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European Grid Operators 1, Solar Eclipse 0

Weather forecasts calling for bright sun today across Europe drove up tensions in advance of the partial solar eclipse that blocked the sun’s rays and plunged much of the continent into a brief period of darkness this morning. Grid operators were bracing for record swings in solar power generation because of the celestial phenomenon. Some power distributors in Germany had warned of fluctuations in frequency, notifying customers and suggesting that they shut down sensitive equipment.

In the end, while clear weather made for some excellent eclipse viewing, the electrical story ultimately felt more like Monty Python’s radio coverage of the 1972 eclipse. As if audio coverage of a quintessentially visual event isn’t absurd enough, the Pythons closed their fictitious report in the ultimate anticlimax, as a sudden rainstorm swept in to spoil the solar spectacle. Europe’s interconnected power grid brought about an equally anticlimactic ending today by delivering rock-solid stability throughout the 2.5-hour eclipse.

In fact, according to Enrico Maria Carlini, Head of Electric System Engineering for National Dispatching at Rome-based transmission system operator Terna, the grid was more stable than normal. Carlini had joked last week about doing a rain dance to dampen solar output during before and after the eclipse. Today he took satisfaction from the fact that the frequency of Europe’s power barely budged from its 50 hertz standard.

If transmission system operators had been struggling to keep power capacity and demand in balance during the eclipse, the frequency would have diverged strongly from 50 hertz. But according to Carlini, it strayed only ±25 millihertz all morning, which he says is about the half of normal variability in Europe’s grid frequency. 

The grid rolled over the solar swings partly because they were smaller than the worst case scenarios for which operators had been preparing for many months. In all, Europe lost and regained about 17 gigawatts of solar power generation this morning, according to the European Network for Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E) in Brussels. That is a lot of power—just shy of the total solar capacity installed across the United States as of the start of 2015—but just half of the swing that ENTSO-E had warned of in its February eclipse analysis

TSOs thus confronted the possibility of solar swings with overwhelming force. German TSOs had double the normal personnel on hand in their control rooms. They also had enough gas- and coal-fired power capacity on standby to double the effectiveness of their standard contingency plans for keeping the grid balanced, says Bruno Burger, an expert in renewable energy integration at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg. “The TSOs really massively prepared,” says Burger.

Today’s solar swings still represented the biggest power gyrations that Germany’s TSOs have ever confronted, according to Burger. Germany’s solar generation was at nearly 13 GW when the lunar shading began. At the peak of the eclipse, at around 10:30 CET, it had crashed to just 5.4 GW. Then, by noon, it had rushed back up to about 20 GW. That post-eclipse surge would have soaked up about 50 percent more than the maximum negative power reserve capacity that Germany’s TSOs had in place in 2013 and 2014. “This was a big challenge for the TSOs,” says Burger.

Still, they could have handled plenty more, claims an analysis (in German) by Burger’s group, which estimates that Germany’s power installations can provide up to 25.6 GW of regulating capacity per hour. Bloomberg reported today that TSOs called up only about 30 percent of the balancing power that plant owners tendered.

Terna, whose Italian power plants are less conventional than the ones its German TSO counterparts can call upon, took an additional measure to balance this morning’s eclipse-driven solar swings: For the first time ever, it exercised its authority to order the nation’s largest, most advanced solar power plants to regulate themselves. 

“Those plants were ordered to limit their output to about 30 percent of total capacity from 7 am to 2 pm CET,” says Carlini. That action, he says, reduced the solar power deflation during the eclipse by about 500 megawatts and trimmed the post-eclipse rebound by 2 GW. Under Italian law, solar plant owners will absorb the lost revenue because this was an “emergency procedure,” says Carlini, who doesn’t expect that authority to be wielded again before the next eclipse in 2027..

Burger says Germany’s TSOs could have also shut down solar capacity, but chose not to because German law requires TSOs to compensate the solar plants. An analysis by Berlin-based research group Energy Brainpool estimated that would be more expensive than ramping fossil-fired power plants up and down. As reported by PV Magazine yesterday, shutting down solar generation could nearly triple the cost of handling the eclipse to €9.95 million (US$10.7 million).

Solar generation data from Germany's TSOs and their solar forecast for Friday March 20 accessed yesterday via energy information portal ...img


Tough Questions for ITER's New Director General, Bernard Bigot

When ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project, was launched in 1985, the plans called for a huge reactor that would demonstrate that the fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium atoms would be a source of unlimited energy. Its founding nations (Russia, the United States, Japan, and the EU (China and Korea subsequently joined the project in 2003, and India in 2005)) also hoped it would reduce drastically the problem of nuclear waste that plagues fission reactor projects.

The design approved in 1988 featured a tokamak in which huge superconducting magnets would trap an extremely hot plasma made of hydrogen atoms inside a toroidal steel vessel. Because of the vessel’s size, scientists would be able to induce a fusion reaction that would yield up to 10 times as much energy as is injected in order to heat the plasma.

But that early promise quickly hit the cold reality that large-scale projects frequently encounter large-scale problems. The ITER project never enjoyed an easy life, especially when the United States withdrew its support in 1998, hopped in again in 2005, then drastically reduced its outlays for the project in 2008.

An external report in 2013 blamed a series of missed deadlines and cost overruns on the ITER organization’s weak management of a decentralized organization. The total estimated cost for the project is now at €15 billion (about $16.5 billion), which is almost double the cost of CERN's Large Hadron Collider. Despite that level of government largesse, recent plans to achieve “first plasma” by 2020, and the first demonstration of energy production by 2027, are now being revised. A new schedule should be finalized by the end of the year.

So, what happens if the sponsors of the reactor, located in Cadarache in Southern France, decide to pull the plug? Contracts totaling €6.5 billion (about $7 billion)— €3.5 billion of which are for completing construction on the site—would be in limbo. The 500 contractors who now work on the building site would be out of work. So might the 600 staffers employed directly by ITER organization with its €275 million annual budget. According to ITER, 72 percent of these employees are engineers and scientists. 

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New Trick Promises Perovskite Solar Films For Windows and Walls

A new low-temperature method for making perovskite solar cells paves the way for high-efficiency, colorful, see-through photovoltaic films that could be laminated on windows or plastered on walls.

Perovskite solar cells have become darlings of the photovoltaic world in the past five years. Their efficiencies in that time have soared from a meager 4% to over 20%, quickly catching up to silicon’s 25%.

Another appeal of these solar cells is that the light-absorbing perovskite layers are easy and much cheaper to make than silicon wafers. Mix some precursor chemical solutions, coat it on a substrate and then heat it to evaporate the solvent, and you have yourself a film of perovskite crystals.

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Solar Power Generation Could Exceed California's Demand Up to 5 Times

Solar energy could exceed California's current energy demand three to five times using equipment built on and around the state's existing infrastructure, claim researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science at in Stanford, Calif. They detailed their findings online March 16 in the journal Nature Climate Change.

With a total area of more than 400,000 square kilometers, California has more land than 189 countries, including Germany. A little more than 8 percent of this land has already been developed by humans. The Stanford scientists explored how much opportunity this developed land presented for power generation via photovoltaic solar power and concentrating solar power. Photovoltaics convert light directly into electricity, whereas concentrating solar power typically uses concentrated sunlight to heat fluid that drives a steam turbine to generate electricity.

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Porous Crystal Supersuckers Capture Carbon

Porous crystals could scrub carbon dioxide from industrial fumes for half the energy often needed now, scientists say. These novel materials could also help clean the air in submarines and on the International Space Station.

All in all, these new materials could slash the amount of energy now consumed in carbon capture by half or more, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley say. They detailed their findings in the March 12 issue of the journal Nature.

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A silk cocoon

Spider Silk Smooths Path to Better Batteries

Spider silk could help boost the performance of lithium-ion batteries, say scientists at the Beijing Institute of Technology, in China.

Graphite is a key component of the lithium-ion batteries that power everything from mobile devices to electric cars. When lithium-ion batteries charge, ions of lithium diffuse from the positive electrode to the negative electrode and attach to the graphite there, and when they discharge, the lithium ions move from the graphite back to the positive electrode.

However, graphite is relatively bad at storing lithium ions, which substantially limits the energy capacity of conventional lithium ion batteries. Now scientists at the Beijing Institute of Technology now suggest that silk could help replace this graphite and significantly improve battery performance.

The strength and flexibility of silk has previously attracted research into whether or not it can be incorporated into electronics. For instance, a prior study coated spider silk fibers with carbon nanotubes to make it electrically conductive and three times tougher than regular spider silk fibers as well. And 

In the new work, the investigators found a way to chemically process natural silk turning it into porous nitrogen-laced sheets of carbon only 15 to 30 nanometers thick. The electron-rich nitrogen atoms improve the conductivity of the material and help create additional sites to put lithium ions.

They incorporated the new material into prototype batteries and supercapacitors in a one-step technique they say can easily be scaled up. In the battery, the new material could store five times more lithium than graphite, while the supercapacitor proved very stable, working for more than 10,000 cycles of recharging and discharging with only a 9 percent loss in stability.

The scientists detailed their findings online last month in the journal ACS Nano.


Japan Demoes Wireless Power Transmission for Space-Based Solar Farms

With a few exceptions, sources of renewable energy tend to be inconveniently unreliable. Things like wind and wave energy are subject to the whims of weather, and even if you manage to find something that isn’t weather dependent (like tidal flow), you still can’t rely on a constant output of power. Strictly speaking, solar power is the worst: it's heavily weather dependent, and half the time, it doesn't work at all. (Even the moon gets in the way sometimes.)

Some think the way to make solar power the backbone of a renewable energy economy is to avoid the problematic Earth entirely and head out into space, where the sun is always shining and weather means something entirely different. Solar power satellites (SPS) are more than a concept: it’s an area of active research and development, led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). JAXA explained its 25 year technology development roadmap that culminates in a 1 gigawatt SPS sending solar power back to Earth in the 2030s in IEEE Spectrum last year. Last week, JAXA and Mitsubishi demonstrated their progress on one of the most difficult components of that system: long range wireless power transmission.

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Solar Eclipse Will Test European Power Grids

A partial eclipse of the sun headed for Europe next Friday has grid operators in a tizzy. On the morning of March 20 Europe's skies will darken for the first time since solar power became a meaningful piece of some countries’ power supply, and the impact could be dramatic.

“It’s a very, very big challenge for the transmission system operators in Europe,” says Enrico Maria Carlini, Head of Electric System Engineering for National Dispatching at Rome-based Italian transmission system operator Terna.

The Brussels-based European Network for Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E) judges in an eclipse impact analysis released last month that it poses a, “serious challenge to the regulating capability of the interconnected power system.”

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First Manganese-based Superconductor Discovered

Scientists have unexpectedly discovered the first manganese-based superconductor, an element whose magnetism was thought to be too strong to permit superconductivity. This research might lead to new superconductors that can better resist magnetic disruption.

Superconductors are materials that conduct electricity without dissipating energy. Superconductivity relies on electrons not repelling each other as they do in ordinary materials, but instead forming delicate couples known as Cooper pairs, which can flow with zero resistance.

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Censors Take On China's Silent Spring Moment

Chinese censors took down a hugely popular documentary on China’s air pollution crisis this past weekend, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Under the Dome, a polished, 104-minute report by Chinese broadcast journalist Chai Jing [embedded below], had gone viral after its release last week, attracting several hundred million views in China before censors restricted domestic access to the video and squelched news coverage of it. 

The film is a damning account of China’s declining air quality, the sources of its pollution, and the toothlessness of environmental agencies charged with controlling it. It’s a wide-ranging production that tries to explain the price China has paid for its industrialization and wealth generation, as well as a passionate call to action.

For me, the film’s visceral portrayal of contemporary life amidst smog—and the movie’s historic sweep—sparked flashbacks to my own discomfort breathing in Chinese air during visits in 1991, 2005, and 2006. 

In 1991, my eyes burned as the aging cruise liner I’d taken over from Japan motored up the Huangpu River, past the petrochemical plants then lining the river’s eastern banks, on its way into Shanghai. But the historic city across the river was clean. Aside from a few buses, it was a city that still moved on pollution-free pedal power, its streets a flood of bicycles. And as I traveled inland for several weeks, the pollution faded further, revealing China’s natural beauty. 

When I flew into Shanghai 14 years later to report on China’s rising tide of electric bicycles for IEEE Spectrum, Shanghai itself seemed still cleaner than I’d recalled. While cars and trucks were on the rise, the East-bank industry had been cleared to make way for gleaming skyscrapers. 

But China was clearly changing. I visited smaller cities where smog nearly blocked out the sun. Among these was Jinhua, a city of about 1 million people in Zhejiang Province, where I visited an electric bike factory. E-bike shop owners there told me that the e-bike’s lack of tailpipes was already an attractive selling feature for Jinhua residents who feared the ill-effects of the air they breathed. 

Like a child who seems to grow six inches overnight, the situation seemed far worse when I found myself back in China just 18 months later to cover the nation’s exploding consumption of coal for Technology Review magazine. Shanghai’s air was foul, and I encountered far worse as I traveled north towards Beijing. On one unforgettable stop in the fast-growing city of Zaozhuang in Shandong Province, I found myself momentarily trying not to breathe.   

Under the Dome is a well-documented and artfully executed exposé of what was choking Shandong and Shanghai then and would get worse in the years that followed: poorly-regulated combustion of coal and low-grade petroleum. 

Chai Jing’s self-financed film mixes gotcha reporting, data, graphics, and interviews with scientists and government officials to illuminate China’s air pollution problem from every imaginable angle. She identifies what smog is (chemically-laced particles of soot) and where it comes from (60 percent from burning coal and oil). And she peels back the layers of factors—including economic imperatives, weak environmental enforcement, and corruption—hindering efforts to clean it up. 

Her constant companions throughout the film are officials from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) who, time and again, appear helpless to enforce anti-pollution edicts from Beijing that have been on the books for over a decade. 

At a steel plant in Hebei Province, immediately south of Beijing, Chai and MEP inspectors witness smoke billowing around the mandated equipment that is supposed to be sucking it up and filtering out the soot. But MEP officials tell Chai, on camera, that they are powerless to enforce the law because they lack the political heft to make penalties stick. 

Xiong Yuehui, who runs the MEP’s Department of Science, Technology and Standards, explains that steel plants like the one she visited provide 100,000 jobs in Hebei and are therefore untouchable: 

“They act with utter recklessness. Their operations are completely unlicensed. The inspectors don’t even want to go or touch this industry in any way. It’s reached the point where no one can stop them.”

Off-camera another MEP officer confides that that he feels sometimes that he is “nothing more than a mascot.” 

The most chilling scene unfolds at a fueling station where inspectors ask for a sample of diesel fuel so they can analyze it for compliance with fuel quality standards. Rather than comply, the station owner brazenly takes the MEP inspector’s ID card, and rejects his power to conduct random inspections. “You have the obligation, but not the authority,” he tells the MEP officer. Chai shows that, thanks to vague wording of the nation’s anti-pollution laws, it appears the station owner may be right. 

The film closes with a call to action by “ordinary people.” Chai exhorts viewers to call the government’s environmental hotline, to photograph environmental abuses by polluters, and to otherwise demand change. “Even the world’s most powerful government can’t control pollution by itself,” says Chai. “It needs to rely on ordinary people like you and me—our choices and our determination.”

The film also sets China’s battle against pollution in the context of other global environmental battles. Rachel Carson, author of the epic anti-chemicals book “Silent Spring,” gets one of the last words, speaking knowledge to power about an impending “disaster” if chemical use is not controlled. 

Last week, China’s environmental protection minister, Chen Jining, compared Under the Dome to “Silent Spring,” according to the Guardian, a U.K. newspaper. Jining is quoted as saying that the film had, “an important role in promoting public awareness of environmental health issues.”

Some industrialists appear to agree; they have tried to undermine Chai’s credibility just as the chemical industry attacked Carson. Last week, Forbes covered online comments attributed to Wan Zhanxiang, an official at China National Petroleum Corporation, who wrote that Chai had no “insight” and posited that, “Maybe she doesn’t have enough brains.” 

For now, such commentary for and against the film and its maker is likely to die down within China—or at least go underground. According to the New York Times report, Chinese propaganda officials have ordered news organizations not to report on the film, and banned its distribution via video websites. A set of editorials for and against the documentary that was slated to run in the Global Times, a newspaper managed by the People’s Daily, was spiked.


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