Will Tesla Solar Tiles and Batteries Bring Another Renewables Boom?

One of the key drivers of renewable technology, particularly in relation to cars, over the last couple of decades has undoubtedly been the US company Tesla. Started by Elon Musk in 2003, it’s meteoric rise over the last decade and a half has been pretty sensational. Now Tesla has moved into home development and is making huge strides in solar technology in this area.

Last October the team at this innovative corporation unveiled their new solar tiles which fit on the roof like normal, everyday slates. The benefit? Many people thinking of getting solar don’t particularly like the bulky look of traditional panels. The new solar tiles not only fit in with the local look and feel of a property but may also give construction teams undertaking new builds all around the world the opportunity to include the technology as a matter of course.

Aesthetics have a lot of power when it comes to those who are on the edge of deciding whether to install green technology. It not only has to do good, it needs to look great as well. It’s not just the solar tiles that are hitting the right mark at the moment. Combining with better and more effective storage options, Tesla could just be helping solar go to the next level. According to TechCrunch last year:

“Tesla’s solar tiles claim to be able to power a standard home, and provide spare power via the new Powerwall 2 battery in case of inclement weather or other outages. Musk says that the overall cost will still be less than installing a regular old roof and paying the electric company for power from conventional sources.”

There is, however, still some way to go before we see every new home with its own solar tiles and inbuilt battery storage. The major issue is the battery technology. Tesla have been at the forefront of developing electric powered cars over the last decade and a half and it’s easy to see the potential to benefit solar storage in the home.

The product that has caught the imagination is the Powerwall, first introduced by the company in 2015. As we all know, solar has one immutable problem – when the sun doesn’t shine, power doesn’t get produced. The battery is therefore key in creating the system that people will be willing to buy and incorporate into new builds – it provides as its end point a possibility that each home will be able to create its own electricity and not rely on the grid at any time.

The price, of course, has also been an issue so far. The Powerwall was initially going for $3,000 in America and in the UK the installation along with all the extra equipment was being sold for £6-£10,000. These seem prohibitive costs when you add on the price of the actual solar panel installation. Tesla’s solar tiles are also on the expensive side when compared to traditional solar panals. According to Forbes:

“The average home in the United States is 2,467 square feet. According to Tesla’s handy solar calculator, the new system will set an average homeowner back $51,200 for a 70% solar roof.”

This stiff initial price tag is a given for all new technologies. We should expect the price to come down as the competition increases and manufacturing gets more efficient. That’s already beginning to happen. Companies all around the world are working hard on research and development to produce battery storage for all sorts of renewable tech including wind and solar. That’s where the boom, if it happens, really will begin to take off.

The UK’s answer to Powerwall, the Powervault, for instance is considerably cheaper than the Tesla model although it is a little more bulky and about the size of a washing machine. And when business minister Greg Clark announced earlier this summer that the UK was going to invest in battery technology it warmed the heart of many an eco-warrior. The Government is putting in £246 million for the ‘Faraday Challenge’ in the hope of making the UK a world leader in battery technology.

So how long is this all going to take?

Many believe this is the only future if we want a low carbon world. The rush to better battery technology and new innovations such as solar tiles may now have become unstoppable. As with many new technologies, the proof is going to be in the price, however. Once that starts to come down, we’ll know that our solar future is more or less guaranteed.

One of the Largest Investors Backs Renewables

It’s a sign of the times that more and more people who invest are starting to focus on renewables. Of course, the stock market is all about making money and there’s no room for sentiment if you want to make a profit.

The news that one of the world’s largest investors, Morgan Stanley, backs renewables will provide everyone around the world rooting for the green agenda with a boost. The research they carried out showed that renewables such as solar and wind are becoming cheap enough to outperform fossil fuels, especially coal.

According to the bank in July:

“Numerous key markets recently reached an inflection point where renewables have become the cheapest form of new power generation. A dynamic we see spreading to nearly every country we cover by 2020. The price of solar panels has fallen 50% in less than two years (2016-17).”

There are a number of things that have been responsible for driving the cost of renewables down in recent years. Improvement in technology is one – wind turbines are operating with longer blades nowadays which allows them to produce more power. An oversupply of solar panels in the US has led to better details for home and commercial installations. In the UK, the price of installing solar panels has also come down in recent years and with markets such as China producing cheap products this may be set to continue.

The lower cost is making utility companies think again about what sectors they invest in. If solar and wind are going to be cheaper, the costs can be passed onto the consumer. Those large companies that are investing in infrastructure may also get a better return if they choose renewables rather than coal, oil or gas based projects. The development of new technologies such as tidal lagoons could take us even further if they are successful.

The key that is perhaps driving things more than most is the development of storage technology that helps us circumvent some of the major problems with renewables – how to get energy when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow.

According to Morgan Stanley:

“The demand for storage is expected to grow from a less than $300 million a year market to as much as $4 billion in the next two to three years, says the Morgan Stanley report. Ultimately there’s about a $30 billion market for storage units, with capacity for around 85 gigawatt-hours of power storage. That’s enough electricity to light up most of the New York City metro area for a year.”

This comes on the back of the UK government recently announcing a major commitment to developing storage technology. Many see it as the future and the one ingredient that will push renewables way past the tipping point and finally consign fossil fuels to the past. The question is how quickly it’s going to happen.

As with anything to do with renewables, however, things are not entirely straightforward. A thinktank in the UK at the beginning of the year, said there was a threat that renewables will suffer from underinvestment over the next three years because of the removal of subsidies. They put the decline in investment in areas such as solar and wind at as much as 95%.

That hasn’t stopped those who do invest and are moving from high carbon to low carbon solutions, which is better news for green advocates. That may well be the governing factor when it comes to renewables, rather than the presence or absence of any subsidies. As with most things, money talks. According to Emma Pinchbeck from the Green Alliance:

“The energy sector is changing. The infrastructure pipeline shows that the private sector understands the smart money is on the renewables industry – that is why they are moving from high carbon assets to low carbon ones.”

When Will We Reach Grid Parity with Solar Generation?

Grid parity began to seep into the lexicon of the solar sector a few years ago and for some it has become an obsession, a kind of holy grail. Around 19 countries have reached this grand achievement, including Germany which reached parity for solar PV in 2011/2012.

Recent research by a consultancy firm, McKinsley, has suggested that the UK will reach this stage by 2020 mainly because of the reducing cost of installation.

What is Grid Parity?

Simply put, grid parity happens when a new energy source, in this case solar, begins to cost the same or less than traditional ways of producing electricity such as coal, oil or gas. The term that is used is the ‘levelized cost of electricity’ and it’s the thing that most economists and industry experts look to when they are considering the viability of any particular technology.

Why is it Important?

The big stumbling block to any new energy production is affordability. It’s something that the renewables sceptics use to beat the sector with. Solar and wind cost more so they are never going to be a suitable replacement for fossil fuels. When grid parity is reached, however, that argument goes out the window. It becomes obsolete.

Grid parity is essentially the tipping point when a renewable cuts into the mainstream and we can no longer argue against its use. Not only that, once the economic argument becomes non-sensical, people start investing more in areas such as solar generation – in other words, those with the money start to see a profit in solar panels and you get a boost that pushes the technology further.

Grid Parity for Solar in the UK

So, the big question is how we get there. There are several factors that impact on how quickly it happens. One, unfortunately, is the level of sunshine – which is why areas like California have reached parity pretty quickly. Another is the financing available and those willing to invest in the industry. Even seeing things from a utility or home owner point of view can make a difference to the calculation.

There’s no doubt in many people’s minds that grid parity was set back a lot when the Tory government reduced subsidies through the feed in tariff and seemed to scale back their efforts to promote and encourage renewables. This goes against a 2015 study by Deutsche Bank that estimated around 80% of countries would have reached parity by this year. The UK was on track to achieve parity if it hadn’t been for the removal of subsidies, something that happened far too soon according to many in the industry.

Grid parity in the UK is now dependent on the cost of installation coming down some more over the coming years. It is starting to happen, which is the good news, especially with markets such as China delivering cheaper panels. According to law firm Stephen Scowns:

“The increasing number of Chinese solar panel manufacturers that are withdrawing from the European Union’s Minimum Import Price agreement will drive down capex costs and EPC costs here even further.”

The truth is that, despite the consistent naysayers who are against renewables no matter what, grid parity is going to be reached sooner rather than later, perhaps even by 2020 as Mckinleys have suggested. Many believe that we have reached the tipping point and there’s no going back. Indeed, a government report at the end of last year seemed to confirm that by 2020 the cost of large scale solar would be around £67 per megawatt hour which is almost the same as gas. Those businesses that have solar panels installed on their buildings are also more likely to be paying less for their electricity by 2020 despite the removal of subsidies and the feed in tariff.

Reaching grid parity as soon as possible, not just here in the UK but around the world, is important if we want to put the final nail in the coffin of fossil fuels. Even now, projects are being developed that don’t depend on subsidies. This is good news for the solar industry. Solar farms are still being built – one the latest is the 4.99MW Barnby, Bilsthorpe and Wickfield project which went online  at the end of March this year.

For most people, grid parity for solar isn’t going to matter much. They’ll hardly notice. As long as they can watch their TV and boil the kettle, the battle for renewables supremacy just isn’t going to cut it.

For those who have been pushing the green agenda and fighting for a low carbon future, however, it means everything. It’s marks the moment when solar will come of age in the UK and confirms its place in our energy infrastructure. Other countries may have got their first but we won’t be that far behind.

The Renewables Buzz: The future of green energy

The last few years have been anything but straightforward when it comes to renewable energy. With seismic changes across the globe, including close to home after the Brexit decision to leave the EU, as well as the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, you could be forgiven that things might be coming off the rails.

The Conservative government got a majority in Parliament and decided to slash Feed in Tariffs to give the solar industry a big fright and set back the green agenda. At the same time, they decided to build an overly expensive nuclear power station that made most green experts hang their heads in despair.

Trump, once in office, opted to withdraw from the climate change agreement and promoted sceptics to prominent positions despite not having a clue what he is talking about or what he is doing. That’s not to mention his recent attempts to rile North Korean despot Kim Jung Il and cause a nuclear war.

The good news is, that despite all the uncertainty, renewables across the globe are looking increasingly strong. The future is bright and, even in the UK, people are still having solar panels installed on their roofs. Wind farms are still being developed in many parts of the world and research and development teams are still working to find new and innovative ways to produce green energy.

More Investment in Renewables

There are many who believe that we have gone past the tipping point for renewables and that there is no stopping it now. It is fast becoming a disruptive technology that should see the death knells of fossil fuels sounding sooner rather than later.

With countries like China investing heavily in a renewable future, despite their current dependence on coal, things are looking up. In addition, investors on financial markets are moving away from fossil fuel portfolios. According to the Guardian last year:

“Profitable sustainability is coming of age, at least as far as renewable energy is concerned. With the value of fossil fuel holdings plummeting and the profitability of renewables growing, investors and companies are increasingly looking to sustainable investments for good long term bets.”

This could be the single biggest factor that moves us away from a reliance on fossil fuels to a renewable, clean energy future. That’s why many industry experts were disappointed but not unduly worried when President Trump decided to walk out of the Paris climate change agreement earlier this year. Money talks, as the saying goes, and it may well drive renewables into a much stronger and certainly less contested position over the next decade or so.

Solar Power Getting Cheaper

Solar power and the cost of installation has been getting cheaper and cheaper, year on year for a while now. According to Money Saving Expert:

“The price of a typical solar panel system, including installation, is now around £5,000-£8,000. In the scheme’s early days, a system this size used to cost £10,000-£12,000.”

Yes, feed in tariffs have been cut in recent years but when you add up the cost and savings on fuel bills, installing panels still provides a decent return on investment. The big development for the future, of course, is going to be how we store that electricity. In July this year, Business Secretary Greg Clark announced the UK is going to invest £245 million into battery technology over the next four years. This is going to be key for renewables like solar if they are to become even more prevalent in the decades to come.

The future could indeed see a time when each home has its own solar eco-system producing all the household’s energy needs.

Do Our Oceans Hold the Key?

Hidden away from many UK residents, a lot of work has been going on in recent years to harness the power of the sea. In January of this year, the £1.3 billion tidal lagoon planned for Swansea was backed by a government commissioned review. If it goes ahead and is successful, it could pave the way for further tidal lagoons around the UK coast, providing a substantial proportion of our electricity and reducing our collective carbon footprint in the process.

Throw in some much smaller projects experimenting with offshore sea kites and there’s plenty going on beneath the surface of our oceans. Other countries are following suit and it may just be that tidal energy production becomes an important area to invest in over the next couple of decades.

Wind is Still a Power

Finally, you may think we’ve forgotten about wind. We’re used to seeing those turbines turning slowly off the coast of many of our towns and cities in the UK. But the new generation of wind turbines are now being designed and developed and these could further transform the landscape around us. Companies like Google are experimenting with systems that can fly up to 300 metres and you can even find someone trying out hummingbird style arrays that flap rather than turn.

Is it time to invest in renewables?

There are several reasons why the renewables sector should be a sound investment now, even if you’re a confirmed climate change denier. When big players like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are putting their billions into renewables and 1 in 5 dollars are being invested in this area generally, you know that there’s something going on.

Since the climate change agreement at the Paris accord was adopted in 2015, most countries have come on board and are trying to lower carbon emissions by focusing more on renewables and developing innovative technologies.

Yes, the USA under Donald J Trump has decided to withdraw but that doesn’t mean everyone else is going to follow suit – in fact it’s been quite the opposite.

As newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron said following Trump’s fateful speech:

“I do respect this decision but I do think it is an actual mistake both for the US and for our planet…Wherever we live, whoever we are, we all share the same responsibility: make our planet great again.”

Neither does it mean that America will no longer invest in solar, wind and other technology to create greener energy. There are many who believe that the Trump climate denying bandwagon will only have a limited shelf-life anyway.

Many countries are beginning to invest time and billions in a renewables infrastructure, including previously reticent players such as China and India. They see the potential here to create jobs, industry and money. Indeed, China is expecting to put some £292 billion into renewable power by the end of the decade and they may well become the world leader before too long.

Even the UK, where the focus on renewables has been a little shaky in recent times, saw half of its electricity provided by green energy through the middle of June this year. The Tory government were accused of killing off the solar industry by slashing Feed in Tariffs but insiders believe that the industry has a bright future despite a few setbacks. Business minister Greg Clark recently announced that the UK is going to invest heavily in battery and storage technology for energy. According to the government website:

“Known as the Faraday Challenge, the 4-year investment round is a key part of the government’s Industrial Strategy. It will deliver a coordinated programme of competitions that will aim to boost both the research and development of expertise in battery technology.”

For many in the renewables industry this is not before time. There have been calls for money and research to put into storage technology for a while now and it’s largely been ignored.

The People Investing in Renewables

A couple of years ago, it became obvious that serious investors, particularly large corporations, were starting to expand their portfolios to include renewable energy. There has also been a movement in some circles to disinvest from carbon heavy options such as coal and oil. The change has been slow but has given rise to the ethical investor that wants to put their hard-earned cash into those businesses with a sustainable and eco-friendly portfolio.

There is also the suggestion that, rather than being a lot of hype and hot air, green technology is finally beginning to disrupt the energy market and change things for real. A recent report by Morgan Stanley showed that renewables such as solar and wind will be the cheapest source of power across the globe within the next few years.

Investing by Installing

Of course, another way of investing in renewables is to have them installed. For most people, the obvious choice is solar which has come down in cost over recent years. While we may not have the strong Feed in Tariff rates that we had in the past, solar panels still represent a sound investment for the future and can reduce energy costs.

Another option if you don’t want to dabble on the stock market is to choose energy providers that are putting more investment into the renewables. While this used to be the province of smaller utility companies, the big five are also now working to get more of their mix from renewable sources and promoting green energy practices. And major car companies have now stopped developing products that are designed to enhance petrol cars and are beginning to focus more acutely on the electric or hybrid future.

The good news is that investment in renewables is increasing steadily. That could be the real nail in the coffin of the fossil fuel industry over the next few decades – people will simply prefer to put the money in the stocks and shares of companies that helping us lead greener and better lives. And that’s probably why the US, it’s climate change deniers and President Donald J Trump won’t have the impact we first feared.

Waste Wood as a Biomass Fuel

In 2010, the UK’s annual arising of waste wood generated by households and businesses was estimated at 4.1 million tonnes.  About 2 million tonnes were diverted or recovered from the waste stream for recycling or energy recovery but the remainder continues to be sent to landfill, resulting in considerable environmental and economic costs.

Recycling companies currently pay thousands of pounds each year to dispose of their waste wood as well as the associated risk of fire hazards and accidents.  Between 2001 and 2013, there were on average more than 300 fires per year at waste and recycling plants around the UK.

Firstly, to clarify exactly what is waste wood?  Virgin timbers are not waste wood and not subject to special regulatory controls when burned as fuel, however where virgin timber is mixed with waste timber, or any other waste, the mixed load is classed as waste wood.

Non virgin timber such as off cuts, shavings, chippings and sawdust from the processing of non-virgin timbers (whether un-treated or treated) are classified as waste wood. Un-treated non-virgin waste wood, despite not having been treated with any chemicals, is waste wood. Treated non-virgin timber is any timber that has been treated (e.g. to enhance the performance of the original wood) or made into panel board of any sort is waste wood.

As classified by the Environment Agency: Grade A waste wood must be visibly ‘clean’ non-hazardous waste wood from the arboriculture sector, packaging waste, scrap pallets, packing cases, cable drums and off-cuts from the manufacture of untreated wood products. They would not accept as grade A, wood sorted from a mixed waste load delivered to, for example, a skip yard unless they are completely confident on how the wood is assessed and classified.

Grade B waste wood consists of non-hazardous waste wood from the production of wood-based panels; for example, chipboard and medium density fibreboard. Particle board manufacturing in the UK is subject to a gate-house protocol (PAS 104). In addition to visual inspection of incoming waste wood, sampling for heavy metals and halogenated compounds is carried out.

Grade C Waste wood consist of non-hazardous waste wood sourced mainly from construction and demolition activities, recycling centres and civic amenity sites. Grade C wood is used as a fuel in permitted co-incinerators but is not suitable for clean waste wood combustion plant. Due to the tight specifications and checks carried out by the board-manufacturing sector, visibly clean grade C waste wood may also go to wood-based panel manufacture.

Grade D waste wood can include any item of waste wood which has been treated, coated, painted or otherwise contaminated with any hazardous substance. This may include for example heavy metals and in particular, copper, chrome or arsenic (CCA), creosote, halogenated compound or metal pigment containing treatments, paints, coatings and preservatives.

When burning waste wood a special type of biomass boiler is required:

Grade   Type of boiler required for a process where a Part B permit is required

A            Industrial Biomass Boiler

B            Industrial Biomass Boiler WID (IED) Compliant may be required

C            Industrial Biomass Boiler WID (IED) Compliance will be required

D            Hazardous Waste Incinerator – Part A Permit required

It is possible to burn Grade A, or possibly Grade B, waste wood in a standard industrial biomass boiler (subject to any additional emissions controls to comply with permitting requirements) but Grade C (or possibly Grade B) may require what is known as a WID compliant boiler.

Although the WID regulations have now been amalgamated into the IED a boiler that complies with the requirements of the IED (to hold the combustion gases at a temperature of 850°C for a minimum of 2 seconds) it is generally referred to as a WID compliant boiler.

There are many advantages to recycling waste wood, such as the generation of free heat and hot water.  Tipping costs are also reduced and the Government Incentive (RHI) gets paid per kW heat  produced over 20 years.  Technical support is also available for companies to become a BSL fuel supplier (Biomass Suppliers List) providing a new income stream (must be supplied to boilers with the correct emission certificates).

By installing a biomass system, it can help to provide a 20 year additional income for a recycling business and can also reduce waste removal costs.  The heat produced can be a valuable source of heating to dry other products and another benefit of burning waste wood is you can produce electricity from ORC or CHP. Other positive factors include the reduction of accidents on the premises, the reduction of the risk of fire and the positive impact on the environment.

BGI are currently engaged with installing a biomass, drying and briquetting plant, from Eurobiomass, for a Recycling Centre in the North of England.

This is an ESCO funded 990 kW Biomass installation with drying facilities and briquetting plant housed in a building. The boiler being installed is capable of burning grade A & B waste wood since the site currently processes around 500 tonnes per week of wood, which is currently shredded and sent to landfill or sent for bedding processing to a third party, all at a significant cost.

The Recycling Centre plan to dry this material and manufacture briquettes, horse and cattle bedding and mulch from the process.  In order to achieve this, a 990 kW Eurobiomass Waste Wood Boiler with 2 Fliegl flat bed dryers with cyclonic dust suppression system are being installed. They will feed a hopper which in turn will feed a briquetting machine to produce the resulting briquettes.

This is just one type of solution available to UK Recycling Centres as many are realising that waste wood diverted from landfill becomes a resource and a source of income and energy for their businesses, for the future.

Author: Katrina Robson – Marketing Manager at Bio Global Industries Ltd (BGI)

For more information about this article, please visit the Bio Global Industries website.