Episode #40 of Cleantech Talk is here! This episode covers a massive electric bus order in Shenzhen, new bioplastics, and a huge new solar power plant in Oman.
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Build Your Depot: Shenzen’s All-Electric Bus Plan
As Nicolas reported, the city of Shenzhen (near Hong Kong) has announced plans to electrify its entire bus fleet. This isn’t particularly surprising, given that it’s the home of battery behemoth turned battery-electric-vehicle behemoth BYD.
For the geographically disinclined — myself included! — Shenzhen is located in Guangdong province, opposite Hong Kong, and has a population of 12 million people (more than the entirety of western Canada). For its part, Guangdong has 100 million people in an area the size of Florida (population 20 million) or about twice the size of Portugal (population 10 million).
Shenzhen, Guangdong, China. Source: Google Maps
Shenzhen’s size gives it another advantage: with its huge population and Guangdong’s concentration of industries (the province is China’s biggest importer and exporter of goods), that means there will be power flowing every which where, and electric utilities can make investments with the confidence of increased electricity demand for years and decades to come. This means it’ll be a lot less difficult to provide power for 14,000 electric buses than in more isolated cities. (14,000 buses x 50 kW = 700 MW, which is nothing to sneeze at!!)
A counter-example comes from Edmonton in Canada, where the city wants to buy only zero-emission buses as of 2020, but has run into the cost of bus depot upgrades. Metro Edmonton is pretty much surrounded by ranchland/farmland — it’s about 200 miles (300 km) to Calgary, the nearest million-population-plus city — which means that it isn’t as easy to tap into ginormous power lines. The city estimates it would cost tens of millions of dollars to upgrade one of its bus garages to accommodate just 120 electric buses, which is on the order of $200,000 in depot upgrades ($24 million/120) for each e-bus, which themselves still have a price premium over diesel buses. All the more reason to get those battery costs way down!
[Editor’s note: Not ignoring the core regional differences Matthew highlights and population difference (Edmonton has a population of ~1 million whereas Shenzhen is at ~12 million), it is a bit interesting that a Chinese city now has the money to buy 14,000 electric buses whereas a Canadian one can’t add 120. And what to say of an American one?!]
From Plants to Plastics
CleanTechnica contributor Steve Hanley penned an article recently on a catalyst breakthrough that could help us convert biomass into plastic feedstock chemicals at relatively low temperatures, which means “relatively” inexpensively. While this is exciting, we need to temper expectations with the fact that this was demonstrated in a university lab at small scale. And, well, scale-up is where chemistry goes to die.
How to make polyurethane using CO2 as one of the feedstocks. Source: Bayer (now Covestro)
That said, there are other promising developments on the plastics front. BASF’s former materials division, now called Covestro, is running a 5,000 tonne per year pilot plant to make polyols, which is one of the main precursors for polyurethane. The neat thing here is that the polyols incorporate up to 20% CO2 by weight. They brand this product as Cardyon™. Cardyon™ is almost certainly much more expensive than generic polyols, but there’s probably a business opportunity to sell premium Cardyon™-containing polyurethane to consumer brands like Nike (for their shoe cushions) or IKEA (mattresses), whose brand power allows them to charge a premium for their products.
Global polyurethane use is still only 20 million tonnes per year, and not everyone will buy premium polyurethane, but maybe we could sequester … a million tonnes CO2 per year this way? (It’s a million tonnes better than the alternative!) That’s barely a drop in the bucket of the 36 billion tonnes of CO2 (or 10 billion tonnes of elemental carbon) emitted each year, but every successful example of using non-fossil feedstocks for plastics brings us just a bit further along.
Ford has long worked on bioplastics such as soy-based foam, so perhaps we can get some uptake on those as well!
From Oil Barons to Solar Sheikhs?
Miraah solar plant, Oman. Source: Glasspoint.
For now, the plant will be used to … help extract more oil from their oilfields. Which isn’t optimal. But then again, they’d’ve otherwise probably used natural gas. Longer-term, we can hope that the Persian Gulf can transition to exporting renewable energy instead of fossil energy. (It’s true that desert sand getting on solar panels will impair electricity production — but cheap drones could make it cost-effective to regularly blow the sand off.)
We can hope that this transition spreads the benefits out broadly to the locals, as we don’t want to simply replace oil barons with solar sheikhs. It’s hard to imagine that Gulf states could export gigawatts of electricity — think of all the transmission lines that would have to cross politically-unstable areas — so I suspect they’ll export ammonia, or hydrogen in the form of liquid organic hydrogen carriers.
While less efficient than simply generating electricity, the latter just doesn’t seem practical. And besides, Persian Gulf or Australian hydrogen can solve the problem of seasonality for northern Europe, whose energy needs are highest in winter, when the sun is weakest. It would probably be cheaper for them to import energy from those super sunny areas — despite the inefficiencies — than to try to store locally-produced energy for months on end. (California is very fortunate in that its energy requirements are highest in the summer, when the sun is out.)
That’s all for Cleantech Talk for now. Happy to chat down in the comments. And don’t forget to rate the podcast!