Tag: electric vehicles (EVs)

How to make batteries more sustainable

batteries in a recycling bucket

Batteries can be found everywhere: in our houses, in our cars and vans and even in the tech we wear. More than just being pervasive, battery technology has enabled a huge amount of technological breakthroughs – from the increasing distances electric vehicles can travel between charges, to being able to store renewable electricity for when it’s needed.

These two developments in particular – emission-free electric transport and grid-scale batteries that can power homes, businesses and cities even when energy sources are not generating – could be two key aspects in the transition to a zero carbon energy future. However, questions remain around batteries’ environmental impact.

What’s in our batteries?

The batteries we use every day are typically made from a mix of metals and chemicals such as lead and acid (as found in petrol and diesel-engine cars), or zinc, carbon, nickel and cadmium, which make up some of the batteries found in the home.

Then there’s lithium-ion. The go-to material mix for the rechargeable batteries powering mobile phones, laptops and, more recently, a high proportion of electric vehicles around the world.

The surge in the production of lithium-ion batteries over the last decade has led to an 85% price reduction, which in turn, has encouraged the use of these reliable batteries in electric vehicles and large-scale energy storage solutions. While this is a positive step in the development of rechargeable goods, it raises issues in the handling of spent batteries.

Each year around 600 million batteries are thrown away in the UK alone – even rechargeable batteries have a shelf-life. While recycling allows the safe extraction of raw materials for use in other industries and products, the majority of discarded batteries are left to rot in landfill sites. This can lead to their chemical contents leaking into the ground causing soil and water pollution.

Batteries left in soil

For batteries of any size to play a role in a sustainable future, an overhaul is needed in preventing harmful levels of battery waste. 

The battery problem

Although the number of batteries that are recycled has increased, currently the EU puts the recycling efficiency target for a lithium battery at only 50% of the total weight of the battery.

Connecting positive and negative terminals on a rechargeable lithium mobile battery

Standard recycling methods achieve this by separating and processing the plastics and wiring that make up the bulk of the battery pack, then smelting and extracting the copper, cobalt and nickel found within the cell, releasing carbon dioxide in the process. Crucially, these recycling practices do not typically recover the aluminium, lithium or any of the organic compounds within the battery, meaning that only around 32% of the battery’s materials can be reused. A lack of recycling facilities in the UK means spent batteries have traditionally been exported overseas for treatment, upping emissions even further.

It is not only spent batteries that cause a problem, the creation of them can be harmful too. For example, lithium mining can pose health hazards to miners and damage local communities and their environments.

In one area of Chile, 65% of available water is used in the production of lithium for batteries, meaning water for other uses, such as maintaining crops, must be driven in from somewhere else, impacting farmers greatly. There are also risks around contaminated water leaking into livestock and human water supplies, as well as causing soil damage and air pollution.

As a result, teams across the globe are working to make the production and recycling of batteries more efficient and eco-friendly.

Switching materials

Researchers based at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the National Institute of Energy in Slovenia, are developing an aluminium-ion battery. This type of battery offers a promising alternative to lithium-ion due to the abundance of aluminium in the Earth’s crust and its ability, in principle, to carry charges better than lithium.

Disassembling the battery from an electric vehicle (EV)

The reduction in material and environmental costs that come with using aluminium over lithium might mean batteries made with it could offer more affordable, large-scale storage for renewable installations.

While more research is still needed to reduce the size and control the temperature of aluminium batteries, researchers believe they will soon enter commercial production and eventually could replace their lithium-ion predecessors.

Elsewhere, IBM Research’s Battery Lab is developing a sustainable battery solution made predominantly of materials extracted from seawater, a composition that would avoid the concerns associated with the production of lithium-ion cells.

While the exact combination of materials in not public, Battery Lab claims the new concept has outperformed its lithium-ion counterpart in energy density, efficiency, production costs and charging time. 

Making good of the old

Along with advancements in battery development, new recycling methods are also reducing the environmental impact of batteries.

German company, Duesenfeld, is innovating the recycling of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles through an innovative new process.

Batteries are first discharged and disassembled into their constituent parts. The metals are extracted with a water-based solution, the liquid chemicals evaporated and condensed, and the dry materials crushed and separated, ready for reuse. Importantly, Duesenfeld’s method avoids incineration, reducing the carbon footprint of lithium-ion battery recycling by 40% and enabling over 90% of the batteries’ materials to be salvaged and reused in new batteries.

Fortum, a Finnish energy company, is exploring a similar process, with the potential to recycle more than 80% of battery materials, including cobalt, manganese and nickel.

This year Fortum signed a deal with German chemical company BASF and Russian mining and smelting firm Nornickel to develop a renewable-powered, electric vehicle battery recycling cluster in Finland. The aim is to create a ‘closed-loop’ battery production and recycling system, meaning materials from recycled batteries would be used to make new batteries.

While it is clear there is a long way to go in reducing the environmental impact of battery production and recycling, continued development of both batteries and technology can pave a path for a cleaner, safer, battery-powered, zero carbon future.

Electric vehicle battery pack

EV fast facts from Electric Insights:

  • Electric vehicles (EVs) on roads in Great Britain – including EV vans – emit on average just one quarter the carbon dioxide (CO2) of conventional petrol and diesel vehicles
  • If the carbon emitted in making their battery is included, this rises to only half the CO2 of a conventional vehicle
  • EVs bought last year could be emitting just a tenth that of a petrol car in four years’ time, as the electricity system continues to decarbonise

14 moments that electrified history

Electricity is such a universal and accepted part of our lives it’s become something we take for granted. Rarely do we stop to consider the path it took to become ubiquitous, and yet through the course of its history there have been several eureka moments and breakthrough inventions that have shaped our modern lives. Here are some of the defining moments in the development of electricity and power.

2750 BC – Electricity first recorded in the form of electric fish

Ancient Egyptians referred to electric catfish as the ‘thunderers of the Nile’, and were fascinated by these creatures. It led to a near millennia of wonder and intrigue, including conducting and documenting crude experiments, such as touching the fish with an iron rod to cause electric shocks.

500 BC – The discovery of static electricity

Around 500 BC Thales of Miletus discovered that static electricity could be made by rubbing lightweight objects such as fur or feathers on amber. This static effect remained unknown for almost 2,000 years until around 1600 AD, when William Gilbert discovered static electricity in earnest.

1600 AD – The origins of the word ‘electricity’

The Latin word ‘electricus’, which translates to ‘of amber’ was used by the English physician, William Gilbert to describe the force exerted when items are rubbed together. A few years later, English scientist Thomas Browne translated this into ‘electricity’ in his written investigations in the field.

1751 – Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Experiments and Observations on Electricity’

This book of Benjamin Franklin’s discoveries made about the behaviour of electricity was published in 1751. The publication and translation of American founding father, scientist and inventor’s letters would provide the basis for all further electricity experimentation. It also introduced a host of new terms to the field including positive, negative, charge, battery and electric shock.

1765 – James Watt transforms the Industrial Revolution

Watt studies Newcomen’s engine

James Watt transformed the Industrial Revolution with the invention of a modified Newcome engine, now known as the Watt steam engine. Machines no longer had to rely on the sometimes-temperamental wind, water or manpower – instead steam from boiling water could drive the pistons back and forth. Although Watt’s engine didn’t generate electricity, it created a foundation that would eventually lead to the steam turbine – still the basis of much of the globe’s electricity generation today.

James Watt’s steam engine

Alessandro Volta

1800 – Volta’s first true battery

Documented records of battery-like objects date back to 250 BC, but the first true battery was invented by Italian scientist Alessandro Volta in 1800. Volta realised that a current was created when zinc and silver were immersed in an electrolyte – the principal on which chemical batteries are still based today.

1800s – The first electrical cars

Breakthroughs in electric motors and batteries in the early 1800s led to experimentation with electrically powered vehicles. The British inventor Robert Anderson is often credited with developing the first crude electric carriage at the beginning of the 19th century, but it would not be until 1890 that American chemist William Morrison would invent the first practical electric car (though it closer resembled a motorised wagon), boasting a top speed of 14 miles per hour.

Michael Faraday

1831 – Michael Faraday’s electric dynamo

Faraday’s invention of the electric dynamo power generator set the precedent for electricity generation for centuries to come. His invention converted motive (or mechanical) power – such as steam, gas, water and wind turbines – into electromagnetic power at a low voltage. Although rudimentary, it was a breakthrough in generating consistent, continuous electricity, and opened the door for the likes of Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan, whose subsequent discoveries would make large-scale electricity generation feasible.

1879 – Lighting becomes practical and inexpensive

Thomas Edison patented the first practical and accessible incandescent light bulb, using a carbonised bamboo filament which could burn for more than 1,200 hours. Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent lightbulb on 31st December 1879 where he stated that, “electricity would be so cheap that only the rich would burn candles.” Although he was not the only inventor to experiment with incandescent light, his was the most enduring and practical. He would soon go on to develop not only the bulb, but an entire electrical lighting system.

Holborn Viaduct power station via Wikimedia

1882 – The world’s first public power station opens

Holborn Viaduct power station, also known as the Edison Electric Light Station, burnt coal to drive a steam turbine and generate electricity. The power was used for Holborn’s newly electrified streetlighting, an idea which would quickly spread around London.

1880s – Tesla and Edison’s current war

Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison waged what came to be known as the current war in 1880s America. Tesla was determined to prove that alternating current (AC) – as is generated at power stations – was safe for domestic use, going against the Edison Group’s opinion that a direct current (DC) – as delivered from a battery – was safer and more reliable.

Inside an Edison power station in New York

The conflict led to years of risky demonstrations and experiments, including one where Tesla electrocuted himself in front of an audience to prove he would not be harmed. The war continued as they fought over the future of electric power generation until eventually AC won.

Nikola Tesla

1901 – Great Britain’s first industrial power station opens

Before Charles Mertz and William McLellan of Merz & McLellan built the Neptune Bank Power Station in Tyneside in 1901, individual factories were powered by private generators. By contrast, the Neptune Bank Power Station could supply reliable, cheap power to multiple factories that were connected through high-voltage transmission lines. This was the beginning of Britain’s national grid system.

1990s – The first mass market electrical vehicle (EV)

Concepts for electric cars had been around for a century, however, the General Motors EV1 was the first model to be mass produced by a major car brand – made possible with the breakthrough invention of the rechargeable battery. However, this EV1 model could not be purchased, only directly leased on a monthly contract. Because of this, its expensive build, and relatively small customer following, the model only lasted six years before General Motors crushed the majority of their cars.

2018 – Renewable generation accounts for a third of global power capacity

The International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) 2018 annual statistics revealed that renewable energy accounted for a third of global power capacity in 2018. Globally, total renewable electricity generation capacity reached 2,351 GW at the end of 2018, with hydropower accounting for almost half of that total, while wind and solar energy accounted for most of the remainder.

The 182-year history of electric vehicles

If the rapid rise of electric vehicles (EVs) over the last decade tells us anything it’s this: the future of transport is electric. But while EVs may be the fast-growing future of mobility, their beginnings stretch right back to the days of the first automobiles.

Today we associate EVs with hallmark tech innovators like Elon Musk and his Teslas, but the original electric vehicle had a much more humble beginning – in a 19th century workshop in Scotland, owned by a chemist named Robert Davidson.

Realising the potential of electric transport

'Barking up the wrong (electric motor) tree' by B. Bowers, Proceedings of the IEEE 2004

‘Barking up the wrong (electric motor) tree’ by B. Bowers, Proceedings of the IEEE 2004

Using electricity to power transport has long made sense as a means of moving around quickly and efficiently. Robert Davidson of Aberdeen understood this as early as 1837, when he created his first electric motor – powered by zinc-acid batteries.

While Davidson was a chemist, he had a fascination with tinkering and engineering. Two years after creating his first motor, he invited visitors to his ‘Electromagnetic Exhibition’ where they could see a fully visualised electric model train capable of carrying two people at a time. He would go on to develop a prototype dubbed the ‘Galvani’, which he tested on the Edinburgh-Glasgow Railway in 1842, reaching a maximum speed of 4 miles per hour.

Davidson overcame the hurdle of finding a battery strong enough to power a full-sized train by using liquid chemical batteries rather than solid ones. However, when they ran flat, the chemicals had to be completely replaced. There was a further spanner in the works when railway workers destroyed his locomotive fearing the move toward electric vehicles would put them out of a job.

It wasn’t until 1884 that the first production-standard electric car capable of being reproduced and sold to the public was unveiled. The man behind this was Thomas Parker, who was also responsible for electrifying the London Underground.

His car was born out of a desire to minimise smoke and pollution in London, a purpose which still rings true over 135 years later. More practical uses for these vehicles sprung from Parker’s initial foray, with electric wagons being instituted in mines so their motors wouldn’t pollute the air.

The Parker Electric, 1890, invented by Thomas Parker

The Parker Electric, 1890, invented by Thomas Parker

The Golden Age

Mercedes-Electrique advertisement from 1907 © Daimler AG.

Mercedes-Electrique advertisement from 1907 © Daimler AG.

EVs came into their own in the early 1900s, when popularity in Europe and America surged. Unlike gasoline (at the time, petrol was the primary fuel source) EVs did not produce a strong stifling smell, nor did they require gear changes or manual effort to start them, such as using a hand crank.

It was during this period that many well-known car manufacturing names began experimenting with electricity. Ferdinand Porsche – founder of the eponymous sports car –produced an electric vehicle called ‘P1’ in 1898, before creating the world’s first hybrid offering, which was powered by both electricity and a combustion engine. Mercedes-Benz also offered up an electric model called the Mercedes Mixte, in 1906. This car was adopted as a taxi in cities and was even developed into a race car in 1907.

No longer seen as a threat to the existing coal-powered transport, the EVs of the time were limited by the charge in their batteries, but experienced a vogue as ‘city cars’ for the rich who wanted to travel short distances in style. Sales peaked in the early 1900s, when roughly one-third of all cars on US roads were electric.

But EVs first Golden Age came to an abrupt end in the 1920s with the arrival of the man whose name would become synonymous with car manufacturing the world over: Henry Ford.

The rise of petrol

When Ford’s Model T parked on the scene, it brought with it affordable, mass produced petrol-powered transport – EV popularity quickly began its descent. Their limited battery capacities had become a downside as road networks expanded, and the discovery of more petroleum deposits meant that gasoline was more readily available and cheaper than recharging batteries.

Electric milk float in Barnet, London, 1970

One of the only EVs that survived the next few decades was the quintessentially British milk float, which made up the majority of global EVs for most of the 20th century. Away from milk rounds and golf carts, the entire electric automobile industry went silent and the technology stagnated – it looked like gasoline was here to stay.

That was, until a very special electric car took a spin in outer space.

The moon is the limit

In the summer of 1971, the world was glued to TV sets as the Apollo 15 mission to the moon unfolded, featuring a special guest – the new Lunar Roving Vehicle, which ran on battery power. There are currently three rovers parked on the moon, and their continued evolution helped renew interest in electric powered vehicles throughout the 1960s and 70s. It led to a few new battery-powered concept cars appearing, manufactured by General Motors.

Apollo programme lunar rover

Apollo programme lunar rover

Now powered by lithium or nickel-cadmium batteries, these cars provided a viable option for those concerned about the economic fluctuations of the oil and gas industries, with electricity not as exposed to market changes.

The pace of EV innovation picked up after the development of the lithium-ion battery, which significantly extended life and power output, opening the potential for electric vehicles to become more than just short distance city cars.

These cars weren’t produced en masse until the 2000s, after more than three decades of the global environmental movement and its influence over public policy.

As the technology caught up with an ambition to find a practical alternative to fossil fuel powered transport, the EV entered its second golden age.

Tesla driving towards onshore wind farm

Tesla driving towards onshore wind farm

Where are we now?

Today there are over 273,000 electric cars on Britain’s roads, but this is set to grow quickly and significantly. By 2025 it’s estimated there will be 1 million EVs on UK roads – by 2040 there could be as many as 11 million.

Most mainstream car producers are now racing to take the lead in the EV market, from the headline grabbing antics of Tesla to the petrol-powered stalwarts of Volkswagen, Nissan and even Ford. And it’s not just the personal vehicle industry where electricity is racing ahead as a fuel source. Everything from inner-city scooters to the rapidly-evolving aviation industry are being electrified – the first electric passenger jet could be ready for take-off as soon as 2027.

Powering the way that we travel has become one of the most important conversations around the future of transport – and taking a look into the past suggests that this time electric vehicles are here to stay.

How will 5G revolutionise the world of energy and communications?

Smart cellular network antenna base station on the telecommunication mast on the roof of a building.

What should be made of the 5G gap? It’s the difference between what some commentators are expecting to happen thanks to this new technology and what others perhaps more realistically believe is possible in the near future.

What we call 5G is the fifth generation of mobile communications, (following 4G, 3G, etc.). It promises vastly increased data download and upload speeds, much improved coverage, along with better connectivity. This will bring with it lower latency – potentially as low as one millisecond, a 90 per cent reduction on the equivalent time for 4G – and great news for traders and gamers, along with lower unit costs.

Trading desk at Haven Power, Ipswich

The latest estimates predict that 5G will have an economic impact of $12 trillion by 2035 as mobile technology changes away from connecting people to other people and information, and towards connecting us to everything.

Some experts believe the effects of 5G will be enormous and almost instantaneous, transforming the way we live. It will have a huge effect on the internet of things, for instance, making it possible for us to live in a more instant, much more connected world with more interactions with ‘smart objects’ every day. Driverless cars that ‘talk’ to the road and virtual and augmented reality to help us as we go could become part of our everyday lives.

Others see 5G as a revolution that will begin almost immediately, but which could take many years to materialise. The principal reason for this is the sheer level of investment required.

The frequencies being used to carry the signal from the proposed 5G devices can provide an enormous amount of bandwidth, and carry unimaginable amounts of data at incredible speeds. But they cannot carry it very far. And the volume of devices connected to this network will be enormous. The BBC estimates that between 50 and 100 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020 – more than 12 for every single person on Earth.

So in order to support the huge increase in connectivity that is anticipated a reality, there will be a need for a comparably large increase in the number of base stations – with as many as 500,000 more estimated to be needed in the UK alone. That’s around three times as many base stations as required for 4G.

To carry the amount of data anticipated without catastrophic losses in signal quality will require the stations to be no more than 500m apart. While that may be technically possible in cities, it will only happen as a result of huge amounts of investment. And what will happen in the countryside, with its lower population density? It seems doubtful in the extreme that any corporation will regard it as a potentially profitable business decision to build a network of base stations half a kilometre apart in areas where few of their customers live. And that’s without taking into account the town and country planning system or the views of residents, who may not welcome new base stations near their homes.

Until this year, the only two workable examples of functional 5G networks are one built by Samsung in Seoul, South Korea, and another by Huawei in Moscow in advance of the 2020 Football World Cup. Although the first UK mobile networks have now begun to offer the new communications standard, 5G is still clearly a long way from being able to deliver on its potential.

What will 5G mean for the world of energy?

A report from Accenture contains a number of predictions about how 5G may change the energy world by helping to increase energy efficiency overall and accelerating the development of the Smart Grid.

  1. 5G uses less power than previous generations of wireless technology

This means that less energy will be used for each individual connection, which will take less time to complete than with 4G devices, thereby saving energy and ultimately money too. It is important to remember that even though such savings will be significant, they will need to be offset against the huge global increase in communications through 5G-connected devices.

  1. Accelerating the Smart Grid to improve forecasting

5G has the potential to help us manage energy generation and transmission more efficiently, and therefore more cost-effectively.

The report’s authors anticipate that “By allowing many unconnected energy-consuming devices to be integrated into the grid through low-cost 5G connections, 5G enables these devices to be more accurately monitored to support better forecasting of energy needs.

  1. Improve demand side management and reduce costs

 “By connecting these energy-consuming devices using a smart grid, demand-side management will be further enhanced to support load balancing, helping reduce electricity peaks and ultimately energy costs.”

  1. Manage energy infrastructure more efficiently and reduce downtime

By sharing data about energy use through 5G connections, the new technology can help ensure that spending on energy infrastructure is managed more efficiently, based on data, in order to reduce the amount of downtime.

And in the event of any failure, smart grid technology connected by 5G will be able to provide an instant diagnosis – right to the level of which pylon or transmitter is the cause of an outage – making it easier to remedy the situation and get the grid up and running again.

5G could even help turn street lighting off at times when there are no pedestrians or vehicles in the area, again reducing energy use, carbon emissions, and costs. Accenture estimate that in the US alone, this technology has the potential to save as much as $1 billion every year.

More data, more power

Although 5G devices themselves may demand less power than the telecoms technology it they will eventually replace, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

More connected devices with more data flowing between them relies on more data centres. This has led some data centres to sign Power Purchase Agreements to both reduce the cost of their insatiable desire for electricity and also ensure its provenance.

Data centre

As well as data centres, the more numerous base stations needed for 5G will consume a lot of power. One global mobile network provider says just to operate its existing base stations leads to a £650m electricity bill annually, accounting for 65% of its overall power consumption.

Base station tower

Contrary to the findings of the Accenture report, a recent estimate has put the power requirement of an individual 5G base station at three times that of a 4G. Keeping in mind that three of these are needed for every existing base station, the analysis by Zhengmao Li of China Mobile, suggests a nine-fold increase in electricity consumption just for that key part of a 5G network.

With the Great Britain power system decarbonising at a rapid pace, the additional power required to electrify the economy with new technologies shouldn’t have a negative environmental impact – at least when it comes to energy generation.

However, as we use ever-more powerful and numerous devices, we need to ensure our power system has the flexibility to deliver electricity whatever the weather conditions. This means a smarter grid with more backup power in the form of spinning turbines and storage.

Electricity and magnetism: the relationship that makes the modern world work

Locked in a Parisian vault and stored in a double set of bell jars is a small cylinder of metal. Made of platinum-iridium, the carefully guarded lump weighs exactly one kilogram. But more than just weighing one kilogram, it is the kilogram from which all other official kilograms are weighed.

International prototype kilogram with protective double glass bell

Known as the International Prototype Kilogram, or colloquially as Le Grand K, the weight was created in 1889 and has been carefully replicated to offer nations around the world a standardised kilogram. But over time Le Grand K and its clones have slightly deteriorated through wear and tear, despite extremely careful use. In an age of micro and nanotechnology, bits of metal aren’t quite accurate enough to dictate global weighs and so as of May this year it will no longer be the global measurement for a kilogram. An electromagnet is part of its replacement.

An electromagnet is effectively a magnet that is ‘turned on’ by running an electric current through it. Cutting the current turns it off, while increasing or decreasing the strength of the current increases and decreases the power of the magnet.

It can be used to measure a kilogram very precisely thanks to something called a Kibble Balance, which is essentially a set of scales. However, instead of using weights it uses an electromagnet to pull down one side. Because the electric current flowing through the electromagnet can be increased, decreased and measured very, very accurately, it means scientists can define any weight – in this case a kilogram – by the amount of electrical current needed to balance the scale.

This radical overhaul of how weights are defined means scientists won’t have to fly off to Paris every time they need precise kilograms. Beyond just replacing worn-out weights, however, it highlights the versatility and potential of electromagnets, from their use in electricity generation to creating hard drives and powering speakers.

The simple way to make a magnet

Magnets and electricity might at first not seem closely connected. One powers your fridge, the other attaches holiday souvenirs to it. The former certainly feels more useful. However, the relationship between magnetic and electric fields is as close as two sides of the same coin. They are both aspects of the same force: electromagnetism.

Electromagnetism is very complicated and there’re still aspects of it that are unknown today. It was thinking about electromagnetism that led Einstein to come up with his theory of special relativity. However, actually creating an electromagnet is relatively straightforward.

All matter is made up of atoms. Every neutral atom’s core is made up of static neutrons and protons, with electrons spinning around them. These electrons have a charge and a mass, giving the electrons a tiny magnetic field. In most matter all atoms are aligned in random ways and effectively all cancel each other out to render the matter non-magnetic. But if the atoms and their electrons can all be aligned in the same direction then the object becomes magnetic.

A magnet can stick to an object like a paperclip because its permanent magnetic field realigns the atoms in the paperclip to make it temporarily magnetic too – allowing the magnetic forces to line up and the materials to attract. However, once the paper clip is taken away from the magnet its atoms fall out of sync and point in random directions, cancelling out each other’s magnetic fields once again.

Whether a material can become magnetic or not relies on a similar principal as to whether it can conduct electricity. Materials like wood and glass are poor conductors because their atoms have a strong hold over their electrons. By contrast, materials like metals have a loose hold on their electrons and so are good conductors and easily magnetised. Nickle, cobalt and iron are described as ferromagnetic, because their atoms can stay in sync making them a permanent magnet. But when magnets really become useful is when electricity gets involved.

Putting magnets to work

Running an electric current through a material with a weak hold on its electrons causes them to align, creating an electromagnetic field. Because of the relationships between electric and magnetic fields, the strength of the electromagnet can also be altered by increasing or decreasing the current, while switching the flow of the current will flip its north and south poles.

Having this much control over a magnetic field makes it very useful in everyday life, including how we generate electricity.

Find out how we rewind a generator core in a clean room at the heart of Drax Power Station

Inside each of the six generator cores at Drax Power Station, is a 120-tonne rotor. When a voltage is applied, this piece of equipment becomes a massive electromagnet. When steam powers the turbines to rotate it at 3,000 rpm the rotor’s very powerful magnetic field knocks electrons in the copper bars of the surrounding stator out of place, sending them zooming through the metal, in turn generating an electrical current that is sent out to the grid. The 660 megawatts (MW) of active power Drax’s Unit 1 can export into the national transmission system is enough to power 1.3 million homes for an hour.

Beyond just producing electricity, however, electromagnets are also used to make it useful to everyday life.  Almost anything electric that depends on moving parts, from pumping loud speakers to circuit breakers to the motors of electric cars, depend on electromagnets. As more decarbonisation efforts lead to greater electrification of areas like transport, electromagnets will remain vital to daily life into the future.

Where does global electricity go next?

Since the Paris Agreement came into effect in November 2016, it’s fair to say many countries have taken up the vital challenge of decarbonisation in earnest.

However, not all are making progress at the same rate. Many are not implementing the agreement at the pace needed to mitigate climate change, and keep the average global temperature increase well below 2oC of pre-industrial levels. Certainly not enough to limit the increase to 1.5oC by 2050, which the majority of climate scientists believe is necessary for the planet is to avoid dire consequences.

Last year even saw renewable energy investment fall 7%, while the money going into fossil fuels grew for the first time since 2014. And data released by the International Energy Agency (IEA) at the beginning of this month’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, found that 2017 was also the first for five years seeing an increase in advanced economies’ carbon emissions.

Despite this, there is much positive work towards decarbonisation.

A new report, Energy Revolution: A Global Outlook, by academics from Imperial College London and E4tech, commissioned by Drax, looks into the core areas and activities required to decarbonise the global energy system – and which countries are performing them to good effect. In doing this, the report also looks at how the UK stands in comparison and what steps countries need to take to truly decarbonise.

Here are the key indicators of decarbonisation and how countries around the world are performing towards them.

Dam in Hardangervidda, Norway

Clean power

At the forefront of reducing emissions and curbing climate change is the need to decarbonise electricity generation and move towards renewable sources.

Last year the global average carbon intensity was 440 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilowatt-hour (g/kWh). Out of the 25 major countries the report tracks, 16 came in below average, with seven of these falling under the long-term 50 g/kWh goal.

Leading the rankings are Norway, France and New Zealand, which have a near-zero carbon intensity for electricity generation, thanks to extensive hydro and nuclear power capacity.

At the other end of the table, China, India, Poland and South Africa remain wedded to coal, producing up to twice the global average CO2 for electricity generation. This comes despite China having installed two and a half times more renewables than any other country – it now boasts 600 gigawatts (GW) of renewable capacity.

Per person, Germany is leading the renewablesdrive with almost 1 kW of wind and solar capacity installed per person over the last decade. Despite this, as much as 40% of its electricity still comes from coal.

Part of the challenge in moving away from coal to renewables is economic, as many countries continue to subsidise their coal industries to keep electricity affordable. Phasing out these subsidies is therefore key to switching to a low-carbon generation system. Doing this works, as demonstrated by the example of Denmark, which cut its fossil fuel subsidies by 90% over the past decade, in turn successfully cutting its coal generation by 25%.

The UK’s carbon pricing strategy, which adds £16 per tonne of CO2emitted on top of the price set by the European emissions trading system (EU ETS), has led the carbon intensity of Great Britain’s electricity to more than halve in a decade. It highlights how quickly and effectively these kinds of fees can make fossil fuels uneconomical. Since 2008 the UK has removed more than 250 g/kWh from its electricity production.

Carbon capture and storage

In many future looking climate scenarios, keeping the earth’s temperature below a 2oC increase depends on extensive deployment of carbon capture technology – capturing as much as 100 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. Storing and using carbon is clearly forecast to be a major part of any attempt to meet the Paris Agreement, but at present there are few facilities carrying it out at scale.

Around the world today there are 18 large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) units running across six countries with a total capacity to capture 32 million tonnes of CO2 per year (MtCO2p.a). Another five facilities are under construction in three countries to add another 7 MtCO2p.a of global capacity. In the UK, Drax Power Station is piloting a bioenergy carbon capture and storage programme that could make it the world’s first negative emissions power station.

The USA has the greatest total installed capacity at 20 MtCO2p.a., but per person it ranks behind Norway, Canada and Australia. Their smaller populations give them more than 200 kg of carbon capture capacity per person per year.

Oil platform off the coast of Australia

These figures are well below the 100 billion tonnes the IEA estimates need to be stored by 2060 to prevent temperatures reaching 2oC more. However, considering the US alone has a potential storage capacity of more than 10 trillion tonnes of CO2, the potential of storage is not expected to be a problem.

Using depleted oil or natural gas fields as storage for captured carbon is being explored in a number of regions, with the US establishing several projects with more than 1 million tonnes in capacity. In 2019, Australia will open the world’s largest CO2store with the capacity to capture between 3.4 million and 4 million tonnes a year from Chevron’s Gorgon gas facility.

Considering the storage capacity available globally, it’s a matter of deploying the necessary technology for CCS to have a significant impact on emissions and global warming. The UK is perhaps a typical example of where CCS is at present with estimated storage capacity of 70 billion tonnes, as much as half of the entire EU combined. By repurposing North Sea oil and gas fields in partnership with Norway, the UK could pool its carbon storage capacity.

Electrification

Electricity generation is one of the main targets for emissions reductions globally. As a result of the progress that’s been made in this field, many future-looking scenarios highlight the important of electrification in other sectors, such as transport, in turn making them less carbon intensive.

Transport is leading the charge globally – there are now 10 different countries where one of every 50 new vehicles sold is electric. In Norway, this ratio is almost one in two, thanks in part to generous tax exemptions as well as non-financial incentives like access to bus lanes and half-price ferries.

Perhaps surprisingly, China is the world’s largest electric vehicle (EV) market. It may still use significant amounts of coal, but its commitment to reducing urban air pollution has seen it push EVs heavily, and it now accounts for 50% of the global battery EV market on its own.

Chinese electric car charging stations

Of course, adoption of EVs requires the supporting infrastructure to be truly successful. In conjunction with its high sales, Norway leads the way in charging points per capita, with one for every 500 people. This compares to one charger for every 5,000 people in the UK and one for every 10,000 people in China.

Electrification also affects the energy intensity of country’s transport systems and while it may be the largest EV market, China’s rise in private vehicles has been largely driven by petrol and diesel models. The result is the largest increases in transport energy intensity and emissions has taken place in China, Indonesia and India, respectively.

Domestic energy intensity is also rising in China, Indonesia and South Africa, as greater numbers of people gain access to appliances and home comforts. Conversely in Europe, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands have all seen their domestic energy intensity drop in the last decade. However, this may be the lingering effect of the 2008 recession rather than long-term efficiency improvements.

The efficiency of industrial processes is also an important barometer in decarbonisation. Activities like mining and manufacturing require heavy-duty diesel-powered machinery and often coal-powered generators, especially in BRIC nations. The exception is China, where plans to get the 1,000 most energy-intensive companies to reduce their energy consumption per unit of GDP produced by 20% over the last five years, has proved fruitful.

Norway’s heavily-electrified industries, however, are still energy intensive and its level of carbon intensity is vulnerable to fluctuations in power generation prices.

Electrification and reduced emissions require government policies to put in motion behavioural changes that can lead to lasting decarbonisation. Robust carbon pricing is one of the most effective tools to enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future,” Drax Group CEO Will Gardiner commented recently.

Welcoming a November report by the Energy Transitions Commission, Gardiner said:

“The cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of doing something now.”

Explore the full report: Energy Revolution: A Global Outlook.

I. Staffell, M. Jansen, A. Chase, E. Cotton and C. Lewis (2018). Energy Revolution: Global Outlook. Drax: Selby.

Drax commissioned independent researchers from Imperial College London and E4tech to write Energy Revolution: A Global Outlook, which looks into the core areas and activities required to achieve decarbonisation – and which countries are performing them to good effect. In doing this it also looks at how the UK stands in comparison and what steps countries need to take to truly decarbonise.

Energy Revolution: A Global Outlook

Read the full report [PDF]

The global energy revolution

As a contribution to COP24, this report informs the debate on decarbonising the global energy system, evaluating how rapidly nations are transforming their energy systems, and what lessons can be learned from the leading countries across five energy sectors.

It was commissioned by power utility Drax Group, and delivered independently by researchers from Imperial College London and E4tech.

Clean power

  • Several countries have lowered the carbon content of their electricity by 100 g/kWh over the last decade. The UK is alone in achieving more than
    double this pace, prompted by strong carbon pricing.
  • China is cleaning up its power sector faster than most of Europe, however several Asian countries are moving towards higher-carbon electricity.
  • Germany has added nearly 1 kW of renewable capacity per person over the last decade. Northern Europe leads the way, followed by Japan, the US and China. In absolute terms, China has 2.5 times more renewable capacity than the US.

Fossil fuels

  • Two-fifths of the world’s electricity comes from coal. The share of coal generation is a key driver for the best and worst performing countries in clean power.
  • Coal’s share of electricity generation has fallen by one-fifth in the US and one-sixth in China over the last decade. Denmark and the UK are leading the way. Some major Asian nations are back-sliding.
  • Many European citizens pay out $100 per person per year in fossil fuel subsidies, substantially more than in the US or China. These subsidies are growing in more countries than they are falling.

Electric vehicles

  • In ten countries, more than 1 in 50 new vehicles sold are now electric. China is pushing ahead with nearly 1 in 25 new vehicles being electric and Norway is in a league of its own with 1 in 2 new vehicles now electric, thanks to strong subsidies and wealthy consumers.
  • There are now over 4.5 million electric vehicles worldwide. Two thirds of these are battery electric, one third are plug-in hybrids. China and the US together have two-thirds of the world’s electric vehicles and half of the 300,000 charging points.

Carbon capture and storage

  • Sufficient storage capacity has been identified for global CCS roll-out to meet climate targets, but large-scale CO2 capture only exists in 6 countries.
  • Worldwide, 5 kg of CO2 can be captured per person per year. The planned pipeline of CCS facilities will double this, but much greater scale-up is needed as this represents only one-thousandth of the global average person’s carbon footprint of 5 tonnes per year.

Efficiency

  • Global progress on energy intensity is mixed, as some countries improve efficiency, while others increase consumption as their population become wealthier.
  • Residential and transport changes over the last decade are mostly linked to the global recession and technological improvements, rather than behavioural shift.
  • BRICS countries consume the most energy per $ of output from industry. This is linked to the composition of their industry sectors (i.e. greater manufacturing and mining activity compared to construction and agriculture).

continued … [View PDF]

I. Staffell, M. Jansen, A. Chase, E. Cotton and C. Lewis (2018). Energy Revolution: A Global Outlook. Drax: Selby.

View press release:

UK among world leaders in global energy revolution

Dude, where’s my autonomous car? How self-driving vehicles will impact electricity

The self-driving car is a sci-fi stalwart. The blend of familiar vehicle combined with advanced-artificial intelligence makes it a perfect symbol of a not-too-distant future which is fast approaching. But what a sci-fi movie is unlikely to show is a self-driving car pulling over for half an hour to fill its tank or recharge its batteries.

As autonomous vehicles gradually inch into our everyday life, the question of how they will be powered arises, as does whether they will be capable of refuelling or recharging without a helping human hand.

With governments around the world setting ambitious targets for the phasing out of diesel and petrol car sales, it’s safe to assume the driverless vehicles of the future will be electric.

But will they be able to charge themselves? More than that, how would a large influx of these cars coming onto our roads affect our national electricity demand and emissions?

How will driverless cars charge themselves?

Development is already well underway to bring human-free charging to the auto world with a variety of approaches being trialled:

  • Robotic charging points

The most straightforward way to enable self-driving electric vehicles (EVs) to charge themselves is through updating existing infrastructure. Adding on robotic limbs to standard charge points would be one way of removing the need for human hands. Tesla previously demonstrated a porotype of a snake-like arm that plugs into its vehicle’s charge points that does exactly this. 

  • Under-car charging

Easier than flailing robotic arms is the idea of charging cars from underneath a parked car. Unsurprisingly, Tesla has patented a version of the technology, too.

While building the technology into the ground adds complications, it could potentially allow cars to be charged while moving – which is exactly what one road in Sweden is doing.

The two kilometre stretch outside Stockholm features a metal track that an arm under EVs can connect to – much like a Scalextric track. The route is divided into 50-metre sections which are electrified separately as vehicles travel over them. Sweden is now planning to roll the concept out nationally.

  • Wireless charging

A step up from under-car charging, wireless technology uses inductive charging rather than physically connecting with the car, and can be installed into parking spaces, or be set into the tarmac.

The problem with this is it’s not as fast as directly connecting with the car. However, implemented at scale, entire roads could constantly charge vehicles when they need a top up.

It would mean that rather than taking EVs home and plugging them in, the city and roads themselves would charge it. But even the idea of keeping a car at home might fade as cars become increasingly autonomous.

Rethinking vehicle ownership

As more of the world’s population move to cities and they grow increasingly congested, car ownership is declining – a trend being further fueled by ridesharing services, like Uber, Lyft and Didi Chuxing in China.

And as services such as these continue to grow in popularity, it could point to a future where rather than owning self-driving cars, they will be shared among urban populations. Lyft Strategist Raj Kapoor suggested the reduced cost of maintenance of shared EVs would make rides cheap enough for the average person to ride in every day.

This could result in fewer cars on the roads as intelligent systems allow them to coordinate sharing across the population, which in turn could lead to a reduction in demand for charging. However, the more intense computing power needed in self-driving vehicles means they will each use more electricity than a standard EV.

Powering these sufficiently will depend on technology and coordination, rather than producing significantly more electricity.

Smarter cars, smarter cities, smarter electricity

Changes in car ownership could mean the total reshaping of cities. If cars don’t need to park for long periods of times on central roadsides and in garages, vehicles could instead be stored on the outskirts of cities when demand for transport is low and make their way into towns as people begin commuting.

This vision of cars, seemingly independently rolling around cities to exactly where they’re needed, depends not on a single car reacting to a single command, but to a network of data points connected to almost every aspect of a city. More than this, there’s even potential these cars could provide power as well as use it.

Vehicle-to-gird (V2G) technology means they can essentially act as batteries and return electricity to the grid when needed. A fully connected network of autonomous cars, linked to buildings, cities and entire electricity networks could be used to help meet demand on a local or national scale, helping avoid fossil fuel usage at times of stress.

While increasing EV usage will likely contribute to an increase in electricity demand, self-driving, smarter vehicles will ensure power is used at efficiently as possible and reduce the number of cars drawing electricity from the grid.

It ultimately means global investment in the charging infrastructure that will create a more connected and economical transport system, which will make widespread EV and autonomous cars a reality.

Can electricity power heavy-duty vehicles?

On a blacked-out stage, a blast of white light appears. Smoke floods out, music blares and an excited crowd surges forward, smartphones held aloft. It’s a moment of rapture – but this is not a theatrical or musical performance. This is the launch of an electric car.

Specifically, the launch of Tesla’s new electric roadster – which claims to be the fastest production car ever made. And while the sportscar may have been the undoubted star of the event, it wasn’t the only one unveiled. Tesla also launched an electric-powered articulated lorry – the Semi.

With governments around the world setting ambitious plans to ban the sale of petrol-and-diesel-only cars, the introduction of electric-powered utility vehicles – like Tesla’s truck – in a range of industries will be essential to a truly decarbonised transport system.

Disrupting trucking

Tesla’s heavy goods vehicle (HGV) highlights the growing capabilities of electric vehicles (EVs) to deliver more than just short, urban journeys. It claims its Semi will be able to travel 500 miles on a single charge (enough to get you from London to Edinburgh comfortably) and tow 40 tonnes of cargo.

Tesla isn’t the only player with electric big rig concepts – Los Angeles-based Thor Trucks, Daimler and Volkswagen have unveiled their own – but its ambitious 2019 production target makes it a more immediate possibility than any other in the space.

Despite media coverage claiming the Semi’s mega-charging capability breaks the laws of physics, big business is taking a sunny view of Elon Musk’s latest innovation. Walmart, which has been taking strides to reduce its emissions, has already pre-ordered 15 of the Semis. Delivery firm UPS has used small electric trucks in major cities for some years already – it has placed the largest order so far, for 125.

Electrifying emergency response

In the world of emergency services, quick response is vital. EVs, then, which have fast acceleration and are quick off the mark, are ideal candidates to deliver – especially as battery technology becomes more reliable and durable.

Health services in Nottingham have already been trialling electric-powered fast response vehicles, while in Japan, Nissan has unveiled an all-electric ambulance that carries a lithium-ion auxiliary battery to power medical equipment on board.

This on-board power supply is a further advantage of EVs, and one not just restricted to emergency services. Electric pickup truck maker Havelaar, for example, offers power outlets on its Bison vehicle for electric tools.

The future of battery farming

Out in the countryside, EVs are making waves in farming. John Deere has unveiled plans for fully electric tractors, claiming they require less maintenance and have a longer lifecycle than combustion engines.

With more than a third of UK farms generating their own power from solar, wind and even anaerobic digestion using farm by-products, there’s potential for farmers to charge tractors renewably and cut their fuel and charging costs.

More than just helping cut emissions and costs, there can also be performance benefits. Given their acceleration abilities, electric tractors are well suited to heavy pulling without revving up engines and churning up ground.

Joining HGVs and tractors in their ability to apply almost instant torque to heavy industrial jobs are e-Dumper trucks. The Komatsu quarry truck weighs in at almost 45 tonnes and claims to be the biggest EV in the world.

The economic advantage of electrification

Air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are the main driving force behind many anti-fossil fuel regulations. However, research suggests decarbonising transport systems also have economic advantages for businesses.

A report by financial services firm Hitachi Capital found that switching vans and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to electric or other alternative fuels could save British businesses as much as £14 billion a year.

It claims EVs run at 13p cheaper per mile than diesel-fuelled vans, while HGVs are reported to be 38p cheaper. That adds up to total savings of £13.7 billion a year if all Britain’s commercial vehicles were switched.

The move to a fully electrified transport system is already underway. The number of registered electric cars increased by 280% in the UK over the past four years, according to the Hitachi report. The Chinese city of Shenzhen’s entire fleet of 16,359 buses has gone electric – a transition that began in 2009 and has been assisted by an 80% drop in the cost of a lithium-ion battery pack. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China’s need for electric bus batteries is almost on a par to that of all global EV battery demand. China could be said to be driving the market.

EVs are undoubtedly cleaner when it comes to road-side pollution. However, the exponential increase in EVs will only benefit the fight against man made climate change if countries’ entire energy systems continue to decarbonise. Emissions-free vehicles will need to be powered predominantly by low carbon electricity for a more electric future to be a sustainable one.