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Electrification of Aviation Is Starting With Aerospace Trying to Invent Markets

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Aviation has to decarbonize, and it’s a hard target between direct CO2, nitrous oxides, black carbon, and contrails. But that hasn’t stopped the aerospace industry from trying hard to expand its markets instead of actually reducing its carbon footprint. I backed into this turf war somewhat accidentally, when I pointed out that the current rash of high-market cap electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft mostly have unclothed-emperor business models.

There’s an overlapping alphabet soup — UAM, AAM, and RAM — at the middle of this, and it’s worth disambiguating it so that the actually worthwhile babies don’t get thrown out with the bathwater that the other babies have deeply muddied. They all share the last two letters, AM, which stands for air mobility. The first letters, U, A, and R are where the problems lie. U is for urban, A is for advanced, and R is for regional. And only regional has a significant value proposition.

Urban vs advanced vs regional air mobility diagram by author

Urban air mobility’s hypothesis is Blade Runner’s future. Lots and lots of autonomous and non-autonomous vertical take-off and landing air craft are going to be wandering around cities in this vision of the future. They don’t seem to get that this vision is mostly featured in dystopias. It has a few overlapping components. The first is that cities are going to install lots of what they call vertiports on top of existing parking garages, and repurpose and add existing helipads on other buildings. The second is that VTOL craft are quieter, so they’ll be allowed to land in a lot more places. The third is that most of the electric helicopters will convert to a flying mode with pivoting electric rotors and turbofans so that they can actually make it somewhere before running out of juice. There are a tiny number of use cases in this space that have legs. And it tends to feature a lot of hydrogen #hopium along with the silly sexiness of helicopters that turn into airplanes.

Advanced air mobility is the rebranding of urban air mobility, as the aerospace industry and NASA presumably realized that they didn’t actually have much of a business case and expanded their scope to include more regional air mobility and more use cases that aren’t about flying complex rotorcraft over lots and lots of people’s heads. All of the silly urban air mobility use cases are still jammed into this uninformative moniker. NASA officially started calling UAM AAM in 2020. Still lots and lots of focus on mediocre electric helicopters that transform into mediocre winged aircraft in order to have any range at all.

Regional air mobility is the completely sensible quasi-subset of advanced air mobility that’s worth talking about. It points out that there are 5,050 small airfields in the US and 2,800 in Europe, all of which are completely suitable for conventional electric aircraft with fixed wings, and are really close to all the people. Current technology allows 400-600 km flight ranges, and that range will expand quite a bit every five years. Certification of propeller electric drive-trains for fixed-wing planes has already occurred, so there’s a path to get there quickly. Certification of small, fixed-wing planes is also an extremely well-trodden and obvious path with clear timelines. There will be innumerable short-haul passenger and cargo flights that are electrified by the end of this decade.

All three of UAM, AAM, and RAM project a future where the current highly analog air traffic control system and human pilots are strongly supplemented and assisted by digital air traffic control and autonomously flying aircraft watched over by pilot oversight, whether inside the aircraft or on the ground. This is reasonable, and also well into the future. It’s going to take a long, long time before approved autonomous and digitally flight controlled aircraft are anywhere near human beings. It’s great to invest in the work being done in this space, but silly to assume much of it will apply to aircraft over heavily populated areas. Side note: I’ve launched a couple of advanced automation projects with geographical visualization and KPIs in the transportation space, including one with Navigation Canada for flights. It’s non-trivial to digitize and automate air traffic control, but also worthwhile.

As far as can be told, most of urban air mobility and advanced air mobility are the aerospace industry trying to come up with new and exciting business opportunities, ones that upon inspection don’t really stand up to scrutiny. By contrast, regional air mobility looks pragmatically at what exists today, the requirement to decarbonize aviation, actually useful current use cases, and then defines a solution that leverages assets, existing, and near term technology, and delivers actually business value. It’s the part of the space that will deliver value quickly, and then build on it strongly.

NASA is in both sides of this, thankfully, not just the UAM/AAM side. When I published on the lack of a business case for electric VTOLs in cities vs electric fixed wing planes on regional airports, Kevin Antcliff, an aerospace engineer employed until recently at NASA, reached out with the April 2021 NASA regional air mobility report he’d participated in authoring. Antcliff is now over at Xwing, building useful parts of the autonomous flying system of the future.

The NASA RAM study reasonably points out that there are 5,050 airports in the US alone, and that only 0.6% of them transport the vast majority of passengers and cargo. As Anders Forslund, CEO and founder of Heart Aerospace, pointed out to me a couple of months ago, a lot of that comes down to the economics of current generation turbofans, which are incredibly efficient when flown longer distances at high altitudes, but make no fiscal sense for regional short hops. Simple, cheap to operate electric airplanes turn the economics on their head, making regional air highly viable again, hence United’s Mesa subsidiary put a pre-order in for 200 of Heart’s 19-seater electric airplane, targeted for 2026 certification and start of commercial delivery. The NASA report’s assessment is that a 40% reduction in operating costs — very much in range with straightforward, fixed-wing, battery-electric planes — would activate this market opportunity.

Similarly, in Europe there are over 2,800 airstrips suitable for Electron’s five-passenger passenger and cargo shuttles, also targeted for certification and initial manufacturing in five years, something Josef Mouris, Electron’s co-founder and CEO, pointed out to me recently.

By contrast, my discussion with BLADE Urban Air Mobility CEO Rob Wiesenthal and CFO Will Heyburn left me assured that while they were working hard to make their market of flying tiny numbers of affluent people and transplantable organs climate neutral, it left me completely unconvinced that electric VTOLs were going to expand the rotorcraft niche or displace any fixed wing flights.

This is not to say that there isn’t value in electrifying existing urban rotorcraft, or that there aren’t some edge use cases of value. Reducing urban noise is an excellent goal, and having been in the flight path of a helicopter landing pad in São Paulo, the significant noise reduction possible with electric rotorcraft will be welcomed by many. Similarly, while the projections of autonomous flying drones zipping around cities delivering packages are equally silly fantasies that don’t stand the slightest scrutiny when compared to slow-speed wheeled autonomous electric delivery vehicles on the ground, as per Anthony Townsend’s Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car, there are emergency cases where UAVs make a lot of sense. Fire department inspections of the roofs and sides of burning buildings, delivery of organs for transplant, and other critical services will lead to some heavier UAVs in urban areas.

It’s just that the idea that urban rotorcraft will multiply in number and actually add value to the urban fabric as a result falls apart quickly. They have a few things that they do well and are suited for in the civilian world, mostly delivering affluent people to airports or across geographical obstacles, and getting patients and organs to hospitals. The requirement of either of those things isn’t radically increasing. Sure, people who want to avoid Manhattan traffic to JFK will appreciate them being cheaper, trading a peak Uber Black fare for an electric chopper flight to save 40 minutes or so, but it’s not like 10,000 or even 500 people will be commuting by electric VTOL from Manhattan to New Jersey every day.

Advanced air mobility white papers are spewing nonsense. In Canada, the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium (CAAM… don’t ask me what happened to the extra C) released an economic impact assessment white paper in November of 2020. It claims massive value and jobs for Greater Vancouver. What use cases does it project, and how does it calculate value?

Airport shuttle services – Given the RAV line to the airport has carried as many as 230,000 passengers a day to and from YVR, it’s unclear what a handful of electric helicopters will do to assist. That would be an affluent person’s desire, not a sensible value add to Vancouver.
On-Demand Air Taxi – Yes, all of those vertiports on the top of parking garages with an app for people to book a flight. Right. Once again, very limited demand to fly above Vancouver’s traffic, very limited locations for vertiports, very significant operational concerns, requirement to be 1,000 ft above tallest object within 2,000 feet before starting to move forward, etc.. Not that there aren’t people who would use this, but it would be a rounding error of at most dozens of affluent people a day. Not a viable or likely to be permitted concern. Every attempt to do this so far that isn’t a scheduled hop from Manhattan to JFK has failed, even in helicopter happy cities like São Paulo.
Regional Transport Services – This is the odd theory that people will travel to one of the non-existent vertiports, get into a (still uncertified) Rube Goldberg tilt-rotor electric VTOL, and fly from Vancouver to Seattle instead of going to a much more reasonable local airport and flying just as quickly and a lot more cheaply. It’s a Jetson fantasy that doesn’t stand scrutiny.
Medical and Emergency Operations and Services – Now this is an actual use case, in that it is an existing use case that has value today and tomorrow. It’s completely adequately served by existing heliports and hospital rooftop heliports, so the infrastructure is there. It will just get quieter and cheaper. But there’s almost no value in using vastly more expensive tilt-rotors to do it, as they’ll be the same cost to operate as current helicopters, and there is very little emissions due to the very limited amount of flying in this niche. When fixed-rotor electric helicopters are fit for purpose, they’ll be adopted, and until then current helicopters work just fine, although it would be good to switch them to SAF biofuels.
Business Aviation – This would be affluent top executives being taken to the private hangers were their private jets await. Once again, a tiny edge condition that is already met where egos and lobbying have made it possible with existing helicopters, and not a growth market.
Air Metro – This is perhaps the silliest of all of the use cases in the ‘economic assessment’. This deeply absurd idea posits that 12-passenger electric VTOL buses will fly fixed routes to pick up 10-12 passengers and disgorge them at various vertiport stations dotted around the urban fabric. Over 500,000 people used Vancouver’s Skytrain system daily pre-COVID, and it will return to those levels. People sufficiently affluent and full of themselves to pay flying bus rates are not people who like to share. A ‘transit’ system which serves the o.01% is not a transit system.

Probably due to BC’s odd circumstance of having Ballard and a lot of other misguided hydrogen-for-energy advocates, the white paper mentions hydrogen 99 times, while only mentioning electric 31 times and batteries 9 times. It’s just as fantasy-laden for aviation-fuel alternatives as it is with its use cases.

Frankly, I find it difficult to imagine the entire economic white paper not being laughed out of rooms where it’s presented, as the emperor is so clearly without clothes and has no chance of covering his wattles and warts with any. But the aerospace industry lobbying is pushing this concept hard, and airports are looking for what they need to do to remain viable in a lower-passenger, post-COVID future. While the Vancouver Economic Commission is at the table, one hopes cooler heads will prevail.

Most of the transformer electric VTOLs like Joby, Archer, and Lilium are just getting ahead of themselves. Rotorcraft work just fine for their small niche, and in the future, much simpler, cheaper, lower maintenance rotorcraft with fixed rotors and higher energy density batteries will fill that niche. While Ehang’s customer cuisinart isn’t the right form factor and autonomy is far from ready, at least it has fixed rotors and is dirt simple otherwise. Most of UAM and AAM plays are aerospace businesses trying to push string uphill.

Simple, cheap to maintain, cheap to operate, safe to fly fixed-wing planes with electric motors will take off from a lot more airports and fly to a lot more airports delivering people and cargo in our increasingly on demand world. Policy makers and investors take note: regional air mobility is vastly more scalable, an actual path to a decarbonized future and much lower risk.

Featured image courtesy NASA.


 

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Electric Car FAQs: Do EVs All Use the Same Plug?

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Electric cars are mostly like regular cars. You step on the pedal on the right and the car goes, you turn the wheel and the car turns, and the only real difference is what kind of fuel goes in it. We say stuff like that all the time. If we’re being completely honest, though, that’s only mostly true. 99% of the time the only difference is what kind of fuel goes into the car, but that last 1% probably needs explaining.

To provide that explanation, we’ve launched a new segment called “Electric Car FAQs” that hopes to answer those oddball questions that come up 1% of the time. Today’s question: do EVs all use the same plug?

EV FAQs: Do EVs All Use the Same Plug?

Even if you don’t know anything about how electric cars work, you could probably guess that they run on some kind of battery. You’d be right! That battery acts like a gas tank in a conventional car, storing “electric fuel” in reserve until it’s needed. You even fill it up like a gas tank — the main difference is you’re plugging the car into an EV charging station, not a gas pump. Sounds easy, right?

The good news is that it is easy to plug in your EV! But one thing that many people don’t realize is that there are different types of electric car plugs, and different types of chargers. Each one has different capabilities, costs, and charging speeds, and that’s where some confusion can sneak into the conversation.

As ever, we’re here to clear things up for you — starting with the chargers.

EV Charging Levels

Image courtesy of GM.

Level 1 is basically a standard 3-prong outlet, like the kind you have your phone charger plugged into. These work the same way, providing a slow trickle of energy to your electric car battery to basically replace a few miles of driving. You’ll usually get 2-4 miles of range per hour of charging, and it usually won’t increase your monthly electric bill by a noticeable amount, making level 1 home charging an extremely cost-effective charging solution.

Level 2 charging stations use 208 or 240 volts of electricity — more like the big plug your clothes dryer is plugged into. These are to charge your vehicle up to 10 times faster than a level 1 station. If you drive more than a few miles per day and want the convenience of knowing you’re starting each day with “a full tank” from charging at home, installing a level 2 charger in your garage is the way to go, and you can expect to get up to 200 miles of range from an 8 hour, overnight charge.

Because level 2 power is usually available in most commercial locations, many businesses that want to incorporate EV charging stations into their parking lot deploy level 2 charging stations. Whether you’re putting a level 2 one in at your home or at your business, be sure to check with your local utility for rebates and incentives to help keep costs down.

Level 3 DC Fast-Charging

DC fast-charging plugs are typically considered “level 3” and have significantly faster charging speeds than the level 1 or level 2 “AC” chargers. With enough juice, a DC fast charger can charge an electric car battery to 80% from almost empty in about 20 minutes (depending on the vehicle) … but this is a good time to tell you that not all “level 3” charging is created equal.

“Level 3” is a generic term that used to be quite clear. As technology has advanced, though, it’s a term that has led to more confusion that anything else, because it could mean anything from around 25kW of power to more than 300kW (!?).

That’s why some electric car owner apps like Chargeway have “split” Level 3 charging into levels — 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 — to highlight that difference. At a local (well, local to Chicago, anyway) “level 3” station in Chargeway, it would take about three and a half hours to go from 10% to a 90% charge in a car like the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach E

Screencap from Chargeway app.

… at another local charger, a “level 6” to use Chargeway’s naming system — the time drops significantly. You can get the exact same charge in under 40 minutes (below), instead of (quick math) 2015 minutes. That’s a lunch stop or a grocery run, and knowing ahead of time what to expect when you get to a fast charger is going to make a big difference in your experience.

Screencap from Chargeway app.

The National Auto Dealers’ Association recently partnered with Chargeway to help train electric car dealers to use this more intuitive “level 1–7” power system as they talk about EV chargers … but they also want to use Chargeway to help simplify the conversion about plugs, which we’ll get to next.

Different Types of EV Plugs

CHAdeMO was the first type of DC fast-charging system on the market, and helped early e-mobility adopters reduce range anxiety. Cars with CHAdeMO plugs can fast charge a battery to 80% in about 60 minutes at a rate of roughly 2 miles of range added per minute of charging.

Image by CleanTechnica.

Today, the Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (shown, above) are the most common CHAdeMO vehicles, but even they are switching to the more common J1772 with their next generation of electric cars. Still, there are hundreds of thousands of used EVs on the market that use this standard, so it’s worth knowing about.

Most “modern” electric vehicles (the notable exceptions being cars built by Tesla) use the J1772, and the J1772 plug can charge your car using 120, 208, or 240 volts of electricity, depending on the type of charger station you’re using. These are those “level 1” and “level 2” we talked about earlier, and it’s the most common type of charging you’ll find.

For fast charging, those same cars use the SAE Standard Combined Charging System, or CCS. Developed by the society of automotive engineers (SAE, natch), this is the most widely used fast charging standard globally, and works with most fast chargers — just not, currently, the Tesla Supercharger Network, will.

Tesla cars on the Tesla Supercharger network use proprietary standards that, while also called “level 3” by most networks, typically fall into the “level 6” or “level 7” range offered by Chargeway. Tesla drivers have exclusive access to the national network of Tesla Superchargers to charge their vehicles, but they have to use an adapter to charge at other DC fast-charging stations that use CCS or CHAdeMO plugs and at Level 1 and Level 2 charging stations.

Tesla Supercharger in Florida, by Zach Shahan/CleanTechnica.

Colors & Numbers

We already talked about the way that a charging app displays information can have a huge impact on your expected wait times while you’re charging. Chargeway also simplifies the process of finding charging stations that work for your car. Instead of showing a “generic” charging map that shows all the chargers in your neighborhood, Chargeway only shows you the stations that will work for your specific car, reducing anxiety and making it easier to “fill up faster” with electric fuel.

Blue for CHAdeMO, green for J1772/CCS, and red for Tesla.

Image courtesy of Chargeway.

Higher numbers equal faster charging, so if you have a Chevy Bolt, that’s a Green 4. A Mustang Mach-E? That’s a Green, too, but it will go up to level 6. A brand-new Tesla Model S? Red 7.

It’s intuitive, and it’s the language that many dealers will soon be using. “Because the 16,000+ NADA member dealers represent nearly all the major automotive brands, their adoption of Chargeway will create a de facto ‘standard dictionary’ of EV charging terms,” reads the official NADA press release. “‘Green’ plugs, ‘Level 6’ chargers, etc. That will make it easier for EV dealers and buyers to communicate, regardless of brand.”

With all that said, we hope we’ve made it clearer for you to understand the different types of EV charging and chargers. If you want to hear about more clever ways to visualize or talk about EVs, you can tune into Chargeway’s founder, Matt Teske, on the Electrify Expo podcast with CleanTechnica’s Jo Borras (me!) on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you get your podcasts.

Original content from CleanTechnica.


 

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Diess Survives Volkswagen Board Review — for Now

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Herbert Diess, CEO of the Volkswagen Group, was put under the microscope recently after he suggested publicly that as many as 30,000 manufacturing jobs at the company could be lost if it fails to meet the challenge from competitors, principally Tesla. His remarks were interpreted by some, especially Daniela Cavallo, the head of the works council, as a threat to fire 30,000 employees.

Diess further inflamed the passions of company insiders when he invited Elon Musk to call in to a meeting of 200 Volkswagen senior managers. That annoyed just about everyone in the company who wasn’t already annoyed by the job cuts thing and resulted in a call to convene the rarely use mediation committee of the Volkswagen management board. That committee is made up of representatives from the company’s largest shareholders as well as the head of the works council (worker union).

A meeting was held last Tuesday but no announcements were made afterwards. The only things Reuters could uncover about the meeting were two statements from anonymous sources. The first said, “This topic is so hot, it is on a knife edge. I can’t say anything further.” The other said, “As expected, there is nothing new.” The most that can be gleaned from this kerfuffle is that Diess has been called on the carpet and warned that he must change his management style or face possible termination.

Changing his management style appears to mean he should stop pissing off the works council. Cavallo is on record as saying, “We’re tired of hearing time and again that the works council is apparently only concerned with preserving the status quo.” She insists that all the workers and labor representatives are fully supportive of the proposals Diess has put forth to speed up the transition to electric vehicles, including a major rethink of how they build cars at its largest factory, in Wolfsburg.

The crux of Diess’ recent remarks is that Tesla will soon be building electric cars in Grünheide in much less time with fewer workers. Stripping away all the emotional content of his recent remarks, it should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that you can’t compete successfully if your cars cost more to build than the cars your competitor is making. It’s as plain as the face on your nose, and yet Diess has been called to account for saying out loud what should be evident to everyone.

Sources tell Reuters that the committee is working to craft a position that will satisfy all parties — which means it will probably satisfy no one. Diess will be asked to change his management style, which is a little like asking a leopard to change its spots, while new board members will be announced, new assurances on job prospects for employees will be given, and new investment plans for Volkswagen Group will be put forth.

There are rumors — unfounded, unconfirmed, and uncorroborated — that if Diess is tossed overboard, he could wind up being tapped to run the automotive division of Tesla, which would allow Musk to focus his considerable talents on other things like SpaceX, energy storage, and tangling with Bernie Sanders on Twitter.

Part of Diess’ problems may stem from the fact that he is an outsider. From 1996 to 2015, he worked at BMW, where he was a member of its management board. Volkswagen, like any major corporation, has a culture of promoting from within. No doubt, bringing Diess in from outside the company — and from a competitor in the German auto industry at that — rankled lots of loyal Volkswagen managers who maybe thought they should have been promoted when the diesel cheating scandal hit in 2015 and Martin Winterkorn was given the heave ho.

Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Has Diess learned his lesson? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.


 

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Hydro Versus Batteries: Tasmania Pushes Its Undersea Cable Plan

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There is no question that hydroelectric power is a wonderful thing. It’s green, it’s renewable, it’s emissions-free, and it’s relatively inexpensive.  There is also no question that water can be stored behind a dam for days, weeks, months, or even years before it is used to spin turbines that generate electricity.

Tasmania has an abundance of hydroelectric power — quite a bit more than it needs, actually. It would very much like to sell some of its excess electricity to the rest of Australia. The plan put forward by Hydro Tasmania and TasNetworks is known as the Marinus Link — a 500-kilometer-long undersea transmission line linking Tasmania to Melbourne. From there it would connect to the utility grid on the mainland, making Tasmania Australia’s national battery, so to speak.

But there’s a flaw in the Hydro Tasmania plan. According to a report written by the highly regarded Dr. Bruce Mountain for the Victoria Energy Policy Center, the Marinus Link is a money-losing proposition that will only make less economic sense in coming years as the cost of grid scale battery storage continues to decline. Here’s a quote from the Executive Summary that pretty much says it all.

“The main conclusions of that report are that 1,500 MW of four-hour battery can be provided for less than half the cost of Marinus Link; that the same capacity of six-hour battery can be provided for 79% of the cost of Marinus Link and that 1,500 MW of eight-hour battery storage is still cheaper than Marinus Link.

“In other words, even if Hydro Tasmania is able to provide, for no additional cost, 1,500 MW that it could export to Victoria day-in day-out for eight hours at a stretch for the foreseeable future, it will still be cheaper to build 1,500 MW of batteries in Victoria rather than to build Marinus Link. Of course the Tasmanian electrical system has no-where near the power or energy capability needed to provide 1,500 MW of supply to Victoria for 8 hours every day and so many billions will be needed to expand its storages and energy production in Tasmania in order to be able to provide the capacity that Marinus Link claims to offer.”

The ending of the report is just as brutal. “We now feel able to conclude that not only does Marinus Link have no chance of competing with battery alternatives but that if Hydro Tasmania develops pumped hydro capacity in Tasmania it is very likely that, like Snowy 2.0, it will be stranded from the outset.”

Cuanto Cuesta?

So how much would the Marinus Link cost? The proposal calls for building two new 750-megawatt undersea power cables between Tasmania and Victoria at a cost of about $3.5 billion. Hydro Tasmania, which is owned by the state of Tasmania, plans to store power in Tasmanian dams by releasing water to generate electricity for export to Victoria when prices are high, and pumping the water back into dams when power prices are low.

According to MSN, Mountain claims that if the Marinus Link is funded by the Tasmanian or Commonwealth governments, taxpayers will be left paying for an asset that would cost more to build than it can earn. “It would be placing a dead weight on the shoulders of the people of Tasmania, if indeed the people of Tasmania bear most of the cost. If it’s borne by the Commonwealth in some way, it’ll be placing a burden on all taxpayers and energy consumers depending on how the bid ends up, when you build an asset that can’t compete.”

Mountain also expressed skepticism about the the long term benefits of construction jobs associated with the projects. “It would be much better for the community if the government simply gave that money out — frankly, it would be less of a loss for the community. Building a white elephant, a dead weight loss, entrenches disadvantage.” No namby-pamby, wishy-washy words from the esteemed Dr. Mountain. Better to take that money and just throw it in the street.

The Case For Marinus Link

Hydro Tasmania and TasNetworks aren’t giving up the fight. TasNetworks general manager for Marinus Link Bess Clark says both batteries and pumped hydro storage will be needed as Australia’s energy market transitions away from fossil fuels. “Marinus Link presents a once in a generation opportunity to double Tasmania’s clean energy, helps combat climate change, puts downward pressure on power prices and creates thousands of local jobs,” she says, before adding that modeling by the Australian Energy Market Operator shows the Marinus Link will be a key part of Australia’s energy grid in the future.

A spokesman for Hydro Tasmania said batteries wouldn’t be able to meet all of Australia’s energy storage requirements and that deep storage like pumped hydro will be needed. “It’s not a question of having one or the other. We will need all the relevant, cost competitive technologies to play their part to ensure all Australians have a power system that is reliable, secure and affordable,” he said.

Last week the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry threw its “wholehearted support” behind the Marinus Link project. “We know that this project will be fantastic not just for employment across the state over the next 50 years but also for the growth of business within Tasmania,” TCCI CEO Michael Bailey said.

All Of The Above

There are two sides to this debate and they both have points in their favor. Pumped hydro can supply power far longer than any grid storage battery in existence. A battery can react in milliseconds; pumped hydro cannot. One of the benefits of battery storage is its frequency and voltage regulation capability. Both save grid operators money but are services pumped hydro cannot provide.

Then there is the question of timing. Bruce Mountain tells the Sydney Morning Herald the Victorian Big Battery, composed of dozens of Tesla Megapacks, will be commissioned shortly, while a similar installation at Jeeralan should be ready by 2026. There are four more storage battery projects in the pipeline as well. A further four major batteries are likely to proceed. Those will all be in place and operational before the Marinus Link becomes operational.

“Battery storage capacity will be built and operational in Victoria long before Marinus Link and the Battery of the Nation developments in Tasmania are close to operational,” the VEPC report says. “Marinus Link continues to have no prospect of competing against battery alternatives in Victoria.” Mountain adds, “Considering the much higher efficiency and responsiveness of chemical batteries than pumped hydro, if pumped hydro is developed in Tasmania it is surely likely that it, not batteries, will sit idle.”

“It’s not a question of having one or the other,” Hydro Tasmania counters. “We will need all the relevant, cost-competitive technologies to play their part to ensure all Australians have a power system that is reliable, secure and affordable.” Tasmania also is investing heavily in the power of wind, something it also has in abundance.

The Trouble With Transmission

Solar power advocates like to say that a gigantic solar farm in a small corner of the Sahara desert could power all of Europe and the UK — if there were transmission lines connecting the two areas. In the US, some people dream of New Yorkers getting solar power from California after the sun sets on the Big Apple. That could happen if there were transcontinental high voltage transmission lines.

That being said, transmission lines can be hugely expensive to construct and maintain. They are also subject to disruption from any number of causes — wind, earthquakes, wild fires, even malicious damage. The world is learning a hard lesson about making stuff in one place for consumption in another place using a flotilla of cargo ships to connect the two. Anything that can go wrong often does go wrong and at the worst possible time. Just ask Puerto Rico about relying on distant generating stations to power its major cities.

Pumped hydro is an important piece of the energy storage puzzle but it can’t just be plunked down close to the places where demand for electrical energy is high. In theory, battery storage facilities can be sited almost anywhere. Ideally, they can go where retired thermal generating stations are located, places with the advantage of already having the connections needed to feed the stored power into the electrical grid.

Planning For The Future Is Hard

The objection is not to Tasmania’s abundant hydro power. The objection is the cost of getting it to distant markets at competitive cost. Then there a time considerations. What may seem like a good idea today may not look quite so appealing a few years down the road when the economics tilt more in favor of one solution than another. When there is not an unlimited supply of money, it is best to invest what you have in solutions that will be fiscally viable for the longest period of time, not one that will be come economically noncompetitive before the end of its useful life.

Perhaps Tasmania would be wise to invest its dollars in technologies that turn its excess electricity into green hydrogen or ammonia, which could then be exported at reasonable cost to anywhere in the world. The issue is not energy storage. The issue is energy transmission. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in Australia, where wise energy planning at the federal level appears to be an alien concept.


 

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