Hot new projects part 4: Plug and Play solar

And the final post in our series of hot new projects! ‘Plug and Play solar’ is not a new PlayStation game (we wish); it is a project to develop energy management software to manage the various renewable and traditional energy sources a building or site might have.

For example, remote mining operations or towns – like Marble Bar or Hermannsburg – have traditionally been powered by fossil fuels like gas and diesel, but more and more are turning to renewable sources such as solar. Traditionally, it has been up to the system operator to decide when to use which sources. This is often not as easy as it sounds, mostly because of the variable nature of renewable energy sources. Often this means that fossil fuel backup systems are left running just in case a cloud might pass or wind might drop – not the most fuel-efficient solution. What would really help would be an automated system able to intelligently handle multiple fossil and renewable sources.

CSIRO is working on the answer.

Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory.

Remote communities like Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory, which are powered by a mixture of renewable and fossil fuel sources, could benefit from the Plug and Play technology. Image source: Solar Systems

Plug and Play is a system where a user can ‘plug’ in the various sources and the system automatically and intelligently ‘plays’, or works out what source to use, when to use and how it should be used. You tell the system what your top priorities are – minimising diesel usage, lowering maintenance costs, or maximising power availability, for example – and it will make the best decisions about when to schedule the diesel generator, when to make the most of the solar panels and when to charge the batteries.

The tool will also be invaluable when designing new remote area power supplies. It’ll help to choose the best mixture of energy technologies for the site’s needs and decide how to size them. And then, instead of needing to have custom hardware and software designed to manage that unique mix, the Plug and Play system will help do it for you.

Senior project scientist Dr John Ward says it’s in the commissioning phase of these power systems that some of the most significant benefits will be seen. “Reducing the need for ‘on the ground’ engineers will be an important outcome,” he told the solar blog. “Currently each is different and unique and needs considerable specialised and costly engineering.”

This project is also expected to have flow-on effects that’ll benefit more than just remote towns. “Next stop would be rural areas, specifically with SWER (single-wire earth return) power lines,” Dr Ward says. “Such areas only have a very ‘weak’ connection to the grid, so they face similar issues to the islanded systems being targeted for this project.

“Our team believes that as the electricity grid evolves to have more interplay between consumer demand and resource availability, there’ll be a role for Plug and Play type systems to become mainstream in every part of the electricity grid.”

A remote site.

Benefits of the technology could flow on from remote locations to play a more mainstream role in the grid. Image: AdelaideNow

It’s no easy feat however. The project is worth over $2.9 million and will take several years to complete. We’re working with ABB Australia, the United States’ National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The first phase of the project will involve the development of the technology and the second phase will see pilot systems set up in both the United States and Australia. The final product will be a cost effective, retrofit system that can be easily installed, without the need for expert labour. We think it will ultimately be of benefit to thousands of remotely based residents.

The project is one of four projects announced in December 2013 as part of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and United States-Australia Solar Energy (USAEC) Collaboration. It builds on our existing expertise in areas including solar intermittency, customer load management, the virtual power station, mini grid planning, and the work we’ve done on Australian standards for inverter energy systems and load control.

Check out the factsheet for more information.

Journalist wowed by our ‘hot stuff’

The first reaction Newcastle Herald journalist Greg Ray had when he was invited to tour our site was ‘oh yeah, ho hum.’

Turns out, though, that it didn’t take our energy researchers long to get him excited about what we do. Read his article for his thoughts on some of the projects here at CSIRO Energy Technology including the pulverised coal engine, solar air conditioning, and SolarGas.

If your interest has been piqued too, check out our previous blog posts on solar cooling and SolarGas. And if you’d like to tour the site yourself, why not check the available dates and get in touch?

We’re all going on a solar holiday….

By Simon Hunter

Our scientists are pretty passionate about their work. So much so that they don’t just take their work home with them – they take it on holiday.

Organic printed solar cell floating in the water.

Scientist Scott Watkins recently took this holiday snap of an organic printed solar cell floating in Callala Bay on the NSW south coast. He thought the cell deserved a treat after helping secure funding for a new, $87 million Australia-US partnership in solar cell research. The funding will be used to establish the US-Australia Institute for Advanced Photovoltaics (IAP). This centre will work on solar cells – those that convert sunlight directly into electricity.

The solar cell partnership is a parallel program to the solar thermal research partnership that we reported on back in December.

For CSIRO, our involvement in the IAP represents a great chance to continue our work on manufacturing thin-film solar cells while working alongside new colleagues with deep expertise in existing, silicon-based solar cells. Who knows where this research will take us next.

You can read more about our organic solar cell work on our website and keep up to date with all of our Flexible Electronics news on twitter @FlexElectronixx

New wind turbine for Newcastle site

The winds of change have passed over our site (yes, I do bad wind power puns too). In August a new wind turbine was installed and we’re pleased to report it’s been working well and is supplying power to our buildings.

As has been mentioned before on the blog, our original turbines supplied electricity to CSIRO Energy Technology here in Newcastle for several years despite having had a bit of an (ahem) turbulent run. Installed when the site was first developed in 2003, the three 20 kW units endured a run of bad luck including two separate lightning strikes, mechanical problems, and changes to the supplier’s market support which was moved from Australia to a location 17000 kilometres away.

Site photo from 2007 showing the three original wind turbines

This is what lightning can do to a turbine blade

The northernmost turbine was removed in 2010 to make way for Solar Field 2. The remaining two were removed from their poles last year awaiting repair.

After consultation and much research CSIRO decided the best way forward was to change to a completely new turbine, which was installed on 9 August.

Our new turbine during installation

The new 5 kW unit has been installed on one of the existing footings and is mounted on a hydraulic tilt pole that’ll make maintenance a breeze (ba-boom). We’ve also been able to engage one of the several wind power companies that exist now and have solid track records and local backing.

The new turbine was up and running just in time to make use of the windy weather we had the following weekend (which of course, as we love to point out on this blog, gets its power from the sun).

Wind turbine power output over 7 days, showing moment it was brought on-grid

Our new wind turbine isn’t just useful for helping power our building. It’s also part of an experiment carried out by our Smart Grid group. They use it, and all the other on-site generators (such as our many solar PV systems and our two gas microturbines), to investigate grid stability, distributed generation and intermittency management – in other words, how to make sure a region can have a constant, reliable energy supply, even when it’s coming from multiple varying sources.

I’m glad to see the new turbine up and running. When it comes to wind power, we’re huge fans.


Addendum (1.11.2012): since publishing this post I’ve been reminded by others that the three ‘original’ turbines in the photo were actually the second lot to be installed, not the first. Before them came a different set, installed by a different company, that experienced problems in a storm not long after the site opened. The supplier went out of business and was unable to maintain the turbines, which we subsequently replaced with the three shown at the top of this post.

One of the main factors leading to these problems has been that the wind market has become polarised into either supplying small units of 1 to 5 kW, or big ones of 1 to 10 MW. Our size preference of about 20 kW is in the middle – an area that’s less robustly covered by the market. This has contributed to our decision to size our newest turbine at 5 kW.

SolarGas Part 2: Why it’s so useful

In yesterday’s post you saw how we make SolarGas™. Here, I’ll take you through some of the ways it can be used. As you can see in the diagram below, it’s a versatile product.

I’ll explain a few of these uses point-by-point. The numbers refer to the diagram.

1. SolarGas can be burned to get heat or electricity

SolarGas is a combustible fuel, just like the original natural gas – but here’s the important thing: if you burn it, you get around 25% more energy than there was in the original natural gas. This extra energy is the ‘solar upgrade’.

For example, if you were to use SolarGas in your gas stove to boil five eggs for breakfast, it’d be as if you were cooking one of those eggs with pure solar power. (The energy for the other four would have come from what was already present in the original natural gas). You can also think about it like this: you’ve boiled five eggs, but you’ve only generated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with boiling four. Or, to put it yet another way, five eggs have been boiled, but we only had to take enough natural gas out of the ground to cook four.

Likewise, if we’re talking about burning the gas in a 5 megawatt turbine to make electricity, it’s like we’re getting five megawatts for the environmental ‘price’ of four. Given that natural gas use is projected to remain a significant source of energy in Australia in the coming decades, wouldn’t it be great if we could in effect get a bonus amount of energy from the resources we have, by adding solar power?

2. SolarGas can be used to build transport fuels

The SolarGas molecules are extremely nifty and useful little chemical building blocks. They are ideal for connecting together in a process called Fischer-Tropsch to make fuels like methanol or diesel.
These building blocks are so useful, in fact, that there already exists a significant industry that makes them using more traditional methods. In the traditional process the extra energy in the product gas, which is called Synthesis Gas or syngas for short, comes not from the sun, but by burning part of the natural gas.

By using the SolarGas process instead of the traditional syngas process, we end up with the same product but with less consumption of fossil fuels, and less production of greenhouse gases. And again, if you used the product fuel to run a car, that car would be partly powered by sunshine.

3. SolarGas can be used to make hydrogen

SolarGas is already 3/4 hydrogen gas by volume, but we can increase the amount of hydrogen by putting it through what’s called a Shift Reactor. Ever see all those episodes of Top Gear where they speculate on a future where our cars run off hydrogen fuel? Hydrogen is only truly environmentally friendly if it’s made using renewables – and this process goes a long way towards satisfying this requirement.

For example, most of the hydrogen produced in the world today is made by the traditional syngas process described above – which burns natural gas to get the energy required. Globally, this process is used to produce about 80 million tonnes of hydrogen every year (and growing!), which creates about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide… which is about three times Australia’s annual emissions. What a difference we could make if SolarGas becomes the process of future industry.

4. The stored solar energy can be recovered in the form of heat.

If we wanted, we could extract the solar energy from the SolarGas by reversing the original reaction. This recreates the original natural gas – which can be re-used – and releases the solar energy in the form of heat at about 300°C. In essence, then, the natural gas is in a ‘closed-loop’ system – it goes round and round, picking up solar energy, storing it until it’s needed, releasing it, and then starting the cycle again.

5. Waste heat from making SolarGas can be put to other uses

No matter what is done with the SolarGas, in the process of making it there’ll be some ‘waste’ heat. As with the last scenario, this heat will be at temperatures lower than the original 800°C (otherwise we’d use it to produce more SolarGas). Even so, it’s a whole lot of energy that we can use to provide further efficiency by combining it with other processes.  In the future, this ‘waste’ heat – the stuff that disappears up the chimney in conventional processes – will be used to provide further benefits like industrial process heat, air-conditioning and refrigeration  and water desalination.

So that’s my go at explaining why we at CSIRO think SolarGas is a great project to be developing. Of course, there’s always more to read on the CSIRO website as well. Any further questions? Leave a comment!

CSIRO’s Wes Stein a lead author on new IPCC renewable energy report

Renewable energy is a hot topic. If you turn on the TV or open a newspaper, it won’t be long before you come across a news article or opinion piece about energy, whether it be technical, economic, social or political. So with all these (sometimes heated) arguments underway, and with issues like resource availability and climate change at stake, it’s more important than ever that we have clear answers to questions like these:

  1. is there actually enough renewable energy to satisfy our global power needs?
  2. is there enough money and material available to be able to harness this energy?, and
  3. if so, what has to happen to make it a reality?

Wes Stein, Solar Thermal Power Leader at CSIRO Energy Technology in Newcastle

That’s why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently released a special report on the potential of renewable energy. The report, called the ‘Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation,’ was compiled by over 120 researchers from all over the world according to peer-revieved scientific data. We’re really proud that one of these contributers was CSIRO’s Wes Stein, who was a lead author on the Solar Energy chapter.

The report’s findings in a nutshell? Using just a small fraction of the world’s available renewable energy, almost 80% of the global energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century – but the support of governments will be essential if renewables are to meet their full potential.

As you might guess, doing the research for this report was a mammoth undertaking. The physicist Niels Bohr was known to say wryly, ‘It’s difficult to make predictions – especially about the future,’ and the report authors were well aware of the problems involved. Consider, for example, a future where governments set a strict, low target for CO2 emissions. This future will have a different amount of renewable energy installed than a future which has less strict targets. Likewise, how much solar and wind are installed will be very different in a world where people decide to limit the building of new nuclear power plants, compared to a world where we choose to rely heavily on nuclear.

So instead of guessing what the future might bring, the report authors decided to consider 164 different scenarios – all with different types of governmental policies, emissions targets, community attitudes to technologies and so on – and modelled them all. Four scenarios were presented as in-depth examples in the report.

The majority of scenarios predicted that renewable energy production will increase significantly by mid-century – specifically, three-fold to over ten-fold increases in (non-biomass) renewables are projected in the report. This leads to a world where 30% or more of our energy comes from renewable sources. In fact, in the most optimistic scenario, it was shown to be feasible that as much as 77% of the world’s energy will come from renewables by 2050. The factor that had the most influence on outcomes was the level of government support. Renewables became more feasible in scenarios where it was assumed that our governments enacted policies, such as putting a price on carbon, that helped those energy technologies become economically attractive.

And what about solar energy in particular? It has the largest technical potential of all the renewable sources, supplying about 8,000 times as much energy as the world uses, and in some scenarios it is one of the major sources of global energy supply in 2050. But its future is highly dependent on whether its cost decreases quickly enough. At CSIRO we’re helping this process along by improving the technologies to make them less expensive – but this IPCC report shows that policymakers will need to contribute too, for solar to have the brightest future possible.

Download the full IPCC Renewable Energy report here (file size 28 MB) or see a presentation summarising the key findings here (6 MB). The chapter on solar energy, for which Wes Stein is a lead author, is found here.