Beyond Electric Cars: Inside Audi’s Big Bet On "Power-To-Gas" Technology

German carmaker Audi has commissioned Etogas Ltd. to build the planet's first power-to-gas plant to fuel cars with transformed wind and solar energy. Could this "windgas" technology make today's electric cars obsolete?

Driving toward the future?
Driving toward the future?
Horst Hamm

WERLTE â€"For all the talk about the imminent end of the oil era, nearly 99% of the cars, trucks and planes currently operating are still petroluem-powered. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted that change is on the way: in 2011 she predicted that as many as one million electric cars will be in use on Germany’s roads as early as 2020. And yet, as of Jan. 1, 2015, there were only about 19,000 electric cars registered in the whole of Germany, according to the Federal Motor Transport.

There are a couple of reasons this. For one thing, electric cars don't have the kind of mileage range drivers prefer. Also, Germany lacks the infrastructure necessary to charge electric cars at regular intervals. The state hasn't even agreed on a universal standard for electric fuel stations.

It is thus hardly surprising that companies are looking for alternatives to electric cars. One of the most promising options so far is the so-called gas or fuel-cell car, which is powered by "windgas." Superfluous eco-electricity from wind turbines and solar panels can be used to produce hydrogen and relatively simple organic compounds, such as methanol and methane, which can then be used to power cars, either in a combustion engine, or with the use of a fuel cell to transform the materials back into electricity.

This is precisely the alternative Audi has been exploring for the past two years in Werlte, Lower Saxony, where it commissioned Etogas Ltd. to build the planet's first and largest power-to-gas plant. Power-to-gas is the process by which wind and solar power are transformed into hydrogen and methane, a technique that took years to develop at the Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research (ZSW) in Stuttgart.

The term "largest" is relative in this case. All that can be seen of the plant are a few intersecting pipes that connect silos and tanks. Any chemical plant of middling size would have more to show. Nevertheless, the Werlte facility produces a fair amount of power: 6 megawatts (MW), enough to power 1,500 Audi A3 g-trons, the first gas powered mass-produced (and mostly climate-neutral) car.

Audi spokesperson Oliver Strohbach says the cost of running an Audi A3 on "windgas" (purchased at petrol stations) works out to roughly $.06 per mile. Customers who buy or lease one of the vehicles also have the option of paying a flat monthly rate of $16 for the fuel. "This would not be dependent on a certain mileage," Strohbach explains.

The range of a windgas-fueled car is comparable to that of a petrol or diesel car, and thus outdistances the 93-mile range of an electric car. The only restriction is the limited availability of windgas petrol stations across the country. Right now there are only about 1,000.

Either way, a look at the reality of renewable energies demonstrates how important the conversion of excess renewable energy to "windgas" could become. At the end of 2014, according to the German Wind Energy Association, the country had 24,867 active wind turbines generating a total of approximately 38,000 MW, equivalent to 9% of the electricity Germany needs.

But the numbers hide the true state of wind energy. Output from wind turbines is notoriously unstable. Weather conditions might keep them idle for days or weeks. At other times, they work full tilt, even at night, when electricity consumption is way down. In that case, electricty can be wasted. The power surplus can also lead to network collapses, another reason it's so important to figure out ways to store or recycle wind power.

Audi's anwser is to save that electricty "chemically." Power that would otherwise be wasted is used first to transform water into hydrogen through the use of electrolysis. Hydrogen and carbon dioxide (also produced on-site in an organice gas plant) are then synthesized into methane.

The gas network offers what the electricity network lacks, namely sufficient storage capacity. Whereas electricity can only be stored in batteries or "storage lakes" for later use, the gas network works quite differently. "Windgas" can power cars and trucks or can be burned to produce power.

Power-to-gas technology represents a real opportunity. The car industry seems to have made note of this already. Toyota’s "Mirai" â€" meaning "future" in Japanese â€" is the first hydrogen powered mass-produced car. It will be available in Germany next autumn. Daimler, in conjunction with Nissan and Ford, has been developing its own model for years and hopes to launch it in 2017. But the necessary infrastructure to support these cars is still missing. Currently, there are only 17 public hydrogen petrol stations across Germany.

Natural gas powered cars are a different story. There are more than 15 million registered worldwide, with 3.5 million in Iran alone and three million in China. The technology is so well-developed because it only requires a combustion engine connected to a gas tank. There are plenty of gas petrol stations to be found. And methane is much more environmentally friendly than petrol or diesel â€" even more so if it is produced through wind or solar energy â€" which make it essentially climate-neutral. These are the basic equations that could transform an entire industry, and help save the planet.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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