Energywise iconEnergywise

Cars Could Become Flood Predictors

If you often feel that your morning commute in the car is wasted time, a new initiative out of Germany could transform your daily drive into a citizen science experiment that may help predict localized floods and droughts with more precision.

Researchers at the University of Hanover in Germany equipped cars with GPS and devices to measure rainfall, dubbing the vehicles RainCars. Although there are far more measurement variables to account for with a moving car than with a stationary rain gauge, the multitude of cars on the road could ultimately provide better accuracy at a hyper-local level. The research is published in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences.

“If moving cars could be used to measure rainfall the network density could be improved dramatically,” project-leader Uwe Haberlandt said in a statement. Earlier research had shown that data from the wiper speed on many cars—which is an indication of rainfall rate—could provide better measurements of spatial precipitation than a handful of very accurate devices.

To build on earlier work, the researchers set up a lab experiment with a rain simulator and cars with different wiper systems. First, someone in the car manually adjusted the wipers based on visibility. “Front visibility is a good indicator for rainfall intensity,” Ehsan Rabiei, the paper’s lead author, said in a statement. However, human variability in choosing wiper speed isn’t the most reliable indicator of rainfall.

The next tests used newer vehicles that were equipped with two types of optical sensors that measure the rain accumulation and then automatically adjust the wiper action as needed. The sensors use a system of infrared laser beams to continuously detect the rain on the device and are therefore offer more accurate measurements than fickle human behavior.

 

Read More

Betting Long on EVs

Most of the recent news about electric and hybrid-electric vehicles has not been encouraging: three Tesla lithium-ion battery fires; sharply scaled-back projections for EV  sales on the part of the world's leading manufacturer, Renault-Nissan; the long-awaited Fisker bankruptcy filing, listing celebrity investors like Leonardo di Caprio and Don Cheadle, Marc Andreeson and John Doerr, Al Gore and the vice president's son Robert Hunter Biden.

It does not bode well for the EV's immediate prospects when some of the most prominent electric car enthusiasts in Hollywood, venture capital and politics get badly burned. Last month, the automotive industry's most enthusiastic proponent of electriics, Renault-Nissan's Carlos Ghosn, admitted to the Financial Times that the company's EV sales are running far behind projections. It might take Renault-Nissan until 2020-21 rather than 2016 to sell 1.5 million elecrtrics, he said.

To help put matters in perspective, GigaOm's Katie Fehrenbacher has reminded her readers that Tesla's current car has basically been a triumph and that the company has at least a fighting chance of coming out next with an affordable mainstream EV. "Tesla’s Model S has been a big success, and it’s part of a long term evolution that will allow Tesla to eventually deliver its third-generation, mainstream electric car,” wrote Fehrenbacher. "Finding success with that monumental project will be even more difficult than it was with the Model S, yet it will be even more of a revolutionary step toward moving the world off of gasoline-powered cars."

But what if Tesla does not beat the odds? What about the current lackluster sales of the Volt and Leaf?  Is it possible that the recent flurry of interest in EVs will turn out to be transitory and that, once again, we will see them drop off the radar screen? In the end, will the Leaf, Volt and Tesla suffer the same ignominious fate as General Motors's ill-starred EV-1?

Read More

Belgium Claims World’s Largest Offshore Wind Turbine

The largest offshore wind turbine on the planet is now spinning off of the coast of Belgium at the Belwind site. Alstom produced the 6-megawatt Haliade turbine and installed it off of the Ostend harbor last weekend.

The blades stretch out more than 73 meters and the turbine towers more than 100 meters above sea level. The turbine does not have a gearbox but instead uses a permanent-magnet generator. Fewer mechanical parts means less maintenance and higher reliability, according to Alstom.

The size and mechanical configuration will allow the turbine to produce about 15 percent more power than existing offshore turbines and can supply electricity to about 5000 households.

The Haliade 150 was initially tested at Le Carnet site in France. Alstom is now building factories to construct the six-megawatt turbines on a commercial scale.  

As Alstom claims the largest offshore wind turbine for the time being, the title of world’s largest offshore wind farm currently goes to the London Array off the coast of Kent. It boasts 630 megawatts and can power half a million homes.

Offshore wind farms may seem to be constantly vying for bigger and better, but some projects are seeing setbacks. One wind farm, whose turbines would have sat atop towers twice as tall as Alstom’s Haliade 150 and produced nearly twice as much energy as the London Array, has been shelved.

German energy giant RWE was planning the mega wind farm, the Atlantic Array, off the Bristol Channel in the United Kingdom. RWE Innogy’s director of offshore wind, in a press release Paul Cowling said the project is cancelled because of technological challenges and market conditions.

The latter may have been a larger factor, according to the BBC. Sources told the BBC said the project was having trouble getting financing. The project would have reportedly cost about £4 billion ($6.5 billion). There was also some environmental opposition since it would have sat just 13.5 kilometers from a nature reserve.

RWE said that the technical challenges included “substantially deeper water” than initially thought and adverse seabed conditions. With the Atlantic Array a no-go, RWE is focusing on completing the world’s second largest offshore wind farm: a 576-megawatt array known as Gwynt-Y-Mor off the northern coast of Wales.

 

UPDATE (December 2, 2013):

Alstom's Haliade 150 may hold the title of largest wind turbine, but that claim is likely short lived. There are various other 6-MW offshore turbines coming to market. “But at the moment our turbine installed at Belwind site is the biggest and the most efficient installed offshore, because of the size of its rotor,” says Stephanie Roux, spokesperson for Alstom Renewable Power. Most other offshore turbines of similar size are prototypes or not operating at full commercial capacity, according to Alstom. But a 7 MW offshore wind turbine is already being tested In Scotland.  

Photo: Alstom

Batteries Woven Right Into Fabric Boost Wearable Tech

The choices in wearable electronics, including Google Glass and a wave of smartwatches, are quickly multiplying. But those pesky batteries—they still need to be plugged into something to charge up. What if your watch strap could contain the battery components, along with a flexible solar cell? Voilà: No more plugging in.

Others have turned to piezoelectrics and nanomaterials to get wearable tech going, but a group at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology decided to work a lithium-ion battery right into the fabric.

"Although considerable progresses have been seen for wearable electronics, lithium rechargeable batteries, the power sources of the devices, do not keep pace with such progresses due to tenuous mechanical stabilities, causing them to remain as the limiting elements in the entire technology," wrote researchers led by Yong-Hee Lee in Nano Letters. To that end, they tested various materials which they enmeshed in the wristband.

They came up with a fabric-based battery comprising a nickel-coated polyester yarn as the current collector, polyurethane as a binder holding materials together, and a polyurethane separator. The resulting battery can withstand repeated folding and unfolding and still function, a requirement for any tech that's actually going to wrap around the wrist or be worn in other ways. The batteries exhibited "decent" cycling and rate performance, the researchers wrote. Just as importantly, they said, the methods for fabricating this type of battery already exist and should be scalable quickly.

To keep it charged, they added solar cells—flexible polymer cells (PCDTBT, specifically) on polyethylene naphthalate—to the same bits of fabric. The wristband solar panel achieved a conversion efficiency of 5.49 percent, not bad for flexible polymer cells of this type.

This is all pointing toward a future where your glasses, watch, shirt, and even the walls of your home are transformed by electronics. They'll be data nodes capable of medical monitoring, communications, or whatever else you can dream up. And they won't ever need to plug into a power source.

Will Balloons Boost the Solar Updraft Tower Idea?

For about seven years, a 195-meter-tall (640-foot) chimney rose above the plain in Manzanares, Spain, south of Madrid. The solar updraft tower, which had turbines at its base, rose from the middle of a 46 000-square-meter greenhouse-like collection area; it generated up to 50 kilowatts of power—that is, until it fell over.

The unfortunate end to the solar chimney is little more than a footnote. It failed due to supporting wires that weren't designed to resist corrosion, a fate that serves to punctuate the persistent failures of a technology touted for the last 110 years. The technology, first proposed in 1903, works by concentrating solar energy under a canopy near the ground, like a greenhouse. The resulting hot air is pulled upward into the tower, because hot air rises. Turbines at the base of the tower spin as the air rushes past, generating power. The taller the tower, the faster the updraft, and the more electricity one can produce.

Only a couple of examples of solar updraft towers have been built, including the Manzanares tower and one that is currently functioning in Jinshawan, China. In general, building towers tall enough to generate a lot of power was deemed risky and expensive. Now, as one company plans to build a truly massive tower in the Arizona desert, a dreamer famous for crossing the Pacific with Richard Branson wants to build a very different type of tower using his medium of choice: balloons.

Per Lindstrand, who has set a number of ballooning records with Branson, told UK magazine The Engineer that he was approached by the ALMA Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert about devising a solution to the power needs of the remote site. The fine dust in the region makes solar panels a rough sell, so they have worked up plans for an inflatable updraft tower rather than a solid one.

The design is ambitious: a 130-megawatt-capacity unit comprising a one-kilometer-high tower skirted by a 14-kilometer-diameter canopy at its base. An engineer with Lindstrand's company said materials selection for the tower is still an open question. With a capacity factor of almost 25 percent, the tower would beat out solar panels and approximate wind power generation (updraft towers really need heat rather than actual sunlight, so they function even when it is cloudy). And perhaps most importantly, the balloon idea would cut the costs associated with building what would actually be the tallest manmade structure in the world if completed to design. Lindstrand said using concrete to build such a chimney would cost $750 million, while an inflatable tower could cost only $20 million. That seems a tad ambitious given mega-projects' costs in general, but it clearly would diminish materials costs to a great extent.

And speaking of ambitious, Australian company EnviroMission has even grander plans. The developer wants to build a 200-megawatt tower in Arizona involving 32 large (6.25-megawatt) turbines around the base. The company also has agreements in Texas for other tower projects; a concept design in Australia calls for a 1000-meter tower, though the Arizona project would likely be bigger.

Just because an idea hasn't worked before doesn't mean the concept isn't worth revisiting. But we won't anticipate the prospect of solar towers dotting the landscape until one manages to stay standing for a little while.

Arizona Imposes Net Metering Fee on Rooftop Solar

After a long battle pitting solar advocates against parts of the electric power industry, Arizona's electricity regulator has imposed a small fee on home operators of photovoltaic systems that rely on "net metering" to feed excess solar electricity back into the grid. Net metering has been controversial among utilities across the United States and in countries like the UK as well, because of claims that if customers generating electricity at home are allowed to sell electricity back into the grid at the going spot price of electricity, then the added system costs of providing the needed infrastructure will be shifted to all the rest of the customers.

The state's utility regulator, the Arizona Corporation Commission, concluded that concerns about the cost shift are real and imposed a fee of 70 cents per kilowatt of installed solar, which would equate to about $5 per month in a typical household. Though that is but a tenth of what the power industry had advocated, spending millions of dollars to lobby the Arizona regulators and influence public opinion, it may have some national impact. As Arizona is  the country's leading solar state (on a per capital basis), its regulatory thinking could be a bellwether. What is more, rules governing net metering are bound to become more important almost everywhere, as homes start feeding electricity into the grid not only from photovoltaic panels, but also other sources such as electric vehicle batteries, fuel cells, and wind turbines.

The net metering fee could also have some impact on an alternative option for residential PV, which goes by the name of "solar gardens." In this model, instead of purchasing a home installation with all the attendant complications--including, now, factoring in the net metering fee--customers buy a "plot" or lease its output in a cooperatively owned solar farm. Electricity generated on the plot monthly is subtracted from the customer's electricity consumption, and if production exceeds consumption, the customer is credited. An Arizona cooperative has been a pioneer in developing solar gardens, and the concept is catching on even in the northern Midwest.

Photo: Jenna Wagner/Getty Images

A Low-Water Energy Future Isn’t Necessarily Low-Carbon

Planning for a low-carbon energy future is not the same as planning for a low-water energy future, according to new research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

There is a lack of Academic research that compares carbon emissions, water use, and cost, according to lead author Mort Webster, an associate professor of engineering systems at MIT. “When we started this work,” he said in a statement, “we assumed that the basic work had been done, and we were going to do something more sophisticated. But then we realized nobody had done the simple, dumb thing.”

Although there may be a dearth of academic research looking at the exact question Webster was asking, there has been plenty of other research and action that shows governments, utilities and environmental groups are increasingly examining the issue and developing policies that address water, energy and climate change simultaneously.

Three years ago, IEEE Spectrum reported extensively on the water-and-energy crisis. The coverage included models that engineers were developing to look at not just the nexus of water, energy, and carbon, but also air, soil and pollutants. The special issue also looked at how regions as diverse as, say, Australia, Singapore, and California are addressing climate, water, and energy issues.

Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) [PDF] included the issue of water use related to energy production as its own section within UCS’s annual report for the first time. Another report from the International Energy Agency found that about 15 percent of the world’s total water withdrawal goes to energy production, and that figure could increase by about 20 percent between 2010 and 2035.

Webster’s research, which appeared in Nature Climate Change, found what others in the industry already know: limiting carbon dioxide emissions and water usage at the same time requires a different balance of technologies than does just doing one or the other.

Nuclear power, for example, is low on the carbon spectrum compared to coal, but uses a lot of water. Even some more energy-efficient fossil fuel power plants can significantly cut CO2 emissions, but use more water as a result. Hydropower is low-carbon, but requires a steady supply of water. Wind and solar photovoltaic are both relatively low-carbon and low-water energy technologies, but concentrating solar power plants use more water than new coal-fired power plants. The UCS report found that the increase in water withdrawal by the power industry would be driven by higher-efficiency power plants and expanding biofuels production.

Water concerns are not necessarily taking a backseat to meeting renewable energy portfolio standards and carbon reduction goals. Black & Veatch has found that power utilities identify water supply issues as a bigger concern than nuclear disposal or carbon regulation.

In the Western United States, some power producers are already planning for a low-water future while trying to keep hydropower as a part of the energy mix. For the first time, India, which has growing power needs and water constraints, has identified water as a scarce natural resource in its most recent five-year plan.

But there is a way forward that can take both carbon and water into account. Energy efficiency throughout the entire power sector, from production, to delivery, to end-use, is one way to curb both water and carbon emissions.

As wind and solar PV come down in price, the renewables are also becoming more cost competitive and could displace some of the older, most water- and energy-intensive fossil fuel plants.

Photo: iStockphoto

 

Broken Bats: Wind Turbines and the Damage Done

Last year, IEEE Spectrum profiled an ultrasonic alert for wind farm operators designed to let them know when bats are nearing their turbines. The potentially bat-saving technology can't be ready soon enough according to this week's issue of the journal Bioscience. University of Colorado ecologist Mark Hayes estimates that at least 600 000 and possibly more than 900 000 bats were killed by wind turbines last year in the U.S.

Hayes' report is a statistical reassessment of data on bat carcasses found at wind turbine sites. His figure lends credence to a March 2013 mortality estimate of 880 000 deaths per year by Sacramento-based ornithologist and consultant Shawn Smallwood. That figure was well beyond previous estimates, which had ranged as low as 33 000. "My estimates, using different methods and data, bracket Smallwood's 888 000 estimate," writes Hayes in an e-mail to Spectrum.

He says his own estimates are likely conservative. That's because he plugged in the lower figure for mortality at given turbine sites when those were reported as a range, and his estimate focuses only on migratory periods of the year.

Turbines are not the biggest problem facing bats, which are being decimated by White-nose Syndrome. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the fungal disease had killed at least 5.7 to 6.7 million bats in 16 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces.

But while the White-nose mortality figure is cumulative—representing the total number of bats felled since the fungus was first recognized in 2006—Hayes' figure suggests that turbines kill over half a million bats each year.

The system profiled by Spectrum last year aims to give wind farm operators the ability to ramp down turbines in order to protect bats—especially the most highly-endangered species. The acoustic system is designed to detect bat calls, identify the species, and then combine that information with meteorological data to determine the risk of bat collisions and, if appropriate, automatically idle nearby turbines.

No word yet from the Electric Power Research Institute on results from field tests of the system at wind farms in Wisconsin. But this April, Bedford, NH-based Normandeau Associates, the firm behind the technology, vowed to have it commercially available finish testing the system by next year.

Photo: Edward Kinsman/Getty Images

Editor's note: We were contacted on 19 Nov, 2013 with this note from Normandeau: The Normandeau website should have said that “The efficacy of the Bat Detection and Shutdown System will be tested in 2014.” We've updated the last sentence accordingly.

Normandeau Associates is creating a new, cutting-edge Bat Detection Shutdown System for Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) by installing ReBAT™ acoustic monitoring systems on four wind turbines at We Energies' Blue Sky Green Field wind energy facility. The project focuses on developing an acoustic-based, SCADA-integrated system that can be used to automatically modify wind turbine operations when an elevated collision risk for bats is predicted based on local and regional meteorological conditions as well as species-specific activity.

The Bat Detection Shutdown System will assist in minimizing bat mortality and complying with state and federal regulations.

Normandeau's Christine Sutter, technical director and bat team lead, describes how the system will work, "The Bat Detection Shutdown System receives near real-time data streams of bat acoustic activity and atmospheric conditions, which are fed into a species-specific, predictive mortality model." The model predicts risk levels that are then transmitted to the SCADA system in time to modify turbine operation to minimize risk.

Normandeau is coordinating with Vestas Wind Systems, manufacturer of the turbines, to ensure full integration between the SCADA and Bat Detection Shutdown systems.

"Ideally," adds Sutter, "this approach will allow wind energy facilities to operate at normal capacity with limited, targeted modifications, thus minimizing power generation loss while reducing bat mortality."

The Bat Detection Shutdown System is expected to be available in 2014.
- See more at: http://www.normandeau.com/pages/news/index.asp?NR_ID=183#sthash.sMSZ75mg.dpuf
Normandeau Associates is creating a new, cutting-edge Bat Detection Shutdown System for Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) by installing ReBAT™ acoustic monitoring systems on four wind turbines at We Energies' Blue Sky Green Field wind energy facility. The project focuses on developing an acoustic-based, SCADA-integrated system that can be used to automatically modify wind turbine operations when an elevated collision risk for bats is predicted based on local and regional meteorological conditions as well as species-specific activity.

The Bat Detection Shutdown System will assist in minimizing bat mortality and complying with state and federal regulations.

Normandeau's Christine Sutter, technical director and bat team lead, describes how the system will work, "The Bat Detection Shutdown System receives near real-time data streams of bat acoustic activity and atmospheric conditions, which are fed into a species-specific, predictive mortality model." The model predicts risk levels that are then transmitted to the SCADA system in time to modify turbine operation to minimize risk.

Normandeau is coordinating with Vestas Wind Systems, manufacturer of the turbines, to ensure full integration between the SCADA and Bat Detection Shutdown systems.

"Ideally," adds Sutter, "this approach will allow wind energy facilities to operate at normal capacity with limited, targeted modifications, thus minimizing power generation loss while reducing bat mortality."

The Bat Detection Shutdown System is expected to be available in 2014.
- See more at: http://www.normandeau.com/pages/news/index.asp?NR_ID=183#sthash.sMSZ75mg.dpuf

Japan Sharply Cuts Carbon Reduction Pledge

Japan's announcement yesterday at the global climate meeting in Warsaw that it could no longer promise to make a 25 percent cut to its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, but instead would aim for a 3 percent cut, did not go over well. The Philippine typhoon already had cast a pall on the meeting of parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, reducing members of some delegations to tears, reportedly. Representatives of highly endangered island and low-lying states naturally were looking for stronger action from the big, rich countries, not weaker.

Four years ago, at the fifteenth Conference of Parties in Copenhagen ("COP-15"), an informal accord was adopted in which the nations of the world agreed to submit pledges about what they hoped to accomplish by 2020. In effect this turned out to be a substitute for the advanced industrial countries' making firm, binding commitments for the period of 2012-2020, as the controversial Kyoto Protocol had envisioned. In keeping with the Copenhagen Accord, the industrial countries proceeded to submit pledges as to how much they hoped to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, while the fast-growing large developing countries like China and India mostly sent in promises to reduce carbon intensity—the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit output.

Many of those pledges were a little vague and carefully hedged, including Japan's. In its filing with the secretariat of the Framework Convention, Japan said it would cut emissions 25 percent, "premised on the establishment of a fair and effective international framework in which all major economies participate and on agreement by those economies on ambitious targets." Its 25-percent pledge was generally taken to refer to the 1990 Kyoto baseline, though that is not stated explicitly in its filing. However, the weak pledge of a 3 percent cut refers to a 2005 base year. So it represents even more of a scale-back in national ambitions than it appears, because the country's emissions were higher in 2005 than they were in 1990.

Oddly, Japan's reduced pledge does not take account of the possible or even likely restart of at least some of the nation's nuclear reactors and in fact is based on the prospect of a non-nuclear future, even though that is not official policy. As any casual reader of the world press knows these days, the incumbent government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advocates renewed reliance on nuclear energy, while Junichiro Koizumi, a flashy former prime minister, says the country should end use of atomic power entirely. So, why would official Japan submit a sharply reduced climate pledge—based on a premise that is by no means official policy— knowing it would not go over well? Could the government be trying to put pressure on anti-nuclear environmentalists at home, telling them in effect that the price of no nukes will be much higher greenhouse gas emissions?

Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty

Underwater Kite Harvests Energy From Slow Currents

A kite with a three-meter wingspan has just started to produce electricity in a pilot project off the coast of Northern Ireland.

The technology, dubbed Deep Green, consists of a wing with a gearless turbine mounted underneath that is tethered to the ocean floor. As the tide flows over the wing, it glides through the water and the turbine rotates. The tether also contains the unit's power and communication cables. For the pilot, there is an offshore control room in the inlet. The kites don't just float along anywhere they please—operators send them along a controlled trajectory to maximize energy output.

Deep Green can take advantage of lower velocity currents than most tidal technologies (less than 2.5 meters per second), according to Minesto, the company that makes the kites. Minesto hopes to field a 3-megawatt array in 2015.

The pilot involves a scaled-down version of Deep Green; the full-size versions have wingspans of between eight and fourteen meters. The eight-meter carbon fiber kite [PDF] has a rated power of 120 kilowatts at a tidal flow of 1.3 meters per second. The version with a 14-meter wingspan has a rated power of 850 kilowatts at 1.7 meters per second.

Although kite arrays could potentially be deployed in more locations than other tidal turbines, all tidal and wave technologies face considerable challenges, such as surviving in harsh, salty waters and being cost-competitive with other renewable energy options.

Read More
Advertisement

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the EnergyWise newsletter and get biweekly news on the power & energy industry, green technology, and conservation delivered directly to your inbox.

Advertisement
Load More