market wants when providing energy, but a needed distortion nonetheless.  The only hope for the coal industry is to level the playing field by either removing green energy subsidies (not likely) or becoming green it self.  The industry’s only hope is going for clean coal. And now, it doesn’t have the luxury of waiting anymore.

Before one says that clean coal isn’t viable, I disagree.  It is possible, given recent developments in innvoation.  I blogged recently about Thomas Friedman’s catch about clean coal:

If you combine CO2 with seawater, or any kind of briny water, you produce CaCO3, calcium carbonate. That is not only the stuff of corals. It is also the same white, pasty goop that appears on your shower head from hard (calcium-rich) water. At its demonstration plant near Santa Cruz, Calif., Calera has developed a process that takes CO2 emissions from a coal- or gas-fired power plant and sprays seawater into it and naturally converts most of the CO2 into calcium carbonate, which is then spray-dried into cement or shaped into little pellets that can be used as concrete aggregates for building walls or highways — instead of letting the CO2 emissions go into the atmosphere and produce climate change.

If this can scale, it would eliminate the need for expensive carbon-sequestration facilities planned to be built alongside coal-fired power plants — and it might actually make the heretofore specious notion of “clean coal” a possibility.

With coal prices expected to rise, you can bet this will scale. With clean coal on the horizon, subsidizing greener technologies won’t be needed anymore or vice versa, coal won’t be dirty anymore. Either way, whether a Cap and Trade bill , favorable legislation towards green technologies or the sheer power of the market was going to force it, switching towards less CO2 intensive energy was inevitable. Now, about those mountain tops…