Devise Alternate Ways to Repurpose Fossil Fuels, Argues IDTechEx

UK-headquartered IDTechEx, an independent market research and business intelligence provider, has advocated for devising novel ways to repurpose fossil fuel assets, as against simply resorting to obvious solutions like converting gasoline stations into  EV charging stations.

The latter trend has of late become popular among oil majors, which are looking to capitalise on the rapid adoption of electric cars currently underway. However, electric vehicle ranges are expected to double in the next four years, by which time many will be able to charge only at home. Additionally, the peak of EV adoption will likely come by 2032 at the latest since many cities are gearing up to ban private cars. Thus the current rush of demand for chargers will eventually die down, rendering the gasoline-stations-converted-public-EV-charging-units out of use.

Similarly, redundant coal mines and power stations are being converted into solar farms. However, due to the ease of business there, competition has proliferated, cutting down profit margins. Perhaps novel approaches could be devised to solve this problem.

For instance, Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEx, says, “Longer term, there is scope for unique [approaches] such as using metamaterial layers to keep the panels cool without power or water, applying overlayers of perovskite to generate even more electricity and possibly thermoelectrics to make electricity from solar panel heat. However, solar panels are often better located on lakes, hydro-dam reservoirs, and even at sea.” The overlayers are covered in the IDTechEx report, “Transparent Electronics Materials, Markets 2021-2041.”

Indeed, many other options are coming up that optimally utilise the skills and assets of oil, gas, and coal majors and repositioning utilities. Energy storage is an extremely promising option, on which subject IDTechEx report, “Stationary Energy Storage Without Batteries: Grid, Microgrid, UPS, Trackside 2021-2041” provides valuable insight.

The study argues that thoughtful fossil majors can consider going beyond the obvious route of putting a lot of lithium-ion batteries in repurposed power stations to compensate for the chronic intermittency of wind and solar. There are ongoing shortages of lithium-ion due to out-of-synch commissioning of the necessary metal mining. Such batteries have serious issues with toxins, disposal, and even fires every year. On account of these, several deaths were reported in 2021 alone.

Referring to the analysis in the IDTechEx report, “Redox Flow Batteries 2021-2031 2021-2031,” Das says that the concept of Liquid Air Energy Storage (LAES) is catching on soon and is taking initial orders. LAES uses electricity to cool air until it liquefies, stores the liquid air in a tank, brings the liquid air back to a gaseous state and uses that gas to turn a turbine and generate electricity.

They [energy storage facilities] need the chemical engineering skills and redundant locations of the traditional industry [redudant power stations], particularly where the existing transmission can be repurposed. Pivoting majors can take the lead in advancing these technologies…like compressed air in underground voids that convert back to electricity and lifting and dropping heavy weights down abandoned mine-shafts to store and generate electricity. With these, we are moving into longer-term storage. Wind turbines can be dead for weeks. Seasonal storage is coming from nowhere to become a very big business”

Indeed, seasonal storage is an upcoming profitable business because even thought solar is currently the cheapest resource, it is also severely unproductive in the winter season. Lithium-ion batteries, which majorly self-leak, are of little use in mitigating solar’s shortcoming, but alternate new technologies look more promising. One example is pumped-storage hydropower (PSH), a type of hydroelectric energy storage that is a configuration of two water reservoirs at different elevations which can generate power (discharge) as water moves down through a turbine, drawing power as it pumps water (recharge) to the upper reservoir.

New thermoelectrics that viably convert geothermal water to electricity may be another option, but it currently involves toxic metals in non-toxic compounds which requires controlled disposal. Siemens Gamesa hot-rocks storage neatly repurposes old fossil power stations using both the steam turbines and the transmission system for storage upto days, and it is best at GW which is what is needed for grids, say IDTechEx analysts.

The research provider believes that engagement on these alternate ways of repurposing fossil fuel assets has already begun. For example, Baker Hughes Company in GE is one of the world’s largest oil field services companies. It is now involved in both thermoelectric geothermal energy development (AltaRock) and a company rolling out LAES at grid size – Highview Power.

Further, Highview, which has been invested into by diesel-engine maker MAN Energy Solutions, has a joint venture installation in Chile with fossil-generator Energía Latina S.A.-Enlasa which is going solar and needs relatively long-term storage.

Additionally, Oil major SABIC has invested in a reflow battery manufacturer EverFlow Energy. Mitsubishi Power has even rebranded to reflect its new concentration on emerging solutions, including solar power and redox flow battery grid storage, shedding its fossil fuel past, adds IDTechEx.

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Soumya Duggal

Soumya is a master's degree holder in English, with a passion for writing. It's an interest she has directed towards environmental writing recently, with a special emphasis on the progress being made in renewable energy.