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Attack on Nine Substations Could Take Down U.S. Grid

There are more than 55 000 transmission substations in the United States, but an attack on less than 10 could plunge the entire nation into darkness, according to a study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that was obtained by the Wall Street Journal.

According to people familiar with the report, the Wall St. Journal reported that just nine substations could take down the transmission grid for the entire country. Currently there are no regulations that require protection for key substations, but that could change.

Earlier this month, FERC directed the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to develop reliability standards for grid operators to address physical security threats.

“Today's order enhances the grid’s resilience by requiring physical security for the facilities most critical to the reliable operation of the Bulk-Power System,” FERC Acting Chairman Cheryl LaFleur said in a statement. “It will complement the ongoing efforts of FERC and facility owners and operators to ensure the physical security of the grid.” 

The order has three steps: owners and operators must perform a risk assessment to identify facilities that are critical; once those facilities are identified owners must evaluate potential threats to those sites and then they must develop and implement a security plan.

The focus is protecting the transmission substations from a physical attack, which could be just as damaging as a cyber attack. Last April, snipers targeted a Pacific Gas & Electric substation in California, which did not cause an outage, but did raise questions about the vulnerabilities of the grid.

"There are probably less than 100 critical high voltage substations on our grid in this country that need to be protected from a physical attack," former FERC chairman Jon Wellinghoff told the Wall Street Journal in an email. "It is neither a monumental task, nor is it an inordinate sum of money that would be required to do so."

The steps sound easy enough, but many seemingly simple procedures were not in place to prevent the 2003 blackout, or the cascading outage in Southern California in 2011. There are many more tools and data sources to help identify outages, but a lack of planning and the novelty of the technology means that it is not always leveraged by grid operators.

In some ways, protecting against a physical attack may be easier than protecting against a cyber attack. Since the grid was first built, utilities have been physically protecting facilities, where as cyber threats are a more recent development that utilities are less familiar with addressing. A recent survey from Utility Dive found that cyber security was on the bottom of a list of pressing challenges for utilities, with grid reliability only somewhere in the middle.

Better coordination between utilities and grid operators will be key in preventing cascading outages in the future. FERC and NERC are evaluating whether mandatory reliability standards may be necessary to physically protect the grid, and the government agencies are also encouraging more cooperation between utilities to address grid vulnerabilities.

The new standards for critical transmission substations are due from NERC in June.

Chinese Automaker Adopts New Efficient Engine Design

With all the buzz surrounding electric cars, it’s worth remembering that internal combustion engines remain an active area of technology development. For example, a Michigan-based start-up called EcoMotors has created a new type of engine that could improve fuel economy by 20% compared to conventional turbo diesel engines—and be built at a lower production cost. Yesterday, EcoMotors announced the creation of a joint venture to start building these engines in China.

The company's Opoc engine breaks with conventional designs in a number of ways to reduce weight and volume while saving fuel. It has two cylinders, which each house two pistons. That increases the power density because pistons need to travel half the distance, according to the company. The two-stroke engine also uses electrical control systems in place of mechanical components to precisely regulate combustion, it says.

An electrically controlled clutch, for example, allows the engine to operate with both two-cylinder modules operating, or with one turned off to save fuel while driving. Although EcoMotors plans to initially manufacture diesel engines, the basic architecture can also work with gasoline, natural gas, or biofuels.

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Earth’s Infrared Radiation: New Renewable Energy Frontier?

The Earth continuously emits 100 million gigawatts of infrared heat into outer space. That’s enough to power all of humanity many thousands of times over. Capturing even a fraction of that would mean an end to our energy woes. Harvard University researchers are now proposing a way to harvest this untapped source of renewable energy.

They have come up with two designs for a device they call an “emissive energy harvester” that would convert IR radiation into usable power. Today's technology isn't sufficient for an efficient, affordable harvester, the researchers say. But they've laid out a few different paths towards such devices in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It seems counterintuitive, but the devices generate power by emitting infrared radiation. "The [device] is emitting much more radiation than it receives," says Steven Byrnes, a postdoctoral researcher working in applied physicist Frederico Capasso’s laboratory at Harvard. "This is the imbalance that we can take advantage of to create DC power."

The first design, which they admit is not the most promising, is a heat engine running between the Earth’s surface and a cold plate. The heat flowing from the ambient surface air to the cold plate, which radiates it out into the atmosphere, would be used to do mechanical work. The concept is simple, but cooling the plate efficiently to a low enough temperature is tough, Byrnes says.

As a case study the researchers looked at how much power such a device would generate in Lamont, Oklahoma, where a facility has been measuring IR radiation intensity. They found that they would get an average of 2.7 Watts from the IR radiation emitted by a square meter of Oklahoma over 24 hours, which is pretty low for large-scale power generation.

So the researchers turn to rectifying antennas, or rectennas, devices that absorb electromagnetic radiation and convert it into direct current electricity. A rectenna is an antenna coupled with a diode. Radiation induces an AC voltage across the antenna, which the diode rectifies to DC.

The researchers argue that rectennas can be run in reverse, generating DC power while emitting radiation, rather than absorbing it. In their design, a nanoscale antenna very efficiently emits Earth's infrared radiation into the sky, cooling the electrons only in that part of the circuit. Because the diode is at a higher temperature than the antenna, current only flows from the diode to the antenna. And because the antenna acts as a resistor, this results in a voltage.

Rectennas are traditionally used to generate power from microwaves, but can be used for higher frequency radiation, all the way up to visible light. Infrared frequency rectennas are a developing technology and the proof-of-principle devices demonstrated so far would generate very little power. But technological advances could improve their efficiency, Byrnes says.

Applying solar-cooking techniques such as reflectors to heat up the rectennas could also increase efficiency. For example, in the Lamont, Oklahoma case study, raising the temperature of a rectenna-based harvester from 20° C to 100° C using solar-cooking techniques would increase the power density of a rectenna from 1.2 W/m2 to 20 W/m2. “Solar panels for heating and cooking are already used in much of the world,” he says. “You could easily couple that to the (infrared) harvester.”

The researchers say that IR antennas should be easy to make on large areas at a reasonable cost. The critical challenge will be making diodes that would work well at the low voltages that would be expected in the harvester. The researchers suggest a few options to get around this problem. One is to use specially designed low-voltage diodes such as tunnel diodes and ballistic diodes.

Needless to say, this vision of IR energy harvesters for renewable power rests on engineers overcoming several technical challenges. But Byrnes says that this is a new energy frontier to tackle. He imagines one day a sheet printed with thousands of tiny infrared-harvesting rectennas that could be laminated on a solar panel or integrated into a solar water heater.

Two New Ideas in Wave and Tidal Power

Waves and tides offer some of the most predictable, consistent, and just generally big energy resources available. Rollouts of actual wave and tidal power installations, however, have been slow and generally limited to pilot projects so far. Part of the reason for this—along with straightforward but difficult problems like transmission—is that there is no consensus at all on what represents the best device designs to actually harness waves and tides. A couple of interesting ideas—one wave, one tidal—were on display this week at the ARPA-E Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C., that offer some clear advantages over many of the other attempts at drawing energy from the oceans.

The wave power idea is closer than the tidal energy one to rollout, with a planned open-water test for this summer. M3 Wave dispenses with all the problems that come with buoys or other above-and-below-the-surface designs by mooring a simple device to the ocean floor. The device, pictured above, involves two air chambers: as a wave passes over the top of the first chamber, the pressure inside increases, forcing air through a passageway to the second chamber. Inside the passageway is a turbine, so the passing air is actually what generates the electricity. As the wave continues on, it raises the pressure inside the second chamber, pushing the air back through the turbine—importantly, it is a bidirectional turbine—and back into the first chamber. Another wave, another cycle. Repeat.

The primary selling point here is its simple and small footprint. There is no impact on ocean view, on shipping or fishing traffic, and rough seas above won't endanger the system in any way. M3 is selling it as "expeditionary" wave power, meaning it might be brought along on a ship and deployed for things like disaster relief; the company suggests such a deployment could produce 150 to 500 kilowatts. The system will undergo open-water testing at a U.S. National Guard facility, Camp Rilea in Oregon, in August.

On the other side of the country, a group at Brown University has developed what they call an oscillating hydrofoil, intended to minimize some of the impacts of tidal power devices and increase efficiency. The hydrofoil is mounted on to the sea floor—it resembles a car's spoiler attached to a pole, essentially. As the water flows past that spoiler it oscillates, generating electricity. It is designed so that the pole can actually fold down and out of the way if necessary, allowing for ships or even wildlife (detected with sensors on the device) to pass by without incident. The team received US $750 000 in funding from ARPA-E in 2012, and will soon move to a phase II involving a medium-scale, 10-kw prototype. They have calculated that the device can achieve much better energy conversion efficiencies in tides flowing very slowly than any of the devices that are on or close to market.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has estimated that in the United States alone there are wave power resources totaling 252 terawatt-hours/year, with tidal power adding another 17 Twh/year. Those are big numbers, and they come without the intermittency complaints that plague wind and solar power. Any new way to catch the ocean's energy is worth a look.

Can Internet Infrastructure Pay for LED Street Lights?

From Birmingham, UK to Shenzhen and Lyon to Los Angeles, cities across the world are installing light-emitting diodes (LED) street lights to save money and increase safety.

Such retrofits can require a lot of upfront capital that many municipalities do not have. To entice more cities to make the switch, Philips and Ericsson have teamed up to offer a lighting-as-a-service model that pairs Philips’ LED street lights with Ericsson’s small cell mobile networks.

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Huge Offshore Wind Farms Could Tame Hurricanes

What happened when the hurricane ran across thousands of offshore wind turbines? It sounds like a climate scientist's idea of a joke, but a new study has found that offshore wind farms could protect coastal cities by slowing hurricane winds and reducing storm surge.


The spinning turbine blades of offshore wind farms can sap a hurricane's strength by slowing the rotating winds in the outer edge of the rotating storm—an action that leads to smaller waves and eventually slows the wind speeds of the entire hurricane. Simulations have shown that such effects could have significantly dampened the impact of real-life hurricanes Sandy, Isaac and Katrina, according to a new paper detailed in the 26 February 2014 issue of the journal Nature Climate Change.

"We found that when wind turbines are present, they slow down the outer rotation winds of a hurricane," said Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, in a news release. "This feeds back to decrease wave height, which reduces movement of air toward the center of the hurricane, increasing the central pressure, which in turn slows the winds of the entire hurricane and dissipates it faster."

Jacobson worked with his colleagues at Stanford and the University of Delaware to simulate hurricane collisions with tens of thousands of offshore wind turbines, based on a computer model that can account for air pollution, energy, weather and climate. They then ran simulations based on the real-life cases of Hurricane Sandy's impact on New York in 2012, Hurricane Isaac's strike on New Orleans in 2012, and Hurricane Katrina's devastating blow on New Orleans in 2005.

In Katrina's case, an array of 78 000 wind turbines off the coast of New Orleans slowed simulated wind speeds by 130 kilometers per hour and decreased storm surge by up to 71 percent. In Isaac's case, the same array of turbines could have decreased peak wind speeds by up to 92 kph and reduced storm surge by up to 60 percent.

Other simulation runs found that even bigger arrays of 272 000 turbines or even 543 000 turbines—located offshore of Cuba and stretching from Florida to Texas—could have dropped Katrina's wind speeds by 158 kph and reduced storm surge by up to 79 percent.

An array of 112 000 turbines stretching from New York City to Washington D.C. could have slowed Sandy's peak winds by 130 kph and decreased storm surge by up to 21 percent. A larger array of 414 000 turbines along most of the U.S. East Coast could have dropped Sandy's wind speeds by almost 141 kph and decreased storm surge by up to 34 percent.

The huge wind farms would do more than just slow down the hurricanes. The largest wind turbine arrays could have extracted up to 2.65 terawatts of peak power from Hurricane Sandy and up to 1.18 terawatts of peak power from Hurricane Katrina—peak power representing the most power extracted at any time during the simulations.

Such simulations suggest that huge wind farms have an edge over traditional coastal city defenses because they slow both wind speeds and decrease storm surge. By comparison, seawalls can only stop storm surge. The cost of building seawalls can also run between $10 billion and $40 billion per installation, whereas expensive wind farms could pay for themselves through energy generation over time.

Hurricane damage to the huge arrays of wind turbines is a risk, Jacobson said. But he pointed out that current wind turbines can stand up to wind speeds of 180 kph within the range of category 2 or 3 hurricanes. And the presence of the huge wind farms could help prevent hurricanes from ever building up to superstorm wind speeds. (The study assumed the wind turbines had a cut-out speed of 180 kph in most of the simulation runs to prevent damage to the turbines.)

Huge arrays of offshore wind turbines remain a far cry from today's reality when the U.S. has yet to build any offshore wind farms. But the new study raises the possibility of hurricane protection as added incentive for building offshore wind farms. Policy planners could consider storm protection as the cherry on top of wind power's known benefits involving renewable power generation, national energy security and the reduction of the human impact on climate change.

Photo: iStockphoto

Terrafore Looks to Cut Molten Salt Energy Storage Costs in Half

As we have seen in recent months, energy storage is becoming a pretty big deal. California has the country's first energy storage mandate in place, and plants like Solana in Arizona have started trying to incorporate storage in from the beginning. Solana uses molten salt energy storage, a common idea wherein salts are heated, retain that energy for relatively long periods of time, and then discharge it by heating steam to turn a turbine. Solana, a concentrating solar thermal plant, can keep running for six hours after the sun drops below the horizon.

Storage like that, though, is still expensive. A company called Terrafore Technologies wants to cut the price almost in half. Terrafore was an exhibitor at the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy Summit this week in Washington, D.C., and the company's CEO Anoop Mathur told me he was hoping to raise $5 to $10 million (maybe from the gaggle of venture capital folks that wandered the Summit's halls) in order to scale up his process.

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Crowd-Sourced Thermostats, Modular Fusion Reactors, and Other Ideas From ARPA-E Future Energy Pitching Session

Early this week at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C., a group of entrepreneurs, researchers, and investors gathered for a session that was equal parts innovative, smart, optimistic, and downright crazy. At the ARPA-E Future Energy Pitching Session, eight early-stage start-ups have three minutes—strictly enforced—to sell a panel of venture capitalists on their companies. The venture folks ask a few questions and then offer advice, and generally knock the excited presenters down a peg or two.

At last year's summit, the pitches included rotation-free wind power, uranium molten-salt nuclear reactors, and a device designed to pull energy out of the air thanks to ambient temperature changes. Some of these ideas are very high-risk, and potentially very high-reward; perfect for venture capital, and sometimes, for ARPA-E itself to throw in some money.

"The fire exits are on your lefthand side, should you need them," began the moderator. Indeed they are; off we go with some of the best ideas:

Onboard Dynamics: Refuel any vehicle for $1 per gallon from any natural gas line

Natural gas is now being produced in huge volumes in various parts of the United States, and proponents say it could be an extremely cheap alternative to oil-based gasoline. But one major hurdle is infrastructure: There are less than a thousand compressed natural gas (CNG) refueling stations around the United States right now. Onboard Dynamics wants to eliminate the need for a lot of that infrastructure by putting the gas compressor on to vehicles themselves.

By letting the car or truck do the compressing, we wouldn't need any filling stations at all. "Sixty million homes and businesses could become natural gas refueling stations," said presenter and CEO Rita Hansen. The idea is to hook into any low-pressure gas source and use one or two of an engine's cylinders as a natural gas compressor, when the car is not moving. The remaining engine cylinders run to power that compression and to provide cooling. When refueling is finished and the car needs to actually move again, all engine cylinders run as normal.

The company has its first customer, Deschutes County in Oregon, but the investors on the panel warned how hard it would be to, essentially, convince car part manufacturers to change everything that they do overnight. The road is long and the climb is steep when it comes to changing our primary vehicle fuel source.

CrowdComfort: People-sourced building control

Do you work in an office? Someone is always cold, right? Or hot. Or somehow uncomfortable. And either everyone keeps changing the thermostat to suit their own needs or complaints get sent to maintenance, who maybe after a few months might make a change. In the meantime, someone is paying for energy to cool or heat a building to points that no one seems happy about. Time to use those angry crowds to fix that.

"We sought to empower people with their smartphones to create the world's first crowd-sourced thermostat," said Eric Graham, the company's CEO. It's actually a straightforward idea: I'm cold, so I tap a button on my phone saying so. Over my whole floor, maybe a few people say they're extremely cold, a few say they're somewhat cold, and so on, and a software-based recommendation engine generates a number for how the building should actually be heated. This can be done in very basic fashion, where a manager turns a knob based on the generated number, or the software can integrate with larger buildings to more automatically affect the building's climate. It wouldn't cost all that much to install or to run, according to Graham, and there is potential for energy savings if unnecessary heating and cooling can be avoided.

The problem, say the money guys, lies primarily in that very simplicity. Can't anyone do this? The company has a few patents, but it isn't much of a stretch to imagine multiple ways into this idea, especially now that Internet-connected thermostats, like the Nest, are available. The really promising part of it, though, is when you extend the idea past just temperature. If thousands of people in really big buildings start telling an app all about their current experience: temperature, leaks, dirty bathrooms, or even letting an app just track where they walk and which staircases or elevators they take, the data might start to point the way toward much smarter—and energy efficient—buildings.

Helion Energy: Modular fusion reactors within reach?

It always comes back to fusion. The unicorn of all energy sources, it has been 20 years away since work on the idea began. After decades of lackluster progress, billions still get poured into the idea, and it still remains just off the horizon. Unless you ask Helion Energy, that is.

This company says they can have a 50-MW fusion nuclear reactor actually online and producing power by 2019. That is five years from now, if you are counting at home. They use a technique called pulsed magneto-inertial fusion, which CEO David Kirtley said lies somewhere between the commonly attempted methods of magnetic fusion and laser fusion (their prototype is pictured above). The details on how exactly it works seem a bit thin, but there's a "simple" five-step process described here. Let's just agree that the odds of this being as perfect and planet-saving as the company suggests are . . . slim.

The upsides to it actually working are obvious: you can use seawater to generate fuel, no weapons-grade material is produced as with fission reactors, and there is no possibility of meltdown. But, as Kirtley acknowledged, "it still has the word 'nuclear' in front of it." That means a steep regulatory climb, not to mention a rightfully skeptical public.

"Being in fusion, you've got this credibility issue," said Andrew Garman, of New Venture Partners, during the session. "Is this really going to be ready in 2019 for a plant? Or is it more like 2099?"

The Grid From the Ground Up: What to Do If We Could Do It Again

Among the primary reasons that innovation in electricity grid technologies tends to move slowly is that the grid makes for a poor test site: You can't bring it down to try something out. So, instead, here's a thought experiment: If you could bring the whole thing down and start over from scratch, what would you do? What technologies in use today would be scrapped or downscaled, and which ones would we implement from the outset? A panel of experts—hosted by EnergyWise contributor Katherine Tweed—at the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E) Energy Innovation Summit laid out some ideas on Monday.

"Power engineering is not rocket science. It's much more important than that," said Terry Boston, the CEO of grid operator PJM Interconnection, citing the one-day 2003 Northeast blackout and its $6 billion price tag. He started out by saying that Thomas Edison was righthigh voltage, direct current is probably the way to go if we're starting our grid anew, instead of the alternating current that dominates the American grid. Beyond that, standardization is a crucial component that is sorely lacking from today's grid.

"We tend to use 23 different communication standards in our industry," said Clark Gellings, a fellow at the Electric Power Research Institute. Ideally, every node on every corner of the grid should be able to communicate with every centralized generation facility and all the substations and other nodes between them. "We talk about a common information model," Gellings said. "That's a wonderful idea, but we're not deploying it."

Another idealized grid characteristic is in fact happening incrementally as we speak: a balance of distributed generation, like rooftop solar panels, with the big bulk generators such as natural gas plants and utility-scale solar and wind. Today we talk about creating microgrids that, while connecting to the main grid, can function somewhat independently; if this sort of combined form of generation and distribution were implemented from the beginning, there is a good chance that the resilience of the grid—meaning, its ability to bounce back from disasters like, say, Hurricane Sandy—would improve dramatically. Adding electricity storage capability, from the large-scale options like compressed air or big battery arrays on down to even the household or smart-appliance level, would eliminate some of the problems the grid has with dispatching power where and when its needed.

Along with some of those tech fixes, Lawrence Jones, the vice president of utility innovations and infrastructure resilience at Alstom Grid, said we should first determine precisely what we want this magically regenerated grid to do. Since reliability in the face of natural disaster is always among the foremost concerns when it comes to the grid, putting all transmission underground might be a reasonable idea. (This thought experiment now rests firmly outside the bounds of economic and logistical confines, of course.) "The physical things in the world that affect the grid... extreme weather, hotter and colder temperatures—these are things that we haven't designed for," Jones said. "I think it needs to be an anticipatory design strategy."

So if Santa brought us a new grid, it would use HVDC, incorporate renewables and storage at all scales, focus on resilience issues that would allow it to recover from insult, and feature standardized protocols allowing smooth communication from top to bottom. Some of these goals are on their way into our actual grid, but the uptake is slow, and others appear to be a bit of a pipe dream. But John Hewa, the CEO of Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Texas, pointed out that this sort of dreaming isn't coming from a place of utter poverty: "It's a system that is achieving nearly four nines of reliability in some parts of the country." That is, it is functioning just fine nearly 99.99 percent of the time. Maybe we don't need to build from the ground up after all.


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