Published on August 6th, 2012 | by Amy Brown0
Renewable natural gas makes its debut
In a journey that led from a University of Chicago laboratory to a first-ever demonstration this spring in Denmark of a pioneering technology for making renewable natural gas, a group of single-celled microorganisms called the archaea stand at the center.
A U.S. company called Electrochaea – in honor of that group of microorganisms – licensed the technology from the University of Chicago, where its inventor, Laurens Mets, is associate professor of molecular
genetics and cell biology. Mets developed the technology specifically to store renewable energy as a carbon-based fuel, recognizing that with declining fossil fuel supplies and rising energy prices, it could present a real breakthrough in cleaner forms of energy.
But when it came time for Electrochaea to search for a place to launch its business, the best alternative was not the U.S. As Mich Hein, CEO of Electrochaea explains, the U.S. did not offer uniformly available renewable energy, or the kind of stable regulatory environment that would justify the financial risk involved in testing the technology’s early phases of commercial viability.
Denmark however presented no such barriers. The country intends to be 100 percent fossil-free by 2050. It generates 25 percent of its electrical power from wind turbines, increasing that figure to 50 percent by 2020. One Danish entity, Energinet.dk, owns and operates both its gas and electrical power grids, which facilitates balancing energy conversion between the two grids.
“Denmark has evolved over time a very strategic intent to make themselves energy independent and implemented over time a very steady progression. They have done a lot with government policies to induce risk capital to come into the market place and deploy technologies,” says Hein. “They haven’t wavered. This is important, so that people deploying a technology know that the support will be there for a long enough period of time to recoup their investment.”
“In addition, the fact that Denmark has linked its natural gas grid and electricity grid is exactly what our technology was designed for,” Hein adds. “Denmark understood immediately how our technology could help them solve the challenge of managing their energy more strategically.”
Waste not, want not
Due to wind power’s variability coupled with fluctuations in demand for and price of electricity, much of Denmark’s wind power would be available for this conversion process, when the power demand is low and electrical energy is sold at lower prices. Electrochaea will use that excess wind power to make natural gas for storage on the gas grid until the energy is needed.
Electrochaea recently received a $1.2 million grant from the Danish government to demonstrate the technology at 250-kilowatt scale at a commercial biogas plant in Denmark. Partners in the project are renewable natural gas technology and energy utility E.ON, the University of Aarhus and energy trading firm, Nordjysk Elhandel. The demonstration is set to begin the second quarter of 2012 and last about 18 months. The company expects to be operating a larger commercial facility by 2014.
“I’m happy that Electrochaea finds Denmark to be the obvious choice for R&D and testing. My government is doing its best to provide the best possible conditions for foreign companies. In this case it goes hand in hand with very ambitious government policies,” says Pia Olsen Dyhr, Danish Minister for Trade and Investment. “It is up to Electrochaea to evaluate their own business case and compare the possibilities with other markets. But if they manage to scale up the technology under the planned demonstration, there could be a strong business case on any market where renewable gas is a priority.”
Watch this space
Scaling up is precisely the next step in the journey, says Hein. “Our objective is to scale the technology to commercial conditions, and see how it works in different temperatures and with varying power availability. Then, we’ll design our first commercial unit and look to secure our first commercial partnership. That is likely to be in Denmark or another location in Europe.”
Hein says he hasn’t given up on the idea that the U.S. will one day be a market for Electrochaea, when it has reached sufficiently large commercial scale and the U.S. market shows readiness: both in terms of a supportive political environment for renewable energy and when the price of natural gas, now low, inevitably rises again.
But for now, his sights are set on Denmark and seeing what the company’s technology—and those clever archaea—can do when put to the test. The world will be watching, too.