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Better Home Networking Could Save $330 Million

When an especially high electricity bill arrives in the mail, it's enough to just adjust the dials on the thermostat and the refrigerator, right? Maybe not. It turns out it's the tangle of electronics near the television that's the fastest growing segment of energy use.

Most of the electronics, including laptops, smart phones and tablets, require an Internet connection. Our networking equipment—primarily modems, routers and cable/DSL gateways—which a majority of American homes now have, are also an energy drain. A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Ecova [PDF] found that residential networking costs Americans more than US $1 billion a year, but could be cut by a third using already existing technology. The cumulative energy use, about 8.3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, is the equivalent of three large power plants.

“Small network devices suck roughly the same amount of energy around the clock, whether or not you are sending or receiving any data,” said Noah Horowitz, a NRDC senior scientist, in a statement. “But there are steps that manufacturers can—and should—take to make sure these devices are no longer energy vampires.”

Two existing industry standards can help increase the energy efficiency for modems and routers: IEEE 802.3az Energy Efficient Ethernet (EEE) for Ethernet ports, and IEEE 802.11e, which governs automatic power save delivery (APSD).

The standards allow the devices to enter a low-power sleep state when no data is being moved around the network but then quickly wake them up and send data if necessary—quickly enough that consumers shouldn't notice the difference. Without such as sleep mode, a modem's annual energy use is similar to that of a 32-inch flat screen TV. 

home networking efficiency

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working on an Energy Star specification, but it does not require modems and routers to meet the EEE standard, according to the NRDC report. The EEE standard could be also used for increased efficiency in computer, printers and other connected devices.  

Ecova and NRDC found that networking devices that were labeled as energy efficient did draw the least power. In nearly all cases, it is more efficient to use a gateway that combines modem and routing functionality rather than to have separate devices.

A small but growing piece of the energy consumption from home networking is Optical Network Terminals (ONTs), which are usually attached to the outside of the home to translate optical signals into electronic signals for customers with high-speed fiber optic service. There are about six million ONTs compared to about 40 million modems in the United States.

The difference in efficiency across all the devices tested was related to variation in capability (such as a device that can send 1 gigabit per second, compared to 100 megabit per second). But when the study normalized for feature differences, it found that the top 25 percent of devices used one-third less energy. Some of the devices simply always operated at a lower power, while others went into sleep mode when network traffic was low. If all of the residential networking equipment were replaced with more efficient models, the savings would be $330 million annually.

Thus the efficiency goals are not a pie-in-the-sky dream. Even though the EEE standard was supported by only two of the 23 routers tested in the study, manufacturers told NRDC it will become pervasive in the next few years. The first generation of EEE devices is expected to save between 5 and 20 percent of system power, but next-generation designs could save up to 80 percent. Such gains in efficiency would offset any increases that will come from faster data transfer rates. NRDC recommends that the government make home networking standards mandatory.

Home networking, however, is just one part of the puzzle. There are also moves afoot for more efficient Wi-Fi, and the U.S. Department of Energy is currently hashing out the first mandatory energy efficiency standards for cable set-top boxes and televisions. On an even larger scale, there is an international effort to make all information and communication technology networks more efficient by a factor of 1000 compared to 2010 levels.

 

Images: art12321/iStockphoto, NRDC

German Parliament OKs Bold HVDC Grid Upgrade

Germany's bold transmission plan is a go. The Bundesrat, Germany's senate, has accepted the plan's enabling legislation forwarded to it by the Bundestag (Germany's parliament), according to the authoritative German Energy Blog. There is every reason to expect that the plan's core element—four high-voltage direct current or HVDC transmission lines profiled by Spectrum last month —will get built.

That is good news for Germany's grid and those of its neighbors. All are straining to manage powerful and variable flows from the wind turbines and solar panels that provided 12 percent of Germany's power generation last year. And plenty more is planned. Projections by the Berlin-based energy think tank Agora Energiewende suggest that the generating capacity of Germany's renewable installations could grow to 130 GW by 2022 from the roughly 75 GW in place at the end of 2012.

Elements of both the HVDC system design and the legislation should ease construction of the HVDC systems. On the design side, Germany's transmission system operators have specified advanced converters whose ability to arrest and clear DC line faults will reduce the risk of running overhead lines. This means the HVDC lines can use existing rights-of-way used by AC lines. In fact, they can be hung from the same towers. (Read the May 2013 story for extensive discussion of the advanced modular multilevel converters.)

The enabling legislation, meanwhile, will simplify line permitting by making a federal court in Leipzig the only forum for legal disputes concerning the projects. Separate legislation passed by the Bundesrat and Bundestag makes Germany’s federal networks regulator, the Bundesnetzagentur or BNetzA, the sole permitting authority for power lines that cross Germany's state or national borders. These measures—for better or worse—cut out state-level officials that face greater pressure from local project opponents and may be more sympathetic to their concerns.

Add it all up and Germany is en route to become the first country with HVDC lines playing a critical role at the core of their power grid. It is arguably the first real challenge to AC's century-plus reign as the top dog in power transmission since DC-advocate Thomas Edison lost the War of Currents. Tesla and Westinghouse may just be rolling over.

Image: The substation near Germany's Neckarwestheim nuclear power station that is slated to host the southern converter station for one of four planned north-south HVDC lines. Credit: Peter Fairley

Advanced Occupancy Sensors Slash Energy Bills, Keep Everyone Happy

Even though most people don’t notice room occupancy sensors, they’re popping up everywhere. The sensors are already present in many offices, mostly to turn lights on or off as workers come and go, or to adjust the airflow based on whether a room is occupied.

But if you’ve ever been the first one to a meeting in a conference room, or stuffed into an over-crowded office, you know that occupancy sensors so far don't provide a fine-tuned system when it comes to ventilation. In large office buildings they usually don’t distinguish between whether there is one person in the room or 100. While that may work for lighting most of the time, it does not work as well for employee comfort nor does it achieve maximum energy efficiency.

There are more advanced sensors being developed that could provide more detailed information to the heating and cooling system. The more sophisticated technology could slash energy use in large, commercial office buildings by an average of 18 percent, according to a new study [pdf] from PNNL. By counting how many people are in a room, the PNNL study found, the sensors would allow heating and ventilation systems to fine-tune their output.

"Technology available today doesn't detect how many people are in a room, and so air flow is at maximum capacity nearly constantly," Guopeng Liu, an engineer at U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), said in a statement. "That creates a big demand to re-heat the air before it enters the rooms. It takes a lot of energy to keep you comfortable under those circumstances."

The researchers simulated a prototypical large commercial office building. Heating was turned on if the building was below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 C; which seems a little aggressive) and cooling was activated when temperatures went above 75 degrees F (24 C). Occupancy patterns were then added based on past studies.

From Fairbanks, Alaska to Miami, Florida every climate zone in the United States they simulated saw an increase in energy efficiency with advanced sensors for lighting and ventilation. Salem, Ore. had the greatest efficiency gains, 23 percent, while Miami had the smallest improvement, 5 percent. Twelve of the 15 cities simulated, mostly the cooler climate zones, had savings of at least 15 percent.

"Using the number of people in a room as a factor in determining the level of air flow offers great promise for saving energy and money," Michael Brambley, staff scientist with the Advanced Buildings Controls Team at PNNL, said in a statement. The study estimates that the energy and money savings might even be conservatively low, because the average building is about 23 years old, while the prototype was modeled using ASHRAE 90.1-2004, a building standard less than 10 years old.

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China Launches Pilot Carbon Emissions Trading System

At the beginning of this week, China launched a pilot greenhouse gas cap-and-trade emissions trading program in Shenzhen, the high-tech boom city near Hong Kong, with the intention of soon expanding the experiment to four other major cities and two regions. The initial trial applies to 635 companies in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, which collectively emitted greenhouse gases equivalent to 31 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2010. For the totality of the three-year trial, their emissions will be capped at 100 million metric tons of carbon, implying a significant reduction from what they otherwise would be, given expected economic growth.

China's strategic objective in the seven-element experiment is to move the country in the direction of sharply reducing the ratio of emissions to growth. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference it promised to cut that ratio 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.

The 635 companies subject to the Shenzhen cap account for about a quarter of the city's GDP and two fifths of its CO2 emissions. Though at first glance it may seem ludicrous to be capping emissions at levels higher than they are today, this is widely accepted, albeit with considerable distaste, as the price that must be paid for winning industrial support for trading schemes. And though the biggest and most notable carbon trading scheme, Europe's Emissions Trading System (ETS), has been crippled almost from the start by excessively generous permits, smaller-scale and much less splashy carbon trading experiments have sometimes been astonishingly successful, notably the U.S. Northeast's.

The fact that China has promised to cut emissions relative to economic growth does not guarantee it will follow through and succeed, needless to say. But the choice of Shenzhen for its first trading system sends a powerful message: Created out of whole cloth in the late 1980s by father of China's economic miracle, Deng Xiao Ping, Shenzhen is itself virtually synonymous with success.

The much larger and less symbolic reason for taking China's experiment seriously, however, is the country's urgent need to reduce air pollution, which largely arises from the same sources that have sent its greenhouse gas emissions through the ceiling. The state of the air in China's major cities and industrial zones already represents a national health emergency and could easily flash into a full blown political crisis. Credible estimates suggest that more than a million Chinese are dying annually from exposure to air pollution. For the sake of protecting their precious newborn children, the country's best and brightest talk seriously of leaving China for points healthier abroad. A prestigious international school in Beijing has spent five million dollars to create an air-filtered gymnasium in which its pupils can work out on days deemed too dangerous for outside play by monitors safely ensconced in the U.S embassy.

In the end it may be true, as cynics suggest, that the Shenzhen trial is too limited in scope and the permits are too generous for there to be any real difference. But it may also turn out to be the case that here again the Chinese are doing what they have done so often before, copying best practices abroad and doing that so well that a real leap forward is achieved.

A $19 Billion Plan to Fortify New York City Against Climate Change

In what may some day be termed a landmark speech in modern urban history, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City proposed this afternoon an aggressive, long-term plan to protect the city against the ravages of climate change and forestall a future Hurricane Sandy.

The elaborate climate fortification program, spelled out in a 400-page report, has elements ranging from public assistance to protect buildings and harden critical infrastructure to far-out concepts for construction of both permanent and temporary seawalls to protect both waterfront and the creeks and canals that can be "back door" gateways to flood waters. The total cost of the program comes to about US $19.5 billion, which is roughly equivalent—perhaps not coincidentally—to the estimated cost of Sandy.

Much of what the mayor talked about calls for further study, which he is initiating, and much of it will never happen. Some sea barriers would require the kind of water control engineering the Dutch have pioneered on a grand scale. But perhaps the feasibility of particulars matters less than the forceful commitment the mayor made to comprehensive protection of the city's waterfronts, a promise his successors may find difficult to back way from or ignore.

Opening his 6500-word address, which he delivered at Brooklyn's historic Navy Yard, Bloomberg did not hesitate to boast about the lead New York City and he personally have taken on climate change and on making the metropolis a model for what big cities can do worldwide. "We haven't waited for Washington to lead on climate change, we've attacked the problem head-on," the mayor said. And it's a good thing New York didn't wait, he added pointedly (though these words do not appear in the official printed version of the speech), "because if we had, we'd still be waiting."

The initial and most dramatic focus of Bloomberg's speech was on the implications of the city's growing vulnerability to flooding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) projects, he said, that by mid century a quarter of New York City will be in floodplains, an area equivalent roughly to the size of Minneapolis. "If we do nothing, more than 40 miles of our waterfront could see flooding on a regular basis, just during normal high tides." If there were another mega-storm like Sandy in mid-century, the cost could be $90 billion rather than $19 billion.

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International Energy Agency Doubles Down on Climate Change

The OECD's International Energy Agency (IEA), Paris, issued a report and companion materials today squarely addressing the question of what to do about the blunt fact that the world is not meeting its goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The agency's new director general, Maria van der Hoeven, framed the question in notably simple and straight-forward terms: "We recently passed a grim milestone with the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere topping 400 parts per million at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This is uncharted territory in the history of humans. While it does not represent a tipping point per se, that milestone is symbolic of our failure to respond adequately, and to fulfill our own national and international pledges to limit average global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius over the long term.

"If we continue with business as usual," van der Hoeven continued, "that rise could be 5.3 degrees Celsius, with potentially disastrous implications in terms of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and the huge economic and social costs that these can bring. In short, we are drifting off-track, and global negotiations are not expected to yield agreement before 2015, and to be enforced after 2020."

Taking a constructive tack, the IEA proposes four ways in which countries could substantially cut emissions between now and 2020. These, the organization reasons, would make it possible—at least in principle—to eventually limit global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius even in the absence of any immediate international accord. Each of the four ways was selected because the IEA predicts that it would generate significant near-term emissions cuts without dampening economic growth, rely exclusively on proven technologies, and bring significant benefits besides reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Of the four elements in what the IEA is dubbing its "four for two" strategy, the one that brings by far the greatest benefit (accounting for half of projected near-term emissions reductions) is improved energy efficiency. Improvements in heating and cooling, appliances, and lighting could each account for about 30 percent of efficiency gains, and electric motors another 25 percent or so; interestingly, the IEA expects only 15 percent to result from gains in automotive efficiency.

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Kudankulam Go-Ahead Does Not Inspire Confidence

With nuclear prospects badly shaken in Japan and Germany, and hardly any new construction under way in other advanced industrial countries, the industry's hopes naturally have centered on rapidly industrializing countries like China, India, Turkey, and even Iran. China's nuclear program has the most ambitious, followed closely by India—but with the important footnote that India's nuclear ambitions have chronically outpaced the country's actual performance, as physicist M.V. Ramana of Princeton University spelled out in a Spectrum feature some years ago. Consequently, the level of confidence that can be put in India's nuclear projects is an important variable in calculating its overall nuclear prospects.

During the last decade, one of the most important and highly contested reactor projects in India has been a complex at Kudankulam, at the southern tip of the country, where two 1000 MW reactors of Russian design have been under construction. With an additional four more reactors slated for the future, the total capacity of the facility could eventually be 6800 MW. The light-water reactors are much the better Russian type, the VVER, not the highly defective kind that blew up at Chernobyl, the RBMK. But—especially after Fukushima—the project is nonetheless highly contested; thousands of opponents have been demonstrating at Kudankulam regularly, with concern centering on the question of whether the million people living within a 30-kilometer radius of the plant could be evacuated quickly in the event of a natural disaster like the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, or the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which did affect the coast of India.

At the beginning of May, India's Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the commissioning of the first reactor at Kudankulam, which had challenged the adequacy of the plant's safety oversight. The decision did not quiet the nuclear opponents, who denounced the verdict as "shocking" and "absurd," according to The Hindu newspaper. A lawyer representing them, Prashant Bhushan characterized the verdict as "an unfortunate and a terrible judgment which shows the establishmentarian mindset of the Supreme Court judges, accepting whatever the government presents, especially in the context of this mindless rush towards nuclear energy.”

In a commentary that appeared this week in Mint, an online business paper copublished by the Hindustan Times and the Wall Street Journal, Spectrum contributor Ramana took India's Supreme Court to task for not exercising its proper judicial oversight where called for and yet stepping beyond its proper area of authority in endorsing the credibility of the government's overall nuclear program. Like Bhushan, Ramana was especially critical of the court for giving the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board a clean bill of health, despite what the two critics see as a long record on the part of the AERB of failing to enforce safety norms.

"Inexplicably," wrote Ramana, "the court’s decision makes no mention of a devastating report from last year by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, the body mandated to 'promote accountability, transparency and good governance,' on the subordinate legal status of AERB and its multiple failings to ensure safety of nuclear installations in the country. CAG observed that AERB had no effective independence from the department of atomic energy."

The point is fundamental. In the United States, well before the Three Mile Island accident,  the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was separated from the old Atomic Energy Commission and established as an independent safety overseer. The same kind of reform is underway in today's Japan, post-Fukushima. If India wishes to address the concerns of the country's nuclear critics and build a foundation for any future public confidence in the atom, it too will need to radically reform its oversight structure.

Photo: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Ethanol Versus Water

Researchers from the United States, Europe, and China have concluded that as the earth warms over the next 40 years and rainfall patterns change, increasing ethanol production to meet U.S. mandates could strain supplies of irrigation water, especially in the northern Great Plains. Relying on a sophisticated agro-ecological model, GEPIC, and the IPCC's A2 greenhouse gas emissions scenario, the four scholars found that reaching a target of 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol per year would imply a 19 percent increase in irrigation water consumption, from 10.22 to 12.18 teraliters per year.

Considering that the increase takes place over a 40 year period, perhaps it is not unmanageable as such. But, as earlier studies by some of the same researchers have shown, the clash between ethanol production and water needs raises serious questions about the wisdom of U.S. biofuels strategy. As a Rice University press release put it earlier this week: "It takes 50 gallons of water to grow enough Nebraska corn to produce the amount of ethanol needed to drive one mile"—or, put in different terms, "The production of one liter of corn ethanol requires between 350 and 1400 liters of water from irrigation, depending on location."

The earlier studies found that switching from standard gasoline to corn ethanol yields little or no decreases in greenhouse gas emissions. That's consistent with a conclusion Spectrum also reached on the basis of interviews with experts. With U.S. production of natural gas and oil rising quite sharply, and its dependence on foreign fuels decreasing, the strain that ethanol production is putting on already sorely stressed water systems—on top of adverse impacts on global food prices—suggests that the U.S. ethanol program may be due for a critical review.

Photo: BanksPhotos/iStockphoto

Another Small Step for Reflow Battery

Having already entered into a strategic alliance in the last year, the Canadian company American Vanadium and Germany's Gildemeister announced this week that the former will market the latter's CellCube vanadium redox flow battery in North America. Flow batteries, though not a new technology as such, have the especially attractive feature of being scalable, whether to store energy from a single photovoltaic panel or to provide backup for a grid-scale wind farm. Gildemeister's CellCube series, with sizes ranging from 10-30 KW of power capacity and 40-130 kWh of energy storage capacity, is intermediate scale. Some 50 CellCube units have been installed this year, according to Reuters, and so the company and its technology appear to be coming on strong.

American Vanadium, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, brags of owning a large untapped vanadium deposit in Nevada and has been developing a mining process—unusual with this particular metal—of leaching it out, with the fortuitous effect of ending up with a leaching fluid containing vanadium that is nearly identical to what's needed as electrolyte in the flow battery. It remains to be seen, however, whether Gildemeister's granting American Vanadium CellCube marketing rights actually represents a vote of confidence in Vanadium's mining approach. (So far, Gildemeister has been unresponsive to requests for an open-ended interview.)

American Vanadium and Gildemeister are by no means the only significant innovators pursuing flow battery technology. Others include Beijing-based Prudent Energy with its trademarked VRB-ESS vanadium redox flow battery, Japan's Sumitomo Electric Industries, and EnerVault, ZBB Energy and Premium Power in the United States. In that larger context, the American Vanadium-Gildemeister link-up is but a small step, but it may turn out to be an especially significant one, nonetheless.

Photo: Gildemeister

How Bad Is PV Panel Performance?

In an area so suffused with well-intentioned idealism, perhaps it is good to be reminded that the solar business is after all a business. In any new industry that has been grown by leaps and bounds, taking a high toll on the weaker and less advantaged players, there is bound to be corner cutting and cost shaving. The photovoltaics industry, it seems, is no exception.

At the beginning of this year, an article in the trade publication PVTech that said that "quality issues threaten to give solar a black eye" drew just one comment, despite its examples of projects gone wrong and evidence from testing organizations indicating that defect rates were rising sharply. But reader response may have been so weak only because the problem was already widely recognized in the trade. Two months before, when RenewableEnergyWorld.com ran a piece by Ucilia Wang about a possible rise of poorly made PV modules, it drew 43 comments. An article in yesterday's New York Times about anxiety over defective PV panels has attracted 64 comments so far.

Naturally one wonders how much flammable material those commenting have been adding to the fire. My personal expectation was that at least one-third, perhaps even-two thirds, of the comments might say something like this: "Four years ago I bought a rooftop PV system from so-and-so, which was supposed to generate most of my home's electricity for twenty years and pay for itself in ten. Already it has degraded to the point where it's producing hardly any power at all, and I'm being told that if I want to buy a replacement system from a highly reputable supplier like Sanyo/Panasonic, Sunpower, LG, or Solar World, I will have to cough up twice what I paid originally."

So it was quite a surprise to discover upon scanning the reactions to the three articles to find that not a single one of the 108 comments complained of a bad personal experience with PV. That strongly suggests, to me anyway, that the concern about rising defect rates in the PV panel business—though obviously a serious matter—may be somewhat overblown.

This is not to say that among the comments all is peaches and cream. Among those reacting to the articles, it is widely taken for granted that we are indeed seeing a quite acute quality control problem in solar manufacturing. Readers are quick to blame shoddy Chinese manufacturing, test organizations that are allegedly in bed with their clients, warranties that become dead letters when those issuing them go out of business, and Walmart-style economizing on the part of customers. "You get what you pay for," is a common refrain.

Says one engineer with 14 years in PV: " Put my dirty fingers on every part of the process from weighing 'rock' through to stuffing the box. There are many corners that can be cut and many are. Whenever you replace precision tooling with low cost labor and SPC [statistical process control] with guesswork there's going to be problems. Ditto when customer stinginess makes them tone-deaf to quality statements."

At the same time, a number of other comments from suppliers claim they never have seen any problem in their personal part of the business. "We have been installing solar since 2007 and have never had a solar module fail. Ever. Not one." "I have been a PV installer since 1998 and I have never had a module failure."

Whatever the big picture turns out to be when industry analysts have developed reliable, comprehensive statistics, the immediate lessons for consumers are clear enough: Find out who makes the PV material going into your modules; ask a lot of questions about how panels are put together and how they will be installed; make sure your warranty says what you think it says, and that it will somehow survive the company you're signing with. Don't be penny wise but pound foolish.

Photo: Imaginechina via AP Images

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