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Solar Haiti

Six trailers containing modular photovoltaic generating systems are about to be shipped from a location on Long Island, N.Y., to the southern coast of earthquake-ravaged Haiti, where they will be transported by truck to a town for a week of training and then to villages. As described in a recent article by Kathy Kowlenko in The Institute, the solar arrays are the product of an IEEE humanitarian initiative, in which volunteer work by a handful of dedicated and visionary engineers has been key.

Each village unit of the SunBlazer system destined for Haiti consists of six photovoltaic panels, capable of generating 7 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day and charging a 40 12-Volt lead-acid home battery packs. Each pack will service a lighting kit in a home.The modular systems consist largely of off-the-shelf technology from a design developed  by two cooperating companies,Nextek Power Systems and Russell Engineering.

Almost all the money raised to support the solar program--about $125,000 for the initial phase--has gone to purchase parts. Engineering and planning has been done on a pro bono basis. The business plan the volunteers developed through Sirona Cares, an NGO committed to business development in Haiti, is perhaps more innovative than the technology. A private company, Sirona-Haiti, will own all the equipment and franchise it to village entrepreneurs. They will repay the cost of the equipment out of proceeds collected from villagers and raise venture capital to support large-scale production in Haiti.

Ultimately, says Ray Larsen, a co-founder and the project manager of the program, Sirona-Haiti’s goal is to build up to 4,500 trailers serving a million Haitians in the firsts five years. IEEE team members from Africa and India are eager to replicate the business model in new areas

Larsen, deputy head of engineering at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory conceived the SunBlazer program in collaboration with Robin Podmore and Liang Downey. Podmore, a New Zealander and IEEE fellow, is president of Incremental Systems, a grid control system company that operates internationally. IEEE Senior Member Downey is a director at Nextek Power Systems, Bohemia, N.Y., which donated technical assistance, equipment,  and labor to build the solar units. Russell Engineering, based in California, contributed expertise it’s acquired as a specialist in home solar systems.

Larsen conceived the SunBlazer program in the context of the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Challenge, a three-year initiative that sought to drive development of new technology for reliable electricity, electronic health records, and health data transmission. Toward the end of last year the SunBlazer volunteers obtained $50,000 from the Humanitarian Challenge, and then got $75,000 more from the IEEE Nuclear Plasma and Sciences Society, Larsen's main affiliation. The IEEE Power and Energy Society has provided an additional $20,000 to support related work.

Until SunBlazer becomes self-sustaining as a business, it will continue to rely mainly on contributions from societies and foundations, says Larsen, But it also is happy to receive individual donations, which can be made at sironacares.org.

U.S. Spends $6 Billion Per Year on Its Own Nuke Cleanup

Though firm estimates are still hard to come by, the cleanup costs for the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan will be monumental. Some say it will cost as much as $150 billion, and take decades; in contrast, cleanup of the comparatively tame Three Mile Island accident took from 1979 until 1993, and cost about $1 billion.

Interestingly, though, the United States still spends an enormous chunk of money every year on a certain brand of nuclear cleanup. Last week, Josh Wolfe at Forbes wrote that almost 25 percent of all Department of Energy dollars are spent on nuclear remediation and cleanup efforts. This seemed so shocking that I started checking out the DOE budget.

In 2010, the total DOE appropriation was $26.4 billion. Of that, there are two main areas that involve cleanup of nuclear material and contamination, known as "defense environmental cleanup" and "non-defense environmental cleanup." A total of $5.6 billion went to the former, and about another $255 million went to the latter in 2010. This comes out closer to 22 percent of the DOE's total budget rather than 25, but the interesting and largely ignored point is still valid: a giant portion of the country's energy-related government spending goes toward cleaning up nuclear contamination.

An important point, though, is that the bulk of these expenditures aren't particularly relevant in comparing to the Fukushima cleanup that will be required. The much smaller appropriation for non-defense cleanup is at least somewhat related, in that it "supports activities that address the environmental legacy resulting from civilian nuclear energy research. The nuclear energy research and development carried out by the Department and its predecessor agencies generated waste and contamination that pose unique problems, including large quantities of contaminated soil and groundwater and a number of contaminated structures."

In contrast, the $5.6 billion for defense cleanup is for Cold War -- and earlier -- weapons development sites. One area alone, the Hanford site in Washington state, accounted for almost $1 billion in remediation activities in 2010. It was in this area that plutonium was generated in 1945 for use in early test explosions, as well as the Nagasaki bomb. Our own Erico Guizzo profiled this problematic "Atomic Age landmark" several years ago.

The long-lasting nature of this type of cleanup activity is probably the most important lesson to bring from the U.S. to Japan as Fukushima remediation begins. Cleanup at the Hanford site, for example, may take until 2035. And the fact that close to a quarter of DOE spending goes toward nuclear cleanup may not drastically change a civilian nuclear power cost-benefit analysis (because it is weapons-focused), but the impact is undeniable nonetheless: that's almost $6 billion we could be spending on something else.

(Image via Tobin Fricke)

Spain and France Ready HVDC Connection

Siemens is building power converter stations for a 2000 MW high-voltage, direct-current underground transmission line that will connect France's Languedoc and Spain's Catalonia, regions that have deep cultural and linguistic ties but are separated by the Pyrenees The record-capacity, 65-kilometer-long cables are to come into operation in two years and will carry current at 320 kilovolts.

"The centerpiece of the HVDC Plus power converter stations," says Siemens, "is a converter based on IGBT (insulated gate bipolar transistors) which transforms the alternating current into direct-current and back again. By contrast with grid-commutated power converter technology, the HVDC Plus system works with turn-off power semiconductors, so that the commutation processes in the power converter are completely independent of the grid voltage. Very fast control and protective intervention in the power converter makes for a highly dynamic system, which is essential especially for coping with grid faults and disturbance in the three-phase ac network."

As northeastern Spain is more tightly linked to the European grid system,  could electricity prices drop and prospects improve for desalination plants built in Catalonia? Right now a partially built 300-million-euro plant at Torrevieja is sitting idle, without electricity or seawater access, as regional and national authorities feud about its advisability and costs. Wherever such plants are proposed, water and energy needs tend to collide. Tiny Malta gets 40 percent of its freshwater from desalination plants, and Jordan (photo above)--relying on a intelligent water management systems--has plans to move in a similar direction.

Fukushima's Collateral Effects

smoke from No.4 reactor at Fukushima
Photo: TEPCO/Reuters
Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power
Fire and smoke are seen at a building for sampling from seawater near No.4 reactor of the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.

What a difference six months make. Last fall, at a smart grid technical meeting organized by IEEE's Communications Society, a Japanese speaker said that his country had no particular interest in making its electric power system more reliable, as it already was very close to 100 percent reliable.

Now we are hearing that because of the Fukushima catastrophe and the temporary shut-down of other nuclear power plants, there are almost sure to be summer shortages that will require the government to impose electricity rationing. The Financial Times reports that Tepco's peak load during last year's (unusually hot) summer was 60 gigawatts; the amount of generating capacity expected to be available this coming summer will be 52 GW. As reported here, Japan's bifurcated national grid will complicate the job of getting electricity to where it's needed.

In a shattering investigative article that led The New York Times on Wednesday this week, reporters Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson describe a "culture of complicity" that drastically weakened nuclear regulation in Japan. A revolving door between industry and government involving "ascent to heaven" and "descent from heaven" meant that regulators relied on industry people to do their technical work, so that in effect the foxes were guarding the henhouse.

That system will obviously have to be drastically reformed if Japan's nuclear industry is to recover public confidence and the country as a whole is to restore its technical reputation. The effects could go even beyond that. The Chernobyl catastrophe was a not insignificant factor in the Soviet Union's loss of legitimacy and the collapse of Russian communism. We won't be seeing a political revolution in Japan, of course, but we may see something close to it: a calling into question of the cozy government-big business system that has dominated the country since World War II.

ARPA-E Aims to Engineer Efficient Biofuel Crops

The fourth round of funding from the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy, or ARPA-E, includes up to $30 million for the newly announced PETRO project. PETRO, or Plants Engineered To Replace Oil, looks to create new or modified plants that "capture more energy from sunlight and convert that energy directly into fuels."

Current biofuel crops suffer from low-efficiency energy conversion both from the sun and then in the processes we use to turn them into fuel, which means relatively low yields of fuel per acre. This, of course, leads to the seemingly paradoxical problem of biofuels from plants such as corn ending up with equal or even higher carbon dioxide emissions (when full lifecycle analyses are included) than traditionally dirtier fuels.

And carbon emissions aside, there is also the threat of biofuel crops displacing food crops, raising food prices around the world. This was evident in 2008 when food prices spiked, and it seems to be happening again now. There are many possible reasons for corn's 53 percent price increase in 2010, but the U.S. policy on corn ethanol undoubtedly plays a role. By 2022, the United States is mandated to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel; even in 2010, with a 12 billion gallon requirement, close to 40 percent of the corn produced went to ethanol production.

All of that is to say that the ARPA-E goal to increase efficiency and yield per acre would, if successful, have wide-ranging and beneficial impacts. The PETRO project is described as follows:

ARPA-E seeks to fund technologies that optimize the biochemical processes of energy capture and conversion to develop robust, farm-ready crops that deliver more energy per acre with less processing prior to the pump. If successful, PETRO will create biofuels for half their current cost, finally making them cost-competitive with fuels from oil.

This joins other ARPA-E initiatives on cleaner fuels, including their direct solar fuels project and an umbrella biomass project that includes some work on advanced fuels.

(Image via Steve Jurvetson)

Renewables Ranked

Earth Day at 41, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe, the ongoing Fukushima tragedy--what better time to assess the status and potential of green energy technology?

The good news, and it's very good indeed, is that renewables spending has "roared back" from the recession, increasing 30 percent in 2010 to a total of $243 billion. Nine tenths of that is in the G-20 advanced industrial countries, according to a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trust's Environmental Group, done in cooperation with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

"Collectively, the European region was the leading recipient of clean energy finance, attracting a total of $94.4 billion," says the report, "Who's Winning the Clean Energy Race?" Germany, where its far-sighted Feed-in Tariff law of 1999 now is driving installation of rooftop solar arrays, having previously ignited a revolution in wind energy, led the way in Europe. Next comes Asia, led of course by China, which is now the world's leading manufacturer of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines.

"The Americas region," by comparison,  "is a distant third in the race for clean energy investment, attracting $65.8 billion overall in 2010." The United States slid to the Number Three position, behind China and Germany. What's going on?

Given uncertainties surrounding key policies and incentives," says the report, "the U.S. competitive position in the clean energy sector is at risk. Growth is sharper in Latin America, where private clean energy investment in Argentina increased by 568 percent and in Mexico by 273 percent, the highest growth ratesamong G-20 members."

Globally, the solar sector grew fastest last year, attracting 53 percent more investment than the year before. Wind investment, in second place, grew 34 percent. Whereas China installed 17 GW of new wind last year, the United States managed only 5 GW.

Altogether, clean-energy generating technology has doubled in the last three years and now exceeds total global nuclear capacity. Even bearing in mind that in terms of actual electricity produced, green energy still is only about a third or fourth's of nuclear, the progress in renewables is impressive indeed.

New York City Updates Greenification Plan

Electrical engineer Michael Bloomberg, better known as the founder of Bloomberg Plc and the mayor of New York City, today issued an update of the city's plaNYC--the program for a "greener, greater New York" that it first released on Earth Day (April 22) 2007. In a press event that was a bit long on high fashionability and hero worship and a little short on vision, the mayor sent a message that despite some setbacks and currently adverse circumstances, the city will continue to work steady to use energy more efficiently and more frugally, and to obtain it increasingly from low-carbon generating sources.

The revised program, dubbed plaNYC 2.0, contains no dramatic new initiatives and in some ways disappoints. Even though the city's residents have been sorting and recycling trash for decades, New York still will not require businesses to do the same; instead it will study the subject. Despite some trial balloons lofted earlier this year, the city will not after all try to build a network of waste-to-energy conversion plants, a concept that has foundered on wide neighborhood opposition before. And though New York state's governor has called for closure of the aging Indian Point nuclear power plant, upriver from the city, Bloomberg's city government continues to insist it's needed. Replacing it would cost more than $2 billion and result in electricity bills rising at least 15 percent, the report says; without Indian Point, the city would not be able to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2030, the report continues.

When it's come to green initiatives in the past, the mayor has taken some lickings, as he reminded his audience this morning. His aggressive push to introduce congestion pricing on cars in Manhattan, on the model of London's system, was rebuffed. So too was his attempt to require all taxis to be hybrids. All things considered, he can be forgiven for thinking somewhat smaller now, and he deserves credit for basically sticking to his guns.

Somewhat oddly, neither the report nor the mayor claims credit for some things the city could boast about: leading all the world's cities, for example, in the number of hybrid-electric buses it has put into service--not to mention the large fraction of its buses that run on compressed natural gas; taking a lead, too, in introducing charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Instead, the report tends to focus on green initiatives of the traditional kind--parks, playgrounds, waterfront improvements, and reclamation of "brownfields"--areas where it has much to brag about indeed, but which have little to do with energy and climate as such.

One modest energy initiative the mayor highlighted, with support from the Environmental Defense Fund's Fred Krupp, is a phase-out of the dirtier heating oils. Bloomberg and Krupp said that continued burning of #4 and #6 oil by just a few thousand buildings produces more soot than all the automobiles and trucks in the city combined. Bloomberg's new rules will phase out use of #6 by 2015 and #4 by 2030.

To meet its goal of cutting carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030, the lion's share of the reductions are to come from making buildings more efficient. PlaNYC cites estimates that by the 2020s there could be twice as many very hot days as now, and by the 2050s three times as many; sea levels around New York could be as much as 30 centimeters higher by the middle of the century, and the "hundred year flood," instead of occurring every hundred years, might happen every 45.

Sharp Rise in Cyber Attacks on Grids Is Reported

McAfee, a network security firm in Santa Clara, Calif., and Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) have issued a report documenting a high rate of cyber attacks against the electric power grids in 14 countries surveyed. Of 200 IT executives questioned, 40 percent thought vulnerabilities had increased, 30 percent thought their companies were not adequately prepared, and 40 percent expected a major attack in the next year.

Four fifths of the respondents said they have faced major denial of service attacks, and a quarter said they have experienced attacks tied to attempts at extortion. Between 60 and 80 percent of the respondents in India and Mexico, the countries most afflicted by extortion, said they had suffered such attacks.

The report, commissioned by McAfee and prepared at CSIS, covered oil, gas, and water infrastructure, as well as electric power systems. It found that China, Italy, and Japan to be best prepared for cyber attacks, but Brazil, France, and Mexico to be lagging. Communication between governments and network operators was found to be wanting in Spain, the United States, and the UK.

There was a general sense that as more sophisticated communications and computing are integrated with power systems, consistent with the smart grid vision, things will get worse before they get better.“What we are learning is the smart grid is not so smart,” said Phyllis Schneck, vice president and chief technology officer for public sector at McAfee. “The fact is that most critical infrastructure systems are not designed with cybersecurity in mind, and organizations need to implement stronger network controls, to avoid being vulnerable to cyberattacks.”

As the Financial Times commented in a story about the McAfee-CSIS report, the findings amplify concerns highlighted by last year's Stuxnet, the ultra-sophisticated cyber weapon that was designed to disable uranium enrichment centrifuges in Iran--and did so--but also penetrated power grids and control systems all over the world, albeirt without doing any damage. A New York Times report discusses efforts in the United States by FERC and NERC to disseminate checklists and establish power industry practices to address cyber threats to the grid.

Wave Power On Its Way to Oregon Shores

Wave energy company Ocean Power Technologies has announced four new contracts that will contribute to the construction of a pilot project off the coast of Oregon, near Reedsport. The contracts involve various parts of OPT's PB150 PowerBuoy.

The first buoy should be in the water by later this year, after which the company plans to build the installation up to be the "first commercial-scale wave power station" in the country. Eventually, there may be as many as ten of the PB150s in the water. This would yield an installed capacity of 1.5 megawatts, at 150 kW per buoy. According to OPT, further additions could someday bring as much as 50 MW. The buoys will be grid-connected once the first batch are installed, and even a 10-MW installation would require only 30 acres of ocean space.

The buoys, which drop more 100 feet below the water's surface and are anchored to the ocean floor, work using a sort of piston mechanism. The top of the buoy rises and falls with the wave motion -- they work at wave heights of 4.9 to 22.9 feet -- which spins a generator. An undersea controller then sends the collected energy along cables to shore.

This is far from the only wave power device in development, but it seems to have the most momentum. One other company, Pelamis Wave Power, does have several projects in development. Their technology is described as follows:

The Pelamis Wave Energy Converter is a semi-submerged, articulated structure composed of cylindrical sections linked by hinged joints. The wave-induced motion of these joints is resisted by hydraulic rams, which pump high-pressure fluid through hydraulic motors via smoothing accumulators. The hydraulic motors drive electrical generators to produce electricity. Power from all the joints is fed down a single umbilical cable to a junction on the sea bed.

And off the coast of Cornwall in the UK, an interesting project seems to be acting almost like a miniature, wave research-oriented version of the promised Atlantic Wind Connection: the Wave Hub, a grid-connected offshore facility, lets companies test their wave power devices without having to develop the infrastructure to send the power back to shore.

Waves, of course, are an infinitely renewable resource, so this is certainly a worthy avenue to pursue. And some estimates [PDF] put the full potential of wave power as high as 2,100 terawatt-hours per year in the US alone.

(Image via Ocean Power Technologies)

Nuclear Energy's Grim Future

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.

Each of the major reactor accidents has had a major negative impact on global nuclear prospects, and Fukushima will be no exception.

The most immediate effect was in Germany, which immediately shut down its older reactors and put the rest under review. For a decade, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been trying to negotiate an "exit from the nuclear exit"--the plan adopted by a socialist-green government in the 1990s to phase out reliance on atomic energy completely. But she appears now to have thrown in the towel. Even more importantly, though nuclear-dependent generators have been trying to fight the reactor shut-downs, the national association of electricity generators has parted ways from that effort and seems to be acknowledging that nuclear power is basically dead in Germany.

In the meantime, China has suspended approvals of new nuclear reactor projects, the United States has inaugurated a review of existing plants, and proposed plants in India have suddenly become much more controversial. All older plants are subject to suspicion, and naturally the same is true of any plant proposed for a coastal site on the Pacific or Indian oceans and any in an area susceptible to severe earthquakes. As a result, the number of nuclear plants shut down in the coming years is sure to exceed the number of new plants brought into operation.

But that's nothing new. According to a Worldwatch Report released last week, in the three years from 2008 to 2011, eleven plants were closed worldwide while nine new plants were finished. Worldwide, the share of electricity generated from renewable resources now exceeds the fraction obtained from nuclear reactors. "In 2010 . . . worldwide cumulative installed capacity of wind turbines (193 gigawatts), biomass and waste-to-energy plants (65 GW), and solar power (43 GW) reached 381 GW, outpacing the installed nuclear capacity of 375nGW prior to the Fukushima disaster," says Worldwatch.

All this does not mean, of course, that there's no future role whatsoever for nuclear energy. Growth in wind energy may run into limits as the most attractive sites are exhausted. Sharply increased reliance on natural gas already is raising questions about the integrity of water supplies; because of chronic leakage of methane from gas distribution systems, the climate benefits of switching from coal to gas may be overrated. Photovoltaic electricity still is far from competitive in grid-scale applications, and may never be. So, in many instances, as countries and regions seek to cut carbon emissions and replace high-carbon energy sources, reactors will still look like the best alternative in some instances.

This last week, interestingly, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) almost simultaneously announced plans to shut down 18 coal generating plants in response to tighter environmental regulation and, because of Fukushima, to upgrade infrastructure at six nuclear power plants.

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