Ammonia for energy storage: a “revolutionary disruption”

A recent opinion piece in The Japan Times predicts a “revolutionary disruption coming to the energy sector,” and suggests that using ammonia for energy storage will prove to be “a game-changer at least on the scale of the shale oil and gas revolution.”

The author, David Howell, has deep experience of policy in energy markets. He served as Secretary of State for Energy and for Transport during his thirty years as a British Member of Parliament, and he is now chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee – and a regular columnist for The Japan Times.

He explains that wind and solar technologies have faced a challenge because of the intermittency of those power sources. Even with large amounts of renewable power, traditional fossil-fueled power plants were still required to provide the baseload or backup power necessary for maintaining a reliable electricity grid – for when the sun wasn’t shining or the wind wasn’t blowing. Until recently, the low-carbon alternative for providing that baseload power was “vast new nuclear power stations,” which carried their own environmental challenges and high costs.

Now, however, Lord Howell sees renewable energy storage with ammonia as a “real large-scale, mind-shaking disruption” across the energy sector, which could cause “many long-term plans and projects to be unraveled and replaced.”

Supposing all that wind and solar power could be cheaply stored, and made available night and day continuously? Costs would plummet, completely undercutting not only nuclear power but other power sources as well …

The storage possibilities have suddenly come much nearer than previously imagined. Not only are … longer-lasting and infinitely cheaper batteries round the corner, but storage in other forms has come within reach. These include turning wind current into ammonia — a simple and cheap process — which can then be stored, transported, broken down into hydrogen and nitrogen or even used as fuel direct for power plants. This “green ammonia” is easy to brew up, can be burned as a fuel in industrial quantities to generate electricity and produces no greenhouse gases whatever.

Economic storage has always been the Holy Grail for renewable power sources. It looks as though the Grail has been found.
David Howell, Revolutionary disruption coming to the energy sector, The Japan Times, 03/10/2017

While ammonia isn’t likely to compete with batteries for short-term energy storage, a series of recent economic and technical analyses from Germany, Israel, and the UK, have each demonstrated its feasibility for long-term, large-scale storage.

Levelized Cost of Energy Storage Grigorii Soloveichik, NH3 Fuel Conference 09/19/2016
Click to enlarge. Grigorii Soloveichik (US DOE, ARPA-E): Levelized Cost of Energy Storage, NH3 Fuel Conference, 09/19/2016

Likewise, the US Department of Energy, which is funding a portfolio of renewable ammonia synthesis technologies through its Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA-E), has demonstrated that ammonia is already the lowest-cost, proven technology for long-term, large-scale energy storage, where “long-term” refers to any time period greater than one day.

The other application Lord Howell describes above, using ammonia as a direct fuel for power generation, will very soon have been demonstrated in Japan, in two separate utility-scale projects, both of which aim to offset carbon emissions by using ammonia in a dual fuel combustion, one with coal and the other with natural gas.

Lord Howell provides his own demonstration of the economics of using ammonia for energy storage:

To give one example of the effects in a U.K. context, a nuclear power plant is now starting to be built that will have to charge around £90 per megawatt/hour for its electricity to make the economics add up.

This is twice as expensive as electricity from burning gas or coal but much cheaper than the other low-carbon sources such as wind, which is estimated to cost much more than £100 from offshore fields. So it has all seemed worthwhile.

But storage technology is about to change that. Suddenly wind could become much cheaper, say £70 a megawatt/hour. The economics of all large nuclear plants are immediately destroyed.
David Howell, Revolutionary disruption coming to the energy sector, The Japan Times, 03/10/2017

Lord Howell’s article also demonstrates, implicitly, that a second revolution is taking place in the energy debate: not a technical revolution but an information revolution.

As more people learn and talk about it, ammonia is swiftly gaining recognition as an energy vector – not just a viable technology but a vital one.

Deployment of ammonia in the energy sector certainly requires more technology development, which we aim to track here at, but one could argue that the information gap is wider than the technology gap. Without information – the knowledge that this is a viable technology – the necessary investment in and deployment of ammonia technologies will never materialize. This now appears to be changing, and we welcome Lord Howell’s engagement with ammonia energy.

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