The efforts to reduce carbon emissions and increase the use of reliable power generation of renewable fuels will determine the future of the electric grid, as was reported by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. But solar and wind will have to overcome some fundamental challenges before they are accepted by large utilities.
“As we consider our energy future, it becomes increasingly clear that our success in reducing carbon emissions and realizing energy independence will hinge on our ability to provide reliable, clean, electricity where and when it is needed,” states Rick Sergal, President and CEO of the NERC.
Minnesota Public Radio has featured a story of Xcel Energy’s efforts to build out the state’s first utility-sized electricity storage facility based on batteries that can store enough electricity to supply 500 homes for seven hours. This push to integrate energy storage systems with wind and solar farms could emerge as a major growth area over the next twenty years.
Why is this important to the future of energy
Today’s energy industry is dominated by two ideas: producing energy and consuming energy. As a result most leaders and consumers focus only on trying to find new ways to produce energy (‘build more plants’) or highlighting ways of being more efficient in energy consumption. But we overlook one of the most disruptive ideas in the future – energy storage.
Energy storage can help lower the cost of producing energy for utilities, accelerate adoption of renewables and electric vehicles, and bring power to billions of people who do not have reliable access to grid-based energy.
Understanding Intermittent Power Sources
Solar and wind are known as intermittent power sources since they only produce power when the wind is blowing or when the sun is shining. They are clean, but not reliable. Outside of production costs, this is the primary reason why utilities avoid making major investments to expand their renewable portfolio. They are not ‘anti’ renewable, they are ‘pro’ reliability.
Until solar and wind can overcome this problem of intermittency with energy storage systems, major utility companies will not be able to significantly expand their renewable portfolios.
The Middle Eastern city of Dubai is in the process of creating the region’s largest photovoltaic manufacturing plant.
A recent article in Dubai’s Khaleej Times discusses the city’s plans to create a photovoltaic manufacturing plant. The plant, made by Solar Technologies FZE, will be 93,000 square meters, and able to produce solar panels of 5.7 square meters, making it the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the Middle East.
The plant will generate 130 megawatts of power annually and will go into production in the last quarter of 2010.
Solar Technologies FZE CEO Dilip Rahulan states, “The mission of Solar Technologies is to accelerate the adoption of solar photovoltaic by rapidly expanding the manufacturing capacity and significantly reducing the cost of solar modules through innovations and manufacturing excellence.”
Why is this important to the future?
The building of the solar panel manufacturing plant is just one of the results of Dubai’s newest program, Green Dubai 2008. It also includes the green building initiative to be used in all buildings from now on as well as advances in sustainable development.
Managing director and CEO, Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer, says “We have explored alternative energies, namely wind power, solar power, and tidal power- we are conducting a feasibility study for other cheaper proven sources of energy.” Dubai’s city-wide initiative to create a green environment is the first in this part of the world.
Energy visionaries have long promoted the idea of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion which uses the temperature difference of warm surface water to cold deeper ocean currents to boil a liquid (e.g. ammonia) to drive an electricity producing turbine. It is an elegant energy solution that is gaining more mainstream attention.
The thermal and kinetic energy potential of the world’s oceans remains largely untapped by energy producers. Earlier we featured a new Lockheed pilot project in Hawaii that evolves the once novel idea of capturing ocean thermal energy conversion into clean electricity. What other power generation schemes might emerge from our oceans?
University of Michigan engineer Michael Bernitsas has made a machine that works like a fish to turn potentially destructive vibrations in fluid flows into clean, renewable power.
The machine, called VIVACE, is being developed by Vortex Hydro Energy as the first known device that could harness energy from most of the water currents around the globe because it works in flows moving slower than 2 knots (about 2 miles per hour.) Most of the Earth’s currents are slower than 3 knots. Turbines and water mills need an average of 5 or 6 knots to operate efficiently.
VIVACE stands for Vortex Induced Vibrations for Aquatic Clean Energy. The array of devices doesn’t depend on waves, tides, turbines or dams. Instead it is a unique hydrokinetic energy system that relies on “vortex induced vibrations” that have damaged bridges for decades. Rather than try to avoid damage by these vibrations, VIVACE captures the motion power by mimicking the movement of fish.
The concept model of VIVACE looks nothing like a fish, but future versions should have the equivalent of a tail and surface roughness a kin to scales. The working prototype is one sleek cylinder attached to springs that hangs horizontally across the flow of water in a tractor-trailer-sized tank in his marine renewable energy laboratory. The water in the tank flows at 1.5 knots.
Bernitsas estimates that an array of VIVACE converters the size of a running track and about two stories high could power about 100,000 houses. Such an array could rest on a river bed or it could dangle, suspended in the water. But it would all be under the surface.
Instead of pushing Automakers to incrementally improve miles per gallon, we should empower companies like General Motors and Michelin to transform how cars are built and make liquid fuels like oil irrelevant.
Let's start by reinventing the wheel.
Michelin is now pushing its Active Wheel concept that can simplify how vehicles are built and reduce the manufacturing overhead for auto companies: 'no more engine under the front or rear, no more traditional suspension system, and no more gearbox or transmission shaft...all essential components have been integrated into the wheel itself'
Let's start by reinventing the wheel.
There are a few specialty engineering firms that have built high performance wheel based electric motors, but Michelin has the potential to bring ‘scaling’ to this disruptive technology.The company has integrated the system into the new Venturi Volage which premieres at the 2008 Paris Motor Show. There is also the new WILL built through a partnership involving Heuliez, Michelin and Orange.
Change the Wheel, Reinvent the Factory Floor A New (more effective) Message: Greener cars = Leaner cars
While most companies are focused on growth opportunities around powering homes, cars and factories of the future, some entrepreneurs and startups are targeting another 'next big thing' in micro-power and energy storage systems.
What's the Big opportunity around Small devices? A new era of expanded integration of smart sensors and microcontrol systems is likely to change our world, in the same way computer chips and PCs did in the last half of the 20th cenutry. Technology futurists call this the 'embedded age', or era of ubiquitous and pervasive computing. Even IBM sees a Smart Planet based on an 'instrumented world' where the number of sensors and micro-devices feeding small bits of data onto the 'web' vastly outnumbers today's connected 'computers and servers'.
Imagine new information flows from every product, car, boat, airplane, person, pet, and farm animal all being gathered by low-powered sensors. Imagine building a global smart infrastructure where every connection point along the energy grid, highway and pipeline is monitored in real-time. All these embedded devices sending small packets of mundane, but important data. Each of these devices will need small amounts of power and an integrated energy storage system.
This could be one of the biggest market opportunities in energy over the next century- powering billions of new portable gadgets, sensors (e.g RFIDs), and micro-electromechanical (MEMS) devices integrated into future everyday objects.
Seeing a future in 'Energy Harvesting' Colorado-based Infinite Power Solutions, Inc. (IPS) has raised a Series B round of $13 million to commercialize its solid-state, rechargeable thin-film battery that could be used to 'harvest' ambient energy from micro-power systems driven by light, motion, or heat. Energy futurists imagine these types of energy storage systems integrated into other micro power systems, rather than rely on the old battery schematic of plugging into a wall socket.
The money will go to ramp up volume production of its new THINERGY™ micro-energy cell (MEC™) product family from its new (and 'the world’s first') facility for volume manufacturing of solid-state,rechargeable thin-film batteries.
While solar power is often described as the world's great untapped clean source of energy, ocean power deserves as much attention. In fact, it deserves a lot of attention given the expectation that the world will double energy consumption in the decades ahead. And the reality that most of the world's population lives close to an ocean.
Futures oriented energy engineers dream of capturing the steady kinetic and thermal of energy. Unlike solar and wind, ocean energy provides near 24/7 potential utilization.
A Low Mainteance Linear Generator? Now a Swiss team from Upsalla University has developed and tested a novel system. For nearly three years, a wave power plant has stood on the bottom of the ocean a couple of kilometers off the west coast of Sweden, near Lysekil. Rafael Waters, from the Uppsala University Division of Electricity, designed and built the facility as part of his doctoral project.
The team's 'linear generator' generates electricity with the slow up and down movements of the waves. An ordinary generator transforms rotation energy to electricity, and it needs to turn at about 1500 rpm to be efficient. (Images)
“This means that a wave energy station with an ordinary generator needs energy transmission systems such as gearboxes or hydraulic systems and other complicated details that wear out and require much more maintenance than a linear generator,” says Rafael Waters. “Our generator has functioned without any trouble every time we started it up over the years, even though it has received no maintenance and has sometimes stood still for months.”
The Coal Industry marketing team must not be aware of web activist culture and its tendency to repurpose and ridicule messages that people believe miss the target.
Here come the Clean Coal Carolers!! The coal industry group America's Power has developed a series of Christmas Carols to themes related to clean coal. Viewers pick the winter outfits for chunks of coal and then the Coal Carolers appear at the door! Singing Frosty the Coal Man, O'Technology
In fact, I'm obsessed with the social history of coal. Friends can confirm that I carry around small piece of anthracite coal in my pocket just to 'show and tell'. I never miss a chance to ask people if they know what it is. 9 out of 10 do not. They look at it, rub it, smell it, say 'it's light'. But have no idea what it is. It's also shocking how many people do not know that coal is ancient biomass. I'd much rather the coal industry focus on science than spoofy web cartoons.
The Decision behind Coal Carolers? It's generating buzz. But it also opens the door for web creatives to turn the message against the lobby group. Who is the target audience seeing chunks of coal sing like chipmunks?! I can already see it spreading among web savvy audiences who are already skeptical of coal. Are they being converted?
Try a campaign about Science, not Cocky Satire If the coal industry was actually clean, I'd say-- fine, have your fun. But the industry is far from clean. And there is no near term strategy to convince us otherwise.
I support people who want to enable solutions for the coal industry. Retrofit the world's factories with algae bioreactors to address carbon emissions. But let's not ask people to dress up chunks of coal and sing along to silly tunes. Teach people about science and bioenergy solutions. Don't give them another reason to avoid the challenging conversation about coal's future.
Could a box full of electrons change the energy industry?
Texas-based stealth energy storage company EEStor is making news again on the blogosphere now that it has received a patent for its ground breaking capacitor that might find use in electric vehicles, utility grids or high performance portable devices.
Why is this important for the auto industry? The key to accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles is to advance energy storage devices. Batteries and fuel cells hold electricity using chemical storage, while capacitors store energy as a charge between two plates.
Designing a low cost, high performance capacitor has been a challenge for energy innovators. But EEStor believes its material platform of barium-titanate ceramic powder (94%) mixed with PET plastic could be the right combination.
The EEStor patent reveals a 281 pound storage device with more than 30,000 plates that can hold 52 kWh of electrical energy.
The company has an agreement with electric vehicle maker Zenn and Lockheed for military applications, but has intentionally kept a low profile. Its effort to remain under the radar of media attention, has in turn created a lot of energy blogger hype.
Batteries, fuel cells and capacitors - Not one device rules them all!
"Whether you think you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right." - Henry Ford
The worst thing we can do when thinking about the future of energy is to look at possible solutions and simply extrapolate today's technologies and scientific assumptions forward about what 'is' or 'isn't possible'.
There is still a lot we do not know about the basics of energy systems dealing with photons, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, enzymes and metals. Our current first phase efforts to design nanoscale materials used in energy production, conversion and storage are certain to yield systems that will change how we live in the world in the decades ahead.
Remember, only a century ago, coal and wood were king, magical 'electric' light intimidated the general public, only a few could see the potential of oil, rockets and nuclear science were beyond our imagination, and the vision of a tens of millions of 'horseless carriages' reshaping the urban landscape was a ridiculous proposition.
So what seemingly novel ideas could shape the next century?
Scientists at Penn State University and Virginia Commonwealth University have discovered a way to produce hydrogen using aluminum nanoparticles (billionth of a meter) that react with water molecules to split oygen and hydrogen bonds.
What does that mean?
The physical arrangment and exposure of the alumninum atoms determines its ability to split certain chemical bonds by binding oxygen and releasing hydrogen.
Three of the tested aluminum clusters produced hydrogen from water at room temperature.
This ground-breaking work is important because it confirms the belief held by catalysis researchers that nanoparticle 'geometries, not just electronic properties', effect the reaction performance of catalytic materials.
Hydrogen Production at Room Temperature (& Confusion of Hype vs Hope)