The world is slowly moving towards one powered by renewable energy. Currently renewable energy largely means hydro, wind, solar, or geothermal, but what forms of clean energy will we see in the future? And how will we store that energy for use in electric cars or even spaceships?
Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.
And our cover artwork is by Andrew Millist.
Jay Weatherall (Press conference): “South Australia is already leading the nation, today we lead the world. We're announcing the world’s largest lithium ion battery… that battery will be built in Jamestown a few hours from the centre of Adelaide. It will be partnership between Telsa and also Neoen….”
KRIS: That is the premier of South Australia Jay Weatherall in early July. He was announcing that Tesla - run by Moonshot regular Elon Musk… had been selected to build the world's largest lithium-ion battery.
Jay Weatherall (Press conference): “A grid scale battery that will provide stabilisation services to the grid… also opening up new possibilities for renewable energy in this state, in this nation, and around the world, to be dispatchable.”
KRIS: Welcome to Moonshot - the show exploring the world’s biggest ideas and the people making them happen.
KRIS: I’m Kristofor Lawson,
ANDREW: And I’m Andrew Moon.
KRIS: And in this episode of Moonshot - we’re exploring the future of how we power our world. And specifically the future of how our energy is both created and stored.
ANDREW: Yes, as the world looks to combat climate change and invest in clean energy, we’re looking at how technology will help us harness that dream of one day having a world completely powered by renewables.
KRIS: Just over a year ago, on a Wednesday evening… a storm lashed South Australia… with winds so powerful they knocked over more than 20 high-voltage transmission towers. This caused a blackout which plunged the entire state into darkness.
ANDREW: While the blackout was due to the damaged transmission towers… at the time it sparked debate about the condition of South Australia’s power grid. With many federal government politicians, including the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, raising concerns over the state's high reliance on renewable power.
Malcolm Turnbull (press conference): “There is no doubt that a heavy reliance on intermittent renewables, by which in South Australia we’re mostly talking about wind, but there’s also solar, but intermittent renewables, does place very different strains and pressures on a grid than relying on traditional baseload power whether it is fossil fuel or of course hydro… Now I want to say, make this point… energy security should always be the key priority. If you are stuck in an elevator, if the lights won't go on, if your fridge is thawing out, everything in the fridge is thawing out because the power is gone, you are not going to be concerned about the particular source of that power.
KRIS: The massive South Australia power failure in September 2016 wasn’t the first blackout in the state and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. A few months later in February of this year, in the middle of a heatwave that saw temperatures reach 41 degrees celsius… that's 105 fahrenheit for those playing in America… parts of the state once again found themselves without power, right when they needed it.
KRIS: This time though - the blackouts were deliberate.
(Grab from 7:30 program): “SA power has been instructed to begin load shedding due to a lack of available generation”
ANDREW: South Australia is home to just 1.7 million people…and now has more than 50% of their state's energy generation coming from renewable energy…a target they weren’t expected to hit until 2025… it’s also a state that often sees high summer temperatures. And when there’s hot weather, people switch on their air conditioning which places significantly more pressure on the network, and this time, South Australia just didn’t have the capacity available.
KRIS: Now Australia has what’s called a National Energy Market, and that market is controlled by the Australian Energy Market Operator. They look at where the power is needed and shift it in real time between states to help keep the grid stable. But in February they just couldn’t get enough power into South Australia, and the state wasn’t able to generate enough power themselves. So the national Operator forced a series of rolling blackouts to reduce demand on the network.
Ariel Liebman: South Australia is a small state. The demand is, therefore, relatively small.
KRIS: That’s Ariel Liebman. He’s deputy director of the Monash Energy Materials and Systems Institute at Victoria’s Monash University. The problem he says has to do with what happens when old power stations go out of service.
Ariel Liebman: The economics of energy production dictate that the kind of power stations that go into any system are always the same size. When you retire an ageing power station that can't make any money, it takes a big amount of capacity out of that system. And that would be okay if the ability to import from other parts of Australia into South Australia, i.e. from Victoria, would have been large but it's not that large. That interconnector was deemed to be economically optimal at a certain size.
Kris: So that connector was kind of too small to sustain that gap.
Ariel Liebman: Yeah, yeah. That's right. Yeah. It's hard to know exactly how you would have foreseen that range of events in a way that could have prevented this. The jury's still out. There's some analysis suggests that if the protection settings were set correctly, then this wouldn't have happened. Not a lot of analysis really that's conclusive, to my mind. It's quite a tricky thing to analyse.
KRIS: Despite the difficulty in predicting these mega-blackouts that South Australia’s experienced, the state has been determined to shure up its energy supply without reducing their investment in renewables. And the plan that they're going with, as you heard at the top of the show, involves a really, really big battery.
Elon Musk (Press Conference): This is going to be the largest battery installation in the world by a significant margin. This is 100MW battery installation the next biggest battery system in the world is 30MW. We’re talking about something that is more than three times the size of the next biggest battery installation in the world.
ANDREW: Tesla beat out more than 90 other bids to win this mega battery contract, and the company’s involvement in solving South Australia’s energy crisis largely stemmed from a public conversation on Twitter between Elon Musk and Australia’s Mike Cannon-Brookes.
Mike Cannon Brookes (TedX Talk): “A few months ago I was up late one night with one of my kids, and I saw something on Twitter about Tesla saying they could solve South Australia’s power crisis with one of their industrial batteries. Now without thinking I fired off a bunch of tweets, challenging them and saying were they really serious about this… and in doing so I managed to kick a very small rock off a very big hill, that turned into an avalanche that I found myself tumbling in the middle of.
KRIS: This is Mike Cannon-Brookes speaking at a TedX event in Sydney earlier this year.
Mike Cannon Brookes (TedX Talk): A few hours later Elon tweeted me back, and they were deadly serious, that within 100 days of contract signing they could install a 100MWH facility, which is a giant battery on a world class size, one of the biggest ever made on the planet, and that’s when all hell really broke loose.
Elon Musk (Press Conference): And we actually insisted in writing the contract that we be held to the 100 days or its free. That’s what we said publicly, that’s what we’re going to do. I’d also like to thank Mike Cannon-Brookes for talking smack with me on Twitter, and kind of getting that - he kind of deserves some credit there as well.
KRIS: The South Australian battery is not far from being complete - and if it’s not done in time it will be free. But what good can a battery system actually do for a whole power grid?
Ariel Liebman: Batteries are good for balancing generation that you can't otherwise control, like wind farms or solar farms, right? They follow the weather.
KRIS: That's Ariel Liebman again.
Ariel Liebman: To provide more available and reliable, or really controllable, output, you can use batteries. So when the, for example, the output of the wind farms is very high, perhaps so high that it's really isn't needed, it's displacing some otherwise very cheap fossil fuel generation, then you might be better off actually storing it but economically. and therefore, you've got additional capacity from the battery to deliver that when it's economically more valuable when the demand is really high, and the wind production is low or just not huge. And then, the other stations that would otherwise be running would be very expensive ones. So that's when you would use that battery to feed that energy back in the grid.
ANDREW: As we’ve mentioned many times on this podcast, Tesla and the company’s fearless leader doesn’t shy away from upending or opening up new markets. In this case, the company is right now in the process of building a massive factory in Nevada largely dedicated to making just one thing… batteries. Because when you think about it all the products that Tesla produces – from cars to powerwalls - require efficient, powerful batteries. So, Tesla is trying to improve the manufacturing process so they can keep up with this growing consumer demand.
KRIS: Tesla’s current battery technology is largely focused on the Lithium-ion battery. Lithium-ion batteries are what’s used in everything from your phone to South Australia’s new battery farm. But if we’re looking at the future of energy - we need to look at the future of battery technology. And one of the keys to that future is the creation of entirely new types of batteries.
ANDREW: One area of focus right now is on what’s called a Lithium-Air battery. Lithium-Air batteries will have a significantly higher energy density than today's current Lithium-ion batteries - meaning you’ll get a lot more power for the same size. This is the holy grail of lithium battery research. And although researchers have been experimenting with different implementations of this idea, they’re still a while away from getting these batteries to work well enough that they could be installed in your next car.
KRIS: So, scientists are also looking at different materials that could be used in place of Lithium and present a better, more efficient, option in the future. And one of those options is actually based on Hydrogen.
Enass Abo-Hamed: My name is Enass Abo-Hamed. I'm the CEO and co-founder of H2GO power. At H2GO power we are developing energy storage systems that stores the excess renewable energy in the form of hydrogen as a clean and powerful fuel.
Enass Abo-Hamed: The issue with renewable energy is that it isn't intermittent. The sun doesn't shine 24 hours a day and the wind doesn't blow 24 hours a day. It only works for a certain number of hours every day and you can only use a certain amount of it. You can't consume the entire amount of energy produced from renewables all at once. The ideal solution would be to produce whatever energy that you are not using, that's what we call excess. At the same time, when you can store it, then you can use it when you're not able to generate energy and that provides you with around the clock power without having to suffer from any blackouts or shortcomings.
KRIS: How does this compare to say, you know, like a lithium-ion battery solution?
Enass Abo-Hamed: This is very good comparison. Lithium-ion batteries are energy storage devices that it can basically store power in and get power out at the other side. Our particular technology that we are developing works exactly the same in terms of power in, power out. The difference is what's exactly is inside the material. The reason why we're developing technology like this, when you have lithium-ion batteries is that it comes to solve problems or technical limitations of lithium-ion batteries.
Enass Abo-Hamed: So lithium-ion batteries, for example, they have storage capacity limitations. They cannot store energy for long periods like four to six hours with these limitations. What do you do when you need more than that? When you scale them up, when you're working at large scale, if you want to power a hospital, for example, on a battery, that battery becomes very heavy and extremely expensive. The technology that we are developing that uses hydrogen, it comes to solve all these problems.
Enass Abo-Hamed: So Basically, we convert the gas into a solid state and we store it at a solid state so it can be safe instead of pressurising gas using high pressures into cylinders. We have developed a technology where we can basically convert the gaseous state into a solid state. Then when we want to release it, we convert it back to a gaseous state again so it can be used in fuel cells or it burns if you want to use it for grid application.
KRIS: What sort of timeline for this technology? When do you see this being at a state where you could start rolling it out as an energy storage solution?
Enass Abo-Hamed: That's a really good question. it's very important to clarify that when you're developing a hardware, complex technology like this and you're starting from scratch or from a very initial, from literally the beginning, it takes a long time to develop technology.
Enass Abo-Hamed: So we founded the company officially in 2014. At the moment we have the patent pending for materials, we have a working prototype. At the moment we're designing the pilot that we hope to build by the end of 2019. These are the plans. After the pilot, there will be a few more pilots in different places in the world. A few years down the line from that point, we would anticipate that we can go to production mode. That is the plan.
KRIS: Now Hydrogen has a reputation as being quite dangerous. Hydrogen gas can be combustible in the presence of oxygen - and this is one of the complexities with designing hydrogen fuel cell technologies - storing the hydrogen in a way that’s safe. However Enass says that actually hydrogen technology can be safe and the way they’re storing it in solid state actually reduces a lot of the perceived risks.
Enass Abo-Hamed: I work a lot on hydrogen and the most surprising thing was people's perception around hydrogen. It is very common that people think that hydrogen is very dangerous. You can put it in your car, you can use it ... People will always associate it with the hydrogen bomb. People don't make the same association with batteries, which also, I think, they could be dangerous, they could explode but we engineer them safely. And equally, we engineer hydrogen technology safely, as well. But the perception is not there yet. And I think it is one of the things that we need to educate people more about that it's another solution, we engineer it safely so we can use it.
Enass Abo-Hamed: People know how to send rockets to space very safely and get them back nowadays. Engineering has taken us to the moon and back. We know how to engineer batteries safely and we know how to engineer hydrogen technology safely.
KRIS: And speaking of ideas that have a dangerous reputation… we’ll be looking further at another energy technology that involves Hydrogen after the break.
ANDREW: Now before the break we were talking with Enass Abo-Hamed from H2GO power about their method of storing energy using solid-state Hydrogen batteries… Enass’s plan is to focus their efforts on providing this technology to the developing world, in countries that don’t currently have a stable electricity supply. A lot of the power that’s stored will be generated by renewable energy - which at the moment is largely delivered from wind farms, solar power, hydro, and geothermal.
KRIS: But there’s a significant amount of time and investment going into another source of clean power that has the potential to completely change our energy future… and that is Nuclear Fusion.
Alex Thorman: So, g'day. I'm Alex Thorman, and I'm a PhD student at the Australian National University working on fusion power for my PhD. Basically, what we're doing is research into generating clean energy through the same process that occurs in the Sun here on Earth. Our group at the Australian National University specialises in measuring the light from these machines to get a picture of what's happening inside these devices.
KRIS: If I'm someone that doesn't know anything about nuclear energy, what is fusion?
Alex Thorman: Alright, so Fusion is the same process that occurs in the Sun, and it's different to nuclear fission. So fission and fusion. Fission is what currently we use for nuclear power in a uranium-type device, where we're splitting the nucleus of the atom to release energy. Whereas, fusion is the same process that occurs in the Sun, and that's where we're taking really light elements like hydrogen. And so if we combine two hydrogens, we form a helium, and in the process, we release a large amount of energy. Fusion has a number of advantages, then, over traditional fission. Because we're using these light elements that everyone's familiar with, such a hydrogen and helium, there's no long-lived radioactive waste. Also, say in water, it's really abundant. It's H2O. It's two hydrogens in every molecule, so there's heaps of this fuel, and the reaction has a really high energy density. So it's virtually... it's not strictly a renewable energy source, but the fuel's so abundant that it could fuel power for billions of years here on Earth. It's a clean energy source, as well, there's no carbon dioxide released in the reaction. And it's also, it's not susceptible to a nuclear meltdown, because it's not a chain reaction process.
ANDREW: Alex Thorman is not the only one getting excited about nuclear fusion. Fusion as an idea has been around for decades… but up until recently not a lot of progress had been made. However a surge of investment from Silicon Valley and a few of the usual tech visionaries, are pushing the technology forward.
ANDREW: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has invested in a Canadian company called General Fusion, Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel has invested in Helion Energy, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has poured money into Tri Alpha Energy.
KRIS: Tri Alpha Energy has raised more than $500 Million and has been working with none other than Google to use an algorithm to solve some of the issues with actually making fusion work. And one of the reasons fusion is so challenging is the need to hold the reaction in a state of plasma - a reaction that needs to be significantly hotter than the sun.
Alex Thorman: The temperature in the middle of the sun is about 10 million degrees, but the Sun's really big and really dense, so there's only a small reaction radius required on the Sun to make, still, a lot of energy. Whereas, here on Earth, we're much more limited with space and building a device, sort of, the bigger you make it, the more expensive it is, so size is a real limitation. We need to have temperatures hotter than the Sun. Say, about 10 times hotter than the centre of the Sun, 100 million degrees, is sort of the optimal temperature for this reaction to have the highest reaction rate.
KRIS: Wow. That's pretty warm. How do you even contain that on Earth?
Alex Thorman: Right. There's two main streams of trying to contain this really hot thing. The main way that's being researched, and what we're looking into, is magnetic confinement fusion. So this is where we use really strong magnetic fields bent into a device that's a doughnut kind of shape. The magnetic fields effectively confine the hot fuel. At the centre of the device, it's, say, 10 times hotter than the centre of the sun, but as you work your way outwards towards the wall of your device, it's sort of much cooler so it's not melting the edges of your device. So with really strong magnetic fields, you can sort of get a sharp temperature gradient across a few metres. When I say it's hotter than the temperature of the Sun, it's not hotter than the temperature of the Sun at the edge of the device, but in the centre, it certainly is.
KRIS: Right. It's all about the core of the reaction as opposed to what's happening on the fringes.
Alex Thorman: Yeah. You want it to have optimally hot in the middle. Then, still, it's really challenging at the walls of the machine, you've got to make sure you're not going to melt anything. Especially, it's really unstable or there are many instabilities that exist in these devices, so that's one of the key challenges, to try to understand and control these instabilities so that you're not actually going to melt your device that the reaction's occurring inside.
KRIS: Are there any risks associated with trying to build something that's burning at 100 million degrees?
Alex Thorman: The density of the fueling side is really low. Say if there was a leak in your device, as soon as something that's really hot begins expanding, it cools down rapidly. And so then, as soon as it cools down, the reaction stops. And that's why it's inherently safe from things like a nuclear meltdown.
ANDREW: Fusion is an idea that has such a large potential to impact the future of energy that many countries are now involved in building a large fusion experiment. ITER - is a project involving 35 countries – with the goal of building the world’s largest Tokamak reactor. Tokamaks are what these fusion reactors are called. Think of ITER as being like the Hadron Collider but for energy production.
KRIS: The ITER reactor is currently being built in France and is set to be operational by around 2025. The system is expected to produce 500MW of energy from an input of just 50MW - which is a 10-fold increase. But the goal of the system is to actually produce net energy from the fusion reaction. This is a crucial point. Because despite decades of research, and although many of the fusion projects are highly ambitious, and they have a lot of funding, at the moment none of the reactors have produced more energy output than the energy required to make the fusion reactions happen.
Alex Thorman: So at the moment there's fusion reactors, test reactors, around the world. There's a large on in England, and it currently holds the record of being able to produce 70%. So to heat up the plasma in the first place, it requires a lot of energy, and you inject high energy electromagnetic waves and particle beams in to heat up the fuel in the first place. Then, this is taking a lot of energy, but at the same time, the amount of energy you're getting out of the reaction at the moment is only 70% of the energy that you're putting into heat it up in the first place in the leading device in the world.
Alex Thorman: The real difference between Iter, this new device, and the existing device is that it's basically a factor of 10 bigger than existing devices. So that's why it's able to produce the larger fusion power output, is because if you've got a larger machine, you can confine your hot fuel across a larger distance, and more volume equals more power, because you've got more fuel in there in the first place.
ANDREW: Given the huge potential for fusion energy - you would think that everyone would be on board with the idea of pumping our energy grid with clean electricity generated from fusion reactors. But Ariel Liebman says that when compared to renewable technologies like solar and wind power - especially in countries like Australia - fusion may not actually be the best or even a viable choice.
Ariel Liebman: It's hugely expensive, and to be honest, from a renewable energy or rather energy emissions point of view, I think it's kind of missed the boat, to be honest. It's a really hard thing to get working. I don't think it's going to be as prominent in our future thinking as it used to be, because of our renewable technologies. I mean it was really there to replace coal, right? In the way that nuclear fission wasn't because it generated so much radioactive waste, and also the risk of some of that material being very useful for nuclear weapons. Fusion, pure fusion reactors can't do that, and that's why they were attractive 50 years ago. But I think it's kind of had its day. Maybe it'll be useful, or it will be useful longer term for some niche applications on Earth and probably for space travel, in fact.
Alex Thorman: Fusion's always ... The running joke is that it's always 50 years in the future.
KRIS: This is Alex Thorman again.
Alex Thorman: So if you asked a scientist back in 1970 or something like that, they would have predicted that fusion would exist now. Today, people's most optimistic predictions would say that 2050 is the time that this may start coming into reality.
Alex Thorman: When you compare with the renewables that are available now and are more capable of reducing our emissions, I think fusion's the ultimate energy source, and in 2100, it will allow us to do, new technology such as that, would allow us to realise all sorts of different technologies that we can't think of at the moment. And you could have a nuclear fusion powered spaceship or something like this. Because it's so efficient, the reaction, then you could realise all these different things. It's not just about the clean energy aspect when we're starting to hit these future sort of dates, I guess.
KRIS: So you're thinking of it more as this could dramatically change the way that we power all kinds of devices and products and technologies?
Alex Thorman: Right, yeah. So yes, I think, to address carbon dioxide emissions, I think renewable's picked up a lot of the slack in the meantime until fusion becomes a reality. And it's really a question of what mix will there be with fusion and renewables, and what else will fusion deliver us in terms of other capabilities?