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Richard Branson Wants Caribbean Islands to Swap Diesel for Renewables

Dirty diesel is the most common form of electricity generation throughout Caribbean island nations, but that will change if billionaire Richard Branson has anything to do with it.

Branson is using his private island in the British Virgin Islands, Necker Island, as a test bed for a microgrid that will run on renewable generation. The project on Necker, which is supported by NRG Energy, is not just an exercise in bringing renewables to the region at any cost. It aims to make renewables affordable to island economies.

“What we’ve learned in the renewable world is everyone wants to save the world,” David Crane, NRG’s chief executive, told The New York Times. “But very few people want to pay more for energy.” The average price of electricity in the Caribbean is about four times higher than it is in the mainland United States.

The push for clean energy is the core mission of the Ten Island Renewable Challenge led by the Carbon War Room, a nonprofit founded by Branson. The problem for most islands is that the upfront cost of renewable technology and storage is relatively expensive given that most island nations have small populations. Because the projects are relatively small, compared to projects in the US or Europe, it can be difficult to get financing. 

At the same time, however, islands across the globe depend on diesel, which makes electricity incredibly expensive compared to regions that rely on other fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas. Hawaii, for example, has the highest electricity rates in the United States, about double the price of the next closest state.

Branson's challenge in the Caribbean already has the support of Aruba, British Virgin Islands, St. Lucia, and Turks and Caicos. Aruba, for example, already has a wind farm and is planning more.

Other islands are looking at solar, wind, LED lighting for municipal applications, waste-to-energy, and geothermal. For years, Barbados has been toying with the idea of using a special breed of sugar cane for co-generation, but has yet to invest in a large-scale project. Late last year, Puerto Rico mandated energy storage to go with wind and solar projects on the island, which could be a model for other islands if it is successful.

On the 74-acre Necker Island, the microgrid will combine wind, solar, and batteries that can support about 80 percent of the island’s energy requirements. On small islands, like Necker, microgrids may seem like a natural solution, but cost remains an issue if they are powered by renewables.

Although the cost of renewables have come down, and might be competitive with expensive diesel power, intermittent renewable energy requires expensive storage and sophisticated controls to balance grid conditions on that small of a scale.

Branson has the will and the deep pockets to invest in such a project, but the results will have to be replicable at a price that non-billionaire utility customers can afford on other islands.

Some of the solutions may be in attractive financing, rather than in proving the technology. In some places, subsidies for diesel make it more affordable and if those are ended, renewables look more attractive. Short-term tax benefits for renewables can also help to get projects off the ground. The Carbon War Room said it would help islands with assistance in attracting project engineers and financiers.

“There’s tens of thousands of islands burning diesel fuel that’s really destroying their economies because it’s so expensive,” Crane told the The New York Times.

Branson is hoping for quick results, and not just on Necker Island. "We're hoping to get a number of islands to sign up to get as carbon-neutral as they can over the next few years," Branson told “Immediately afterwards,” he wrote in a blog post, “we want to head to the Pacific Islands and implement everything we will have learned.”


Photo: Todd Vansickle/AP Photo 

Bio-Energy Box Coverts Beer Waste to Electricity

People have long known there is energy in wastewater; extracting it economically is the problem. Startup Cambrian Innovation claims its technology can do it and a brewery and a winery are now using it to clean their wastewater while producing energy.

The company's EcoVolt machine is a shipping container-size reactor that uses microbes to convert dissolved carbon in industrial wastewater into biogas, which can be burned on site for electricity or heat. Its first demonstration unit is running at the Clos du Bois winery in Sonoma county, and last month nearby Bear Republic Brewery in Cloverdale, Calif. flipped the switch on the second system.

Typically, food and beverage businesses remove the organic material in wastewater—measured as biological oxygen demand (BOD)—by aerating water with pumps. But that can be an energy-intensive process. The Bear Republic Brewery expects it will be able to eliminate 80 percent to 90 percent of the BOD of its wastewater with the EcoVolt and reuse 10 percent of its water. By burning the biogas, the brewery thinks it can cover 50 percent of its electricity needs.

The return on investment for the brewery is about four years in reduced energy costs, says Cambrian Innovation CEO Matthew Silver who I spoke to at the company’s headquarters in South Boston. Silver had planned to work in aerospace but became fascinated by advances in biotech and genetic engineering while a research scientist at MIT. Under a NASA grant, he led research into how bioelectric systems could be used to manage water in space. In doing that, he saw the potential for using electrochemically active microbes to clean water in industry. There's plenty of need: About three percent of the U.S. electricity is consumed treating wastewater, and producing one bottle of beer typically results in up to ten times as much in wastewater.

Making biogas from waste has been done for years and is not necessarily high tech. Industrial anaerobic digesters, which often look like farm silos, use naturally occurring bacteria to consume organic material to make biogas, which is siphoned off.

Cambrian Innovation's EcoVolt achieves a similar result but with a different anaerobic process. Its reactor has microbes that consume organic matter as food and deposit electrons directly on a metal electrode. Found in soil, these microbes, sometimes called exoelectrogens or anode-respiring bacteria, are the active component in some types of microbial fuel cells.

The EcoVolt system uses these microbes to produce a flow of electrons from a bacterial-film-covered anode to a cathode. They do this by breaking down organic molecules into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. At the cathode, another set of microbes, with the aid of the electric current, convert the CO2 and hydrogen from the first reaction to methane. A byproduct of that reaction is clean water.

The company is also working on a microbial fuel cell under a Department of Defense contract, which is part of US $8 million Cambrian Innovation has secured in DoD and National Science Foundation grants. The plan is to make a self-powered wastewater treatment facility for operating bases or for off-grid applications in the developing world.

CEO Silver has confidence that it can make an economic microbial fuel cell, but decided to target its first commercial product on the wastewater industry. By taking advantages of advances in other fields of engineering, the company was able to design a product that has compelling economics, he says. "We realized we needed to combine the advantages of biological systems with electrochemistry and information technology and really create a package," says Silver. It's now targeting companies in the food and beverage industry and seeking applications in other industries.

One of the advantages of the EcoVolt over traditional anaerobic processes is that it can be remotely monitored in real time. By viewing the rate and the health of reactions on the electrodes, Cambrian Innovation engineers can adjust flow rates and other bioreactor parameters. That’s much quicker control than a typical anaerobic reactor, which requires taking a sample and doing tests, says company chief technology officer Justin Buck. Company engineers have also developed techniques to adjust the reactor’s biology, which allows the EcoVolt to be robust and work with different types of waste streams, he adds. “We make sure that the proper community of microbes gets established on these electrodes,” he says. “If we don’t do that, incoming water will bring in new microbes, which is essentially a source of contamination.”

There are several reseachers and companies trying to take advantage of microbes to make electricity from wastewater. A group at Penn State, for example, combined a microbial fuel cell with reverse electrodialysis, a way to capture energy from a difference in water salinity, in an effort to increase electricity output.

Israeli company Emefcy (a play on the acronym for microbial fuel cell) has engineered a microbial fuel cell optimized for municipal wastewater. Another wastewater-to-energy startup is Arizona State University spin-off, Arbsource, an Arizona State University spin-off, uses anode-respiring bacteria to produce electricity, as Cambrian Innovation does, as well as hydrogen, ammonia, and other chemicals. And a number of municipalities produce biogas with digesters and use it to generate electricity and heat through fuel cells.

By contrast, the EcoVolt system is designed specifically for wastewater reuse. Cambrian Innovation hopes to appeal to businesses with high energy costs from wastewater treatment and, in general, bring more innovation to the slow-moving and conservative world of water treatment. "Up until now, compliance (with water treatment regulations) was viewed as a cost of doing business and a big part of the industry is designed around avoiding liability,” he says. “Now wastewater can be a source of revenue.” 

Image credit: Cambrian Innovation

Lasers Can Remotely Monitor Oscillations of Wind Turbines

Wind turbines, like any machine with moving parts, can fail. They have a useful life span, after which the loading on the various pieces including turbine blades and tower could cause decreases in efficiency or, in very rare cases, outright collapse. That loading comes during normal operation, but the oscillations the turbine undergoes play an important role in just how long a turbine will survive. Heretofore, sensors placed physically on the turbine have been the method of choice for measuring the oscillations. But lasers might work better.

A new system, to be demonstrated at an IT conference called CeBIT in Hanover, Germany, in March, combines a low-power laser with a camera to comprehensively assess oscillations of a wind turbine. Unlike the sensors-on-the-turbine technique, with which the oscillations are really only recorded at the specific points where the sensors sit, the laser-based method captures the entire oscillatory pattern—on the blades, tower, all of it—and paints a more complete picture.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany created the new system. From a press release:

"The centerpiece of the system responsible for this is an IT-based tracking system combining a camera and a laser. These are mounted on a head that can pan and tilt to follow the rotor blades. The camera records images of the installation and forwards these along to software that processes the images and builds a model of the rotary motion from the data. With the help of this information, the pan and tilt head is positioned so that the laser automatically follows the rotor blades. The camera simultaneously collects data about the exact position of the roughly two-to-three centimeter laser spot on the rotor blade in order to stabilize it on the revolving surface."

The researchers, led by Ilja Kaufmann, say that the system is easily transportable, and can work from hundreds of meters away from the turbine itself. Assuming it's possible to correct for the laser's motion, even monitoring offshore turbines from a boat should be feasible. As many wind farms near the ends of their prescribed operating lives, systems like this can help operators make choices regarding when to decommission a turbine. "Operators can use our technology to [evaluate] their installations," Kauffman said. "We can provide decision-making assistance for questions like 'Is it in good enough shape that I can continue to operate it, or should I sell it and build a new one at the same site?'"

This idea seems to solve a few issues with turbine monitoring: keeping track of the full turbine rather than just individual points, and making the process easier. The new tool and technique make it simple to monitor one turbine, move the system to the next one, and so on. And it seems that idea is gaining steam: below is a video of another method for remotely monitoring a wind turbine using interferometric radar from up to a kilometer away. The days of sensors on turbine blades may be on the way out.

Attack on California Substation Fuels Grid Security Debate

When at least one sniper attacked a substation in California last April, the power did not go out. But the incident did bring the issue of power grid security to a new level.

New reports about an attack on Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) substation in California last April raise questions about the vulnerabilities of the U.S. power grid. The Metcalf transmission substation was not a critical facility, but the Wall St. Journal speculated that the attack could have been a test ground for a larger attack.

The former Federal Regulatory Commissioner, Jon Wellinghoff, told the Wall St. Journal it was "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred" in the U.S.

The assault took place in the middle of the night when at least one person entered an underground vault at PG&E’s Metcalf substation and cut fiber cables. Soon after, one or more gunmen opened fire on the substation for nearly 20 minutes. They took out 17 transformers and then slipped away into the night before police showed up.

Despite the coordination, tossing around the word terrorism might be premature. The attack appeared planned, but for now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn’t think a terrorist organization is involved.

No matter who carried out the attack, there are questions about how to balance investment against attacks both physical and cyber. Foreign Policy magazine reported that Wellinghoff has noted that the recent focus on cybersecurity has overshadowed the need to rethink physical security.

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India Aims High With 4-Gigawatt Solar Plant

The fourth-largest energy consumer in the world is starting to make some noise on the renewables front. India, with its growing population and GDP, has announced plans to build a massive 4-gigawatt solar photovoltaic plant near Sambhar Lake, west of Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan. This would dwarf all existing PV plants around the world, and would nearly triple India's existing solar generating capacity in one fell swoop.

Nature reports that the mega-project will cost $US 4.4 billion, and will take seven years to complete. The plant would go a long ways toward India's plan to have 20 GW of installed solar capacity by 2022 [PDF], up from essentially zero only a few years ago. Of course, building anything this big often means delays and cost overruns, especially in a country not known for strong electricity infrastructure. Still, it's an encouraging sign that India is trying to move beyond its historical predilection for building coal plants.

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Hybrid Generator Would Cut Military Base Fuel Costs in Half

The phrase "An army marches on its stomach," often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, underscores the importance of logistics in the military. And in the 21st century, keeping up the supply of diesel fuel is one of the most challenging logistical tasks for military forces in the field.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) awarded a contract to a company that says its “hybrid generator” can reduce the amount of fuel used by generators at outposts by more than 50 percent. The company, Earl Energy, uses a rack of batteries coupled to diesel generators—and, if available, solar panels—to optimize fuel consumption. It’s one of a number of projects funded by the Department of Defense to reduce fuel consumption through efficiency and renewable energy.

Today, the U.S. military powers its operating bases with diesel generators that run continuously. The problem is that it’s difficult to match the generating capacity with the actual power load from air conditioners, electronics, and other gear, which fluctuates during the day and in different seasons. And when the demand for power is lower than the generator’s full capacity, the fuel efficiency drops off dramatically and the maintenance increases.

At the same time, the electricity requirements for bases in places such as Afghanistan have gone up substantially. Compared to a Marine battalion a decade ago, bases now have more than twice the number of radios and vehicles and three times the number of computers, according to the Department of Defense.

Earl Energy’s FlexGen “hybrid generator” is wired to a diesel generator running at full capacity, which is how it's most efficient. When there is excess power, the diesel generator charges the batteries. If the batteries have enough stored energy to meet the demand for electricity, then the generator shuts off. In tests in Afghanistan, the Earl Energy system allowed the generators to run three to six hours a day, compared with around the clock before it was installed, says Doug Moorehead, the CEO of Earl Energy.

A former Navy Seal, Moorehead saw first hand the perils of transporting fuel while stationed in Iraq. Fuel and water convoys are frequent targets. For example, in one three-month period in 2010, six marines were wounded during convoys (a rate of one injury for every 50 convoys). The financial cost is great as well; fuel can cost $2.64 to $3.96 per liter ($10-$15 per gallon) by the time fuel is delivered to outposts, says Moorehead. "If you reduce the fuel consumption, you can now cut [the number of fuel convoys] in half,” he says.

After Moorehead’s time in the Navy, the MIT graduate attended Harvard Business School and then went to work at lithium-ion battery company A123 Systems, where he worked in the grid energy storage group.

With funding from a previous Department of Defense program, Earl Energy was able to build prototypes for its energy storage device. It now has about a dozen units in the field, which are partially charged with energy generated by solar panels. The system’s control software can be used to manage multiple generators in order to create a base-wide microgrid.

The contract Earl got last month under the Mobile Electric Hybrid Power Systems (MEHPS) program is for delivery of products that conform to the Department of Defense's specifications and could lead to purchase of about 50 units, says Moorehead. "It shows that the DoD is very serious about hybrid generators," he says. (Another company, UEC Electronics, was also awarded a contract to build a generator that fits on a trailer and combines energy storage and solar power.)

Last fall, Earl Energy won another contract from the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) to design power converters based on silicon carbide. "All existing power electronics are silicon-based but the next generation uses silicon carbide, which allows for much higher voltages and conversion efficiencies,” Moorehead says. The company expects its power converters, which will be used with its generators by the middle of next year, to be 80 percent lighter and 70 percent smaller than existing models.

Outside of the military, there is growing interest in distributed power generation, both in grid-connected and off-grid scenarios. Concerned that severe storms will knock out power for long periods, businesses and institutions such hospitals and universities are looking at on-site power generation with natural gas and solar. Meanwhile, microgrids can bring power to places in the world where there is not a reliable centralized grid, whether it’s remote parts of Alaska or rural villages in developing countries.  

Indeed, Earl Energy has ambitions beyond the military. This spring, it will begin testing a hybrid generator at a drill rig in Texas. This installation will use a design similar to the FlexGen hybrid generator, but it will include fast-acting ultracapacitors instead of lithium-ion batteries connected to a 1.2 megawatt generator. Oil and gas drillers typically use very large diesel generators, but drillers are looking for ways to use natural gas that is available from wells to save money and reduce emissions from their operations, Moorehead says.

Image credit: Earl Energy

EC Sees Heavy Pricetag to UK Nukes Plan

Government incentives for a pair of proposed nuclear reactors could cost U.K. taxpayers as much as £17.62 billion, thus exceeding the reactors' projected cost. The EC figure is a preliminary estimate included in an initial report to London published on Friday by European Commission competition czars. The letter notifies the British government that—as we predicted in December—Brussels is launching a formal investigation to assess whether the subsidies violate European state aid rules. 

The preliminary findings suggest that the U.K. and E.C. are on a collision source. As the Financial Times summed it up this weekend: "The severity of [the EC's] initial concerns will cast a shadow over government hopes to win approval for the deal."

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European Union Fanning Offshore Wind Energy in India

As India tries to power its emerging economy, it will look beyond coal  to offshore wind energy. And, it will be getting some help from the European Union, which will be coming up with a roadmap and help with financing.

The plan, which falls under the umbrella of the Global Wind Energy Council, focuses on the states of Gujarat in the northwest and Tamil Nadu in the southeast. It will be a four-year process, although the results will include projections up to 2032. The wind council says that the specific objectives are to lay the groundwork for offshore development through resource mapping, policy guidance, and capacity building measures. The stakeholders will also evaluate the infrastructure needs and make suggestions as to how to move the energy from offshore to the urban areas where it's needed.

The India-EU effort is called the Offshore Wind Power Development project, which is supported by a € 4 million contribution from the European Union’s Indo-European Cooperation on Renewable Energy program. India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy will be overseeing the work. Like Europe, India, would like to become less dependent of fossil fuels and to use more renewable energy, says the European Union’s Ambassador Joao Cravinho.  

Onshore wind energy is firmly planted in global markets. But offshore wind projects are mainly the domain of Europe, which is the host of roughly 6000 megawatts of capacity that have been installed in the North Sea, Baltic Sea, and Irish Sea. China, though, has made inroads in the offshore wind area, with Japan, Korea and Taiwan in the early stages of development. India has become the latest such nation to make forays.

The main obstacle is the high associated costs. In some cases, the price of offshore wind power is two-three times as high as onshore wind power, says Navigant Consulting. Industry, though, is working on deploying larger wind turbines to achieve better value.

The European Union has been a role model: Its offshore wind deals account for 10 percent of its annual wind energy installations, says the European Wind Energy Association. The goal, it adds, is to increase those levels from 6000 megawatts today to 40 000 by 2020 and 150 000 megawatts by 2030, or 14 percent of the EU’s electricity demand — considered by some experts to be impractical given the today’s cost.

The Smart Grid Needs an App Store, says Silver Springs Networks

With all the buzz around the Internet of Things, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the electricity grid already operates with millions of connected meters and sensors. Yet writing applications for these programmable machines is too hard, which blocks the full potential of the smart grid, says Silver Spring Networks.

The Silicon Valley-based company this week will introduce software designed simplify the process of programming meters and sensors on the grid and capturing the huge amounts of data they produce. It will launch the software, called the SilverLink Sensor Network, on Monday to coincide with the DistribuTech utility industry conference.

In the United States alone, there are more than 46 million smart meters installed, according to the Institute for Electric Innovation, and worldwide shipments of smart meters are expected to top 100 million per year in a few years. Often utilities ping smart meters every fifteen minutes to monitor customers’ power usage, generating mountains of data every day. There are a number of other connected devices that produce energy-related information, such as smart thermostats that work over home WiFi networks. Utilities, meanwhile, increasingly have sensors in grid equipment, such as transformers and power lines.

The problem is that collecting and analyzing streams of data from smart meters and other digital devices is expensive and slow, says Anil Gadre, the executive vice president of products at Silver Spring Networks. The result with smart meters is a situation where these two-way meters perform useful, but a fairly limited set of applications, such as automated bill reading or locating faults after a power outage. But the growing utility digital network could be used for a number of other applications that benefit both consumers and utilities, he says.

“Everybody expected that when they installed these giant networks in the smart grid that they’d get a whole lot more out of it than they already are,” says Scott Young, senior director for software applications and analytics at Silver Spring Networks. “If we unleash the data, it will look a lot more like the Internet is today.”

The SilverLink Sensor Network is cloud-based software that provides a set of APIs to access meters and other devices. The APIs create a gateway to these machines without forcing programmers to learn proprietary network protocols and data formats. That software effectively creates a platform on which Silver Spring Networks, utilities, and third-party application developers can write custom applications that uses smart grid data. Silver Spring Networks manages the APIs and hosts applications, much the way Apple or Google host app stores for smart phones and tablets.

Startup PlotWatt intends to use the software to collect and analyze meter data to tell people how much energy different appliances use and what the projected annual costs are. Similarly, another company called Bidgely itemizes electricity bills, compares your usage to other people's, and provides personalized recommendations on how to save energy.

Silver Spring Networks also signed on a few partner companies that intend to use the platform to create applications for utilities. For instance, startup AutoGrid uses data from different sources to generate more accurate power forecasts, alert utilities of line voltage problems, and run demand response programs to lower peak-time power use. 

For more applications like these to flourish, the programming model for the smart grid needs to change, says Gadre. Today, meter data is typically collected and placed in a database for analysis. But being able to query meters in near real time opens up new possibilities. For instance, a smart meter could communicate that power rates are very high and tell that home's electric vehicle charger to charge when rates are lower. Or the inverters that convert solar panels’ direct current to alternating current could make adjustments to make sure the voltage is stable on a power line. Utilities could also provide up-to-the-minute forecasts of monthly bills to consumers based on near real-time information.

It’s more likely that specialized software companies, rather than utilities, will develop these new types of applications, says Young. Utilities often lack the technical skills that a software company brings and many are struggling to effectively use the large amounts of data they now produce.

Silver Spring Networks makes the IP-based wireless networking built into smart meters, but it says its software can work with other networks. As a company, it’s trying to earn money by providing services, such as big data analytics, that make use of the existing infrastructure. “This giant network exists and it’s largely under-utilized," Young says.

Who Pays for Grid Expansions When Homeowners Generate Their Own Electricity?

Grid operators have met their match and it's a growing number of distributed generators—erstwhile electricity consumers who've ended their reliance on the grid because their needs are met by rooftop solar panels. But this exodus from the grid is occurring just as transmission systems are being expanded to prevent congestion and to handle more centrally-generated renewable energy. The utilities say the cost of these upgrades is the financial responsibility of everyone, including those who've become energy independent. Now state regulators are trying to find solutions.

On Wednesday, the system operator in Texas announced plans to spend billions to expand and upgrade the transmission lines crisscrossing the state. That decision has profound implications, considering that Texas is expected to see its power use rise by 2.1 percent a year compared with 1.5 percent for the rest of the nation.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), says it will, by 2018, plow $3.6 billion into fixing up or expanding a total of 16 different deals, amounting to 5300 kilometers of transmission lines. Some of those upgrades are needed to transport wind energy from remote locations to the urban areas where it is consumed.

Similarly, Northeast Utilities, which serves 3.6 million electric and natural gas customers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, wants to add transmission infrastructure throughout its area and plans to spend $4 billion doing just that. It needs to make up for capacity shortfalls and to replace 2700 megawatts that will be lost by 2017 as several coal and nuclear power plants are retired. Meanwhile, new wind power generated in Maine is expected to come online and be transported into the utility's load centers in Boston.

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