Supersize My Whopper: Volt Gas Volt’s Fuzzy Math

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Jim Lane

VoltGasVolt.png We were suitably intrigued by the headline, “Renewable Energy Program Could Make Fracking and Biofuels Obsolete.” And so the press release began:

“Project Volt Gas Volt, a new green program, shows the potential of storing renewable energy in surplus, which could make nuclear energy, natural gas, fracking, and biofuels seem like energy sources from the past.”

If that’s starting to sound like a pitch to fringe interests, read on.

“Surplus electricity that is generated by wind farms and solar parks and converted into methane can be stored for months in the existing natural gas grid. The surplus of energy makes it the battery for renewable energy while simultaneously making hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) obsolete. The methane would be used to produce electricity, and district heating, or as a motor fuel.  We will use the surplus energy from nuclear, now largely wasted at night, to help pay for the exit from nuclear. And we will use the CO2 generated from burning waste, biomass and from steel mills and cement plants to generate the methane.”

Later in the underlying documents, the process is outlined. Use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, blowing off the oxygen. “Mixing hydrogen with CO2″ to make methane (note: it’s not exactly explained how, technically, this is achieved, though there are paths to make this happen.). Storing methane and burning eventually to generate power.

Then this.

“The first small scale industrial installation (6.3 MW) for the conversion of electricity into gas is currently being built in northern Germany by Audi, in collaboration with SolarFuel and EWE (a biogas user). Current production costs are high – around 25 euro cents per kWh of gas produced. The aim is to reduce this to around 8 cents per kWh by 2018…compared with the price of imported Russian gas, including transport costs, which is around 4 to 5 cents per kWh (2 euro cents not counting transport).”

So, let’s see if we get this. It costs 5X of the incumbent now. 3X after unspecified improvement that is five years away.

So here are the whoppers.

1. Not a substitute in real-world terms. If biofuels and other technologies simply had to reach 5X of the fuel price today and 3X by 2018 – why, all of them would be competitive with $500 per barrel oil today and $300 per barrel oil by 2018.

2. Not really replacing, er, biofuels. Note that the process is dependent on waste CO2 from…oops, burning biomass. Also, elsewhere in the project outline, it mentions crude biogas as a source of waste CO2 as well.

3. Transporting gas or power. We also might point out the dependency on aggregated sources of CO2, which is going to require transporting large amounts of a) power or b) gas. Sources of the kind of pure CO2 that’s needed, and wind/solar generation projects are unlikely to be co-located. You might also note how the transport cost is not included here, but is included for the comparative (Russian gas). Stripping out all transport costs, the cost premium is 12.5X.

4. The water sourcing problem. Watch out for the water usage. And, if the reaction uses salt-water, better prepare to have a use for the residual chlorine that may be produced as a byproduct of the reaction.

5. The CO2 sourcing problem. Good luck getting the CO2, anyway. Ethanol plants, cement plants and steel mills are going the liquid route, in search of higher values – rather than selling CO2 as  gas feedstock for the lower-value power market. Think Waste Management (invested in Fulcrum Bioenergy, Enerkem), BaoSteel (LanzaTech), St. Mary’s (Pond Biofuels).

Jim Lane is editor and publisher  of Biofuels Digest where this article was originally published. Biofuels Digest is the most widely read  Biofuels daily read by 14,000+ organizations. Subscribe here.

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