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Could Mechanics Best Power Electronics in EVs?

Could smarter mechanical transmissions knock power electronics out of wind turbines, providing a cheaper and more efficient means of coupling the variable energy from ever-shifting winds to the regular waveform of AC power on the grid? They could according to my reporting in MIT's TechReview today on Viryd Technologies' bid to exploit continuously variable transmissions (CVTs). If mechanics reclaiming territory ceded to electronics sounds like a technological step backwards, here's an more heretical corollary: the same CVTs could also squeeze the power electronics out of electric vehicles (EVs).

That's the argument put forward by Rob Smithson, CTO for Viryd parent company Fallbrook Technologies and one of the inventors of its clever CVT (dubbed NuVinci in a tip-of-the-hat to the Italian polymath who first dreamed up the CVT concept). "If you look at cost in large car-replacement type EVs today, the cost gets dominated by the battery pack and the motor controls. There’s an opportunity to knock out one of those two with an infinitely variable transmission," insists Smithson.

Most EV elaborations today, says Smithson, rely on the electric motor to meet the entire dynamic performance envelope of the vehicle, from vehicle speed to torque demand -- a feat made possible by hefty power electronics. Swap in a CVT to handle the vehicle speed, however, and the electric motor can operate as a fixed speed variable torque device. "When that happens there’s a tremendous opportunity there to simplify your power electronics and a lot of the attendant cost that goes with that," he says. For more details, see Fallbrook's white paper on increased power, speed and range observed in a NuVinci-equipped electric scooter.

Smithson is well aware that his proposition will sound heretical to many EV designers ("I’m looking forward to my turn at being burned at the stake," he told me with a chuckle). But an EV source I trust says Smithson could be pardoned. Ed Benjamin, an expert in light electric vehicle and bicycle technology and managing director of Benjamin Consulting, agrees that CVTs have great potential in EVs. "If a CVT was light, had a wide range, worked well and did not lose much energy - it couldgreatly improve the performance of Light Electric Vehicles, extending the capability of the drive system and extending battery / range," says Benjamin.

Benjamin adds that Fallbrook's NuVinci CVT is the best CVT he has seen. "It is an impressive device. Ingenious, clean, works well. Not too heavy, does not lose a lot of energy," he says. At the same time, he notes that many attempts to engineer CVTs have failed in the past and, "often they are just a hair away from being right."

I'd call it a story worth following. Fallbrook has already commercialized its CVT in high-end bicycles, and says it is developing applications for power transmission in electric vehicles as well as auxiliary power generation in military vehicles and optimization of vehicle air conditioning, which accounts for nearly one-tenth of U.S. annual fuel consumption. And then there are the wind turbines I covered for TechReview today, which are arguably the toughest application of all. Automobiles are designed for something like 5,000 hours of lifetime operation, whereas wind turbines must run more like 80,000 hours.

For those who still doubt the feistyness of mechanical engineers (and their EE sympathisers!) to challenge the trend towards digital power control and transmission, check out the back-to-the-future example of GE's variable frequency transformers. We covered this adaptation of transformers for coupling non-synchronous power grids in 2007 in "Power Transmission Without the Power Electronics".

ARPA-E Funds 37 Projects--Some Lofty, Some Not So Much

Things are moving fast at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). After languishing for a year and a half after President Bush signed it into law, and then for another half year after being funded by the Obama administration, the agency is finally picking up steam: Within a short two-month period, it got its first director and announced the 37 founding projects that will likely determine its future mission.

On Monday, ARPA-E announced that it had finaly culled those 37 projects from a herd of 3500 applications submitted over the summer in response to a funding it announced in April. (The task of sifting through those was heroic, and made all the more so by the fact that ARPA-E had no actual staff. House Science & Technology staffer Chris King told me that no one was comfortable making staffing decisions before ARPA-E got an actual director. But Energy Secretary Steven Chu was taking his time deciding who would head up his agency. ARPA-E was definitely Chu’s baby--back when he was just a Nobel-prize winning physicist, he co-authored a report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” that raised the alarms about the sorry state of innovation in the United States and recommended DOE ape the Defense Department with a high-risk agency that focuses exclusively on pie in the sky technologies that no private company would dare fund by itself.)

The agency is disseminating $151 million to a selection that includes the usual suspects (behemoths like MIT, Argonne National Labs, and GM) and some small, lesser-known entities like Momentive Performance Materials and NanOasis Technologies, Inc. Because these are the first of ARPA-E’s projects, they are likely to determine the agency’s future, in ways that are tangible and intangible. It’s already apparent that the funding choices will have an effect on the categories of research ARPA-E funds.

The categories under which ARPA-E classified the newly funded projects on its web site--Energy Storage, Biomass Energy, Carbon Capture, Renewable Power, Direct Solar Fuels, Building Efficiency, Waste Heat Capture, Vehicle Technologies, Water, and Conventional Energy--give some hints to how the agency will categorize its future research. The new director, Arun Majumdar, is particularly interested in energy efficiency research and alternative energy storage approaches.

“What happens in an agency in the initial year or two sets the culture in that agency for decades to come,” David Goldston told Spectrum two years ago, when ARPA-E was still inflicting labor pains on Congress. Goldston, a former House Science & Technology Committee Staff Director, had protested what he saw as the agency's hurried creation in a Nature magazine editorial. Goldston continues to pop up in the news, most recently in Businessweek, worrying that ARPA-E’s mission had become “too unfocused—and that congressional pressure to get fast results may steer it away from the most daring research.”

Well, it turns out he might have a point.

Some of the technologies that received funding are true to the pie-in-the-sky, mad science aspirations of a real ARPA: For example, a University of Minnesota project uses two symbiotic organisms to create gasoline directly from sunlight and CO2.That is outright bananas. And, as the saying goes, it’s so crazy that it might just work.

But then delve deeper into the 37 projects and you find some less inspiring technology. For example, consider the $4,992,651 bequeathed to Stanford University for its "sensors, software, and controls to track and improve energy use patterns." By no means do I think that Stanford should not be advancing this important area of research, but to borrow a phrase from Amy Poehler and Seth Myers: Really? Really, ARPA-E, this is transformational research? I thought transformational means “Google is not already working on it.” (the company's philanthropic arm) has created an online application called PowerMeter that can help you track your energy usage if you have a Smart Meter. Dean Kamen has developed a granular energy usage tracking system called the Teletrol System that will also do that for you. 

Or consider GM’s Lightweight Thermal Energy Recovery System, which uses an energy recovery device that promises to “increase fuel efficency by as much as 10 percent.” I’m not an expert in the field of fuel efficiency, but 10 percent doesn’t make me think “transformational.” Of 3500 submitted applications, only a hair over 1 percent--one lousy percent--was chosen. You’re telling me that in those 3463 proposals, not one promised something more exciting than a 10 percent fuel efficiency increase?


Smart Grid Grants

Today, Oct. 27, the Obama administration disclosed the winners of stimulus bill grants for smart grid projects. The president himself made the announcement touring a large photovoltaic power plant in Arcadia, Florida, which happens to be located in an electricity operating area that will benefit from a $200 million project in which Cisco, Florida Power, General Electric, and Silver Spring Networks are involved. By weird coincidence, another beneficiary will be Arcadian Networks (unrelated to Arcadia, Fla.!), which will be working with San Diego Gas & Electric to develop wireless communications for smart meter systems, relying on IEEE's 802.11 WiFi standards. Taking matching funds from private and other public sources, the administration says that total investments in the grid will be $8.1 billion. 

The grant-making process was highly competitive, requiring many utilities and energy companies to learn application procedures they otherwise rarely have to follow. Roughly a quarter of the applicants got grants, which range from quite small to relatively large. Many of the winners—the Cuming County Public Power District, in  West Point, Nebraska;  the town of Danvers, Massachusetts; the Sioux Valley Southwestern Electric Cooperative, in Coleman, South Dakota—are not household names. But the really big winners are.

In all, thirteen companies got grants of $100 million or more. Besides Florida Power & Light, they are: Baltimore Gas and Electric;   Center Point Energy, Houston; Consolidated Edison, New York: Duke Energy and Progress Energy, both in North Carolina; Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, Tennessee; NV Energy, Las Vegas; Oklahoma Gas and Electric; Sacramento Municipal District, California; Southern Company; Services, Alabama;  Potomac Electric Power Company, District of Columbia; and Detroit Edison. Almost without exception, those grants involve large rollouts of smart meters, along with data processing and communications systems to support them.

A major category of grants go to the organizations that manage and regulate regional transmissions systems, the RTOs and ISOs. Beneficiaries of grants ranging from $3.7 million to $5.39 million are ISO New England, the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, PJM Interconnection, New York ISO, and Western Electricity Coordinating Council. Almost without exception those grants involve rollouts of phasor measurement units, to better monitor and control flows of electricity through the systems.

Among equipment manufacturers, the Whirlpool Corporation gets $19.3 million to further develop smart appliances and networked home communications to support them.



Obama Lays Out Clean Energy Agenda at MIT

Boasting today, Oct. 23, that the stimulus bill represents (among other things) the biggest boost to science research in history, Obama hailed (as a case in point) the beginning of construction on a wind technology test center in the Boston area. That facility is getting $25 million in funding from the recovery act, as well as support from Massachusetts.

Obama said that the whole world is engaged in a peaceful competition to devise ample clean energy to power the 21st century, and that the winner of that race will lead the global economy. He said he wants America to win that race.

For the record, the New York Times reported on Saturday, Oct. 24, that Obama attributed the historic boost in science funding to the administration's climate bill, which a Senate committee will start to work on next week. That is an error. Obama did also plug the climate bill, saying that climate change skeptics and vested interests opposing climate action are now "marginalized." But that was in a different part of the speech.

Listen to his speech at the Massachusetts of Technology and, if you haven't already, check out what he had to say about climate science and green energy technology shortly after his election.

Europeans and Canada Lead in Fast Rail

According to a story this week in the Wall Street Journal, following up on earlier reports of big Bombardier sales of high-speed trains in China, the leading fast train manufacturers--none of them U.S. companies of course--are continuing to rack up nice global sales. Alstom SA, maker of France's famed TGV, recorded a record 5.69 billion euros (almost $9 billion) in the year that ended March 31. Germany's Siemens has made close to $1 billion from the sale of eight ICE-derived trains in Russia.

Bombardier will earn an estimated $2 billion from its high-speed train sales in China, which, says a Journal source, hopes to build "the most advanced rail network in the world." 

Coal Pollution Fatalities

A report issued on Oct. 19 by the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine estimates damages to public health and the immediate physical environment from power plant and vehicular emissions. The overall effect is to reduce estimates of how many deaths result from power plant pollution by a factor of three or four. But the numbers are still shockingly high, and total estimated economic damages are very substantial. The national cost of power plant emissions in 2005 is put at $62 billion, and the damage from automotive emissions—from light vehicles, as well as medium- and heavy-duty trucks—at $56 billion. Given the report's valuation of a premature human death at $6 million, those estimates imply that about 10,000 people die each year from exposure to coal power plant emissions, and about 10,000 from vehicular emissions.

Earlier in this decade, when estimates of coal-pollution fatalities of close to 30,000 came to my attention in an excellent book called Coal, I found them hard to credit. I traced them to a 2000 report prepared for the Clean Air Task Force by experts connected with Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital ("Death, Disease, and Dirty Power”). Those experts stood by their claims, and leading public health experts independent of the study vouched for its credibility. The clincher came from a man who had been in charge of regulatory enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton Administration: Eric Schaeffer pointed out that if you looked at the Bush EPA's estimates of how many lives would be saved by stronger regulations, it followed that tens of thousands were dying annually from coal plant pollution, and not merely thousands.

Maureen L. Cropper, an economist at the University of Maryland (College Park) and Resources for the Future (Washington D.C.) who co-chaired the National Academies‘ panel, says because of improved methodology—and perhaps also because of differences in data sets, baselines, and comparisons—the National Academies' estimates of fatalities are significantly lower than EPA’s. They are lower by a factor of about four, even though the  Academies took a wider range of damage into account, she notes. At the same time, acknowledging that total estimated damages are still high, Cropper feels that tightening air regulations beyond what is anticipated by the 1990 Clean Air Amendments  probably is warranted.

Arguably, the implications go beyond that. The report's estimate of coal-related damages equates to 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour. That's a lot. But even so, that only takes immediate health and environmental consequences into account. It does not take in the impact of coal on global greenhouse emissions. What if they also are brought into the picture, if only qualitatively?

The National Academies report is an estimate of what micro-economists call "externalities" —costs of an economic activity that do not show up in the price of the activity as determined by the free-market interplay of supply and demand. Costs to public health and to the immediate physical environment are relatively easy to monetize (though the methods involved are prodigiously complex). Estimates of the possible adverse impacts from global warming are much harder to estimate, and such estimates are much more controversial. So it's easy to see why the Academies did not include climate costs in their analysis.

But as we all know, coal-fired power plants account for a third or two fifths of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. If, pursuant to Cropper's reasoning, the United States were to penalize coal power to account for its impacts on public health, a strong impact on carbon emissions also is to be expected.

Definitive up-to-date estimates of coal generating costs are surprisingly hard to locate, but generally they are put in the vicinity of 5 or 6 cents per kilowatt hour. So if one were to tax up the cost of coal-generated electricity by 3.2 cents to compensate for bad heath impacts, the net economic effect would be to increase the cost of coal-generated electricity by 50 percent or more. At that level, unsubsidized nuclear-generated electricity would be competitive to coal and so would wind; natural gas would be highly competitive. A 50 percent tax on coal-generated electricity, in short, would lead to rapid replacement of the country's dirtiest coal plants by brand spanking new gas and nuclear plants, and wind farms. It would be like replacing a 1952 Plymouth--a great car in its day--by a Toyota Prius.

This course of action, let it be said by way of fair disclosure, is exactly the strategy I proposed in a book several years ago. (The third chapter is devoted to the human costs of coal combustion.) Though the book may be ready for the ash can of history, its basic idea is alive and kicking. What gives the idea of replacing the dirtest U.S. coal plants with zero-carbon and low-carbon generation is this: According to the Academies' findings, 10 percent of the 406 coal-fired plants it examined account for 43 percent of the coal sector's damages to the public good; the least damaging 50 percent of the plants account for just 12 percent of the damage.

So if the United States were to shut down the half of its coal-fired plants that are the dirtiest, the immediate effect would be to save close to 9,000 lives and cut the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent or more—that is, more than the Obama administration's current action plan foresees for the economy as a whole in the next ten years.




The Smart Meter Avalanche

The Edison Electric Institute, hosting a press briefing today on the smart grid, distributed an enumeration of smart grid rollouts which indicated that 21 states have plans to install smart meters for more than half the metered population, while another eight have plans for less than half the population. Those 29 states include most of the country’s largest and most populous except for Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington (state).

According to Edison’s Institute for Electric Efficiency, many of the country’s largest electricity distribution companies have plans to install millions of meters in the next years, with deployments to be complete between 2012 and 2015. These include the Southern Company (4.3 million), AEP (5 million), Baltimore Gas & Electric (2 million), and Michigan’s DTE (4 million).   In Texas, CenterPoint Houston expects to install 2 million by 2014, and Oncor 3 million by 2012. Southern California Edison is shooting for full deployment of 5.3 million meters by 2012, and Pacific Gas & Electric of 5.1 million. To date, by general consensus, PG&E's program is the largest and most advanced in the United States.

In total, according to the EEI compilation, nearly 60 million smart meters will be installed by 2015.

EEI’s media briefing was devoted mainly to the implications of smart metering for customers and distributors, in terms of energy conservation, monetary savings, improved reliability, and more efficient, less expensive maintenance. The representative of one energy company said it stands to make or save, over 15 years, $2.5 billion on a smart meter investment of $500 million. But there are big implications, too, for companies that specialize in processing and communicating data. This is because the data requirements associated with smart metering--not to mention all the other digital elements associated with the smart grid vision--will be gargantuan.

According to one calculation circulating this week, installation of 100 million smart meters in the United States might generate 100 petabytes per year of data that need to be transmitted, archived, and manipulated. That estimate,  by Jack Dahany of, is based on a current estimated per-meter data rate of 400 MB per year, which Dahany multiplied by 2.5 to allow for higher future sampling rates and additional smart grid data requirements. By comparison, Google handles 20 PB of data daily, observes Katie Fehrenbacher of, who publicized Dahany's calculation.   



That Radical Decoupling of Gas and Oil Prices

Kurt Zenz House, a widely acclaimed research fellow at MIT, has a recent article drawing attention to the "curious oil and natural gas price differential." In the past 20 years, reports House, gas has sold at about two-thirds the price of oil, per unit energy. Since the beginning of this year, however, gas has been selling at around one quarter the price of oil. Of course that ratio fluctuates quite a bit on short time scales but rarely if ever as much as in the last year. "It is nearly impossible," says House, "to explain the current price anomaly between natural gas and oil with historical data. So, what's going on?"

House mentions prominently the discovery last year that the Marcellus Shale formation in the northeast United States has enormous recoverable reserves, using new horizontal drilling techniques. Because of such reassessments in light of new technology, estimated U.S. gas reserves are 40 percent higher than they were a few years ago. What's more, the exercise is being repeated everywhere, with similar results expected. “It’s a breakout play that is going to identify gigantic resources around the world,” energy expert Amy Myers Jaffe of Rice University told the New York Times. Cambridge Energy Research Associates guesses that because of gas shale, world reserves could be 50-160 percent higher than previously thought.

That's not all. As relayed recently in this space, BP has made an enormous oil and  gas discovery in the Gulf of Mexico, and three other top oil companies are reaching agreement on exploitation of Australia's gigantic Gorgon field. One of them, Royal Dutch Shell, announced last week it plans to build a floating liquefied natural gas facility, which it expects to use initially in two newly discovered fields northwest of Australia. Such "stranded" fields around Australia--too far from the coast or too sparse to warrant construction of pipelines to processing facilities on land--could contain as much as 140 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to an Australian government estimate cited in the Wall Street Journal. Much larger than a football or soccer field, Shell's floating LNG facility will be 480 meters long and 75 meters wide, and will weigh 600,000 metric tons. It will have the capacity to produce 3.5 million metric tons of LNG per year.

The most recent authoritative estimate of U.S. natural gas reserves, released last June, came from the Potential Gas Committee, a consortium of academic and industrial experts coordinated by the Colorado School of Mines. The committee boosted its end-2008 estimate of reserves to 1,836 trillion cubic feet—an increase of 45 percent from end-2006, and the largest increase in the 44 years the committee has been operating. When the committee's results were combined with the Department of Energy's "determination" of proven gas reserves (said the committee), the United States has a "total available future supply" of 2,074 trillion cubic feet, a 35 percent increase over the previous such evaluation.





U.S. Car Makers Push for Hydrogen Infrastructure

Manufacturers of cars in the United States are leaning on the government to step up support for hydrogen infrastructure, reports the Bloomberg news service. Car makers including GM, Toyota, Honda, Daimler, Hyundai, Kia, Renault, and Nissan have made it known that they expect to be able to manufacture fuel cell cars running on hydrogen at competitive costs by 2015; the first four say their immediate goal is to shave the extra cost of a hydrogen car versus a regular car to $3,600.

Early in this decade, leading U.S. automakers ditched plans to deploy electric cars after the U.S. government threw its enthusiastic support behind the vision of a "hydrogen economy"--one in which motor vehicles would be powered by fuel cells--which turned out to be much too optimistic. This year Energy Secretary Chu slashed funding for development of fuel cel cars, to some dismay, which prompted Congress to restore funds. Germany's official goal is to have 1,000 hydrogen fueling stations in place by 2015, and in Japan 13 oil and gas companies have joined forces to develop a hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

Siemens Natural Gas Plant Sets New Efficiency Record

Siemens announced this week that it has completed testing of a combined-cycle, natural gas generating plant near Ingolstadt, in Bavaria. Rated at 340 MW in gas-only mode, the test run was so successful, the plant now is expected to achieve a rated output of 370 MW, running in that limited way. When the second steam turbine is connected, the plant will have a capacity of 570 MW and an efficiency of 60 percent--two percentage points higher than the most efficient gas combined cycle plant currently operating.

A decade or two ago, such efficiencies in a thermal power plant would have been considered unthinkable and unachievable. They help explain why, on balance, natural gas is still the technology of choice for electricity generation almost everywhere in the world. That is to say, if enough gas is expected to be available in the long run at acceptable prices, there's really no better way of making electricity.

Such considerations prompted me to wonder, in a recent blog, why the U.S. natural gas industry feels called upon to run big ads telling readers how good gas is. Since that post provoked some ire and aroused some misunderstandings, please permit this humble blogger to clarify a few points:

--though I have written critically about nuclear technology and the nuclear industry for 35 years, I am not anti-nuclear; in fact, I have argued elsewhere that nuclear energy will be essential in any concerted U.S. effort to sharply cut greenhouse gas emissions

--however, there are numerous well-known safety issues associated with nuclear energy, including the danger of explosions in nuclear reactors: during the Three Mile Island partial melt-down, there was acute concern about the possibility of a hydrogen explosion; the Chernobyl reactor blew up as the result of a runaway self-escalating nuclear chain reaction; in fast breeder reactors, full-fledged nuclear explosions can occur; and steam explosions are possible in any standard water-cooled, water-moderated reactor

--in the case of the catastrophic Chernobyl accident, a great deal of radiation did of course escape; the first evidence we had of the accident in the West was the detection of atmospheric radiation in Sweden

--while it's most improbable that any terrorist group would be able to extract plutonium from highly radioactive spent reactor fuel, if the fuel is reprocessed and the recovered plutonium is transported, the plutonium could be stolen and used to make an atomic bomb

--the estimate of the number of Americans who die annually from exposure to coal power plant pollution--30,000---is discussed extensively and documented in the third chapter of my book, Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy

--my post is a critique of the way climate policy is formulated in the United States and, to a great extent, Europe as well, not of any particular person or party



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