A few days ago I was crossing e-swords on a newspaper website with wind turbine enthusiasts. The debate came up because the government is said to be thinking about reducing the subsidies offered to those who erect the giant windmills.
My problem with wind turbines is that they are intermittent at the best of times and, because you can’t rely on the electricity they generate, you still have to have conventional gas-fired power stations on standby. At the end of last year, for example, during the extra-harsh cold snap, the UK’s turbines fell silent for days as windless weather settled over the country.
So I posed a question to those on the newspaper forum whose thinking on the matter did not extend much past ‘just build more wind turbines’.
‘Who’ I asked ‘wants their local hospital connected to a wind turbine?’
‘Lots of people!’ one blogger improbably claimed. The point I was trying to make was that the electricity generated - when the wind is blowing - is tricky stuff to deal with. It’s very hard to store and you can’t attach the wind turbine to anything critical. These fundamental issues seem to have gone over the heads of the theorists and academics that pack out the environmental debate in the UK.
I asked my opponent whether he had heard of the wind turbine E-gas project currently being ramped in Germany. He hadn’t and asked for ‘a link the relevant academic papers’. Which just about sums up the theoretical approach to green technology in the UK with the approach of engineering-led Germany.
The E-gas project looks to be brilliant way of effectively storing the energy generated by the offshore wind turbines. The first stage is to use the electricity to ‘crack’ seawater into its component parts of Hydrogen and Oxygen.
It would be possible to store and ship the hydrogen for use in fuel cell-powered cars, but the E-gas project takes this a step further by creating artificial methane gas by adding Co2 to the Hydrogen. This process is called Methanation, where the Hydrogen is thermo-chemically bonded with the Carbon Dioxide and the only by-product is water.
Audi started experimenting with E-gas way back in January 2001 and now, with the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research (ZSW) in Stuttgart and the Frauenhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy Systems Technology (IWES), it is running a live production plant which expects to make around 150 tonnes of gas.
Although the E-gas can be pumped directly into the domestic grid, Audi says the 150 tonnes of gas can power 1500 of the prototype A3 TCNG models around 9300 miles per year. The VW Group has had the vision to see that gas - both of the renewable and fossil varieties - is a big part of our future energy use.
Indeed, the new Golf-family MQB platform is designed to accommodate gas tanks, making gas-powered versions of all sorts of cars from Polo to Passat size possible. Indeed, the production version of the new A3 TCNG will arrive in late 2013.
As usual, while the ideological arguments and starry-eyed predictions bog down the issue of sensible deployment of wind turbines in the UK, Germany is a decade ahead in the renewable energy game.