Clean energy within our reach

Nations of the world will later this year attempt to unite efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The share of renewable energy has increased but major hurdles need to be overcome

Interview with Dr. Wolfgang Benesch published in Icelandic daily Frettabladid April 18 2015

Chances are that 2015 will be a historic year for renewable energy. In December, leaders of the world will attempt to negotiate a binding agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. This agreement is vital, if we want to avoid the impacts of climate change, forecast by climate scientists. Clean and renewable energy is a key factor. Although global implementation of renewable energy is an ambitious goal, major progress has been made to create a new energy landscape. Bloomberg New Energy Finance claims that investment in generating capacity from renewable energy exceeds new investment in fossil fuel generating capacity. We should however emphasize that Bloomberg focuses on production of electricity. Although all electricity comes from energy, all energy is not made into electricity. While the numbers demonstrate that investors are increasingly interested in clean energy projects, they tell only half of the story. Electricity and heating are responsible for 42 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions according to the International Energy Agency. To achieve the objectives of reduced emissions is also necessary to target industry and transport, which together account for 43 percent of emissions

New technology for a new era

A variety of solutions are possible. This includes the production and use of methanol. Carbon Recycling International's (CRI's) production plant was commissioned in Svartsengi in 2012 and now produces about 4,000 tons of methanol per year, by reacting hydrogen and CO2 from HS Orka's geothermal power plant, which is only a stones-­‐throw away. Methanol from CRI is used as a blend component or for fuel production. CRI's production technology has received significant attention around the world, not the least in continental Europe. Recently the company signed an agreement with partners from Germany, Spain and Belgium to build a fuel production plant in Germany to produce methanol using the same method as in Svartsengi. The plant will use emissions from Steag's coal fired power plant in Lünen, thus reducing the emissions of greenhouse gas.

Methanol is a good solution

Dr. Wolfgang A. Benesch is the head of research for Steag. He says that methanol will play a major role in the future of renewable energy sources. He points out that wind and solar power are difficult power sources to work with. Availability is highly variable, sometimes the supply is to high and at other times to low.

"We need to find new methods to store this energy to balance the supply," says Dr. Benesch. "We think that methanol is a good method to do so, in particular when it comes to longer-­‐term storage." Dr. Benesch who is a mechanical engineer by training, is not only interested in the potential impact of methanol production on the operation of power plants. He emphasises that the quantity of CO2 that is emitted as a result of human activity is enormous. It would be quite possible to use methanol at a large scale as automobile fuel. Battery technology has not reached the point where EVs have become a practical solution. Hydrogen powered vehicles could be a suitable alternative (the production of hydrogen is the first stage to methanol production) but this presents another problem. The infrastructure we have in place to support vehicle traffic is so linked to fossil fuels that we would have to invest very heavily to change fuel stations into hydrogen refueling stations.

"With methanol we can utilize the infrastructure that is already in place, even though the production of methanol is more complicated that the production of pure hydrogen as an example.

The market determines

The task ahead -­‐ a global effort to eradicate the use of fossil fuels -­‐ will take years. Transitioning from wood to coal and coal to oil took half a century. Many people estimate that it will take a similar time to implement renewable energy sources. Dr. Benesch warns against hurrying too much, because money is a limited resource. "If we approach this project from the economic point of view, we are more likely to succeed. However, if we accelerate the introduction of renewable energy sources too much, then it will be too expensive. If we do this with a practical mind it is much more likely that the big countries, such as Egypt and China, will be ready to follow the same path," says Dr. Benesch.