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The Forgotten History of How Bird Poop Cripples Power Lines

Bird poop once crippled the most wide-ranging power grid in the world, a new historical study reveals.

In 1913, two 386-kilometer-long electric lines, the longest in the world at the time, began carrying power from the Big Creek hydroelectric dams in the Sierra Nevada mountains southward to customers in Los Angeles. In 1923, the lines were upgraded to carry 220,000 volts, making them among the world's highest voltage lines at the time and pushing the limits of what was thought to be possible with the technology of the day.

However, unexplained short circuits that cropped up in the months after the expensive upgrade threatened to turn this marvel of engineering into a failure. The rate of disruptive flashovers—arcs of electric current that sometimes leapt from the wires to the steel towers and into the earth—jumped dramatically, leading to power interruptions seconds to minutes long every two or three days on average.

Engineers at power company Southern California Edison proposed a variety of causes for this mysterious problem, including lightning storms, moisture on spider webs, and "rivers of ions" in the air, but none could fully solve the puzzle. After a few desperate months of investigation, researchers finally discovered the culprit—vast amounts of bird excrement, historian of science Etienne Benson at the University of Pennsylvania explains in a new study in the journal Environmental Humanities.

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Senegalese-American Chart-topper Akon Looks to Light Up Africa

Senegalese-American musician and record producer Akon is well known for lighting up the stage and the music charts. But now he’s set his sights on a more important mission than delighting music fans: supplying electricity to 600 million Africans who currently lack access to the grid. He has started an initiative called Akon Lighting Africa. Its first project is the launch of a Solar Academy in Bamako, Mali. The faculty at the academy, which is scheduled to open this summer, will help African engineers and entrepreneurs develop skills that will enable them to produce solar-powered microgrids and make it easier to acquire the necessary equipment.

Africa has the lowest percentage of inhabitants with access to national grids, but has the benefit of 320 days of sun each year on average. Harnessing that solar energy will not only allow Africans to use electronic gadgets, but also create a new category of tech jobs that could boost the standard of living across the continent. “We expect the Africans who graduate from this center to devise new, innovative, technical solutions,” Thione Niang, one of Akon Lighting Africa’s cofounders, told Reuters. “With this academy, we can capitalize on Akon Lighting Africa and go further.”

The group announced the launch of the academy late last month at the second United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Forum, in New York City.


Law Loosens an Efficiency Standard But Boosts Grid Stability

The Energy Improvement Act of 2015, which went into effect last month, brought a change that might seem incongruous with the name of the legislation. You see, it loosened  the U.S. Department of Energy’s newest energy-efficiency standards for electric waters heaters, which came into force just this past April.

The DOE standards had called for large electric waters heaters—ones with a capacity in excess of 210 liters—to meet very stringent efficiency ratings, ones that would in practice require them to use heat pumps rather than simple electrical-resistance heating elements. The new law relaxes that requirement and allows some very large (in excess of 285 L) water heaters to be sold even though they warm water the old-fashioned way, with simple resistance heating elements.

So what gives? Was Congress unduly influenced by a bunch of K Street lobbyists working for entrenched interests in the water-heater industry?

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Photo: StoreDot

StoreDot Wants to Charge Your EV in 5 Minutes

Israeli startup StoreDot announced last month at Microsoft's ThinkNext conference in Tel-Aviv that it had started working on a technology that will enable future electric vehicles to fully charge in only 5 minutes. The hours it typically takes now to tank up an EV’s battery is considered a major inconvenience and contributes to drivers’ dreaded "range anxiety" fears. Knowing they can get a five-minute fill-up, StoreDot is betting, might make a big difference to drivers.

Last year, StoreDot demonstrated a smartphone battery that charges in just 30 seconds, but in order to scale that up to work for an EV, it had to develop what it calls a multifunction electrode (MFE). The MFE is a combination of a conductive polymer and metal oxide. The polymer part allows the battery to receive the charge extremely quickly, while the metal oxide part is used to trickle the Lithium ions into the electrode. Trickle charging is important because it prevents the electrode from cracking and shorting out the battery, a real danger when trying to fast charge an ordinary Li-ion battery.

When it comes to battery life, one of the biggest problems plaguing today’s fast charging lithium battery technology is heat, which destroys the electrodes over time. Indeed, existing quick chargers reduce the life of a battery by half—from around 500-600 charges of a fresh lithium ion battery to approximately 250-300 charge cycles. StoreDot developed new organic materials with very low resistance that produce almost no heat. This technology is capable of more than three times as many charge cycles as a normal lithium ion battery (around 1500-2000 charges, according to the company), while at the same time achieving a charging rate about one order of magnitude faster than the best existing battery technology.

To accomplish this, StoreDot doesn't simply take an existing Lithium ion battery and change an electrode. Taking on charge super quickly calls for the replacement of every one of the battery’s components—including the anode, cathode, electrolyte, and separator—with new components optimized for super-fast charging.

This reengineering isn't a small task, so the company raised over US $42 million in 2014 to create a pilot production line that will demonstrate how to manufacture batteries using its technology. StoreDot is estimating that about 80 percent of its manufacturing process will be very similar to the way lithium batteries are being manufactured today.

Of course, the battery is just one part of what’s needed to make super-fast charging a reality.

To understand why, you first have to look at how StoreDot's charging technology will work and what its limitations are. To fully charge the battery of an electric vehicle in 5 minutes, you need a powerful electrical infrastructure. How powerful? According to Doron Myersdorf, StoreDot's CEO and co-founder, you will need to plug into a charging apparatus delivering at least 200 kilowatts of power for every 100 km you intend to drive between charges. So super-fast charging at home is out, unless you are living in a modern high-rise building with this level of power. And even if you do live in such a building, that level of current draw will prevent more than a single car from being charged at any given time.

A five-minute charge will also require a more direct connection to the battery than is found in today’s EVs.

StoreDot's goal for its car battery technology is to be able to provide the driver with a similar refueling experience to what he or she currently has: a 5 minute stop at a local refueling station for a full tank that can last for a few hundred kilometers. But that will mean connecting existing and future refueling stations to more than 200 kW power.

Tesla had a similar problem when it began building out its Supercharger network of 120 kW fast charging stations in the United States. A Supercharger can deliver enough energy to provide about 320 km (200 miles) of driving for a Tesla model S in 30 minutes. StoreDot's technology could charge a car much more rapidly, but doing so would require that the station be relatively close to a high-power transformer. So StoreDot believes that widespread deployment of this technology will come only with some sort of government support directing where new grid components are installed.

According to Myersdorf, the cost of a StoreDot car battery will be about 20 to 30 percent higher than today’s lithium-ion units, mostly due to the use of costly organic materials. However, when taking into consideration the fact that the technology allows for around three times as many charge-discharge cycles, the long term cost of ownership should actually be 50 percent lower. So the savings could be in the thousands of dollars.

StoreDot expects that we will see the first product based on its technology around the second half of 2016—but for the mobile market. The company says it should have a preliminary prototype of the vehicle battery in 2016 and a commercial prototype in 2017.

StoreDot has set for itself two extremely ambitious goals for a company that is less than three years old: to change the way we use our mobile electronic devices and the way we power our cars. Although the company still has to prove that it can deliver on its promises—especially in the complex ecosystem that is the vehicle market—success could mean a dramatic change in the way most of us operate on a daily basis.


Mud-Fueled Smart Sensors for the Bottom of the Ocean

If you put tiny electrodes in the mud on the ocean floor, you can harvest enough energy to power a tiny sensor platform that can monitor what’s going on at those depths.

So say researchers from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, in a recent issue of IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems I. Together with collaborators from Korea and California, they have designed a self-sustaining sensor platform for oceanic sensing applications that is powered entirely by small-scale benthic microbial fuel cells.

“We wanted a platform that could run off very small harvesting sources,” Michigan electrical engineering professor and IEEE Fellow David Blaauw tells IEEE Spectrum. “If you can get power consumption down enough, there are all sorts of things you can use. Even plants produce little bits of voltage,” he says.

When benthic bacteria are in an anaerobic environment, their metabolism produces electric current. “It’s been well studied,” says Blaauw, “but in the past, people have struggled to get enough current to run something.”

 According to Blaauw, laboratory experiments confirmed that if a microbial fuel cell sits in the sediment, with the cathode floating in a water column where it is exposed to oxygen, it can deliver enough energy to run the platform perpetually.

Though using electrodes with larger surface areas generates more power, the researchers say that it is more challenging to maintain the anaerobic environment with larger electrodes. “If the anode pops out, the whole thing stops working,” Blaauw says, adding that large-size microbial fuel cells also require human divers and sophisticated deployment equipment in order to be properly installed in the ocean floor.

But his team’s setup has very little in the way of complications. “We have much lower power requirements. Just shoot a small dart into the mud, wait a couple of days for the oxygen deprived environment to establish itself, and then you get current.”

Blaauw explains that the sensor platform features a microprocessor, a radio, and few kilobytes of memory. Its power management unit helps keep the draw from its battery to a minuscule 2 nanowatts.

“When the system is in standby mode, it retains data, but consumes little power,” he says. “Very low power timers allow it to wake up occasionally, take readings, then check, store, or transfer data. Low power consumption enables us to work with obscure, small harvesting sources. We can now deploy sensors in the oceanic floor easily and cheaply, and we don’t have to provide batteries that will run forever.”

Blaauw told Spectrum that the prototype system was designed to track changes in temperature, but that it’s easy to imagine it measuring other things such as changes in coral reefs suffering from decay due to pollution.

He explains that this platform is part of a broader portfolio of work focused on powering electronic systems with low energy sources. “These platforms could be used inside the human body, by oil companies investigating fissures in the ground, or by security systems where you need something unobtrusive that fits into the surrounding décor,” he says. “We’ve had interest from a university that wants to study snails, and another that is studying bees. Make a platform really small, and it opens up all sorts of new avenues.”


Renewable Minigrids Should Be the End Goal for Rural Poor

Distributed energy solutions, such as rooftop solar, should be the electrification solution for the 1.1 billion people who are not plugged into a national power grid, not just a stopgap measure. That is the message from a new global industry group, Power for All, launched in New York City this week amidst the latest gathering of the United Nations’ universal energy access program. 

Power For All brings together businesses and not-for-profit organizations that distribute off-grid solutions, including solar-LED lights and home power systems. Founding members include San Francisco-based d.light; Arusha, Tanzania-based Off Grid Electric; and London-based NGO SolarAid—owner of solar-LED light global market leader SunnyMoney, which sold 650,000 lights last year. 

Their message is that bottom-up distributed energy solutions should be the preferred solution for assuring universal access to electricity because they are faster, cleaner, and cheaper than extending power grids to rugged or sparsely-populated regions.

Figures released this week by the joint UN-World Bank energy access program—Sustainable Energy for All—lend credence to Power for All’s argument. SE4ALL’s report on energy access trends compares progress during the 2010-2012 period with energy access trends of the previous two decades. From 2010 to 2012 some 222 million people—more than the population of Brazil—gained grid access for the first time. The growth outpaced global population growth almost 2 to 1, thus trimming the number not yet connected from 1.2 billion to 1.1 billion.

Those figures make electrification a bright spot. Little progress was detected in access to cleaner cooking fuels. Some 2.9 billion people were still cooking with biomass fuels such as wood and dung in 2012. 

Even the progress in electrification was problematic. It was uneven, and, according to SE4ALL’s trend trackers, likely overstated. 

Grid access expanded mainly in urban areas, and fully one-quarter of the growth was in India. In Sub-Saharan Africa — the region with the highest energy access deficits — electrification just barely outpaced population growth; electrification trailed demographic growth in half of the world’s 20 least electrified countries [see graph].  

The problem is that building grid extensions is simply too costly according to Charlie Miller, Head of Policy & Programme Funding at SolarAid. “In places like Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo there’s no business case or government or consumer willingness to pay for the grid.” Bottom line according to Miller: “Policies that are grid-focused will not meet the needs of the worst off.” 

In contrast, he says, the organizations behind Power for All are building businesses that are enjoying strong customer demand. “We’re advocating a subsidy-free energy solution that is aligned with people’s willingness to pay,” says Miller. 

Solar-LED lighting is selling because a $10 solar light pays for itself in 10 weeks thanks to avoided kerosene and candles and, according to Miller, it will save its owner $200-340 over its 3-5 year lifetime. He says a solar light that also charges cell phones—a $25 investment—pays off in both dollars saved and by expanding its owner’s access to market opportunities and phone-based banking. 

Miller says much of the commercial investment to Power for All’s segment is going to firms like Off Grid Electric that sell solar as a service, charging something like $15 up front and $2 a week. “You pay indefinitely, just like a utility bill,” says Miller. He says Off Grid Electric is scaling up rapidly in Tanzania, and cites competitors in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda who are growing fast using the same model.

Technology improvements and better management means that equipment is cheaper and lasts longer. The sector has come a long way from even a decade ago, when well-meaning programs with under-engineered products and minimal customer service came up short (such as the village lighting program in the Bolivian Andes that IEEE Spectrum featured in 2004).  

Various efforts are underway today to backstop quality, including a quality assurance program for isolated mini-grids operated by the Global Lighting and Energy Access Partnership (Global LEAP), a global energy access initiative hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy.

At the same time ultra-efficient devices such as USB-powered televisions are squeezing more value out of every watt that remote solar panels deliver. Global LEAP issued a study last week asserting that high-efficiency appliances running on direct-current (DC) can cut the total cost of providing off-grid energy services in half.

SE4ALL’s report adds that grid access is not all that it’s cut out to be. In the developing world brownouts and blackouts can be a daily affair. As its U.N.-World Bank authors put it: “The presence of an electricity connection is a prerequisite for receiving electricity supply, but does not guarantee it.” 

The report makes this case through a recent study of electricity access in Kinshasa. Close to 90 percent of residents in the DRC’s capitol have access to electricity through grid connections. But in practice extensive limitations in hours of service, unscheduled blackouts and voltage fluctuations degrade access. “The reality is that the streets of Kinshasa are dark on most nights and that few households can actually use the electrical appliances they own,” according to the report.

This year SE4ALL is launching a new global survey of electrification based on a multi-tier measurement to replace the currently binary “yes/no” grid access surveys. Under the tiered scheme Kinshasa’s electrification rating drops from 90 to 30.

Might that emperor of electricity, the power grid, have no clothes? 


Holography Makes 3-D On-Chip Batteries

By employing the principles used to make holograms, scientists have developed microscopic high-energy, high-power 3-D lithium-ion batteries that they can fabricate directly on microchips.

Existing thin-film microbatteries can deliver high levels of power, but when sized to store a reasonable amounts of energy they take up too much of a chip’s area. To reduce the battery’s footprint and improve microbattery performance inventors have sought to expand into the third dimension with complex 3-D structures that increase the amount of surface area available for electricity-generating chemical reactions. However, it has proven challenging.

Now scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are using the same principles employed to make holograms to help create advanced 3-D microbatteries. Holography uses patterns of laser beams that interfere with each other in precise ways to encode holograms. Holographic lithography systems fire laser beams at a photosensitive material, and the way these beams interfere with each other can make complex 3-D structures harden into existence in that material in just seconds. The researchers noted that 3-D holographic lithography is highly scalable and compatible with existing microfabrication techniques.

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Nepal’s Hydropower Battered but not Beaten by the Quake

The Kathmandu-based República online news service reported last week that over a dozen hydropower facilities were significantly damaged by last month's earthquake and were not operating. The affected plants’ combined capacity of roughly 150 megawatts (MW) represents about one-fifth of Nepal’s total power supply—which is 93 percent hydropower—but the damage may not be long-lasting according to state utility Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA).

NEA told República that Nepal's remaining hydropower plants and about 210 MW of imported power from India was enabling it to distribute about 564 MW total.  And its 144-megawatt Kaligandaki hydroelectric power station—Nepal’s largest—is not on the list of damaged projects. A 27 April report from industry news source Hydroworld had initially raised concerns about Kaligandaki, citing local news sources.

Sher Singh Bhat, NEA’s deputy managing director, told República that some of the most severe damage from the Magnitude 7.8 quake was at NEA’s 10 MW Sunkoshi Hydropower Project, where “severe leakage” was observed. At the same time, some damaged plants could keep running, such as NEA’s 60 MW Kulekhani project was operating in spite of cracks that opened at the top of its dam. 

Bhat noted that other damaged projects could be fixed “within weeks” -- once workers and heavy equipment operators became available. These include the 24 MW Trishuli plant, where cracks opened in the “crest” of a reservoir and landslides destroyed the workers’ quarters; another 14 MW plant downstream at Devighat can only run after Trishuli restarts. 

More serious damage was wrought upstream of the Trishuli plant at the construction works of the 60 MW Upper Trishuli 3A project. A landslide killed four employees at the site and caused “severe” damage to tunnels and a suspension bridge. 

Nepal’s biggest independent hydropower project—the 45 MW Upper Bhotekoshi plant—was immediately shut down after being struck by boulders wrought loose from overlying cliffs. Narendra Prajapati, CEO of Bhotekoshi Power Company, told República that the penstock pipe that feeds water to Upper Bhotekoshi’s turbines was damaged and they assume that its generators had been flooded as a result. 

While Nepal’s 150 MW of idled capacity sounds small by the standards of developed industrial economies, the impact of any loss in power supply is massive for Nepal because the country is already vastly underpowered. Power outages are a daily reality, even in Kathmandu. 

NEA’s latest Load Shedding schedule is one of the standard links atop every page at MyRepú, telling readers how electricity supplies will shape their day much like a daily weather report. On Saturday 25 April NEA expected to shut off power in Kathmandu from 6-8 am, and then again for another four hours in the afternoon. The schedule warns, however, that load shedding could shift forward or back by one hour depending on conditions. 

In recent years Nepal has been accelerating hydropower developments. At least one of which has been set back by the earthquake: the 111-MW Rasuwagadhi hydropower dam under construction by Chinese hydropower giant Three Gorges Corporation. Two Chinese workers were killed in the earthquake, and the dam was “severly damaged” according to Three Gorges. Chinese military helicopters rescued 280 Chinese workers from the site within days of the quake, while the New Yorker reported that Three Gorges’ 350 Nepali workers were “left to walk” out of the remote region

Much more hydropower investment is slated for Nepal. Three Gorges has contracts to build two other projects in Nepal, including the comparatively massive $1.6-billion, 750-MW West Seti project approved by Kathmandu less than two weeks before the April earthquake. And Indian-financed megaprojects in the development pipeline —including a pair approved last year worth $2.4 billion—would add another 1,800 MW to Nepal’s power generating capacity. 

It is important to note that these Himalayan heavyweights are financing Nepalese projects primarily as a source of power for their own economies. Such projects’ benefit to Nepal is more financial than electrical. For example, all but 12 percent of the 900 MW to be generated by the Indian-financed Upper Karnali project is to be exported. 

The New Yorker raised another potential caveat to the hydropower-filled future Nepal has been developing: the risk that hydropower megaprojects could induce future earthquakes. Human-induced seismicity is a real liability associated with a growing number of energy projects, including oil and gas production, geothermal energy, and—in some cases—hydropower projects. 

However, for hydropower, it is the shifting weight of water stored in reservoirs that has been linked to earthquakes such as 7.9 Sichuan quake that devastated central China in 2008. Many of the Nepalese projects rely on a run-of-river design that exploits its rivers’ strong, steady currents rather than storing lots of water behind big dams.

A real and longer-term threat is the melting of Himalayan glaciers, which threatens to increase flooding and landslides and in the longterm could reduce Nepal’s raging rivers to trickles. Nepal lost over a quarter of its glacier mass between 1980 and 2010, according to a 2014 report from the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development

How future melting will play out for river flows is, however, unclear. The same research center reported in 2013 that glacial melting in the Himalayas could peak by 2070, thus preserving river flows in key watersheds. 


Hawaii Votes to Go 100% Renewable

Hawaii’s legislature voted yesterday to stake the state’s future on renewable energy. According to House Bill 623, the archipelago’s power grids must deliver 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of 2045. If the compromise bill is signed by the governor as expected, Hawaii will become the first U.S. state to set a date for the total decarbonization of its power supply. 

Renewable energy has been booming since 2008 when the state set a goal of making renewables 40 percent of its power mix by 2030, and government and utility incentives ignited wind power and solar installations. By the end of 2013, renewable energy had jumped from 7.5 percent to 18 percent of the state’s capacity. HB623 seeks to extend and turbo-boost that trend, calling for 30 percent renewables in 2020 and 70 percent by 2030 en route to the final leap to 100 percent.

That last jump could be difficult, says Peter Crouch, a power grid simulation expert and dean of engineering at the University of Hawaii’s flagship Manoa campus. “Today I don’t know whether we can do it,” he says.

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