Big Plans are susceptible to changes in the world around us, and even bold visionaries can have wrong assumptions about the future.
After blanketing the media landscape over the summer with The Pickens Plan, T Boone Pickens has announced that he is slowing down his plans to build a massive wind farm in West Texas. Pickens’ $2 billion order of GE wind turbines has not been affected, but scaling up of the project is likely to happen more slowly than originally hoped.
A changing world or wrong assumptions?
Pickens has certainly felt the pains of shifts in the market where money is now in short supply and the global economic slowdown has battered his energy intensive hedge fund. But there have always been flaws to his core assumptions that support the vision that have somehow escaped widespread critical thought or media scrutiny. Pickens deserves credit for his willingness to advance the energy conversation in the US, but it does not free his Plan from closer examination:
#1 Utilities won’t evolve without regulatory changes
#2 Wind needs storage to evolve
#3 Natural Gas is a globally integrated industry, no breaking ‘foreign’ dependency there!
#4 The Auto Industry’s problem is not oil, it’s the combustion engine.
#5 Building transmission lines in my backyard or ranch?! It’ll cost you!
#1 Utilities won’t evolve without regulatory changes
“It’s just a math problem.” – Google CEO Eric Schmidt
Google is thinking big, again! The company that was founded to ‘organize all the world’s information’ is now focusing its attention on energy. Google’s Cleantech Movement plans to “eliminate all utility fossil fuel dependence and 50 percent of automobile fossil fuel dependence by 2030.”
So far, the company has already invested $45M in wind, solar, and geothermal energy, with tidal and wave power as next in line. This will not only save consumers and America money, one of Google’s motivations, it will also protect the Earth’s environment, reason number two, which is “all part of not being evil (Source: Stefanie Olsen/CNET). In other words, not only is funding alternative energy helpful for its monetary benefits, it helps the environment and gives Google a positive image in the public eye. It will also benefit Google’s energy guzzling servers, whose life-force is the precious commodity of electricity, thus saving the company money.
Schmidt believes that better energy efficiency will lead to more savings. And moving from fossil fuels to renewable, alternative energies will also cost less in the long-term. As an example, while it may indeed cost a hefty amount to make the switch, once in place, the ‘U.S. would save 97% of $2.17 trillion in energy spending over the next 22 years.’ Google’s renovation of its own buildings to cut carbon emissions, installed solar and power monitoring equipment, and is already saving money each year. Restructuring the U.S. power grid, currently with a 9 percent efficiency loss, could also make the country’s energy more efficient and thus, save more money.
Are Computer Servers 21st century ‘energy guzzlers’?
While Google should be lauded for its progressive view on energy efficiency, it also has an intrinsic self-interest in cheap electricity. Google’s new server farm to be built on the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon, called The Dalles data center, will need an estimated 103 megawatts of electricity to run, ‘enough to power 82,000 homes, or a city the size of Tacoma, Washington – via Roughtype
While The Dalles center will not be up and running until 2011, Google’s multitude of other server farms also require large amounts of electricity. Cheaper electricity will allow Google to save money powering their farms, as well as allow further expansion.
What is behind Google’s real motivations? Not being Evil, or Green is Good
One of the great efficiency opportunities for the next century is based on the convergence of information and energy flows. The notion of a 'smart grid' is a more reliable and efficient energy web based on the integration of software, sensors and energy storage.
And for those homes with 'Smart Meters' or Smart Devices, solutions are coming online quickly. Google has now thrown its hat into the ring around the basic idea: 'if you can measure it, you can improve it'. The Google Power Meter is a software tool integrated into smart meters that helps consumers better understand how they use energy in order to reduce their costs and consumption. Google is a big name, in an expanding space of 'smart energy' startups, like Sentilla and REGEN, who are trying to build demand in the residential market.
Related Smart Grid posts on The Energy Roadmap.com
Events of the last five years have shown us that living on the
grid, dependent on large utility companies, has been anything but
stable. Large electric companies, still reliant on fossil fuel to
generate power, have been forced to raise prices dramatically. An
antiquated series of electrical lines, transformers, and switches
have produced devastating blackouts that have cost our economy
billions. With global demand for energy expected to rise, and the
cost of upgrading infrastructure approaching hundreds of billions,
living off the grid may become a highly plausible and desirable
future for many people.
In order to live off the grid you need to tie production and
consumption together, creating small scale systems for water and
power that require no outside support. It also requires a heavy
dose of conservation and efficiency, utilizing a system that
operates within the constraints of a limited source. Living off the
grid requires a large up front investment in equipment and
expertise, and a pioneering spirit. Costs for solar and wind
generation systems routinely cost tens of thousands of dollars,
yielding a cost per kilowatt hour that exceeds that of the grid.
Nonetheless it is becoming an option many people are beginning to
consider as the marketplace changes. More and more people are
looking to raw materials for energy that are free, inexhaustible,
As innovation and subsidies collide in the market to create
critical mass for residential solar and wind systems, it is
reasonable to expect demand for these technologies to grow.
According to Solar Buzz, a San Francisco-based industry research
company, demand for solar power has grown 20-25% a year for the
last twenty years. Many of these applications of solar power come
in the form of on the grid solutions, however many of these are
distributed at the point of use. It is however the biggest choice
for off the grid applications. Demand has grown so fast that more
silicon now goes into photovoltaics than computer chips.
We have ‘Big Oil’, so why not ‘Big Biopower’? (And what does it mean for the solar and wind industry?)
Enter Adage (Chadds Ford, PA) a new joint venture biomass development company formed by nuclear energy vendor AREVA (Bethesda, MD) and electrical utility giant Duke Energy, N.C).
ADAGE will be focused on enabling green biopower energy solutions for the US electricity market tapping waste organic materials like wood chips.
BioPower via Waste to Energy?
Bio energy means many things. While most people think of biofuels from corn, this first generation ‘food crop’ source is not the future of bioenergy. (Don’t get distracted by corn ethanol, bio energy potential is vast!)
Real bio energy growth is likely to come from a combination of plant, algae/bacteria and organic waste sources. A leading ‘non-food’ crop resource is Jatropha, but biofuels can also use enzyme supported systems (cellulosic ethanol) or applying chemistry to create hydrogen rich fuels from waste streams.
Bio energy also uses the higher conversion efficiencies of carbon-eating algae to produce biodiesel, and hydrogen-breathing bacteria for electricity.
Organic material supplies would come from regional industrial suppliers with excess wood wastes and ‘forestry operations within about a 50-mile radius around the biomass power plant.‘
So Adage will develop projects in regions with well established industries that can deliver steady streams of organic waste. [And it is important to note that waste to energy strategies have an obvious limitation based on amount of waste available.)
‘Combustion() based BioPower, but Carbon Neutral‘
Today, electricity is produced by burning things. The energy released from burning off carbon-hydrogen bonds leads to steam that spins turbines to produce electricity. Adage’s form of ‘waste to energy’ is in essence – carbon neutral.
Adage will be burning (I am verifying this claim. See comment section) organic material (trees / plant material) resulting in CO2 emissions, but that carbon is recaptured by trees and plant life. (Assuming more trees, crops and plant life are replaced!)
It might sound sketchy, but the burning of biomass waste is much better than releasing the massive amount of energy of coal that have been locked away in ground deposits for millions of years. So it is a step forward!
Despite its carbon neutral approach, Big BioPower might be a hard pill to swallow for eco-purists which favors non combustion power generation of solar and wind. The prospect of ‘Big BioPower’ could bring an unexpected twist for solar and wind producers looking to tap ‘renewable energy’ credits for state utilities.
More on Big Biopower’s opportunities and challenges ahead for solar and wind
What if we could print low cost solar panels on pieces of plastic and integrate this energy collecting material into buildings, infrastructure and product casings?
This is the future of thin film solar.
While traditional (rigid silicon substrate) solar panels are a relatively mature platform, we have not yet hit our stride in advancing the efficiencies of thin film solar.
Thin-film, or organic solar is attractive because it is low cost, flexible and can be integrated into existing materials and products. These systems can also be designed to tap broader sections of the light spectrum. Relatively low efficiencies mean that thin film solar will never be capable of providing a majority of our energy needs, but it is certainly part of a broader strategy of new distributed power generation.
Before we start asking when we might see thin film on the shelves at Home Depot or integrated into familiar product designs, the first step is to understand why thin film is different from traditional solar.
The following five video clips help to describe the future potential of thin film solar.
Nanosolar (Palo Alto-San Jose, CA) has long been considered a leading innovator in the field of organic photovoltaics or thin film solar.
The US manufacturing base appears to be more than capable of expanding production of a very promising form of solar technology that can be integrated into building materials like rooftops.
Thin film solar (right side of roof image) based on plastic material foundations are less efficient than traditional glass-based photovoltaic panels (leftside of image), but they are much cheaper and more durable. By layering, or ‘printing’, thin film solar modules into common building and rooftop materials we can generate solar power onsite even on cloudy days.
While large utilities look to solar thermal and traditional glass based solar panels to produce large amounts of electricity, building designers and consumers are waiting for plastic based thin film solar that can be integrated into rooftops without the risk (and design issues) associated with fragile and bulky glass units.
We have covered a number of stories (below) on thin film solar startups in the US who are building megawatt scale thin film production plants in the next 18 months.
Now EPV SOLAR has announced that its new 30,000 square foot, 20 MW production facility in Robbinsville, NJ, is producing and shipping production quantities of its thin-film amorphous silicon solar modules. EPV already operates a 30 MW plant in Senftenberg, Germany.
The next step for thin film producers will be to expand partnerships with building materials and construction firms able to get products to market. Last month Michigan-based ECD Ovonic solar subsidiary Uni-Solar has signed a multi-year agreement with an Italian steel and metal materials company to build solar rooftop materials used in onsite power generation. Marcegaglia expects to introduce the low cost, durable thin film.
While it is too early to expect thin film solar panels on the shelves of Home Depot and Lowes, that day might be much closer than you think!
Researchers from Northwestern University have developed a new class of ‘honeycomb’ gas separation materials to purify hydrogen rich mixtures like methane (natural gas) for generating electricity via fuel cells.
Traditional methods of gas separation use selective membranes that grab molecules by size. But Northwestern's Professor Mercouri G. Kanatzidis and Gerasimos S. Armatas are using a method of polarization. As the gas mixture of (carbon dioxide and hydrogen) travels through the inner walls of the ‘mesopourous’ membrane, the carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules are slowed down and pulled towards the wall as the hydrogen molecules pass through the holes.
One type of membrane consisting of heavy elements germanium, lead and tellurium showed to be approximately four times more selective at separating hydrogen than traditional methods using lighter elements such as silicon, oxygen and carbon. The process is reported to work at “convenient temperature range” -- between zero degrees Celsius and room temperature.
“We are taking advantage of what we call ‘soft’ atoms, which form the membrane’s walls,” said Kanatzidis. “These soft-wall atoms like to interact with other soft molecules passing by, slowing them down as they pass through the membrane. Hydrogen, the smallest element, is a ‘hard’ molecule. It zips right through while softer molecules, like carbon dioxide and methane take more time.”
Imagine stepping into a local car dealership in 2020.
Does that new car look familiar by today’s standards? Or has it evolved in shape and style?
What powers that car of the near future in 2020?
Hybrids, plug-ins, electric motors, diesel engines, ethanol blends, biodiesel, synthetic fuels, veggie power, air power, natural gas, solar, batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, or the flux capacitor?
There are many ideas out there that could re-shape the auto industry in the next decade, but none is more important than how we power our vehicles.
If you are confused by the mixed messages you see in the media – welcome to our Futurist’s Guide to the Cars of 2020(Part 1- Powering the Car)
Q: What powers my new car in 2020?
We have two basic choices – liquid fuels or electrons.
Internal Combustion Engines (I.C.E.) use liquid fuels such as gasoline, next generation biofuels (bio-gasoline or biodiesel equivalents) or synthetic fuels. By 2020 most combustion engine vehicles are likely to accommodate a wide range of liquid fuels- but we expect that gasoline will retain its market position.
Electric motors use electrons fed by batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors. Despite the mis-representation in most media reports, there is no fundamental difference between ‘electric’ cars and ‘hydrogen fuel cell’ vehicles – both use streams of electrons to power high performance electric motors. The phrase ‘electrification’ of the transportation sector includes electricity from batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.
The ‘smart grid’ is coming, but arriving at this future is likely to include some twists, turns and battles led by some ‘Big Grid’ utilities who might struggle to see their role in this alternative future.
At the surface ‘smart grid’ concepts sound like a logical next step for the modern day utility grid: minimizing downtime, managing peak demand, improving efficiencies, and anticipating problems before they occur all sound like a positive step for the world. But underneath it all the ‘smart grid’ is incredibly disruptive to the regulatory framework, operational standards, capital investment strategies and business models of most large utilities.
To understand the evolution of the ‘smart grid’ and the utility of the future, we can imagine two initial stages of development.
Part One: Software for Managing Infrastructure
The first steps to building a ‘smart grid’ utilize the power of software to maximize the efficiency of the grid. Simply put, we add a layer of information technology to improve management of existing one-way grid infrastructure to improve performance and reduce costs.
OLED Technology is soon to be the brightest light in the future of energy. OLEDs (Organic Light Emitting Diode) are made up of thin layers of individual ‘light emitting’ molecules that can be ‘printed’ and layered on thin film sheets.
The quality of OLED lighting is much greater than that of a LED. It can display a wide variety of colors, which are also brighter and easier on the eyes. Its light is similar to the sunlight so rooms and offices look much more inviting and comfortable. OLEDs are not only used as lighting, but can also come in use in TVs, and the backlights of cell phones, PDAs, and computers.
Earlier we featured ‘5 Videos on OLEDs’ which highlight this new technology.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the OLED is that it does not waste energy like the LED does. This is great in not only saving energy, but it also makes for longer battery life for cell phones, PDAs, etc. OLEDs are also very easy to use. Because of the thin film which it is made up of, it is very flexible. It can be moved around in any which direction, while also making holes in the product. More of this can be seen at a previous article posted, ‘OLED Screen so Flexible and Thin it Blows in the Wind’. This flexibility paves the way for more creative displays of lighting, rather than the simple displays of the LED. OLED technology is on its way to becoming an important part of our everyday lives’ and here are some ways how.
5 Ways OLED Technology Will Change the Way You Live
What if you could charge your portable device simply by having it move around in your pocket while you walk?
Texas A&M Professor Tahir Cagin believes that piezeoelectric materials, that convert motion into electric currents could be closer to applied applications thanks to their recent design breakthrough. (Not Image shown)
Professor Cagin and partners from the University of Houston are using piezoelectric material that can covert energy at a 100 percent increase when manufactured at a very small size – in this case, around 21 nanometers in thickness.
"When materials are brought down to the nanoscale dimension, their properties for some performance characteristics dramatically change," said Cagin who is a past recipient of the prestigious Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology. "One such example is with piezoelectric materials. We have demonstrated that when you go to a particular length scale – between 20 and 23 nanometers – you actually improve the energy-harvesting capacity by 100 percent.
"We're studying basic laws of nature such as physics and we're trying to apply that in terms of developing better engineering materials, better performing engineering materials. We're looking at chemical constitutions and physical compositions. And then we're looking at how to manipulate these structures so that we can improve the performance of these materials."
"Even the disturbances in the form of sound waves such as pressure waves in gases, liquids and solids may be harvested for powering nano- and micro devices of the future if these materials are processed and manufactured appropriately for this purpose," Cagin said.
Why is this important to the future? Micro power systems are in high demand for portable gadgets and sensors like RFID tags used on products in 'smart supply chain' logistics. While batteries and micro fuel cells might be required for higher demand applications, piezeoelectric systems could find a role in the world of micro-power.