Playground technologies

And a vast misallocation of resources

Audi power-to-gas "g-tron".

Audi power-to-gas “g-tron”.

I recently attended a breakfast briefing by Audi, E-On and NGVA (Natural & Bio-gas Vehicle Assn) on power-to-gas technology.  Audi showed a short film that sought to illustrate the technology using a child’s plastic windmill, the sort you buy on the beach, and a hair-dryer.  My description of renewables as “playground technologies” never seemed more apt.

They are seeking to address, inter alia, the problem of renewable intermittency.  There are really no good large-scale storage mechanisms, which is why we end up paying massive subsidies to wind farm operators to turn their turbines off when there’s too much power.  The new wheeze is to use excess power to electrolyse water.  You then take the resulting hydrogen and combine it with CO2 from the atmosphere, to produce methane.  The methane can be used to power a car (surprise surprise, Audi have a methane-powered A3), with no net emissions – the CO2 emitted from the tail-pipe exactly matches the CO2 used in making the methane.  Bingo!  Totally green motoring.

But in an hour-and-a-quarter presentation, no one once mentioned the issue of cost (except for the price of the Audi: €25,000).  But electricity from wind is expensive to start with.  Converting energy from electricity to hydrogen, and then to methane, involves direct costs and efficiency losses in the process, so that the energy in the car is likely to be much more expensive than even the original cost of the wind-power.  Note that the new plants for the power-to-gas process (like conventional fossil-fuel back-up for wind) will inevitably run intermittently – only when the wind is strong and they produce excess energy.  That’s costly and inefficient for a start.

When I pressed them for a cost analysis. It emerged that even with the implied subsidy of biofuels, the process was substantially loss-making.  Indeed the breakfast briefing was designed to persuade MEPs to support “quadruple accounting” for so-called advanced bio-fuels.  On this basis, with the implied subsidy doubled, the power-to-gas scam could be made profitable, and attract investors.

This in effect represents a vast misallocation of resources.  Meantime the EU has to compete economically with the USA, with its cheap shale gas.  It won’t succeed in the global race by devising ever-more-expensive ways of producing synthetic gas.

The industry does seem to have a point when it says that it didn’t set the renewables targets – politicians did.  True.  But I do think that the industry should do more to say to politicians “We can deliver on the targets you set, but at a cost.  Do you know what the cost is, and are you prepared to pay it?

The Audi guys tried to convince me that this was consumer-driven.  After all, they said, everybody agrees we need to fight climate change.  They seemed surprised when I explained that a great many of my constituents in the East Midlands don’t seem too concerned about global warming – especially as there hasn’t been any global warming to be concerned about for best part of two decades.  Then they said that it was up to consumers to choose to buy the special power-to-gas cars, and indeed to buy the fuel.  But in reply I noted that the implied subsidies (in effect, raising the price of other forms of energy to make bio-fuels appear attractive) was a hit on all European citizens, and would damage competitiveness, drive up energy prices and force jobs and businesses off-shore.  They didn’t seem to have an answer to that.

The relevant “ILUC” legislation is dual track between the Environment & Industry committees.  The ENVI rapporteur, Corinne Lepage,    declares herself determined to get the legislation onto the books before the 2014 election (otherwise it could take years), and has sought the agreement of the ENVI Committee to do so.  But being twin-track, I believe it will also require agreement from the Industry Committee, which may not be forthcoming.  I, at least, will vote against.

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11 Responses to Playground technologies

  1. martinbrumby says:

    Now now, Roger. You must be having a laugh.
    “The new wheeze is to use excess power to electrolyse water. You then take the resulting hydrogen and combine it with CO2 from the atmosphere, to produce methane. The methane can be used to power a car”.
    They’ve got to be kidding. How would they combine the hydrogen with just the 0.04% CO2 in the atmosphere to make Methane? How would they prevent it “combining” with the 21% oxygen in the atmosphere? Given hydrogen, why not just burn it? If they want methane (a vastly more appropriate fuel for vehicles), why not just use compressed or liquefied shale gas?
    I thought the ‘Kunning plan’ to convert Drax to American burn wood pellets was as daft as could be imagined (until you understand the subsidies on offer and the fact that, once converted, they can generate whenever they like). But this idea is out there with the notion of producing electricity by pedal power.
    I really hope that you made all this up out of mischievousness.
    But I fear you are serious (if bemused).
    What on earth are these eco-fascists smoking? Do I detect desperation creeping in?

  2. David H. Walker says:

    Roger, the oil companies are (enthusiastically or “voluntoldily”) working similar schemes here in the US, especially in California. Thing is they’re using taxpayer money, rather than their own, to gird the effort.

    Surely, if they believed the hype, the oil companies would be burning their own cash to make these things happen. At best, they invest sporadically, but largely depend upon the taxpayer to take the real risks. Crisis construction at its finest.

  3. neilfutureboy says:

    I doubt if, the laws of thermodynamics being what they are, anything, let alone a triple line of chemical reactions (H2O>H>H2C4>H2O), will be much of an efficiency improvement over the Cruachan dam in Scotland which returns about 60% of power. It is close, as the crow flies, to Hunterston nuclear plant since transmission losses, both ways, are significant. To build a new one, with today’s H&S costs would be prohibitive.

    If we had a massive nuclear capacity so that sometimes there was no use for its power, and bearing in mind that the marginal cost of such power is zero, it might be worthy using it to create oil or methane. An international HVDC grid could be better – we sell the Chinese our post midnight spare capacity and they sell us their’s 12 hours later.

  4. Mike Stallard says:

    I can see why this madness is happening, I think. The politicians in charge are not people who have had much experience of business or indeed of life outside politics. They respond rather than know.
    The more successful MPs are increasingly people who have no knowledge of science, of commerce, of anything much except for meeja relations.
    The MEPs, of course, are chosen from a party list. They do not actually have to face their electorate personally (although the better ones do). they – you – are actually party employees.
    This madness has got to stop.
    But how?

  5. John Sampson says:

    1. Leave the EU.
    2. Change the FTPT electoral system to a democratic one, where it matters who stands and it doesn’t matter where the voter lives. Therefore, not AV which is actually worse than FTPT. Not PR either, otherwise you get endless coalitions, buck-passing etc.
    3. Deal with the fact that decisions by one government are not binding on the next, so long-term investment in anything that a government might ban or axe, e.g. a nuclear power station, is a bad idea.

  6. Richard111 says:

    Patience. When all the solar panels are covered in ice and the windmill blades are bent and broken by ice and there is no electricity for the morning cuppa then there will be ructions and politicians will tremble in their boots. There WILL be a reckoning.

  7. David says:

    I,m glad you told us about another crap scheme Roger, well done.

  8. David says:

    Why do “they” tell us that electric cars have no emissions, where do they get the leccy from then, yes our overstretched power stations, which I believe still produce emisions, and will produce more from recharging the oh so clean electric cars.

    Mr barrososad there are no free lunches (except your subsidised one,s in Le Parl)

  9. Pingback: Costly “ersatz” technologies |

  10. ex - Expat Colin says:

    Roger…I think this rolls right back to here:

    I read the EU report (draft?) for as long as my internal BS fuse allowed and did not see amongst the authorship Merc/ BMW/Audi or UK Mira

    However, seems UK Gov is now in play game with at least two of the above German car makers to stop the proposed EU emissions requirements as in the draft EU proposal. Strange trade off with London based banks?

    I am not an Audi liker, but hope that Merc/BMW have a calming influence, only it would have been better if they both threatened the EU and implemented any threat made. That would be something missing in most of the Sabre rattling everywhere…Sabres not used ! Just loadsa money collected.

  11. Bryan Tomlinson says:

    Why is there no discussion about overpopulation. How can any European nation state provide power for it’s citizens when the EU insists on free movement of EU workers ?

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