Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Out of Africa: Persistent Plague of Electricity Theft

The severe electricity shortage gripping sub-Saharan Africa -- and especially the region's largest economy -- South Africa is bringing fresh attention to a longstanding problem: organized and widespread theft of electricity.

In South Africa alone, Eskom, the chief provider, is believed to lose hundreds of millions of dollars of revenues a year to thieves. Some of the losses are due to non-payment of bills, but a significant amount comes from unauthorized tapping of electricity lines.

Theft of electricity in Africa worsens the shortage by robbing companies of revenue needed for expansion. Sometime the thefts take place with the assistance of employees of electricity companies. Poor service by electricity companies also can fuel resentments that can be expressed through forms of customer protests which include theft or non-payment of bills.

In Uganda, for instance, customers are frustrated with an electricity provider who routinely blames high theft for poor service. Last year the government-owned New Vision newspaper published an article by an energy expert who argued, "It is not fair for an innocent power consumer to pay exorbitant tariffs because of the service provider has failed to stop theft."

Because losses to theft can be so high -- in some places, such as Uganda, as much as a third of the potential revenues are lost -- some African electricity providers have experimented with pre-paid services, offering a discount to new customers if they agree to accept meters that require an electronic debit card to work. In Ghana, the national electricity company has sharply reduced losses due to non-paynment of bills by requiring most new customers to accept the pre-pay meters. The payment cards are refilled by paying cash at offices of the electricity company.

Despite the success of the pre-pay program, Ghana is believed to lose as much as one quarter of its electricity revenues due to theft, complicating efforts to upgrade service.

Efforts to crack down on scofflaws can be difficult. In Cameroon, where the U.S. electricity company AES owns the national provider, raids on organized thieves are common. Company security officials come prepared to tear down illegal networks and even raid businesses suspected of tapping lines.

Electricity theft can cause a vicious cycle, where providers raise rates because of high losses, which in turn gives customers more incentive to steal more electricity. In Cameroon, for instance, thefts skyrocketed several years ago after a series of rate increases. When rates stabilized, thefts declined.

Intelligence ARPA splits into three branches


You know you love the cool new IARPA logo.

Yesterday I interviewed IARPA's new director, Lisa Porter.

Intelligence and defense are often conflated in the popular imagination, but the two operate quite differently. Where the defense department likes to let you know what they've done for you lately, intelligence tends to keep their successes to themselves. Those cultural differences trickle down to the two organizations' ARPAs.

DARPA, for example, has a much better-organized PR machine. You can bet that I would not have been interviewing DARPA director Tony Tether by cell phone sitting on the ground on a little patch of grass outside the Pentagon. But due to a last minute snafu,* I found myself sitting next to a tool shed outside the NSA compound in which IARPA has a temporary home, fighting off DC's herculean flies and armada of small ants, doing a cell phone interview with Lisa Porter, who was in her office about 500 feet to my left.

I was on the train from New York to Washington, DC, several hours earlier when I got the unexpected news that my interview had to be done by phone. Why? Apparently my credentials hadn't cleared. I had the whole rest of the train ride to mull over why I was not allowed to sit in the same room with Dr. Porter. I'm not a terrorist. I know at least that. I'm not a serial killer-- I think. Though if I had some kind of multiple personality disorder, I couldn't be sure. Have I been making threats on internet forums? I barely have time to blog, much less comment. No, that's not it.

Maybe its not me. Maybe it's her: what if Lisa Porter is one of her own gadgets and she's not quite ready for prime time? Is Lisa Porter a Turing Test?

I never did find the answers to any of these questions. At 3:30 p.m., I sat outside the black iron gates of the compound in a shady spot (where it was 85, and not 87 degrees) and waited for a phone call from 500 feet away. On the upside, I'm now rocking a very becoming tan.

If Lisa Porter is a Turing test, she's a very convincing one. She's very smart and very charming. Porter started her tenure as IARPA's director on February 2, and since then she's been busy. Next week, IARPA plans to announce the three program offices into which Porter has split the agency: Smart Collection, Incisive Analysis, and Safe and Secure Operations.

Porter explained the directives of the three offices.

The Smart Collection Office is intended to improve the value of collected data. "You're often limited in the amount you can collect," Porter explained, "so you want to focus your efforts." The main thrust of this office, se said, is to get predictive about where the information is and what exactly you might be looking for. She likens traditional information collection to the classic problem, the drunk looking for his keys under the light. He didn't lose them there, but that's the only place the light is. "You're solve the problem you know how to solve," she says, "instead of the one you actually need to solve."

The Incisive Analysis Office maximize the insight they get from the information in a timely fashion. They want to boil down that fire hose of data and provide decision makers with necessary information before it's too late. Porter imagines using virtual worlds, for example, "to help analysts get their arms around all this data." This program office also includes a social engineering and linguistics element. "You want to not just understand what's being said," Porter says, "but what the cultural implications are."

The Safe and Secure Operations Office is being set up to counter the capabilities of adversaries. One of the subprograms is cybersecurity; another is quantum information.

This information will be posted at next week (which is also when that site goes live).

Now Porter is looking for program managers, which could be a bit of a challenge. Word is, even DARPA has trouble finding those.

* Update, 4/21: Full disclosure: IARPA PR reminds me that no one forced me to sit outside the compound gates. I was given other options for conducting my cell phone interview, like sitting in a cafe or a nearby park (the PR person noted that "it was a beautiful day"). I decided to sit outside the black gates of the NSA compound anyway to possibly guilt Lisa Porter into coming out to meet me. That did not work.

New Jersey Issues 15-Year Energy Plan, with Nod to Nuclear

Yesterday, April 17, the state of New Jersey issued an energy master plan, notable for the frankness with which it addressâ''s the stateâ''s current and medium-term needs and resources. The plan carries the imprimatur of state governor Jon S. Corzine, notable too, because Corzine is squarely in the political mainstream, very smart, andâ''as a former partner in Goldman Sachsâ''comfortable thinking about macro variables.

Todayâ''s news reports emphasized the planâ''s suggestion that it may be necessary to build a new nuclear power plant to meet needs. But that notion is not contained in the reportâ''s executive summary and gets only passing mention on pp. 71-72 of the main text. Still, it is indeed significant that a state of New Jerseyâ''s importance and a governor of Corzineâ''s stature has officially declared itself willing to take another look at nuclear.

Framing the difficult situation facing the state, the report states up front that natural gas prices and electricity prices doubled from 2002 to 2007, threatening the stateâ''s long-term economic competitiveness and livability. Meanwhile, energy demand has been rising sharply, along with electricity exports to the New York City metropolitan area , even as electrical generating capacity and transmission have failed to keep pace.

The plan proposes building code revisions that would make new construction 30 percent more energy efficient, while the efficiency of existing buildings would be improved by means of tighter standards for appliances and equipment. The state would seek to meet 22.5 percent of its needs from renewables by 2025, with the addition of 1,500 megawatts in solar capacity, 1,200 MW in wind, and 1,500 MW in combined heat and power.

But even with those ambitious measures, the plan anticipates that the stateâ''s current fleet of generating facilities will not be adequate to meet long-term power demand. Hence the cautious nod to nuclear.

If Corzine hews to the nuclear line, he will be following in the footsteps of Great Britain, which is in the painful process of committing itself to the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants, mainly because of concerns about global warming. The implications are turning out to be even more difficult to digest than the English may have guessed. If the UK proceeds, itâ''s considered all but a foregone conclusion that British Energyâ''which owns the most plausible sites for new reactorsâ''will be taken over, most likely by a foreign bidder.

The leading candidates are Franceâ''s EDF, Germanyâ''s RWE or E.ON, and Spainâ''s Iberdrola. So if the British find themselves consuming much more nuclear electricity in ten or fifteen years time, theyâ''ll likely be buying it from a French, German or Spanish supplier.

Hidden Drama at Congressional Hearings to Reauthorize NNI

Despite all the cordial words and statesman-like testimony, one has to imagine that there was some tension when Mr. Floyd Kvamme, the co-chair of the Presidentâ''s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), and Dr. Andrew Maynard, the Chief Scientist at the Project for Emerging Technologies (PET), sat at the same witness table to provide testimony to the House of Representativesâ'' Science and Technology Committee on reauthorization of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).

You may recall when this blog brought attention to Maynardâ''s assertion on his blog that Kvamme was â''cherry pickingâ'' intelligence when it came to the Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) concerns over nanoparticles.

In his testimony, Maynard hammered again at the idea that not enough funding was going to research for EHS issues of nanotechnology:

â''â'¿in 2006, the federal government spent an estimated $13 million on highly relevant nanotechnology risk research (approximately 1% of the nano R&D budget), compared to $24 million in Europe, despite assurances from the NNI that five times this amount was spent on risk related research in Fiscal Year 2006.â''

With Maynard bumping the number of nanotechnology-enabled products on PETâ''s list from 500 to 600 the urgency has increased (at least 20%), and it seems it has caught the attention and support of the Democratic leadership of the Committee.

"Although the NNI has from its beginnings realized the need to include activities for increasing understanding of the environmental and safety aspects of nanotechnology, it has been slow to put in place a well designed, adequately funded, and effectively executed research program to address this issue," said Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN). "The environmental and safety component of NNI must be improved by quickly developing and implementing a strategic research plan that specifies near-term and long-term goals, sets milestones and timeframes for meeting near-term goals, clarifies agenciesâ'' roles in implementing the plan, and allocates sufficient resources to accomplish the goals."

And what may that strategic research plan be, you might ask. Well, Rep. Gordon likes Andrew Maynardâ''s plan as it was written up in a paper for Nature: â''Safe Handling of Nanotechnologyâ''.

â''This paper should be a landmark in the history of nanotechnology research. It lays out a clear, reasonable, prioritized, consensus-based set of priorities for examining the potential environmental and health consequences of nanotechnology over the next decade and a half,â'' said Gordon in a November 2006 press release. â''This paper should eliminate any remaining excuses for inaction in this vitally important area.â''

It's lovely when it all works out so well for all involved.

Nuclear Lab Leaders Complain of Poor Funding

In a sit-down with the editors of the Washington Post yesterday, the heads of the U.S. government's top nuclear research laboratories said their missions are being compromised by cutbacks in funding.

The directors of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories told the Post (please see Directors Say National Labs Are Underfunded) that budget cuts brought on by squabbling in Washington have reduced their ability to carry out scientific research needed to ensure the reliability of the nation's nuclear arsenal going forward.

According to an account published in the paper today, the Bush administration is already pursuing a costly restructuring of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure but has been unable to gain congressional approval to develop a new generation of warheads under the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program.

A bipartisan congressional group said the executive branch should decide the number of warheads necessary through 2030 before the program can be approved, according to the Post.

The labs leaders said there is a risk of "confidence eroding in the current stockpile" over the next few years if a decision is not made to proceed with the RRW program soon.

Ford starts marketing its nanotech: Why now?

Every now and then someone makes mention of how nanotechnology will impact the automobile, I suppose to keep hope alive that the auto industry will do something interesting in applying nanotechnology. Unfortunately, what they do announce is usually pretty mundane stuff.

Things got a little exciting last year, when the news was tangentially about the car and nanotechnology, but specifically about its fuel. Oxonica went from nano-media darling with its liquid-based catalyst that reduces emissions for diesel fuels, EnviroxTM, to media chump almost over night.

The UK-based company was just about to really become a nanotechnology success story as the Turkish national oil-and-gas companyâ''Petrol Ofisiâ''was about to buy a lot of Envirox. But alas, they backed out after tests indicated that it didnâ''t work as well as had been expected.

Before that news item, nanotech and the car stayed largely out of the press with the possible exception of nearly everyone citing how nanotechnology is going to transform the auto industry. Nanocomposites in polycarbonate automotive glazing doesn't really make for sparkling news copy.

But now Ford Motor Company is getting all the science news services to cover their most recent announcement regarding nanotechnology.

Donâ''t get too excited. There is nothing new here. Itâ''s the same old staple of using nanoparticles in structural materials to reduce weight and nano-enabled paint that improves adhesion and durability.

There is some news here about Ford teaming up with Boeing and Northwestern University to develop their nanotechnology, but the whole media push left me scratching my head asking â''Why? And â''Why now?â''

The other strange thing about it is Ford may be researching uses for nanotechnology, but arenâ''t they eventually going to resource this stuff out to their first- and second-tier suppliers? Ford: â''We need lighter door handlesâ'' Supplier: â''I have just the thing, itâ''s a nanocomposite.â''

My hope is that Ford is setting the groundwork for a really big announcement regarding nanotechnology, like a plan to use nanomaterials for changing radiation directly into electricity.

I know, I know, but I can hope canâ''t I?

President Bush Proposes Lame-Duck Climate Plan

The conventional wisdom about the presidentâ''s climate speech yesterday, April 16, is that it was calculated to head off international efforts to tighten binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions and U.S. legislation to cap and reduce emissions. I see no reason to dispute the usual view. Whatâ''s a little puzzling is why Bush thinks, given his rock-bottom standing in national opinion polls and his short remaining time in office, he still has any real political capital to expend on the climate issue.

Oddly, the presidentâ''s mastery of mathematical calculus seems better than his command of political calculus. The following captures the essense of what he had to say: â''To reach our 2025 goal weâ''ll need to more rapidly slow the growth of power sector greenhouse gas emissions so they peak within 10 to 15 years.â'' That is, rather than belatedly accept the Kyoto goal of reducing U.S. emissions to 7 percent below their 1990 level, or alternatively agree in upcoming climate talks to some less ambitious schedule of greenhouse gas reductions, the United States will only try to reduce the rate at which emissions are increasing. What the president is proposing is that we merely tinker with the first derivative.

Why does he think thatâ''s going to impress anybody? The underlying logic of the Kyoto Protocol is that those countries responsible now for the most emissions and that have the greatest per-capita emissions should start cutting them immediately, and that the countries with fast-growing emissionsâ''China and India, first and foremostâ''should start cutting theirs in the next phase. The diplomatic rationale is exactly analogous to that underlying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires non-nuclear-weapons countries to not acquire atomic bombs now, in exchange from a longer-term commitment from the nuclear weapons states to start getting rid of theirs in the future.

The non-nuclear weapons states have shown a growing impatience with the lackluster pace at which those countries with atomic bombs have been disarming. But it would be a tragedy is they lost patience altogether and all started acquiring nuclear weapons. By the way token, it will be most unfortunate if the American people gives into demagogic reasoning and persists in refusing to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: the inevitable effect will be Chinaâ''s refusing to ever do anything constructive, and the Europeans giving up on ambitious efforts theyâ''re already making.

In his speech, Bush said he sought to reconcile climate policy with continued economic growth, roundly rejecting the Kyoto approach. He took some credit --justly--for working to tighten automotive fuel efficiency standards (over the opposition of some Democratic Party leaders) and for mandating higher efficiency standards for lighting and appliances. Those wishing to dissect the speech in every detail can go to the blog maintained by Andrew Revkin, the lead climate reporter at The New York Times. Revkinâ''s posting includes both his own comments and those from readers.

Astronaut Tosses First Pitch at Yanks/Sox Game from Space

We've become used to the sight of astronauts taking the field at the opening of a baseball game to deliver the ceremonial first pitch. Today, though, the New York Yankees invited an astronaut to throw out the ball from orbit, over 200 miles above their famous stadium.

As if the century-long rivalry between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox needed any more promotion to gin up interest, tonight's game got an out-of-this-world introduction.

Longtime Yankee fan Garrett Reisman, 40, who is serving as a mission specialist aboard the International Space Station (ISS), appeared just prior to the start of the game on the giant DiamondVision screen looming over the outfield of the stadium garbed in a Yanks workout jersey. He then tossed a baseball at a camera held by a crewmate.

It sailed a little high.

Still, it was close enough to the strike zone to merit applause, considering that Reisman was weightless in the zero-gravity environment of the ISS.

For the occasion, the Yankees had provided Reisman with a sample of dirt from the stadium's pitcher's mound to take to the space station when he traveled into orbit on March 11 aboard the Endeavour shuttle.

Reisman grew up in the New York area an avid baseball fan. He makes his terrestrial home in Parsippany, N.J. He joined NASA in 1998, with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, to enroll in an Astronaut Candidate Training class. Since then, he has worked in the agency's robotics and advanced vehicles branches. During this mission, his first in orbit, Reisman has been tasked with putting the newly delivered Dextre robotic manipulator, from the Canadian space program, through its shakeout paces.

"Launching on the space shuttle and living aboard the International Space Station is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Reisman said in an online news release. "But as a lifelong Yankees fan, throwing out the first pitch at a Yankees-Red Sox game is also a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am really honored to have this opportunity in such a historic season in the House that Ruth Built, and I would like to thank the Yankees for being so supportive of our mission up here in space."

This year marks the swan song of the legendary stadium. After the season (or postseason) comes to a close, Yankee Stadium will be shuttered after 85 years, and a newer model of the ballpark, built literally across the street, will take its place going forward, offering more modern amenities to its fans.

According to NASA, Reisman keeps up with the Yankees' progress via news feeds provided by Mission Control in Houston while he's in orbit. He is scheduled to return to Earth in June aboard the Discovery shuttle, after some three months in space.

Update: For the record, the Yankees won the contest 15 to 9.

Color Stanford's Y2E2 building green


From the outside, Stanford University's just-opened Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment & Energy building (Y2E2) looks a lot like the other buildings on campus. Its façade is mostly stone, its roof is mostly tile, and its surrounded by long colonnades with graceful arches.


But this building, the first of four to go up in what will be Stanford's new engineering quad, is different. It is as environmentally friendly as its designers at Boora Architects and Hargreaves Associates could make it; a level that the university calls LEED-platinum equivalent. Stanford did not seek official LEED platinum certification like some Bay Area builders; some building requirements, like the separate ventilation systems for the basement laboratories, arenâ''t accounted for in the LEED system, and certification would have added a costly paperwork burden that, says Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor Richard Luthy, would have come out of the budget for solar cells, for example. While the building is too new for operating data to be available, Luthy expects about a 60 percent energy savings and about a 90 percent savings in potable water use.


I toured the 11,000 square meter building last week. I've toured a lot of green buildings, and Iâ''m always impressed with how features that are good for the environmentâ''like natural lightingâ''also create a space that feels good to the people working inside of it.


The Y2E2 building struck me by its level of detail. It's not just the four atria letting in natural light, the automatic louvers and windows bringing in cool air at night to chill the mostly carpet-less concrete floor for daytime cooling, or the grey-water system used for the toilets that gives this building its tiny environmental footprint. Itâ''s all the little things: like making the shelving and tables out of bamboo and recycled press-board; the fly ash, a byproduct of coal burning, that replaced cement in the concrete; the angled landscaping that sends rainwater into channels where it is collected and used for irrigation.


Take a look for yourself.


Nanofood companies reduce risk by staying mute

In a recent opinion piece over at Nanowerk, itâ''s argued that the food industry has pulled so far back from discussing their use of nanotechnology that they are allowing anti-nanotech activists to frame the debate over the safety of nanotechnology in food.

The subtitle of the piece â''how the industry is blowing itâ'' manages to frame the issue in such a way that it seems there is something to lose by food companies not discussing the specifics of their material science labs beyond what they report to the Food and Drug Administration to demonstrate the safety of a new food additive.

There may well be, but the food companies could lose out equally by actually engaging in the debate.

The fallacy in the argument of the editorial seems to me the idea that â''safety-consciousâ'' and â''mature, grown-upsâ'' want to hear both sides of the argument and then come to an informed opinion. Itâ''s hard to believe that argument about any subject, but especially so regarding food, which is such a personal matter regarding what we decide to put into our bodies.

The editorialâ''s premise leads to a machine-gun series of questions:

â'¢ Why not come out guns blazing and educate the public about the exciting opportunities for nanotechnologies in the food sector?

â'¢ Why not demonstrate that the risk aspects of the technology are being thoroughly investigated?

â'¢ Why invite the cliché of 'bad corporate citizens' â'' companies that keep information from the public and hide the risky aspects of what they are doing?

The answer seems to me that the publicâ''s opinion is rarely, if ever, determined by reasoned consideration of all the data. It depends more on personal biases and appearances rather than facts.

I imagine that the food companies have the position that to engage in a debate will indicate that there is some controversy to argue over. To ignore the issue will result in the public ignoring it as well.

Currently there is no shortage of second-guessing on what the public wants or how it will react to nanotechnology and there is even NSF-funded research to codify personal biases when it comes to nanotechnology.

Itâ''s a difficult game to play anticipating the vagaries of the consuming public, and I imagine the food companies want to avoid what my mother would have described as being â''too smart by half.â''

By thinking that you can reason your way into people understanding the science and then making a rational decision, you just opened the door to people drawing their own conclusions based on their own flimsy-based notions. All they needed in order to draw these misguided judgments was news that there was some controversy out there that big bad companies were trying cover up with science.

There will always be people who happily eat Twinkies without a second thought of whatâ''s in them or how theyâ''re made, and there will always be those who will keep a strict organic vegan diet and the twain shall never meet.

For those Twinkie eaters out there, who spend less time agonizing over the ingredients in their food than their vegan brethren, there is the anticipation that the Food and Drug Administration is keeping an eye on the ingredients for them. Until the FDA report otherwise, food companies will likely continue using nanotechnology without engaging in a potentially lose-lose debate over its safety.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More