Iceland has begun exporting clean, renewable electro methanol to the Netherlands for blending with gasoline. While the quantities are small, this is a game changer for transport, petrochemicals and much more. It is a game changer because this methanol is renewable, low impact and able to be produced in sufficient quantities to completely avoid the need for fossil transport fuels.
The methanol is:
1. Renewable – because it is produced from nothing more than renewable geothermal electricity, water and geothermal CO2;
2. Low impact – because, unlike many biofuels, its production doesn’t require the diversion of food producing land or damage to the environment. Diversion of land to the production of biofuels is already causing starvation of people in some countries as well as damage to the environment. All renewable methanol requires is enough land to produce the renewable electricity and the space required for a compact production plant;
3. Able to be produced in very large quantities – Any form of clean electricity could be used and, if necessary, the CO2 could be extracted from the air;
4. Electro – because it provides a way of converting electricity into a transportable fuel.
In addition, methanol can be used to produce other fuels such as gasoline and diesel. (Gasoline was produced from methanol at Motunui (NZ) for a number of years using the Mobil process. The plant could have been operated to produce diesel if required.)
Renewable methanol, gasoline and diesel are transport game changers:
1. They allow credible, easily understood plans to be developed for 100% renewable transport: Plans that:
a. Could be as simple as replacing fossil fuels with renewable fuels (NOTE: Better plans would involve a mix of strategies);
b. Don’t depend on the replacement of the existing transport fleet;
c. Don’t depend on starving the poor or damaging the environment;
d. Don’t depend on forcing little old ladies to ride bicycles;
2. They free long term transport plans from the need to consider greenhouse emissions.
3. In addition to cleaning up transport, renewable fuels could also be used reduce emissions from a wide range of industries. For example, most of the 50 million tonnes of dirty methanol produced from fossil fuels each year are used as feedstock for the production of a range of petrochemicals. These petrochemicals would become renewable once dirty methanol is replaced by renewable methanol. The range of products that could be produced competitively from methanol would increase dramatically once the use of fossil fuels becomes unacceptable.
Methanol is not the only useful electro product than can be produced from nothing more than electricity, air and water:
1. Dirty hydrogen made using fossil fuels has a key role in the production of a wide range of chemicals. It can also replace fossil carbon in the production of metals such as steel. The production of renewable hydrogen using electrolysis is the first stage of the Icelandic process for producing renewable methanol.
2. Dirty ammonia is produced by reacting dirty hydrogen with nitrogen from the air. Renewable ammonia can be produced by simply replacing dirty hydrogen with renewable hydrogen. Liquid ammonia can be transported and used as a fuel in a similar way to LPG 83% of the predicted world 2012 production of 198 million tonnes will be used in fertilisers. The remainder is used for things like the production of explosives, nitrogen containing chemicals, disinfectants and refrigerants.
The processes outlined above are not the only possibilities for producing renewable, low-impact fossil carbon replacements in substantial quantities. Some of these, like this proposal for a salt water-based algae plant at Whyalla may take their energy directly from the sun. Others may involve different routes for converting clean power to fossil fuel replacement. It is certainly an area of active research.
The Iceland and NZ commercial production stories put together mean that we don’t have to choose between 100 per cent renewable transport vs destroying the economy, starving the poor or forgoing overseas travel.
The Beyond Zero Emissions Stationary Energy Plan provides one credible option for converting Australia to 100 per cent renewable electricity. The combination of an expanded version the BZE plan and the use of some of this power to produce renewable electrofuels provides a credible basis for converting at least transport and production of nitrogenous fertilisers to 100 per cent renewables. It also provides a credible basis plans to at least substantially reduce emissions from petrochemical and metal production.