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Nuclear Shutdowns Put Belgians and Britons on Blackout Alert

A bad year for nuclear power producers has Belgians and Britons shivering more vigorously as summer heat fades into fall. Multiple reactor shutdowns in both countries have heightened concern about the security of power supplies when demand spikes this winter.

In Belgium, rolling blackouts are already part of this winter's forecast because three of the country's largest reactors—reactors that normally provide one-quarter of Belgian electricity—are shut down.

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"Someday" is Now for Solar and Wind Power, says Lazard

Large wind and solar power farms have the economics to go toe-to-toe with the cheapest fossil fuel-based power supplies in the United States according to the venerable financial advisory firm Lazard Ltd. Thanks to falling costs and rising efficiency, reports Lazard in an analysis released this week, utility-scale installations of solar panels and wind turbines now produce power at a cost that's competitive with natural gas and coal-fired generating stations—even without subsidies.  

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Wave Power's Uncertain Future

Buried in wave power device company Ocean Power Technologies' latest quarterly report and press release is a seemingly backwards move: one major project in Australia has been terminated, while another signature project in Oregon is in the process of "winding down." A company determined to build commercial-scale wave power facilities is apparently not interested, at least at the present moment, in building commercial-scale wave power facilities. Instead, OPT will focus their efforts on "next generation designs," an idea that experts say is probably the only way to go at the moment.

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Japan One Step Closer to Nuclear Restart

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority granted approval on Wednesday for a restart of the nuclear reactors at the Sendai plant on the southern island of Kyushu, potentially paving the way for the first such plants to come back online after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.

The agency issued a release saying that the Sendai plant's units 1 and 2 "were deemed to meet the NRA's new regulatory requirements," which they claim are among the most stringent in the world. The approval comes after a review of 18,600 pages of documentation from the plant's owner, Kyushu Electric Power, and apparent safety measure improvements put in place after the earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima.

The country's 48 nuclear reactors have all been quiet since the crisis began, and the government has waffled on just what part nuclear power will play in the electricity mix in the future. Though the NRA has issued this approval for Sendai, the New York Times reports that it will likely be months before an actual restart of the reactors can take place. Local governments near the plant must issue approvals before the reactors can be switched on, and prime minister Shinzo Abe will be responsible for a final approval.

The road to this point has been rocky for Japan. In September 2012, the country essentially committed to doing away with nuclear power. Only a few months later, though, the newly formed NRA issued new safety regulations that would allow the shuttered plants to restart. Those rules went into effect by last summer, which paved the way for the Sendai decision this week.

The backdrop to all this is that the public is apparently still quite skeptical of nuclear power in a country where earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis aren't likely to disappear any time soon. The Sendai plant, for example, sits particularly close to the site of a current volcano warning from the Japan Meteorological Agency ("Do not approach the volcano"). Though most of Japan fits this description, the island of Kyushu is indicated as particularly high risk on the USGS seismic hazard maps.

The Times reports that public opinion polls are still sour on nuclear power; the NRA reviewed more than 17,000 comments submitted on Sendai's safety measures, far more than the agency expected to receive. Whether the public's skepticism or the government's support end up winning out for Japan's nuclear future remains to be seen.

Solar Cookers Get Hot

Of all the innovations that could markedly benefit humankind, a reliable solar cooker remains one of the most imperative. Countless people across the developing world still cook their food by burning wood or even cow dung, causing respiratory problems and severe deforestation in some regions.

The quest for a practical solar cooker has gone on for decades and produced dozens of models ranging from $70 cheapies to $400 deluxe models. But none of them have caught on significantly for use in the developing-world because they can’t store heat. Without the ability to store heat, a cooker cannot be used, for example, on cloudy days.

But now a group based at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim is reporting a breakthrough in solar cookers. They say it will lead, within a year and a half, to the production of practical solar cookers that can store enough heat during a sunny day to work for an entire additional day, even if it is cloudy. The breakthrough was recognized with a US $8,000 award from the Norwegian Ministry of Petroleum and Energy this past August.

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Report: Tesla Gigafactory a Well-Played Overreach

Tesla Motors, which this summer announced a partnership with Panasonic to build a battery “Gigafactory,” may be overreaching. A new industry analyst’s report questions whether the demand for the company's electric cars will be big enough within the next five to eight years to warrant the factory’s projected $5 billion investment. 

According to the new report, by 2020 Tesla could be facing substantial overcapacity, with too many batteries and not enough EV cars — and other applications like renewable grid energy storage — to put them in.

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How to Turn Tires Into Batteries for Electric Cars

Scrapped car tires have been used for construction material and recycled into floor mats and shoe soles. Now they might find their way back into hybrid and electric cars, but under the hood. Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have devised a method to convert tire rubber into a carbon material for lithium-ion battery anodes.

Conventional lithium anodes are made of the graphite, a natural carbon material that is mined. The Oak Ridge researchers, led by materials chemist Parans Paranthaman, have found an alternative waste source for the carbon anode.

In a paper published online in the journal RSC Advances, they outlined a straightforward process to convert waste tire rubber into nanoporous carbon. They first pulverize waste tire rubber into tiny micrometer-sized pieces, which they break down in a hot sulfuric acid bath. The resulting rubber slurry is filtered, washed and turned into a solid cake. Heating the cake in the presence of nitrogen gives a highly porous carbon black material with pores that were less than 2nm in diameter.

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Germany's Grid: Renewables-Rich and Rock-Solid

Last Friday Germany’s grid regulator released the 2013 data for grid reliability, and the figures have renewable energy advocates crowing. The latest numbers (released in German) reveal no sign of growing instability despite record levels of renewable energy on the grid — 28.5 percent of the power supplied in the first half of 2014. In fact, Germany's grid is one of the world's most reliable.

According to the Bundesnetzagentur, unplanned outages left the average German consumer without electricity for 15.32 minutes in 2013, down from 15.91 minutes in 2012 and 21.53 minutes in 2006. The performance, using the power industry's System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI), affirms Germany's place in the top five for grid reliability for European countries.

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Can Solar Power Go Truly Transparent?

The idea of solar windows has been around for some time now, and a number of different approaches—from spray-on solar cells to just really thin film possibilities—are under investigation. Though these are promising, the underlying issue with many of the ideas is that in order for them to work they need to stop some amount of light from getting through the window. And tinted windows are fine, in some situations, but too much tint turns a window into a wall. But not with a new idea out of Michigan State University, where researchers have created a solar concentrator that, if the efficiency is revved up, would provide truly clear, glass-like generators of solar power.

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To Zero Out Data Center Air Conditioner Bills, Build It Next to an LNG Port

Cloud companies have placed their data centers in cold climates — even inside the Arctic Circle — to more easily cool their computing gear. Startup TeraCool proposes that data centers tap into another source of free cooling: liquefied natural gas storage tanks.

Cambridge, MA-based TeraCool has developed a system that marries a source of unwanted heat — data centers — with the largely unused cold available at LNG terminals. With sufficiently large capacity at an LNG port, the company calculates that a data center could cool itself from the surplus cold that’s produced while turning stored liquid gas into pipeline-ready gas. With additional equipment, TeraCool says it could also generate power on-site.

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