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The world of energies turned upside down

The world of energies turned upside down

The transition towards a world where renewable energies hold a prominent position has everything to gain by looking up towards the sky and deep down below the ground.  We are living in exciting times thanks to this huge diversity of new energy sources…

This article was written by Adeline Duterque - ENGIE Lab Crigen, Luc Goossens, Jan Mertens - ENGIE

"Renewable energies and their supporting infrastructures are at the core of the company's strategy"

Belgium, April 12th, 1981: I had just turned 10 the day before. I remember, it was just after our Sunday lunch when the miracle happened, right there in front of our eyes on the TV screen. Some 6,000 km away, a space shuttle took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, twenty years to the day after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.

The sheer noise and power of these roaring engines tearing Columbia away from the pull of Earth’s gravity, seemingly in slow-motion, made my young head spin and fill with dreams. The only thing I knew about the fossil fuels whose power was so clearly demonstrated in these images was that we had a shortage in the mid-seven- ties that meant everyone could ride bikes on the highways on Sunday afternoons. As for climate change, I only remembering it happening once, in 1976 to be precise, when during a very hot Belgian summer the campsite’s swimming pool was only filled halfway up because of the water shortage.

Since then, the world has been turned upside down, and so has mine.

It started in 2000 when Mr E (the lead singer of the Eels) told me that he didn’t like rocket launches (and didn’t like astronauts’ trophy wives either) because he liked birds (“I Like Birds” – Eels, 2000). Now that was a real eye opener!

However, the most incredible transformation amongst many happened next in my company, ENGIE. In the mid-nineties, we were a small bunch of freshly graduated engineers looking into strange subjects like wind and solar energy. It was nothing too serious at the time, but if the company wanted to ensure that new nuclear, coal and gas power plants kept popping up like 5-minute microwave popcorn and that our gas infrastructures continued to transport megatons of natural gas, it needed to show - notably the general public and the media - that it was also taking an interest in green energies. We were a minority, a touch of green like the potted plants in an office where the really smart people got on with the serious and complex projects, in short, the real jobs.

Columbia the first space shuttle launch, 12th April 1981

Today everything has been turned on its head and renewable energies and their supporting infrastructures are at the core of the company’s strategy.

The idealistic hippies in Birkenstocks have been replaced by people with hipster beards, wearing cool sweaters and chinos. Well, not really; ENGIE has its origins in France and Belgium after all and so getting rid of the tie was sufficiently ground-breaking! And while the energy world was being turned upside down in the space of a few decades, the quest for new energies and the challenges resulting from their decentralised and intermittent nature brought us to new and so far unexplored places - from high up in the sky to the depths of the deepest oceans.

At the end of the day, it’s quite simple. There are only 3 sources of energy on our planet: the Sun, the Moon (for the tides) and the Earth itself. The most important of these three delivering an abundant amount of energy is positioned about 150 million kilometres away. Without solar energy, there would be no heating of air on our planet and consequently no winds, no photosynthesis and therefore no plants, no biomass and no fossil fuels. 

Every single year, the sun gives us over 20,000 times the primary energy required to fulfil mankind’s energy needs. And that means every energy need, from energy for heating and operating machines, to producing drinking water and cooking - and not just for now, but also in the future when the population reaches 10 billion or so, all hopefully living long and prosperous lives.

Five weeks in a balloon

So, the task is quite simple: capture the energy whenever and wherever you can. With current wind and solar technologies at cost of energy levels on a par with fossil fuel electricity production, the future is about getting better and smarter, managing to outperform the mainstream alternatives and overcome their intrinsic advantages, in short, we have to tackle the issues of intermittency and become even cheaper. And it’s possible!

  • In addition to direct sunlight, bifacial solar panels improve cost and efficiency by capturing sunlight reflected onto the back of the panel.
  • The same advantages exist for floating offshore wind turbines, which can be deployed in deep water sites (up to 70 % of the Earth’s surface) and thereby access steadier and stronger ocean winds than those available onshore. Material use (for the foundations) is at a similar level to fixed offshore wind turbines (that obviously need to be installed closer to shore) and the design of floating offshore wind turbines has plenty of potential for optimization.
  • We could also imagine vast farms of floating offshore wind turbines converting water into green hydrogen, or even more complex molecules, without necessarily being connected to shore. This type of project can be compared to offshore oil and gas exploration. Conversion solves the problem of intermittency, whilst providing energy carriers for various usages.
  • But it gets even better with Kite Power when you go beyond the first 150 m in altitude above the Earth’s surface, which is the maximum that can be accessed by traditional wind turbines. Think of kite surfers challenging the laws of gravity doing ‘big air’ jumps with their 10 to 12 m2 kites. Scaling-up the size of the kite to reach several hundred square metres and tethering it to generators could produce several MW of electricity by accessing the powerful winds blowing at a height of 250 m above the sea. Accessing higher resources, requiring less materials than traditional wind turbines and with a footprint up to 20 times smaller than a wind farm of similar capacity, this technology could become a game changer in terms of renewable energy in the near future. But what goes for above our heads, goes for under our feet as well!

The environment may be a bit harsh, but the molten, boiling-hot earth will no longer be seen as just a warehouse full of energy sources like coal or oil patiently waiting to be exploited.

  • With geothermal energy offering smart district heating and cooling systems, the subsoil is like a giant boiler that can be used for residential and industrial applications. Natural hydrogen is even more promising in the long run.
  • The smallest of H2 molecules seeps out of the Earth’s crust in areas that, seen from the sky, look like fairy circles: with limited drilling and engineering solutions adapted to the type of rock under exploration, or even simple solutions to capture it, the large-scale supply of cheap natural green hydrogen is becoming a reality Even the hollow areas under foot are not without interest. 
  • In fact, as ENGIE’s activities in the field of the underground storage of natural gas demonstrate, the Earth’s crust and the caverns it contains have the potential to provide a gigantic buffer tank that will solve the problem of intermittent renewables. Large-scale storage of biomethane, green hydrogen, compressed air and even the elec- trolytes for giant flow batteries is now a realistic and a cost competitive solution.

From the earth to the moon and beyond

With more decentralised production and a highly interconnected electricity and gas system, new ways to move the energy around are on the table. High voltage aerial transmission lines are increasingly being replaced by underground lines with technologies based on direct current connections allowing for very long-distance transport of electricity with limited losses. Now that the world of power generation is well on track to significantly reduce emis- sions as technologies become available and cost competitive, focus in the climate change battle is shifting to other sources of emissions with transport and industry being the next in line. The good news is that the lessons learned from the power sector also bring solutions to these sectors.

Will a spacecraft powered by renewable energy land on Mars twenty years from now?

  • The electrification of vehicles and industrial processes is a straightforward solution that is easy to implement, whereas an even more interesting avenue consists in using existing gas transport and distribution grids to bring green molecules to established industries.
  • Filling our pipes with green gas (whatever molecule is the best fit, for example biogas or synthetic methane from renewable sources), allows us to quickly make all those processes, which were previously fuelled by natural fossil gases, more sustainable.
  • But that is not the final frontier. We are getting ready to go much further with the aviation sector. Providing all an aircraft’s auxiliary systems, such as air conditioning and lighting, with energy by using small hydrogen fuel cells will soon be possible. Synthetic fuels are next on the horizon: E-fuels will be made from green hydrogen (using an electrolyser powered by renewable energy) and CO2 that could be captured from carbon-emitting industrial sites to produce sustainable fuel for applications where highly concentrated energy content is crucial.

We are living in exciting times thanks to this huge diversity of new energy sources and solutions, all of which can contribute to the success of the sustainable energy transition. And what’s even better, by 12th April 2041 and the 60th anniversary of the Columbia launch, I expect my grandchildren to have the same mind-blowing experience as me when they see SpaceX taking off for another mission to Mars, powered by green hydrogen produced by floating offshore wind farms, quickly refuelling at the lunar base and then conti- nuing its journey supported by superefficient solar cells. We still need to do something about the birds though…

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