Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Lifeline for Renewable Power

Original Article - MIT Technology Review

Push through a bulletproof revolving door in a nondescript building in a dreary patch of the former East Berlin and you enter the control center for Vattenfall Europe Transmission, the company that controls northeastern Germany's electrical grid. A monitor displaying a diagram of that grid takes up most of one wall. A series of smaller screens show the real-time output of regional wind turbines and the output that had been predicted the previous day. Germany is the world's largest user of wind energy, with enough turbines to produce 22,250 megawatts of electricity. That's roughly the equivalent of the output from 22 coal plants--enough to meet about 6 percent of Germany's needs. And because Vattenfall's service area produces 41 percent of German wind energy, the control room is a critical proving ground for the grid's ability to handle renewable power.

Like all electrical grids, the one that Vattenfall manages must continually match power production to demand from homes, offices, and factories. The challenge is to maintain a stable power supply while incorporating elec­tricity from a source as erratic as wind. If there's too little wind-generated power, the company's engineers might have to start up fossil-fueled power plants on short notice, an inefficient process. If there's too much, it could overload the system, causing blackouts or forcing plants to shut down.

The engineers have few options, however. The grid has a limited ability to shunt extra power to other regions, and it has no energy-storage capacity beyond a handful of small facilities that pump water into uphill reservoirs and then release it through turbines during periods of peak demand. So each morning, as offices and factories switch their power on, the engineers must use wind predictions to help decide how much electricity conventional plants should start producing.

But those predictions are far from perfect. As more and more wind turbines pop up in Germany, so do overloads and shortages caused by unexpected changes in wind level. In 2007, ­Vattenfall's engineers had to scrap their daily scheduling plans roughly every other day to reconfigure electricity supplies on the fly; in early 2008, such changes became necessary every day. Power plants had to cycle on and off inefficiently, and the company had to make emergency electricity purchases at high prices. Days of very high wind and low demand even forced the Vattenfall workers to quickly shut the wind farms down.

Vattenfall's problems are a preview of the immense challenges ahead as power from renewable sources, mainly wind and solar, starts to play a bigger role around the world. To make use of this clean energy, we'll need more transmission lines that can transport power from one region to another and connect energy-­hungry cities with the remote areas where much of our renewable power is likely to be generated. We'll also need far smarter controls throughout the distribution system--technologies that can store extra electricity from wind farms in the batteries of plug-in hybrid cars, for example, or remotely turn power-hungry appliances on and off as the energy supply rises and falls.

If these grid upgrades don't happen, new renewable-power projects could be stalled, because they would place unacceptable stresses on existing electrical systems. According to a recent study funded by the European Commission, growing electricity production from wind (new facilities slated for the North and Baltic Seas could add another 25,000 megawatts to Germany's grid by 2030) could at times cause massive overloads. In the United States, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nongovernmental organization set up to regulate the industry after a huge 1965 blackout, made a similar warning in November. "We are already operating the system closer to the edge than in the past," says the group's president, Rick Sergel. "We simply do not have the transmission capacity available to properly integrate new renewable resources."

The challenge facing the United States is particularly striking. Whereas Germany already gets 14 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, the United States gets only about 1 percent of its electricity from wind, solar, and geothermal power combined. But more than half the states have set ambitious goals for increasing the use of renewables, and president-elect Barack Obama wants 10 percent of the nation's electricity to come from renewable sources by the end of his first term, rising to 25 percent by 2025. Yet unlike Germany, which has begun planning for new transmission lines and passing new laws meant to accelerate their construction, the United States has no national effort under way to modernize its system. "A failure to improve our grid will be a significant burden for the development of new renewable technologies," says Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, CA, that has invested heavily in energy technologies.

When its construction began in the late 19th century, the U.S. electrical grid was meant to bring the cheapest power to the most ­people. Over the past century, regional monopolies and government agencies have built power plants--mostly fossil-fueled--as close to popu­lation centers as possible. They've also built transmission and distribution networks designed to serve each region's elec­tricity consumers. A patchwork system has developed, and what connections exist between local networks are meant mainly as backstops against power outages. Today, the United States' grid encompasses 164,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines--those familiar rows of steel towers that carry electricity from power plants to substations--and more than 5,000 local distribution networks. But while its size and complexity have grown immensely, the grid's basic structure has changed little since Thomas ­Edison switched on a distribution system serving 59 customers in lower Manhattan in 1882. "If Edison would wake up today, and he looked at the grid, he would say, 'That is where I left it,'" says Guido ­Bartels, general manager of the IBM Global Energy and Utilities Industry group.

While this structure has served remarkably well to deliver cheap power to a broad population, it's not particularly well suited to fluctuating power sources like solar and wind. First of all, the transmission lines aren't in the right places. The gusty plains of the Midwest and the sun-baked deserts of the Southwest--areas that could theoretically provide the entire nation with wind and solar power--are at tail ends of the grid, isolated from the fat arteries that supply power to, say, Chicago or Los Angeles. Second, the grid lacks the storage capacity to handle variability--to turn a source like solar power, which generates no energy at night and little during cloudy days, into a consistent source of electricity. And finally, the grid is, for the most part, a "dumb" one-way system. Consider that when power goes out on your street, the utility probably won't know about it unless you or one of your neighbors picks up the phone. That's not the kind of system that could monitor and manage the fluctuating output of rooftop solar panels or distributed wind turbines.

The U.S. grid's regulatory structure is just as antiquated. While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) can approve utilities' requests for electricity rates and license transmission across state lines, individual states retain control over whether and where major transmission lines actually get built. In the 1990s, many states revised their regulations in an attempt to introduce competition into the energy marketplace. Utilities had to open up their transmission lines to other power producers. One effect of these regulatory moves was that companies had less incentive to invest in the grid than in new power plants, and no one had a clear responsibility for expanding the transmission infrastructure. At the same time, the more open market meant that producers began trying to sell power to regions farther away, placing new burdens on existing connections between networks. The result has been a national transmission shortage.

These problems may now be the biggest obstacle to wider use of renewable energy, which otherwise looks increasingly viable. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, have concluded that there's no technical or economic reason why the United States couldn't get 20 percent of its elec­tricity from wind turbines by 2030. The researchers calculate, however, that reaching this goal would require a $60 billion investment in 12,650 miles of new transmission lines to plug wind farms into the grid and help balance their output with that of other electricity sources and with consumer demand. The inadequate grid infrastructure "is by far the number one issue with regard to expanding wind," says Steve Specker, president of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto, CA, the industry's research facility. "It's already starting to restrict some of the potential growth of wind in some parts of the West."

The Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, which manages the grid in a region covering portions of 15 states from Pennsylvania to Montana, has received hundreds of applications for grid connections from would-be energy developers whose proposed wind projects would collectively generate 67,000 megawatts of power. That's more than 14 times as much wind power as the region produces now, and much more than it could consume on its own; it would represent about 6 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption. But the existing transmission system doesn't have the capacity to get that much electricity to the parts of the country that need it. In many of the states in the region, there's no particular urgency to move things along, since each has all the power it needs. So most of the applications for grid connections are simply waiting in line, some stymied by the lack of infrastructure and others by bureaucratic and regulatory delays.

Lisa Daniels, for example, waited three years for a grid connection for a planned development of 9 to 12 turbines on her land in Kenyon, MN, 60 miles south of Minneapolis. The installation would be capable of producing 18 megawatts of power. Its site--only a mile and a half from a substation--is "bulldozer ready," says Daniels, who is also executive director of a regional nonprofit that aims to encourage local wind projects. "The system should be plug-and-play, but it's not," she says.

Utilities, however, are reluctant to build new transmission capacity until they know that the power output of remote wind and solar farms will justify it. At the same time, renewable-energy investors are reluctant to build new wind or solar farms until they know they can get their power to market. Most often, they choose to wait for new transmission capacity before bothering to make proposals, says Suedeen Kelly, a FERC commissioner. "It is a chicken-and-egg type of thing," she says.

More Intelligence
The windowless laboratory at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, NY, is stocked with kitchen appliances and lined with wall screens like those in the control centers for an electrical grid. In the lab, Juan de Bedout, manager of the Electric Power and Propulsion Systems Laboratory, describes how a "smart grid" could help make renewables practical. Imagine, he says, that the wind speed suddenly drops at a wind farm, or that a cloud bank moves over a photovoltaic installation. Existing transmission control systems--like those at Vattenfall--will detect the drop in supply and order increases in power production from other sources, particularly natural-gas plants, which can be fired up quickly.

But in a smart grid, the controller could send a message down to a regional distribution system, seeking a reduction in demand. Instantly, a signal would go out to meters in the homes or offices of customers who had agreed, in exchange for rate reductions, to let the utility rig some of their appliances to cut power consumption during supply drop-offs. Within seconds, electric water heaters would shut off for a few minutes, and electronic thermostats would be automatically adjusted by two or three degrees. There would be no need to power up the natural-gas plant.

In one of the more advanced pilot projects testing such a system, the Minneapolis-based utility Xcel Energy and several vendors are investing $100 million to install a smart-grid infrastructure in Boulder, CO. These days, a 115-person Xcel crew is out full time, installing two-way electric meters at 50,000 houses. Homeowners are getting software that lets them view and manage their energy consumption on the Web, and some of their appliances are being fitted with switches that will let the utility shut them off remotely during periods of high demand.

Smart-grid technologies could reduce overall electricity consumption by 6 percent and peak demand by as much as 27 percent. The peak-demand reductions alone would save between $175 billion and $332 billion over 20 years, according to the Brattle Group, a consultancy in Cambridge, MA. Not only would lower demand free up transmission capacity, but the capital investment that would otherwise be needed for new conventional power plants could be redirected to renewables. That's because smart-grid technologies would make small installations of wind turbines and photovoltaic panels much more practical. "They will enable much larger amounts of renewables to be integrated on the grid and lower the effective overall system-wide cost of those renewables," says the Brattle Group's Peter Fox-Penner.

In Boulder, for example, Xcel is encouraging consumers to install solar panels on their roofs and banks of batteries in their basements--part of a plan to demonstrate how the variable power produced by thousands or millions of solar roofs could be stored in individual homes and fed into the grid when needed. In recent months, Xcel has even purchased a few plug-in hybrid cars and connected them to the grid, in order to test software that would let the vehicles act as energy-storage devices.

And Xcel is not alone. Startups and large companies alike are perfecting and commercializing solar roofing materials, basement energy-storage devices, batteries for plug-in hybrids, and clever software to optimize electricity use. But just as large-scale ­renewable-power generation depends on improving the transmission infrastructure, many of these advances are useless without better grid controls. You can't use a plug-in's battery for grid storage if the grid cannot intelligently retrieve power from the car.

The good news is that many utilities have begun installing the requisite meters--ones that intelligently monitor power flow out of a house as well as into it. The question now is how to move beyond the blizzard of pilot projects, install smarter technologies across the grid, and begin integrating more renewable power into the new infrastructure. "The smart-grid vision is nice; we all have our color PowerPoint slides," says Don Von Dollen, who manages intelligent-­grid research at EPRI. "I think people kind of get the vision by now. Now it's time to get stuff done."

Vicious Circle
Last summer, former vice president Al Gore began arguing that the country needed to implement an entirely carbon-free electricity system within a decade to avert the danger of global warming. As part of his vision, Gore called for a "unified national smart grid" that would move power generated from renewable sources to cities, increase the efficiency of electricity use, and allow for greater control over renewable resources. He estimated that the grid overhaul would cost $400 billion over 10 years.

Gore's plan doesn't spell out exactly how such a massive project would be executed. "If it's faster to have comprehensive legislation that gets states to work together and gets private capital to flow in, terrific," says Cathy Zoi, CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection, the nonprofit that Gore founded in Menlo Park, CA, to press for urgent action on climate change. "If it's faster and easier to allocate federal money and do this as a public-works project, that's fine, too. We are not wedded to one policy instrument."

Right now, of course, neither strategy has been adopted. While pilot projects like the one in Boulder are worthwhile as a way to demonstrate new technologies, they've been implemented in hodgepodge fashion, with different utilities deploying different technologies in different states. Transmission projects are advancing incrementally, but they're often complicated by conflicts between the states. "What we have today is this patchwork of rules and regulations that vary by state," says Peter Corsell, CEO of GridPoint, a startup in Arlington, VA, that makes smart-grid software and is participating in the Boulder project. "We are all entrenched in this broken system, and there is no agreement on how to fix it. It's a vicious circle."

Some think that the answer is to give FERC more ­authority. Today, the agency can overrule states' decisions on where to site transmission lines, but only in regions that the U.S. Department of Energy has designated as critical for the security of the elec­tricity supply. So far, only two such corridors have been designated: one in the mid-Atlantic states and another in the Southwest. Even in those regions, delays continue. Southern California Edison has proposed a major transmission line in the southwest corridor; stretching from outside Los Angeles to near Phoenix, AZ, it would be able to handle power generated by future photovoltaic and solar-thermal power plants. But Arizona rejected the idea, so the utility is preparing to take its plans to FERC.

Others think the solution is a new federal policy that would make the market for renewable power more lucrative, perhaps by regulating carbon dioxide emissions, as the cap-and-trade policy proposed by Obama would do. Under such a policy, wind energy and other carbon-free electricity sources would become much more valuable, providing an incentive for utilities to expand their capacity to handle them (see "Q&A," p. 28). "It could all change very fast," says Will Kaul, vice president for transmission at Great River Energy in Minnesota, who heads a joint transmission planning effort that includes 11 utilities in the Midwest. "If there was a carbon policy, or a national renewable-energy standard, then the scale of wind generation would explode."

As Gore and other environmental experts warn--and as the engineers at Vattenfall would testify--an explosion in the use of renewables will depend heavily on upgrading the grid. That won't come cheap, but the payoff may be worth it. "We should think about this in the same way we think about the role of the federal highway system," says Ernest Moniz, a physics professor at MIT who heads the school's energy research initiative. "It is the key enabler to allow us to modernize our whole electricity production system. And renewables are an especially important beneficiary. There is no technology reason why we cannot move on this aggressively."

Friday, 5 December 2008

How to unplug from the grid

Original Article - New Scientist

"I HAVEN'T paid an electricity bill since 1970," says Richard Perez with noticeable glee. He can afford to be smug. While most of us fretted over soaring utility bills this year, he barely noticed. Nor is he particularly concerned about forecast price hikes of 30 to 50 per cent in 2009.

Perez, a renewable-energy researcher at the University at Albany, State University of New York, lives "off-grid" - unconnected to the power grid and the water, gas and sewerage supplies that most of us rely on. He generates his own electricity, sources his own water and manages his own waste disposal - and prefers it that way. "There are times when the grid blacks out," he says. "I like the security of having my own electricity company."

Perez is not alone. Once the preserve of mavericks, hippies and survivalists, there are now approximately 200,000 off-grid households in the US, a figure that Perez says has been increasing by a third every year for the past decade. In addition, nearly 30,000 grid-connected US households supplement their supply with renewables, according to the non-profit Interstate Renewable Energy Council. In the UK there are around 40,000 off-grid homes: the number has also risen in recent years due to escalating house prices and now to more expensive home loans, both of which have driven buyers far from conventional utility networks in search of properties they can afford.

For people who live off-grid, self-sufficiency means guilt-free energy consumption and peace of mind. "It feels brilliant to use clean, free energy that's not from fossil fuels," says Suzanne Galant, a writer who lives off-grid in rural Wales. "And if something goes wrong, we can fix it ourselves." Now even urbanites are seeing the appeal of generating some if not all of their own power needs. So is energy freedom an eco pipe-dream or the ultimate good life?

Whether you live in town or the middle of nowhere, the first consideration for any wannabe off-gridder is to calculate how much energy it takes to run your home and whether it is feasible to replace this with alternative sources of power where you live.

The good news is that the energy you require is likely to be a fraction of what you presently use, says Tony Brown, head engineer at the UK's Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth in Powys. The average UK household uses around 4500 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually, plus some 18,000 kWh of gas for cooking, hot water and domestic heating. In the US the figure varies considerably from region to region. For example, households in New York City use around 4700 kWh a year, whereas those in Dallas use 16,100 kWh: there are a lot of air conditioners in Texas. In chillier regions where people use gas for heating and cooking, on the other hand, they can burn up an extra 28,000 kWh or so per household.

It would be a struggle to generate this much energy from renewables alone, so an important first step is to dramatically reduce wasted energy. This may be less fun than installing shiny new energy-generating gadgets, but it is almost as effective in cutting your reliance on fossil fuels and the grid.

The biggest energy savings will come from properly insulating your home to minimise heat loss. That done, you'll need to work out what is eating up the rest of the power you consume. The easiest way to do this is to buy an energy monitor that can provide a live display of your total energy consumption or that of individual appliances (see "What's guzzling the juice?"). This will help you focus on reducing consumption to the bare minimum, not just by switching to low-energy light bulbs and energy-efficient white goods, but also by turning unused appliances right off rather than leaving them in standby mode. With a bit of effort and investment, you should be able to get by on a few hundred kilowatt-hours of electricity a year.

Now you are ready to start replacing this with home-grown energy. Some 80 per cent of off-gridders rely on the sun to do this, with good reason: it blasts our planet with enough free energy every hour to power the world for a year and you don't need to live in the middle of nowhere to get it. The simplest way to tap into this is to use a solar collector for your domestic heating or hot water. In the summer, solar thermal devices installed on a south-facing roof or wall (north-facing in the southern hemisphere) could provide all your hot-water needs. Even in winter, solar collectors can make a worthwhile dent in heating bills, even if the water needs top-up heating from the grid or from a stove that runs on logs, wood pellets or other biomass.

For electricity generation, photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are also a good option. They convert the sun's rays into direct-current electricity with up to 20 per cent efficiency, and most are guaranteed to retain at least 80 per cent of their original efficiency after 25 years. A 2-square-metre panel rated to give 1 kW per square metre in peak conditions could provide up to 1500 kWh per year in the UK. In more southerly and reliably sunny latitudes - somewhere like Texas, say - it would probably provide 2000 kWh per year.

With enough solar panels it is possible to cover all your electricity needs with PV, year round; the downside is that it requires a significant investment up front. Installing 8 square metres of PV panels, enough to sustain a family of four in the UK, plus storage batteries and accessories such as inverters to convert DC into alternating current, can cost tens of thousands of pounds and will take up more space than is available to most urban households. Until the cost comes down substantially, switching to a grid supplier that gets its energy from renewables may be a more realistic alternative - although it will not free you from the risk of supply interruptions.

Outside towns and cities, though, there are more options. If you have access to a nearby river or stream with a reliable flow, hydro is an excellent, cheap source of power, and flow rate is usually greater in winter when you need more power. Galant's home, a five-bedroom house in the second-wettest part of Europe, is powered by a fast-flowing mountain stream that drives a turbine, plus solar water heating and PV panels. All this reliably supplies her with around 5500 kWh per year. "If you came to my house, you wouldn't know it was off-grid," she says. "It's always lovely and warm and there's always plenty of hot water."

Anyone who has an exposed windy hillside can exploit wind power. Tony Marmont, an off-grid pioneer from Loughborough, in the English Midlands, gets 40,000 to 50,000 kWh per year from his two 25 kW turbines. People with a lot of land can benefit from a ground source heat pump, which works in the same way as a refrigerator, using electricity to transfer heat from a cool space (the ground, in this case) to a warm one (the house). A typical installation, with 500 metres of underground piping, will stabilise the temperature of a well-insulated home, keeping further heating or cooling requirements to a minimum. If, like Marmont, you have a lake to store the pipes, so much the better: it saves the trouble of digging up the lawn.

Being completely off-grid, however, does mean you need to store excess energy for when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow. Most off-gridders use bulky, expensive lead-acid batteries for this purpose. These can store electricity only for a couple of days and their performance degrades over time, but for now they are the best available option. A few pioneers, like Marmont, use excess electricity to produce hydrogen by electrolysing water; the gas is then stored in tanks and used to power fuel cells when needed. This allows electricity generated in summer to be used in winter, but it is prohibitively expensive for most: a system like Marmont's will set you back around £1 million. What's more, the hydrogen tanks take up a lot of space.

For most of us, the energy-storage issue is a major stumbling block to going completely off-grid. And it's one reason why, for most people, it's not yet worth pulling the plug. Cost is likely to be another show-stopper - though not for those who live in really remote locations. "If you live more than a quarter of a mile from the grid, then installing your own systems works out considerably cheaper than connecting to the grid," says Otto van Geet of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Perez, for example, was told it would cost him $280,000 to be connected, which made the decision to install $25,000-worth of PV panels an easy one. Both of these barriers are coming down, albeit slowly. Engineers are working on reducing the size and cost of renewable-energy installations, while fuel-cell and battery manufacturers are trying to increase power output and storage life. The cost of generating and storing your own energy will fall as the commercial and domestic generation market grows and as new technologies emerge: thin-film PV panels, for instance, are cheaper to make than existing PV cells, which use crystalline silicon. For many, the transition is becoming easier and less costly as newly built houses are increasingly offered for sale with some of the infrastructure for renewables, such as inverters for PV panels, already installed.

In the meantime, one way to beat the problem of how to store surplus power and make good on your investment is to stay connected to the grid - or connect if you are already off-grid - and sell what you don't use to a utility company. It may not be the energy freedom you had in mind, but it does means that the grid effectively becomes your battery - there when you need more electricity, and able to take your excess power. The return you will receive for this varies widely, but Germany has already shown that such a system can work. There, homeowners selling back renewably generated power are guaranteed to get four times the market rate charged to consumers for electricity. As a result, Germany has a thriving market in domestically generated energy, with 200 times the solar electricity output of the UK. The UK is planning to bring in a similar "feed-in tariff" system in 2009, although it is not yet clear what sort of price power-generating homeowners can expect. In the US, California and New Jersey are leading the way with feed-in tariffs in the range of 8 to 31 cents per kWh, depending on the contract and the time of day when the power was generated. Most other states have a long way to go.

There is no doubt that being off-grid has its problems and it is not always the cheapest way to get your energy. Even so, pioneers like Galant, Marmont and Perez have proved that it can be done, and without giving up a 21st-century lifestyle.

"I've got five computers, two laser scanners, two fridge-freezers, a microwave, a convection oven, vacuum cleaners - you name it," says Perez. "There's an external beam antenna on the roof for the cellphone and a bidirectional satellite for internet connection. I've got 70 kWh stored in batteries that could last me five days. I have too much electricity." Too much electricity and no more bills. That's got to be worth aiming for.

If money is no object

Tony Marmont founder of Beacon Energy, living near Loughborough, UK.Set-up: Heat pump in lake; Two 25 kW wind turbines; Two water turbines; 9 kW PV array that tracks the sun; Hydrogen storage; Rainwater storage.Total cost: £2 million (£1 million for the hydrogen storage system alone).Generates: Around 50,000 kWh per year, with 30,000 kWh consumed; the remaining poweris used for electrolysis to produce hydrogen, storing 700 kWh per year

No fortune required

Mick Bestwick forestry expert, living in rural Aberdeenshire in the UK.Set-up: Galvanised steel waterwheel; Grid connection as back-up for when the river freezes; Wood-burning stove.Total cost: £18,500, of which £6000 went towards renovating an existing waterwheel as a generator and connecting it to the house. The rest paid for connection to the grid.Generates: 4000 kWh per year.

The bare necessities

The average person in the UK uses 150 litres of water per day. To go off-grid, that figure will have to come down to around 80 litres. You can work towards this by fitting a dual flush to your toilet, putting a brick in the cistern, fitting aerating taps - which use infused air to give the feel of normal flow while using less water - and buying the most water-efficient washing machine you can afford. Reuse water from the shower and washing machine to water the garden and flush the toilet, and throw away your hosepipe.It's usually quite legal to dig a borehole to obtain water for domestic use, but you should have the ground surveyed to check for potential contaminants. If you have a stream on your land, tap it; otherwise collecting rainwater is the best option. Water from any of these sources will of course need treatment if it is to be used for drinking. A UV filter is the tidiest method, but will cost a few hundred pounds; systems using chlorine and ozone are cheaper.Going off-grid the sustainable way requires more of a commitment when it comes to sewage. A well-designed composting toilet is not at all smelly and generates a handy supply of nutrients for the garden. This type of toilet often needs a drop, however, and it's good to be able to rotate between different compost piles, so space is an advantage. If you live in a town or city, however, stay on-grid and leave sewage to the experts.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Worldwide fibre-optic internet is real

Original Article

A sample of fibre optic cable is on display at the CommunicAsia 2008 exhibition in Singapore in June. Roslan Rahman / AFP
Expect the worldwide roll out of fibre-optic internet systems to continue despite the global financial storm, industry insiders say.

Bringing fibre-optic cables directly to every home and office requires an enormous capital investment, something that is increasingly hard to come by in the current economic environment. But as a piece of core infrastructure that will remain relevant for upwards of 30 years, it is a safe bet in tricky times, many delegates at an industry conference in Dubai said this week.

“Yes, there’s a real financial, emotional situation going on right now,” said Joeri Van Bogaert, the president of the European Fibre to the Home (FTTH) Council, an industry body. “But will it effect the deployment of this new technology? No.”

In the UAE, Etisalat and du are rolling out fibre-optic internet connections, with Etisalat saying its national fibre network already reaches 300,000 homes.

“We have planned that this technology will be available to all homes within three years,” said Ahmed Abdul Karim Julfar, the chief operations officer at Etisalat. “Each home will have its own fibre cable that allows very high-speed internet, along with fixed-line services and cable TV.”

While companies from around the world slow or cancel new investments in the face of escalating financing costs and risk-averse lenders, the telecommunications industry sees opportunity. New fundamental infrastructure that will be central to the future of the internet must be built, they say, with steady, reliable returns guaranteed.

“I haven’t seen any indication of any slowing down at this point,” said Floyd Wagoner, a director of the home and networks mobility division of Motorola. “This is evolutionary technology, and we’re at the cusp here – the service demand curve will continue to grow. Staying ahead of that curve is the ultimate goal.”

Mr Wagoner said the demand for high bandwidth internet services like streaming online television – a key factor spurring the roll-out of optic fibre – would stay solid during this financial crisis, and future ones.

“What you usually see is that people won’t get rid of home entertainment services like their internet and television,” he said. “They might stop going out to dinner as much, or cancel a vacation, but in our experience they are much less inclined to give up their internet or TV.”

Even with most capital markets contracting, the German bank West LB is actively searching for opportunities to invest in fibre-optic deployments, according to Mr Bogaert. As the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, the bank was a lead financer of the US$1.1 billion (Dh4.04bn)) FLAG Pacific-1 undersea communications system linking North America with East Asia.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Cheap, Off-Grid Cooling

Original Article

A hybrid refrigerator will bring efficient, cheap cooling to India.
By Prachi Patel-Predd
MIT Technology Review

Chilling in the sun: A conceptual illustration of a solar-powered refrigeration system that could be used in off-grid villages in India. Promethean, based in Cambridge, MA, plans to make the system efficient by combining thermoelectric- and compressor-based cooling.
Credit: Promethean Power Systems

A startup based in Cambridge, MA, has developed a new solar-powered refrigeration system for food storage in Indian villages that are off the grid. Promethean Power Systems' design is a hybrid of conventional compressor-based refrigeration and thermoelectric materials--semiconductors that convert electricity into cooling and vice versa.

The chilling units will be cheaper than what is currently used in Indian villages, most of which are off the grid. In such villages, food distributors and processors store raw food products in traditional compressor-based cooling units that run on diesel generators. These cost about $12,000, says the company's cofounder Sorin Grama. And that cost, says Grama, doesn't include the escalating cost of diesel needed to run the units. During a month spent in India a year ago, Grama and his cofounder, Sam White, identified a crucial niche. "Customers kept asking for a cooling system that has low maintenance and operation cost," White says.

Grama says that even including the expense of the photovoltaic (PV) panels, his design would cost about the same as or slightly less than the diesel-powered refrigeration units. More important, it would have no fuel costs, and almost no maintenance costs. According to the company's initial calculations, using a compressor combined with thermoelectric modules would use 20 percent less power to generate the same cooling as a compressor alone.

The design uses off-the-shelf components: silicon PV panels, thermoelectric modules, and a compressor-based refrigeration unit. The company's control system directs the two cooling components to work together so that they squeeze as much juice out of the solar panels as possible, Grama explains. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when the amount of sunlight is low, the solar panels won't generate enough power to run the compressor. But there will be enough solar power to run the thermoelectric modules, which would generate cooling until the compressor kicks in. Around midday, when the solar panels are working full throttle, the thermoelectric modules will use the extra juice that the compressor doesn't need to provide additional cooling.

Since Promethean was founded in 2007, it has built a laboratory-scale 60-liter chiller. Last week, the company secured funding with which it plans to build a 500-liter prototype that it hopes to test in India in 2009.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Berkeley Approves City-Backed Loans for Solar Panels

Original Article

New York Times
Published: September 17, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — The Berkeley City Council late Tuesday unanimously approved a program to give city-backed loans to property owners who install rooftop solar-power systems. The loans, likely to total up to $22,000 apiece, would be paid off over 20 years as part of the owners’ property-tax bills.

Tuesday’s vote gave final approval to the creation of special property-tax districts, which property owners could opt to join. The final piece of the puzzle, however, is still missing: a deal with a lender whose capital the city would use to finance the program.

At first, the city seeks to raise $1.5 million for a pilot program for about 50 homes. If it program is successful, the kitty could eventually contain tens of millions of dollars, and hundreds of property owners could be eligible to participate.

If the early phase of the program lives up to the high expectations of its backers, the city government is likely to expand the field of projects it will fund, giving similar grants to energy-efficiency projects like putting in double-glazed windows or adding to a home’s insulation.

The program, said Daniel M. Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the school’s Institute of the Environment, is designed to entice people who might be scared away by the high initial cost of retrofitting homes to incorporate solar power or become more energy efficient.

It allows homeowners “to think about creating clean-energy homes with basically no cost” up front, he added.

Participating homeowners would pay roughly $180 more per month on their property tax bills, though much of that cost could be expected to be recouped in savings on electrical bills.

“We have about 100 names of people who have expressed interest in the program,” said G. Craig Hill, a representative of the firm Northcross, Hill & Ach, which is advising the city council on the financial details. Mr. Hill is also negotiating with two private groups. He said they seem willing, even in the midst of the meltdown of large institutions on Wall Street, to try to resell the city-backed debt obligations in a skittish marketplace.

Christine Daniel, a deputy city manager working with Mr. Hill, said, “I would argue that this is very, very secure debt,” since it is backed by the property tax revenues in a city that collects 98 percent of the money it is owed each year.

The city’s mayor, Tom Bates, said in an interview shortly before the vote, “I think this is probably the most important contribution Berkeley can make toward taking on global warming,” and reducing greenhouse gases.

He added, “I think the idea is going to go like wildfire” through other city governments. Already, he said, nearly two dozen cities, from San Francisco to Annapolis and Seattle to Cambridge, Mass., have called indicating they want to follow suit.

As Ms. Daniel said, “We’re certainly gotten a lot of calls from cities that are interested, but most cities are saying: Let’s wait and see how Berkeley does.”

The overwhelming gloom in the national financial markets might hamper the program’s ability to expand, she said, but added, “If the secondary market is not as robust as we hope it will be, we believe the market will see the wisdom of this eventually.”

Mr. Kammen, the Berkeley professor, was not worried, pointing out that venture capitalists have been pouring billions of dollars into the development of alternative-energy technology and looking for new ways to finance potential breakthroughs. “There’s so much more money there than ideas,” he said.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

sustainable kitchen

KCRW Good Food


The Sustainable Kitches is 50 minutes into the show and summarized below:
Sustainable Kitchens (11:50A)

Deborah Tull shares tips for creating a sustainable kitchen. She has been engaged in sustainable living and environmental education for 15 years and runs Creative Green Sustainability Coaching.

Tip #1: Consider the types of food you will buy.

Tip #2 - Always store foods in ceramic, glass containers and stainless steel/aluminum containers.

Tip #3 - Pay attention to ways that you can conserve energy in cooking.

Tip #4 - A sustainable kitchen has the potential to create zero waste.

Tip #5 - Grow your own herbs and vegetable.

Tip #6 - Bring awareness and compassion to our relationship with food.

Tip#7 - Prepare yourself to be more sustainably "on the road" by carrying an "urban eco-pack."

Friday, 12 September 2008

Khaleej Times Online >> News >> BUSINESS Autodesk’s Revit Promotes Environment-friendly Designs

Original Article
dubai — US firm Autodesk has launched a new software that helps real-estate developers, among other sectors, incorporate in their projects some architectural and engineering designs supporting sustainable development.

This will in turn help users of Revit solutions increase the energy efficiency of their buildings through an accurate assessment of the projects’ lifecycles, according to Louis Khoury, the industry sales development manager of Autodesk Middle East.

“Autodesk’s solutions such as Revit enable architects and developers to minimise water and electricity usage thereby leading to significant savings for property developers over the long-term and the lessened production of harmful pollutants,” he said on Wednesday.

He noted that the UAE is witnessing a record number of innovative and landmark projects, which have adopted designs in line with the government’s move towards sustainable development.

During the launch of Revit on Tuesday night, Autodesk officials said Dubai and Abu Dhabi alone have at least 70 buildings awaiting green-building certifications.

This means that the real-estate industry is heading towards the total adoption of guidelines on sustainable development.

Christian Rust, the sales development manager for architectural, engineering and construction at Autodesk covering Europe, the Middle East and Africa Emerging, said Revit was launched in Dubai for its strategic location in the region.

He added that the UAE is the region’s biggest construction market.

In a statement, Autodesk said that a UAE building complying with the principles of sustainable development may save energy consumption of up to 50 per cent.

It stressed that 70 per cent of the average 30,000 kilowatt hours of electricity being used up by a building in the UAE is allocated for air-conditioning.

Autodesk is a global leader in 2D and 3D design software for the manufacturing, building and construction and media and entertainment markets

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Information Distribution - The Art of Aggregation and Information Archetectures


Tech's looming battle against rising energy costs

Driving the concentration of computational and information storage facilities globally. Density allows clouds to form which provide a concentration of information flows as well. Density allows a focus on energy balances, leading to sustainability and support of market dynamics.

The extension of the (computational) cloud to the Residential Living Units (RLUs) as well as to Enterprise Building Units (EBUs) allows the infrastructure to be, controllably, Transparent, Translucent, or Opaque as required.

Bank of America, for example, expects to cut as much as half its energy usage in 3,300 branches using "intelligent" building automation technology.

Telenor, a Norwegian wireless provider, worked with TAC to reduce its electricity usage from 300kWh per square meter to 100kWh. TAC designed a system where roughly 1,100 workplaces are individually controlled, and only areas that are in use and active are heated. Rooms are regulated with 600 multifunctional office nodes with sensors, while 900 valves control heating and ventilation.

Original Article

IT has gotten a bad rap when it comes to energy consumption. Walk into any datacenter, and you can almost feel the carbon emissions leaking into the atmosphere. However, research shows that the datacenter actually accounts for a very small percentage of a company's overall energy usage. And businesses are missing the other significant opportunities where they could cut energy usages -- and costs. Ironically, the same IT department that is reducing energy usage in the datacenter could lead the energy-savings initiatives across the enterprise.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the price of energy will continue to rise over the next 25 years, as global demand is poised to grow by 57 percent while the energy supply dwindles. As a result, businesses will find their profits reduced due to higher operating costs -- unless they do something about that energy usage.

[ Findout how USPS, IBM develop Highway Corridor Analytic Program to optimize mail transportation and to cut costs in the Sustainable IT blog | Read "Why IT should get in the facilities business" ]

Businesses' energy-saving initiatives often aim for the datacenter because it's a visible, easy target. "The datacenter is an absolute factory burning electricity, blowing freezing air, with storage service gear humming away 24/7. Naturally, the first place targeted for energy reduction is the datacenter," says Christopher Mines, a Forrester Research analyst.

Many IT shops have already reduced energy usage by switching to Energy Star-rated products, installing more efficient hardware, and maximizing the efficiency of their cooling system. But these efforts, while important, are just a drop in the bucket compared to the overall reductions that will be necessary to keep your company profitable.

In the coming years, IT could take the lead on saving energy, using its vast knowledge of the company's networks, equipment, work processes, and facilities. IT shops that have embraced the green-tech religion can transform that passion into something that will resonate, and pick up support, where it counts: in the executive boardroom. Energy-smart IT leadership can ensure the company remains in the black for the long term.

IT'sbig opportunity: Lead the energy-savings charge
Focusing on managing the power consumption of the datacenter and IT functions misses the full opportunity, says Glen Hobbs, a technology advisor with PricewaterhouseCoopers. IT has a much bigger role to play in improving business sustainability and identifying cost savings by enabling different ways of doing business, he adds.

"To achieve a commercially realistic advantage, organizations should consider more than just computing device efficiency," Hobbs said. "IT's contribution to an organization's sustainability should not just look inward to the operation of the IT function but outward through the IT supply chain to the operation and use of technology across the whole business."

[More ...]

Trends in Communicating with Fringe Devices

The "4th generation" of the net, as exemplified by the current tech trends:

1) at the fringe -


along with a total avoidance of real time data acquisition.

(but note that iPhone is saddly missing).

Original Article

Best of TechCrucgh50

Ventures in mobile computing and platform tools highlighted the TechCrunch50 2008 conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, with companies airing products ranging from a cross-platform environment for mobile systems to a next-generation text input technology.

TechCrunch50 has featured startups presenting their wares to the audience and panels of experts drawn from the entrepreneurial and investor realms. Among the panelists Tuesday was Mark Cuban, a technology entrepreneur perhaps best known as the outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and a former contestant on the Dancing with the Stars TV show.

[ See the related story, "Startups pitch new tools for business." And for all the news from Demo Fall 2008 and TechCrunch50, check out InfoWorld's special report. ]

Projects detailed included Mytopia, which provides a cross-platform environment for Web and mobile systems. While the demonstration of Mytopia featured an online poker game functioning across multiple devices and a PC desktop, it also can be leveraged for all rich media applications, said Guy Ben-Atzi, CEO of Mytopia.

Using the company's RUGS (Real Time Universal Gaming System) framework, developers can code applications one time and automatically compile native builds for key Smartphone and mobile operating systems, including BlackBerry, Apple iPhone, and PalmOS. "RUGS is a rich content authoring environment and it starts with a developer who uses a customized Eclipse-based IDE. RUGS is going to ensure that content is going to be created in what we call a RUGS-compliant fashion," for cross-platform translation, Ben-Atzi said.

Swype presented its text input technology at the conference. Using either a stylus or a finger, users can quickly input words onto a screen. It is designed to work across devices such as phones, tablets, game consoles, and virtual screens. "Swype is the text input [technology] for the 21st century," said CEO Mike McSherry. Users can write 50 words per minute and multiple languages are supported, he said. McSherry asked screen designers and builders to talk to the company if they thought the technology would be applicable.

A cross-section of collaborative apps
Dropbox showed its technology for storing and sharing files in the cloud. Online sync, sharing, and backup are combined into a single interface. Files in the Dropbox folder are synchronized between computers and securely backed up online. Folders can be shared with others. The company announced Linux backing for the product Tuesday.

Devunity touted its cloud-based collaborative coding platform for developers, uniting programmers from around the world. "You don't have to mess with versioning. You can see what everybody's doing in real time," said Alon Carmel, CEO at Devunity.

Other technologies covered on Tuesday were in the collaborative and finance and statistics spaces. Sometimes, panelists offered sharp rebukes, such as Cuban's assessment of ImindI, which proposed a service to help like-minded thinkers connect on the Web. The service features a thought engine and artificial intelligence. The monetization plan involves rich contextual advertising.

"Maybe I'm missing something, but that just sounded like the biggest bunch of bull I've ever heard in my life," Cuban said. "I don’t get what the return is for making the investment in time" to use the application, he said. IMindi CEO Adam Lindemann defended the project as seeking to connect information to thoughts.

Panelists gave a thumbs-up to iCharts, which provides a platform for online charting. "I think it's a very interesting idea, maybe because I spend too many hours slaving over Excel," said panelist Roelof Botha, a partner at Sequoia Capital. "Anytime you can make something simple and easy, you've got a winner," said panelist Don Dodge, of Microsoft. "ICharts is your YouTube for interactive charts," said Seymour Duncker, CEO of iCharts.

Also presenting Tuesday was Tingz, which offers tools and services to gather Web content and distribute it to digital devices and social networks. Cross-platform, shareable widgets are featured. Applications are enabled such as browsing of movie listings.

Another presenter, Emerginvest, analyzes emerging financial markets with its application. And products for managing e-mail were shown both on Monday and Tuesday.

Proposed cures for e-mail overload
On Monday, the TechCrunch crowd heard from Joshua Baer, CEO of OtherInbox, which provides a service intended as a cure for e-mail overload. The platform offers a free e-mail account that organizes newsletters, social networking updates, coupons, and receipts from online purchases. Users can find the most interesting items and ignore the rest. OtherInbox helps e-commerce vendors send more targeted, relevant e-mails, Baer said.

Tuesday's e-mail technology presentation featured Postbox, a desktop e-mail application geared to help users spend less time managing e-mail. Cataloging everything in e-mail from text to Web links and pictures, Postbox provides a searchable platform and displays messages by topic. Postbox connects to content from any e-mail account, said Sherman Dickman, a founder of Postbox.

Friday, 5 September 2008

EElectrifying dances at world's first eco-friendly nightclub

Rotterdam - Hundreds of energetic dancers opened the world's first eco-friendly nightclub late Thursday in Rotterdam. Club Watt's moto is apt: "We want your energy."

Each night Club Watt will get about a third of the power it needs for its DJs from a special dance floor. Dancers' vigorous movements make the floor vibrate, and this is transformed into power with the help of mini dynamos.

Dancers can read just how much power is being produced on boards next to the DJs stage.

Everything is environment friendly at Club Watt, from the rain water toilet flushes to the bars with reusable plastic glasses.

The club's management says their eco-consciousness will ensure that they save a lot of energy, and money - enough to cover the costs of drinking water for 13,000 people.

Nightclub owners from Berlin to Paris and from Sydney to San Francisco have already expressed an interest in the unique concept developed by the Rotterdam disco.

Broadband Anywhere

Original Article

Sprint turns Baltimore into a giant wireless hot spot.

What if your laptop could wirelessly connect to the Internet as ­easily as your phone connects to the cellular network--with broadband data rates to boot?

That's the promise of a technology called WiMax, and in September, in the greater Baltimore area, Sprint is launching its first WiMax network. Several smaller companies offer regional WiMax service in the U.S., but Sprint has the national reach to take the technology into the mainstream.

Unlike Wi-Fi, WiMax uses licensed radio spectrum, so it can turn up the power without jamming other devices. A WiMax signal will travel kilometers, as opposed to the 20-odd meters of a Wi-Fi signal.

In Baltimore, Sprint promises a data rate of two to four megabits per second. WiMax achieves that kind of speed two ways. First, it uses antennas with multiple sending and receiving elements; second, it divides bandwidth into subfrequencies that overlap but don't interfere with each other, so more data can be crammed into a swath of spectrum.

But the same technologies are also the basis of the long-term evolution, or LTE, which Verizon champions as an alternative to WiMax. "When you look at 2015 and see who will have the bigger market share," says Arogyaswami Paulraj, a Stanford professor who helped pioneer both technologies, "until a year or two ago, the general view was that LTE might actually have a little more." But LTE probably won't be ready for deployment until 2011, Paulraj says, and WiMax is already popular in India. "I think WiMax is pretty well positioned at this point," he says.

This map shows Sprint's WiMax coverage in the Baltimore area: pink, accessible anywhere; green, accessible in suburban buildings, cars, and the street; blue, accessible in cars and the street; grey, accessible in the street.
Credit: Sprint Nextel

Intensifying the Sun

Original Article

A new way to concentrate sunlight could make solar power competitive with fossil fuels.

Marc Baldo poses with a collection
of glass sheets coated with
light-emitting organic dyes.
The dyes absorb light and
reëmit it into the glass, which
channels it to the edges of the
sheets. Baldo uses the devices
to concentrate sunlight, making
solar power cheaper.
Credit: Porter Gifford

The Video
In his darkened lab at MIT, Marc Baldo shines an ultraviolet lamp on a 10-­centimeter square of glass. He has coated the surfaces of the glass with dyes that glow faintly orange under the light. Yet the uncoated edges of the glass are shining more brightly--four neat, thin strips of luminescent orange.

The sheet of glass is a new kind of solar concentrator, a device that gathers diffuse light and focuses it onto a relatively small solar cell. Solar cells, multilayered electronic devices made of highly refined silicon, are expensive to manufacture, and the bigger they are, the more they cost. Solar concentrators can lower the overall cost of solar power by making it possible to use much smaller cells. But the concentrators are typically made of curved mirrors or lenses, which are bulky and require costly mechanical systems that help them track the sun.

Unlike the mirrors and lenses in conventional solar concentrators, Baldo's glass sheets act as waveguides, channeling light in the same way that fiber-optic cables transmit optical signals over long distances. The dyes coating the surfaces of the glass absorb sunlight; different dyes can be used to absorb different wavelengths of light. Then the dyes reëmit the light into the glass, which channels it to the edges. Solar-cell strips attached to the edges absorb the light and generate electricity. The larger the surface of the glass compared with the thickness of the edges, the more the light is concentrated and, to a point, the less the power costs.

Baldo, an associate professor of electrical engineering, published his findings recently in Science. On their basis, he projects that his solar concentrators could be made big enough for the electricity they help generate to compete with electricity from fossil fuels. Indeed, says Baldo, panels equipped with the concentrators "could be the cheapest solar technology."

Secret Ingredient
The process for making Baldo's solar concentrators begins down the hall in another lab. A postdoctoral researcher, Shalom Goffri, takes several bottles filled with colorful dye powders from a cabinet and measures the powders into small vials. Some of the dyes were developed for use in car paints; others have been used in organic light-emitting diodes. Both types of dyes can last for years in the sun, a quality essential for solar concentrators. Once he has measured out the powders, Goffri adds a solvent to each to make a liquid ink.

The next steps take place inside a sealed box, so that Goffri doesn't inhale the solvents used to make the dye. He reaches into the box, using thick black gloves mounted in its glass front, and carefully mixes together different inks. Determining the right combination of inks solved a fundamental problem that researchers have encountered with this type of solar concentrator. If the glass sheet is coated with a dye that absorbs sunlight in, say, the green-to-blue range of the solar spectrum and emits light of the same wavelength, the emitted light will be quickly reabsorbed by the dye, and little of it will ever reach the edge of the glass. The problem has limited the size of these solar concentrators, since the further the light needs to travel to the edges, the less of the light will make it.

By using certain combinations of dyes interspersed with other light-absorbing molecules, Baldo makes coatings that absorb one color but emit another. The emitted light is not quickly reabsorbed by the coatings, so more of it reaches the edges of the glass sheet.

The coatings that Goffri is making absorb ultraviolet through green light and emit orange light. Once Goffri has prepared the final mixture, he pours a small amount on a 10-centimeter-wide glass square--the largest that can fit inside a device that spins the glass at 2,000 revolutions per minute to spread the ink evenly. Within a minute or two, the solvent has evaporated and the process is finished. The solar concentrator, with its coating of orange dye, is complete.

The Prototype
To generate electricity, Goffri connects the solar concentrator to solar cells. He's making what is called a tandem solar module, a type of solar panel that uses two different kinds of cells to capture more of the energy in sunlight than a single kind could. Different wavelengths of sunlight have different amounts of energy; ultraviolet light has the most and infrared the least. Solar cells are optimized for particular colors. One designed to convert infrared light into electricity, for example, will convert most of the energy in blue light into waste heat. Likewise, red light will pass through a solar cell optimized for high-energy blue light without being absorbed. Ideally, solar cells for different wavelengths would be used in combination to collect the most sunlight, but this approach is often too expensive to be practical.

Baldo's concentrators offer an inexpensive way to combine solar cells optimized for different wavelengths of light: different colored coatings can be paired with different types of solar cells in the same device. To make a prototype, Goffri takes a type of solar cell well suited to high-energy colors and glues it to the inside of a plastic frame; then he slides the concentrator into the frame so that its edges line up with the cells. The concentrator captures ultraviolet, blue, and green light and emits orange light that the cells convert into electricity. The lower-energy light, from the red and infrared end of the spectrum, passes through the solar concentrator to the next layer. In the prototype, the next layer is a full-size, conventional silicon solar cell that isn't paired with a solar concentrator.

The prototype, Baldo says, can convert almost twice as much energy from sunlight into electricity as a conventional cell can, provided that the concentrator is roughly 30 centimeters square. This translates to a 30 percent decrease in the cost of solar electricity.

In the future, the cost savings can be much higher, Baldo believes. He doesn't use a concentrator for the infrared light because, so far, no good dyes for capturing those wavelengths exist. But he is confident that such dyes can be developed. When that happens, he will be able to add a second concentrator, for little additional cost, and replace the full-size silicon solar cell with smaller, cheaper cells attached to the concentrators' edges. If the cost of photovoltaics drops over the next several years, as expected, this setup could make solar power about as cheap as electricity from coal, he says.

There's more work to be done in the lab, such as improving the range of colors the concentrators can absorb, which will make it possible to tailor them to specific slices of the spectrum. But Baldo says that it's time to start moving the technology out of the lab and into the market. He and his colleagues have founded a company called Covalent Solar, which is starting to raise money. The company, based in Cambridge, MA, plans to have its first products--­probably tandem solar modules--available within three years.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

A Green Energy Industry Takes Root in California

Original Article

Peter Rive of SolarCity, an installer of rooftop solar cells in California.

SAN FRANCISCO — The sun is starting to grow jobs. While interest in alternative energy is climbing across the United States, solar power especially is rising in California, the product of billions of dollars in investment and mountains of enthusiasm.

In recent months, the industry has added several thousand jobs in the production of solar energy cells and installation of solar panels on roofs. A spate of investment has also aimed at making solar power more efficient and less costly than natural gas and coal.

Entrepreneurs, academics and policy makers say this era’s solar industry is different from what was tried in the 1970s, when Jerry Brown, then the governor of California, invited derision for envisioning a future fueled by alternative energy.

They point to companies like SolarCity, an installer of rooftop solar cells based in Foster City. Since its founding in 2006, it has grown to 215 workers and $29 million in annual sales. “It is hard to find installers,” said Lyndon Rive, the chief executive. “We’re at the stage where if we continue to grow at this pace, we won’t be able to sustain the growth.”

SunPower, which makes the silicon-based cells that turn sunlight into electricity, reported 2007 revenue of more than $775 million, more than triple its 2006 revenue. The company expects sales to top $1 billion this year. SunPower, based in San Jose, said its stock price grew 251 percent in 2007, faster than any other Silicon Valley company, including Apple and Google.

Not coincidentally, three-quarters of the nation’s demand for solar comes from residents and companies in California. “There is a real economy — multiple companies, all of which have the chance to be billion-dollar operators,” said Daniel M. Kammen, a professor in the energy and resources group at the University of California, Berkeley. California, he says, is poised to be both the world’s next big solar market and its entrepreneurial center.

The question, Professor Kammen says, is: “How can we make sure it’s not just green elite or green chic, and make it the basis for the economy?”

There also are huge challenges ahead, not the least of which is the continued dominance of fossil fuels. Solar represents less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the $3 trillion global energy market, leading some critics to suggest that the state is getting ahead of itself, as it did during the 1970s.

The optimists say a crucial difference this time is the participation of private-sector investors and innovators and emerging technologies. Eight of more than a dozen of the nation’s companies developing photovoltaic cells are based in California, and seven of those are in Silicon Valley.

Among the companies that academics and entrepreneurs believe could take the industry to a new level is Nanosolar, which recently started making photovoltaic cells in a 200,000-square-foot factory in San Jose. The company said the first 18 months of its capacity has already been booked for sales in Germany.

“They could absolutely transform the market if they make good on even a fraction of their goal for next year,” Professor Kammen said. “They’re not just a new entrant, but one of the biggest producers in the world.”

Many of the California companies are start-ups exploring exotic materials like copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS, an alternative to the conventional crystalline silicon that is now the dominant technology.

The newcomers hope that CIGS, while less efficient than silicon, can be made far more cheaply than silicon-based cells. Indeed, the Nanosolar factory looks more like a newspaper plant than a chip-making factory. The CIGS material is sprayed onto giant rolls of aluminum foil and then cut into pieces the size of solar panels.

Another example is Integrated Solar, based in Los Angeles, which has developed a low-cost approach to integrating photovoltaic panels directly into the roofs of commercial buildings.

In 2007, 100 megawatts of solar generating capacity was installed in California, about a 50 percent increase over 2006, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.

That growth rate is likely to increase, in part because of ambitious new projects like the 177-megawatt solar thermal plant that Pacific Gas and Electric said last November it would build in San Luis Obispo.

The plant, which will generate power for more than 120,000 homes beginning in 2010, will be built by Ausra, a Palo Alto start-up backed by the investor Vinod Khosla and his former venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

The industry in California is also helped by state and local governments’ substantial subsidies to stimulate demand. The state has earmarked $3.2 billion to subsidize solar installation, with the goal of putting solar cells on one million rooftops. The state Assembly passed a law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020, which could spur alternatives like solar.

dditional incentives have come from a small but growing number of municipalities. The city of Berkeley will pay the upfront costs for a resident’s solar installation and recoup the money over 20 years through additional property taxes on a resident’s home. San Francisco is preparing to adopt its own subsidy that would range from $3,000 for a home installation to as much as $10,000 for a business.

The subsidies have prompted a surge in private investment, led by venture capitalists. In 2007, these seed investors put $654 million in 33 solar-related deals in California, up from $253 million in 16 deals in 2006, according to the Cleantech Group, which tracks investments in alternative energy. California received roughly half of all solar power venture investments made in 2007 in the United States.

“We’re just starting to see successful companies come out through the other end of that process,” said Nancy C. Floyd, managing director at Nth Power, a venture capital firm that focuses on alternative energy. “And through innovation and volume, prices are coming down.”

Whether any of this investment pays off depends, as it did in previous eras, on reaching the point at which solar cells produce electricity as inexpensively as fossil fuels. The cost of solar energy is projected to fall steeply as cheaper new technology reaches economies of scale. Optimists believe that some regions in California could reach that point in half a decade.

At present, solar power is three to five times as expensive as coal, depending on the technology used, said Dan Reicher, director for climate change and energy initiatives at Google.org, the philanthropic division of the Internet company. Among its investments, Google says, is $10 million in financing for eSolar, a company in Pasadena that builds systems that concentrate sunlight from reflecting mirrors.

“We’re at the dawn of a revolution that could be as powerful as the Internet revolution,” Mr. Reicher said. The problem is, he said, “renewable energy simply costs too much.”

At a conference of alternative energy companies in San Francisco last month, to discuss how to encourage the industry’s growth, Mr. Brown, the former governor, joked that if the participants wanted to make real headway selling alternative energy, they should try not to come off as flaky. “Don’t get too far ahead of yourselves,” said Mr. Brown, now the state’s attorney general. “You will be stigmatized. Don’t use too many big words and make it all sound like yesterday.”

Solar power for less than your cable bill

Original Article

Solar power companies have been working around the clock to drive down the price of clean electricity from the sun so it can one day be as cheap as the energy we get from dirtier sources, like coal plants.

Until we get there, however, some solar panel installers have come up with a solution that they say will give more people access to solar energy. How are they doing it? By allowing customers to lease, rather than buy, the photovoltaic solar panels for their roofs.

It’s the same idea, really, that has enabled some people to get behind the wheel of a luxury car they could otherwise not afford — low or no upfront costs followed by a monthly bill.

SolarCity, based in Foster City, California, is one company that recently started offering leases to its customers. Chief Executive Lyndon Rive told Reuters he wanted to do away with the hefty cost of buying solar panels — on average about $20,000.

“Even those who really want to make an environmental change can’t part with $20,000… the solution is just too costly for them.”

Under SolarCity’s lease program, customers with a small home could pay as little as $70 a month for a 2.4 kilowatt system, Rive added. The company is also allowing customers who sign up before July 31st to put no money down on their system. After that, upfront costs should be between about $1,000 and $3,000, Rive said.

“We can essentially make it so that everybody can now afford clean power,” Rive said.

The leased projects will be financed through Morgan Stanley, and SolarCity said it will serve as a one-stop shop for both installation and financing.

Right now the program is only available in California, but SolarCity is expanding to Oregon, Arizona and has plans to go to the East Coast.

GPEC and SolarCity Unveil Greening Greater Phoenix Initiative to Promote Region as Solar and Sustainability Leader

The Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC) announced a new sustainability initiative today to position Greater Phoenix as a location for solar and clean technology, green building, renewable energy and other "green industry" organizations. Greening Greater Phoenix Powered by SolarCity promotes the region as an emerging leader in solar technology and renewable energy industries. Over the next several months, GPEC will launch a national and international awareness campaign for Greening Greater Phoenix Powered by SolarCity, targeting companies seeking to expand or invest in a renewable energy market.

SolarCity, the West's number one residential solar power provider, recently expanded operations in Phoenix and is partnering with GPEC to make this effort a success. Also championing the regional initiative are the City of Phoenix, City of Scottsdale and City of Surprise -- all of which have committed to adopting solar technology and green-building standards to enhance economic development activity within their communities. Greening Greater Phoenix Powered by SolarCity also complements Maricopa County's effort to become the greenest county in the nation.

"GPEC is honored to have SolarCity as our partner to continue the momentum of building a hub in Greater Phoenix for solar and sustainable industries," said Barry Broome, GPEC president and CEO. "Greening Greater Phoenix unifies our communities, stakeholders and partners while diversifying the economy with the creation of high-wage jobs in the renewable energy sector."

"Our mission is to help Arizona realize its obvious potential to be a national leader in solar power adoption by making solar affordable for more area families, and we've been thrilled with the initial response we've received from Greater Phoenix residents," said Peter Rive, SolarCity co-founder and COO. "Greening Greater Phoenix is intended to expand the early momentum we've achieved in solar to broader sustainability initiatives in the area, and we're proud to be a part of it."

Greening Greater Phoenix Powered by SolarCity will drive regional competitiveness in the solar and renewable energy industries by:

-- Providing a regional framework to promote communities' sustainability efforts in relation to business development and foreign direct investment opportunities.

-- Launching a national and international marketing campaign to brand Greater Phoenix as an emerging sustainability and solar leader.

-- Recruiting industry expertise and green champions to serve in an advisory capacity and sounding board for GPEC's leadership.

The City of Phoenix has been a leader in the areas of water conservation, air quality and energy conservation for more than 30 years. Today, Phoenix remains committed to sustainability with the adoption of a long-term renewable energy goal set in April 2008. In close cooperation with the Environmental Quality Commission, the City of Phoenix established a goal for 15% of the energy used by the City to come from renewable energy sources by 2025. In addition to renewable energy practices, the City of Phoenix is a leader in green and sustainable building practices. In 2004, Fire Station 50 was awarded the first LEED certified facility in Maricopa County and was the second LEED certified facility in the country. The City Council adopted a policy in 2005 that, at a minimum, requires all of the new 16 city buildings constructed with 2006 Bond Funds be designed and built to the basic LEED standard.

"Phoenix has been called the first great city to emerge in the 21st Century," said City of Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon. "Our goal is now to become the first sustainable city in the 21st Century and beyond. A Greener, Greater Phoenix is more than a slogan, it is our destiny."

The City of Scottsdale's Green Building Program, the flagship of the city's green initiatives, was established in 1998 as a voluntary builder program to reduce the environmental impact of building. The program rates buildings in the areas of site, energy, building materials, indoor air quality, water and solid waste, and offers development process incentives to influence builder design and product choices. Details of the program, and information about the community lecture series, can be found at http://www.scottsdaleaz.gov/greenbuilding. In addition, to further support this commitment to Green, the City of Scottsdale passed a resolution in 2005 that requires all new, occupied city buildings, of any size, be designed, contracted and built to achieve certification in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED(TM)) Program at the Gold certification level.

"The City of Scottsdale has long been at the forefront of engaging in and promoting green building and sustainable development," said City of Scottsdale Mayor Mary Manross. "This new initiative ties into Scottsdale's mission to attract and develop cutting edge technologies that are better for our environment and create economic opportunities for our citizens."

The City of Surprise is an emerging West Valley leader in sustainability practices and industry attraction, with a booming population of 108,000 people and a 309 square mile planning area. The city recently began tracking its "green" efforts with the launch of its Green Surprise website -- http://www.surpriseaz.com/greensurprise. Featured prominently on that site are the city's Water Conservation Ordinance, which cracks down on water wasters, and the air quality controls that are in place through the city's PM-10 rules, to reduce unhealthy dust particles in our air.

"Surprise is committed to sustainability and innovation," said City of Surprise Mayor Lyn Truitt. "Taking a leadership role in developing solar technology fits exactly with our vision of Surprise."

Maricopa County established a Green Government Initiative to promote an environmentally-sensitive approach to county business. The program contains strategies to reduce energy and material use and save money, all while reducing the County's carbon footprint. Maricopa County is currently undergoing an energy audit of its eight million square feet of county facilities. More information on Maricopa County's green efforts can be found by visiting http://www.maricopa.gov/planning/Resources/Other/GreenGovernment.aspx.

"We're committed to working with local governments and enterprises to achieve a cleaner, healthier and higher quality Maricopa County," said Supervisor Fulton Brock, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

SolarCity will host six solar seminars in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Surprise on Sept. 20 and 27. Residents are encouraged to join others in the community to learn more about Greening Greater Phoenix Powered by SolarCity. The instructor will cover the basics of solar and take questions from the audience about available government rebates, the home installation process and potential cost savings achievable with clean, solar power. To find a seminar in your area or to RSVP online, please visit http://www.solarcity.com/events. To RSVP by phone, please call 1-888-SOL-CITY (1-888-765-2489). Scheduled seminars by date and location:

September 20
Phoenix - Hyatt Regency Phoenix, 10:00 AM - 11:00 AM
Scottsdale - Granite Reef Senior Center, 10:00 AM - 11:00 AM
Surprise - Rio Salado Lifelong Learning Center, 10:00 AM - 11:00 AM

September 27
Phoenix - Hyatt Regency Phoenix, 10:00 AM - 11:00 AM
Scottsdale - Granite Reef Senior Center, 10:00 AM to 11:00 AM
Surprise - Maricopa Northwest Regional Library, 10:00 AM - 11:00 AM

The Greening Greater Phoenix Powered by SolarCity announcement preceded "Building the Green Business Case," a forum hosted by GPEC, Arizona Association for Economic Development, U.S. Green Building Council Arizona Chapter and GreenSummit. Solar and green building experts discussed trends and the adoption of sustainable practices. The event is the kickoff to the 2008 GreenSummit conference and tradeshow on September 5 - 6 at the Phoenix Convention Center.

For more information, visit http://www.greeninggreaterphoenix.org.

About the Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC)

A true public/private partnership, GPEC is the regional economic development organization for Greater Phoenix. Working with its 18 member communities, Maricopa County and more than 140 private investors, GPEC attracts quality businesses to this dynamic region. By creating a high-performance economy through capital investments and jobs, Greater Phoenix companies enjoy a business climate where they can compete and thrive in today's global economy. Since 1989, GPEC has worked to achieve an economically sound and sustainable region. For more information about GPEC, visit http://www.gpec.org.

About SolarCity

SolarCity matches advanced solar power technology with a suite of installation services. The company's comprehensive offering removes the technical, regulatory and financing barriers to solar power, helping customers make smart renewable energy choices that can save money. Including the industry's most experienced team in solar system design and installation, and a proven track record of bringing new technologies to market, SolarCity is uniquely positioned to make solar power a practical choice for homeowners and businesses. SolarCity serves communities in California, Oregon and Arizona. Additional information about the company is available on the Web at http://www.solarcity.com.

"We're committed to working with local governments and enterprises to
achieve a cleaner, healthier and higher quality Maricopa County," said
Supervisor Fulton Brock, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

SolarCity will host six solar seminars in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Surprise
on Sept. 20 and 27. Residents are encouraged to join others in the community
to learn more about Greening Greater Phoenix Powered by SolarCity. The
instructor will cover the basics of solar and take questions from the audience
about available government rebates, the home installation process and
potential cost savings achievable with clean, solar power.
To find a seminar in your area or to RSVP online, please visit
http://www.solarcity.com/events. To RSVP by phone, please call 1-888-SOL-CITY
(1-888-765-2489). Scheduled seminars by date and location:

Juniper Research forecasts total mobile payments to grow nearly ten fold by 2013

Original Article

NTERNATIONAL. Purchases via mobile devices of digital and physical goods, contactless NFC (Near Field Communications) transactions and money transfers will together generate transactions worth over US$600 billion globally by 2013, according to Juniper Research’s Mobile Payments Study. This figure represents the gross value of all the items being purchased or the value of money being transferred.

The report determined that while the mobile market today is dominated by digital goods purchases such as ringtones, music, games and infotainment, there are three high potential markets which offer major new opportunities for the future: contactless NFC, mobile money transfer and physical goods purchases via mobile devices.

Report author Howard Wilcox commented: "We’re forecasting that all segments of the market will see growth over the next five years, driven by both the rapid availability of exciting, easy to use services, and the continued growth in mobile subscriber penetration, particularly in developing countries. As well as becoming multifunctional devices for many users, mobiles will become wallets that people won’t leave the home or office without.”

Highlights from the report include:

• Global annual gross transaction value will grow over ten times between 2008 and 2013

• Juniper Research’s 2008 forecasts show an increased growth rate of the global mobile subscriber base than previously, with in excess of 1 billion new users by 2013

• The top three regions for mobile payments (Far East & China, Western Europe and North America) will represent over 70% of the global mobile money transfer gross transaction value by 2013.

The study provides the 'big picture' view of mobile payments, exploring how the overall market will develop. The report provides forecasts of the main market segments (digital and physical goods purchases, contactless NFC and national and international money transfers and remittances), providing regional forecasts of gross transaction values. The report also offers profiles of 13 vendors and 17 service providers pioneering in this exciting market.

Whitepapers and further details of the study 'Mobile Payments Markets: Strategies & Forecasts 2008-2013' can be freely downloaded from www.juniperresearch.com

Further reports in the mobile payments series from Juniper are:

· Mobile Payment Markets: Digital and Physical Goods 2008-2013 (published in July 2008)

· Mobile Payment Markets: Contactless NFC 2008-2013 (published in July 2008)

· Mobile Payment Markets: Money Transfers and Remittances 2008-2013 (published in August 2008)

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking for Emergency Responders

Third Annual Technology Workshop, August 4-6, 2008
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA

This Workshop provided a forum for researchers and developers working in the important area of indoor location and tracking of emergency response personnel to share technical knowledge and to define the state of the art. The focus of this workshop was zero pre-installed infrastructure tracking, that is systems that do not require any previously installed wiring or equipment in the target building, such as is required by RFID-type systems. Further, the focus was on systems which provide complete tracking and position information on all equipped personnel to the incident command post. Simpler approaches ("homing devices") also were included in the Workshop. Also, a session was dedicated to the physiological monitoring of first responders. Select representatives of the governmental and user communities participated.

Conference Site

A Network That Builds Itself

Original Article

Mesh together: This prototype
relay node, developed by NIST,
features an LED that automatically
changes from green to red whenever
a new node needs to be set down.
Credit: NIST
Building an on-the-fly wireless communications networks is a vital part of firefighting, handling hostage situations, and dealing with other emergencies. But it is difficult to build such networks quickly and reliably.

Soon these emergency wireless networks could help build themselves. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently presented details of two experimental networks that tell emergency workers when to set down wireless transmitters to ensure a good signal.

Ad hoc wireless networks relay messages between transmitters, or nodes, without requiring any central control. But as things stand, emergency workers simply follow suggested guidelines for building such a wireless network--placing each node 15 or 30 meters apart and at key points, like the corners of a building. Or they periodically check back with the command center to make sure they're still in touch. Neither method is terribly efficient in an emergency, however. The process can also be costly if a large number of nodes are used.

The NIST prototypes, which have been under development for more than three years, use algorithms to monitor the signal-to-noise ratio of transmissions and automatically warn when a new node should be set down.

"We didn't want to have fixed rules, because there can be a lot of metal in walls or cinder block," meaning signal strength varies building to building, says Nader Moayeri, a senior technical advisor in NIST's Advanced Network Technologies Division. "Plus, you don't want to deploy too many, because of the cost factor as well as potential for communication delays."

Moayeri says that NIST considered having nodes ping each other with short messages to see how many messages were lost in transit. The problem with this approach is that the person deploying the network would not detect a weak connection immediately and might have to backtrack. Having an algorithm measure the signal-to-noise ratio instead avoids this problem and provides a clearer picture of connection strength.

NIST built two prototype networks using off-the-shelf hardware. One operates at 900 megahertz and uses Crossbow MICA2 Motes to transmit radio signals. The other, a Wi-Fi network operating at 2.4 gigahertz , uses Linux-based Gumstix transmitters. But Moayeri says that the NIST algorithm should work with any wireless hardware and on any available spectrum.

In the Crossbow system, each node has an LED that automatically changes color, from green to red, when a new node needs to be set down. The Gumstix system issues alerts via a handheld or tablet computer connected to the same wireless network.

Each hardware platform has different strengths and weaknesses. The Crossbow system can be customized easily but has a maximum data transfer speed of 35 kilobits per second, limiting the network to text messaging. The Gumstix system is less flexible but can transfer data at 54 megabits per second, allowing users to talk and send other data over the network. Both types of node measure approximately five by ten centimeters and cost between $200 and $300.

Moayeri's team tested the Crossbow network in an 11-story building on the NIST campus in Gaithersburg, MD, deploying 11 nodes in the stairwell. The Gumstix network was tested throughout another NIST building that goes 40 feet belowground and features winding corridors as well as a number of metal doors. A total of eight nodes were used to cover about 300 meters.

Moayeri says that the maximum transmission power for both prototypes was about 100 milliwatts. Since a typical police or firefighter radio transmits at one to five watts, far fewer nodes would be needed in a real-world scenario. However, it's not clear how much it will cost to make rugged and fireproof nodes.

A potential downside of the NIST prototype is that it does not include the ability to track location, unless it is in a building that already has passive RFID chips installed.

Moayeri and his colleague Michael Souryal presented details of the two prototype networks at the third annual Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking for Emergency Responders technology workshop held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in early August.

Their presentation caught the interest of one workshop attendee--Alan Kaplan, chief technology officer at Drakontas, a company based in Glenside, PA, that makes communications software for public safety and security operations. His firm's software currently requires users to check connections between nodes as they are deployed. "What I thought was cool is that the technology seemed to help users as they built out this network, telling where they should actually place these nodes," says Kaplan. "Potentially, this is something that anyone who does public safety or security would want."

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Sprint Adds Location-based Apps to WiMax in Baltimore

Original Article

Imagine walking down a Baltimore street and by using your WiMax-enabled Sprint phone, you are told a mile down on the left, you can get find your favorite Five Guys burger. But you may need to go down a different street to get there because roads are blocked by police because of an accident, according to your phone. While you are in the area, stick around for a couple hours because at 7 p.m. Kanye West will be playing at an outdoor concert by the harbor.

That's the experience Sprint promises as it added today more location-based partners such as Yelp, a local business review site; Eventful, a local events guide done by map views; and Topix, a local news site. With the promise of faster access on WiMax, which the company compares to WiFi without the distance limitations of hotspots, the mobile experience around the corner is being described by carriers as one where your phone will know, based on where you are, how to direct you to any food, information, real estate and entertainment resources you may want nearby.

Soon those promises can be tested as Sprint launches its faster-than-ever WiMax service that currently is projected to cover about 70 of metropolitan Baltimore.