If we want carbon capture to work, we urgently need to value putting carbon back in the ground – or crazy stuff like this happens…

There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of hype, and a lot of money floating around to do interesting things with renewable power, carbon, and especially hydrogen. And I think it’s sending some project developers a little crazy. Here’s an example:

‘HydrogenInsight’ recently published an interview with Thomas Zirngibl of Koppo Energia Oy, a Finnish company (link below). Thomas seems like a nice enough chap, and admittedly, he recognises that what they’re doing is a bit crazy – the headline is, ‘This is why we’re producing e-methane from green hydrogen, even though it’s so inefficient’. Having read what he’s planning, I think someone needs to explain to Thomas the difference between ‘inefficient’ and ‘worse than pointless’. See what you think.

Koppo Energia will build a large green hydrogen production facility on Finland’s west coast, with a 200MW electrolyser powered by 500MW of offshore wind and 100MW of solar. But, they need a market for all that hydrogen, which means moving it. In future, conversion to ammonia would make sense, but there are no buyers yet. So, they’re going to combine it with captured CO2 trucked in from another plant, make e-methane, then liquefy that methane and truck it down to Germany to fuel LNG-powered trucks.

Just think about that for a moment… The starting point is that a plant has captured the CO2 it emits. Energy is then used to truck those carbon atoms to a second plant. More energy is used to purify water, more to electrolyse that water to hydrogen, more still to combine that hydrogen with the carbon, even more to liquefy the resulting methane, and a final amount to truck that methane to Germany, where it is burned in the engine of a truck – turning it back into CO2 which is released to the atmosphere.

The outcome of this whole process in carbon terms is exactly the same as if the CO2 captured at the original plant in Finland was simply injected into an oil well or sequestered in some other way. That sequestration would achieve exactly the same CO2 reduction as using those carbon atoms to replace German truck fuel, and I would be willing to bet at far less cost?

Plus, you could do something else with all that wind and solar power, and the money you invested in the electrolyser. If you want a load of kit, you could invest in another Direct Air Capture plant like the one in Iceland, and use all that power to lock up even more CO2 from the atmosphere directly – OK it’s not very efficient either, but again, probably makes more sense than what Thomas is planning, and would certainly mitigate more CO2 overall.

 On reading about this plan, the question has to be, how did we arrive at a point where anyone would think this is a plan worth spending money on? I assume some pretty detailed financial modelling has been done, and the investors aren’t stupid, so this scheme suggests a couple of things are going on.

Firstly, it seems likely that the current systems of grants and subsidies in Finland and Germany are overly eager to promote hydrogen and/or recycled carbon fuels, and are being ‘gamed’. That sort of market distortion is not uncommon where multiple stakeholders are finding different mechanisms to promote new technologies.

Second, and more importantly to my mind, the Finnish plant at the start of the process is apparently unable to get a decent price to bury its CO2 emissions. With all the talk of carbon sequestration in the context of BECCS and ‘Blue Hydrogen’, it does not bode well to see an example of a plant that has gone to the trouble of capturing its CO2, but isn’t taking the simplest route to put those carbon atoms back in the ground.

BECCS – BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage


Could battery swapping prove to be the solution to decarbonising trucks?

If you’ve been following the debate around how to decarbonise our heaviest vehicles, you’ll be aware that it’s essentially been a three-horse race. Out in front are battery trucks, with megawatt chargers soon to give them a boost. Close behind are hydrogen fuel cell trucks, accompanied by all the heated arguments that hydrogen always seems to generate. And the outside bet is still ‘electric road systems’, i.e. pantograph trucks with overhead wires on key stretches of motorway.

Fuso eCanter on Ample battery swap station. Image source: Ample, 2023

Well, it seems we have a late entrant which might just have the potential to pull off a surprise win – battery swapping. A company called Ample this week announced a partnership with Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation to trial its battery swap technology with the Fuso eCanter truck in Japan.

For those not familiar, battery swapping has a bit of a chequered history. The idea is really old, first proposed in 1896 it was used successfully for electric trucks in the US from 1910 to 1924 and has been used for forklifts worldwide since the 1940s. However, for modern EVs the concept fell out of favour almost exactly a decade ago with the huge failure of battery swap company Better Place. CEO Shai Agassi convinced investors to part with $700 million as of 2011, but in 2013 the company filed for bankruptcy amid allegations of wasteful spending and financial mismanagement.

Since the failure of Better Place, battery swapping has had a very low profile, but with some uses particularly in China. However, with Ample raising over $160 million in funding and multiple plaudits in the press, it seems that maybe investors are ready to take another serious look at the idea.

So what are the pros and cons? The reason it was first in operation over a century ago is obvious – swap the battery and you can effectively recharge your vehicle in minutes. The other big plus, which is more pertinent today, is that the actual recharging can be managed over many hours, reducing peak energy demand at recharging locations. That’s much easier to manage than hooking up megawatt fast chargers, and could be integrated more easily with nearby wind or solar.

And the downsides? Well, there are two main drawbacks. The easier one to manage is technical – the swap stations need to be automated, which requires complex robotics, and there’s some risk of damage to the expensive battery packs. It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly not impossible, more a question of how cheaply it can be done to the required standard.

The tougher problem is persuading multiple vehicle manufacturers to standardise their battery packs, and their location in the vehicle. Personally, I think the odds of success are higher for trucks than cars. There are fewer truck manufacturers and fewer models, the vehicle architecture is more standardised and batteries are often located in an easy to access part of the chassis between the wheels. And the range problem is bigger for trucks, so there is just a greater incentive to find a novel solution – manufacturers have already formed alliances to develop megawatt charging and hydrogen refuelling.

As things stand, Ample seem to be focused on the car market, which is understandable from the point of view of attracting investors. Most car brands are part of large multi-brand groups, often sharing common architecture for their EVs, so it’s not impossible they may try battery swapping – especially in America. However, as EV range and charge-point availability are rapidly increasing, the niche for battery swapping (and fuel cells) in cars is rapidly shrinking. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to either, (a) see Ample pivot to focus on heavy commercial vehicles, or, (b) see a new commercial vehicle battery swapping company pop up. They will have to come from behind, but I think the competition to power long range heavy vehicles may soon be a four horse race.