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An illustration of light bulbs piled in the shape of a human brain.

AI to Help Power Grids Resist Disruptions

The U.S. Department of Energy will explore whether artificial intelligence could help electric grids handle power fluctuations, avoid failures, resist damage, and recover faster from major storms, cyberattacks, solar flares and other disruptions.

A new project, called GRIP, for Grid Resilience and Intelligence Project, was awarded up to $6 million over three years on September 12 by the U.S. Department of Energy. GRIP is the first project to use artificial intelligence (AI) to help power grids deal with disturbances, says Sila Kiliccote, GRIP's principal investigator and director of the Grid Integration, Systems and Mobility lab at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif.

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An image of a stretchy, waterproof organic solar cell fabricated by researchers in Japan.

Stretchy, Waterproof Solar Cells to Power Wearables

Organic solar cells that are waterproof and stretchable could someday be sewn into washable electronic clothing. Researchers in Japan describe fabricating and testing several of these cells today in the journal Nature Energy.

The group, led by Takao Someya at the RIKEN Center for Emergent Matter Science in Saitama, Japan, says such cells could be used in health monitors woven into a patient’s clothing to analyze their heartbeat and body temperature, and help spot early warning signs of medical problems.

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Two girls sit reading school books by LED light.

Off-Grid Electrification Financing Is Failing

For all of the excitement about using solar power to bring electricity to the more than 1 billion rural poor worldwide living without it, big picture trends provide a sobering reality check. In spite of innovative off-grid technology and business plans and high profile initiatives aiming to power remote villages in subsaharan Africa, for example, electrification there is still falling behind population growth. In 2009 there were 585 million people in sub-Saharan Africa without power, and five years later that figure had risen to 632 million, according to the latest International Energy Agency (IEA) statistics.

A first-of-its-kind deep-dive analysis of the flow of capital, released by the United Nation’s Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) program today, shows that off-grid systems simply are not getting the support they deserve. “This research shows that only 1 percent of financing for electrification is going into this very promising and dynamic energy solution,” says SEforALL CEO Rachel Kyte, who says the findings are “a wake up call” for the international community.

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UCLA and SRI's solid-state chiller cools a smartphone battery by 8° C in 5 seconds.

A Solid-State Fridge in Your Pocket

Can you imagine an electric cooler compact enough to fit in your pocket and flexible enough to wear? If not, think again because engineers at the University of California at Los Angeles and SRI International have one working: A 5-millimeter-thick device that is the world’s first solid-state cooler combining practicality, energy efficiency, and high performance.

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Images: Joel Thornton/Geophysical Research Letters/AGU

Shipping Triggers More Lightning

Exhaust from the diesel engines that propel ships can trigger strong thunderstorms, scientists have found. There is twice as much lightning right above two heavily trafficked shipping channels in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea than in nearby areas with similar climates, their study shows.

The research is important for understanding how manmade particle pollution can affect storms and lightning, as well as the planet’s climate.

Clouds form when water vapor condenses on tiny solid or liquid particles in air. Researchers have known since the 1970s that pumping soot and pollutants into the atmosphere enhances low-lying clouds, which reflect planet-warming sunlight and offset some of the greenhouse effect. This is the premise behind the geoengineering method called cloud seeding.

For thunderstorms, you need dense, towering cumulonimbus clouds that can reach altitudes where their water droplets freeze. Collisions between ice and soft hail in the cloud creates the charge separation that triggers lightning.

Researchers hadn’t previously established a link between particle pollution and the frequency and intensity of thunderstorms. Filling in that gap in our understanding was critical because lightning kills people, damages structures, causes wildfires, and converts nitrogen to smog-producing nitrogen oxides.

Joel Thornton, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington, and his colleagues analyzed the correlation between lightning over shipping lanes and ship exhaust particles. Why shipping channel emissions? “It’s an example of pollution where we know the source very well, and it’s away form all other factors that could affect storm clouds,” Thornton says. “It really gives us a perfect piece of evidence.” They published their results in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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two batteries full of colorful pills on white background

Why U.S. Battery Startups Fail, and How to Fix It

Battery startup companies often fail in the United States. To fix this problem, the pharmaceutical industry could provide insights, a new study finds.

Recent advances in battery performance have largely come from incremental changes at large companies. However, this state of affairs falls short of the rapid growth in consumer demand for better batteries, say Eve Hanson, a materials scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and her colleagues.

Battery startups in the United States have largely failed, even when supported by major investors such as Bill Gates, Hanson adds. For instance, only 36 battery startups received more than $500,000 in funding since 2000, and of these only two returned more money than was invested into them, according to tech industry analysis firm CB Insights.

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Radiative system could send heat from AC condensers out into space, reducing energy needed to cool buildings

Efficient Air-Conditioning Beams Heat Into Space

Air-conditioners work hard in hot weather, hogging energy. With a warming climate and more people across the world cranking up ACs, more efficient cooling systems are going to become critical to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. 

 Stanford researchers have developed a cooling system that could cut the energy used by conventional building air-conditioning systems by over 20 percent in the middle of summer.

 The Stanford team’s passive cooling system chills water by a few degrees with the help of radiative panels that absorb heat and beam it directly into outerspace. This requires minimal electricity and no water evaporation, saving both energy and water. The researchers want to use these fluid-cooling panels to cool off AC condensers.

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Aerial view of an airport runway with solar PV arrays on all sides of the runway

Dutch Will Use Wind Power to Green Airports, But Solar is the Future Elsewhere

All types of airport operations are going electric as efforts continue to cut emissions from internal combustion engines and other sources of pollutants at the world’s airports.

In order to help meet their own electricity demand or otherwise offset emissions from fossil fuels, increasing numbers of airports are adding renewable generating resources.

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Illustration: The Solutions Project

A Road Map to 100 Percent Renewable Energy in 139 Countries by 2050

Nearly 140 countries could be powered 100 percent by solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal energy by 2050, a group of researchers say.

Such a future could also mean a need for 42.5 percent less energy globally, because the efficiency of renewable sources, the scientists and engineers claim. In addition, this shift could lead to a net increase of roughly 24.3 million long-term full-time jobs, an annual decrease of up to 7 million deaths from air pollution annually, savings of more than $50 trillion in health and climate costs per year, and avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, they say.

This new study is a followup to hotly debated research appearing in 2015 suggesting that the United States could switch to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2050. It now covers nearly the entire world.

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Approximately 1,900 U.S. solar power plants will be turned down or squelched by the solar eclipse

How California Grid Operators Managed the Eclipse

Western grid operators such as California’s have become adept at hitting the electricity supply curve balls that weather-dependent wind and solar power toss their way. Today’s eclipse was more like a 105-mph smoker from a predictable fastball pitcher. Grid managers knew exactly when the moon would transit across the sun’s path, blotting out gigawatts of solar power generation. And they could project that, at its worst, the shifts in solar generation would be no more challenging than those experienced already on partly cloudy days.

Kevin Geraghty, senior vice president of energy supply for Nevada utility NV Energy, told the Las Vegas Journal-Review last week that, “We’ll just simply ride through it.” And so they did. By all accounts power systems across the Western Interconnection absorbed the eclipse-induced solar crash and resurgence, keeping electrical systems stable throughout.

California faced the biggest challenge. It is not in the path of totality, but the 56- to 78-percent blockage of sunlight will have a big impact thanks to 18 gigawatts worth of solar panels deployed at utility-scale power plants and across rooftops—more than any other state. California’s Independent System Operator (CAISO), which manages most of the state’s power grid, projected this morning that the eclipse would knock out about 4,300 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale solar and another 1,300 MW of rooftop generation. The utility-scale solar loss, traced on the CAISO website after 9 am Pacific time until the eclipse’s California peak at 10:22 am, was actually 3,400 MW.

Executive Director of System Operations Nancy Traweek told reporters at CAISO’s Fulsom control center that the speed at which solar generation was expected to crash and rebound—up to 70 MW per minute—was something CAISO had contended with on certain days in the past when moving cloud cover overlapped with sunrise or sunset.

CAISO expected to manage the quick loss and return of solar power with its established sources of flexibility. Those include rapidly-adjustable hydroelectric and gas-fired power plants, a regional power market that is purpose-built to balance quick-shifting renewable energy, and a growing capability to store electricity and otherwise shape demand for power in real time.

Still, they were taking no chances. Traweek told IEEE Spectrum that CAISO secured 800 to 1000 MW of reserve power for the three hours affected by the eclipse—way beyond the 350 MW they normally have on hand during those hours.

Some other grid controllers did the same. The Sacramento region’s power supplier, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, doubled its reserves according to SMUD spokesperson Chris Capra.

By bulking up on reserve power, the California grid operators followed the example of those in Europe, which confronted a near total eclipse two years ago. They came through with flying colors by massively preparing. Transmission lines had been unloaded in advance to accommodate eclipse-induced power swings. Grid operators in heavily solar-equipped Germany spent an extra Euro 3.6 million ($4.25 million) to double the normal amount of reserve power at the ready. And over 4 gigawatts of utility-scale capacity in Italy was ordered to sit out the eclipse.

Europe’s 2015 eclipse knocked out 17 gigawatts of solar power generation across the continent, yet electrical frequency—a measure of the match between supply and demand—remained rock solid. It was at all times within 50 millihertz of Europe’s 50 hertz standard, according to a post-eclipse white paper by the Brussels-based European Network for Transmission System Operators for Electricity.   

Utilities in the U.S. are benefitting from a few resources that were unavailable to the Europeans in 2015. One is battery storage, which CAISO said it planned to use to the maximum extent possible. Another is demand response, in which power demand is turned down to reduce strain on the grid.

Nest Technologies told IEEE Spectrum that, as of this morning, roughly 1 million homes across the U.S. equipped with the company’s smart thermostats could help reduce power use by roughly 1,000 megawatts during today’s eclipse. Ben Bixby, Next’s general manager for energy and safety, says they include “some hundreds of thousands” of Nest-equipped homes that have already given their local utilities permission to pre-cool their houses and otherwise reduce power demand during peak demand hours. The others signed up after receiving a notice on their devices over the last week asking them if they wanted to participate in the event.

The place to watch this afternoon is North Carolina. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the southern state has the greatest amount of installed PV capacity in the band that will be at least 90 percent obscured. As of May, it had about 2.8 GW of utility-scale PV installations, or about 13 percent of the national total.

Duke Energy, one of the state’s largest utilities, estimated that its solar supply would drop from about 2.5 GW to 0.2 GW at the height of the eclipse this afternoon.

To manage that drop, and the subsequent rebound, Duke is following Italy’s lead and asking its solar power suppliers to alter their behavior. In Duke’s case, it will be asking solar plants to begin ramping down ahead of the eclipse, thus reducing the rate at which Duke needs to ramp up gas-fired power plants to replace the fading solar power.

As Sammy Roberts, Duke Energy director of system operations, put it, his grid controllers will, “gently press rather than punch the gas pedal.”

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