News in Energy Technology

On the Front Lines of the Power Grid

On the Front Lines of the Power Grid

QUICK! You are on duty in a secret control room in a nondescript, windowless building. The sign out front is so small that people driving by cannot read it, and it may give no clue what goes on inside, anyway. But your task is crucial: you are matching the ever-changing power needs of tens of millions of electricity customers with supply coming from hundreds of electricity generators, deciding which units will run and which ones will be idle, and making quick adjustments for the generators you can’t schedule, like the wind machines and solar panels. Hardly anybody will ever know you are here, unless you mess up. All is going smoothly until you get a message from a neighboring electrical entity requesting emergency assistance. A quick glance at your computer screen tells you that you have sufficient spare capacity to help. Should you: A. Call your contracts department and ask what price you will charge? B. Go ahead and raise the generation in your area by the required amount? C. Review the computer system used by all the generators to see what transmission is available? Photo OVERVIEW The California I.S.O. is one of 100 such facilities that balance supply and demand in the North American grid. Credit Max Whittaker for The New York Times D. Set up an emergency schedule with your neighbor? If you answered D, and you also gave the correct answers to several much more complicated questions, you are on your way to a job in an increasingly tough and essential field: managing the North American power grid. “The bar is being raised,” said Lourdes Estrada-Salinero, the director of operations compliance and control at the California Independent System Operator, one of the more than 100 “balancing authorities” that are responsible for coordinating supply with demand in some portion of the North American grid. About 40 percent of all the energy used in the United States — all the oil, gas and coal, uranium, wind and falling water — is turned into electricity before it is consumed, and that fraction seems destined to rise, as more air-conditioners, electric cars and yet-to-be invented hand-held gizmos are added to customers’ inventory. But the tolerance for failure is getting lower, and the power mix is getting more complicated. States, led by California, are demanding that an increasing fraction of the electricity come from sources that can turn themselves on or...

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New ‘Designer Carbon’ Boosts Battery Performance

New ‘Designer Carbon’ Boosts Battery Performance

Stanford University scientists have created a new carbon material that significantly boosts the performance of energy-storage technologies. Their results are featured on the cover of the journal ACS Central Science. “We have developed a ‘designer carbon’ that is both versatile and controllable,” said Zhenan Bao, the senior author of the study and a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford. “Our study shows that this material has exceptional energy-storage capacity, enabling unprecedented performance in lithium-sulfur batteries and supercapacitors.” According to Bao, the new designer carbon represents a dramatic improvement over conventional activated carbon, an inexpensive material widely used in products ranging from water filters and air deodorizers to energy-storage devices. “A lot of cheap activated carbon is made from coconut shells,” Bao said. “To activate the carbon, manufacturers burn the coconut at high temperatures and then chemically treat it.” The activation process creates nanosized holes, or pores, that increase the surface area of the carbon, allowing it to catalyze more chemical reactions and store more electrical charges. But activated carbon has serious drawbacks, Bao said. For example, there is little interconnectivity between the pores, which limits their ability to transport electricity. “With activated carbon, there’s no way to control pore connectivity,” Bao said. “Also, lots of impurities from the coconut shells and other raw starting materials get carried into the carbon. As a refrigerator deodorant, conventional activated carbon is fine, but it doesn’t provide high enough performance for electronic devices and energy-storage applications.” 3-D networks Instead of using coconut shells, Bao and her colleagues developed a new way to synthesize high-quality carbon using inexpensive — and uncontaminated — chemicals and polymers. The process begins with conducting hydrogel, a water-based polymer with a spongy texture similar to soft contact lenses. “Hydrogel polymers form an interconnected, three-dimensional framework that’s ideal for conducting electricity,” Bao said. “This framework also contains organic molecules and functional atoms, such as nitrogen, which allow us to tune the electronic properties of the carbon.” For the study, the Stanford team used a mild carbonization and activation process to convert the polymer organic frameworks into nanometer-thick sheets of carbon. “The carbon sheets form a 3-D network that has good pore connectivity and high electronic conductivity,” said graduate student John To, a co-lead author of the study. “We also added potassium hydroxide to chemically activate the carbon sheets and increase their surface area.” The result: designer carbon that can be...

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Dark Fiber May Help Light Up Competition

Dark Fiber May Help Light Up Competition

The problem with cutting the pay-TV cord is that you still need a high-speed Internet connection. No surprise, then, that the big telecom companies are jacking up fees for broadband access. But I have two words that should worry the likes of Time Warner Cable, AT&T and Verizon Communications. Dark fiber. What’s that? It’s all the unused fiber-optic lines out there just waiting to be leased by go-getting entrepreneurs so they can light up boutique broadband systems and compete with the big boys. For an idea of how this can work, check out the example of Bel Air Internet, a local company that went from providing Internet access to a handful of Bel-Air homes about a dozen years ago to serving more than 30,000 customers throughout the region. Terry Koosed, the president of Bel Air Internet, said these are potentially boom times for anyone with the cash and gumption to go toe-to-toe with the heavyweight telecom providers. “We think it’s just a matter of time before there’s a breakdown of the entire TV model,” he told me. “Young people — millennials — don’t care about TV. They care only about the speed and quality of their Internet.” Elon Musk, Tesla Motors’ chief executive, said Friday that he hopes to use a fleet of satellites for a space-based Internet service. That’s one way of doing it — and it would come with an estimated $10-billion price tag. But there are plenty of cheaper resources already on Planet Earth to compete with the big phone and cable companies. Dark-fiber network providers now mostly serve corporate clients, primarily in high-density areas such as downtown Los Angeles. But the owners of these networks say it wouldn’t be tough to use them for residential communities as well. Bel Air Internet relies on a combination of leasing dark fiber and using wireless technology to provide high-speed Internet connections to apartment buildings, condos, hotels, student housing and other places where people cluster. For $38.95 a month, Bel Air will provide a download speed of 10 megabits a second, or enough digital oomph to stream a Netflix movie while surfing the Web. Faster speeds are available for incrementally higher prices. And those aren’t the “up to” deals that the big cable companies offer. Time Warner, for instance, offers up to 10 megs for $29.99 a month, but only for the first year. It climbs to $47.99 after...

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2015 predictions: The year of energy

2015 predictions: The year of energy

By Marie Bahl McKenna, Tendril – Mark my words: 2015 will be all about energy. Of course, energy has always been here, keeping the lights on, keeping us warm, keeping us alive. But the industry has been largely stuck (not entirely of its own fault) for nearly 100 years. In 2015, it all will change. Next year, energy will come to the foreground as the leader in innovation, showing the world how one-to-one marketing can revolutionize product delivery and customer service. Other industries will look to energy as the model for how to market. The transformation we’ll see in 2015 is not without precedent. We’ve seen some progress in 2014: forward motion that set the energy industry on its path to change. But in 2015, it will blaze its trail to the front, writing a new chapter in utilities’ history, one of customer personalization that increases profits, expands energy efficiency and sets a new standard to which other industries will aspire. Let’s look ahead to some things we’ll see in the next 12 months: 1. Personalization that optimizes big data. Here’s where energy earns the spotlight. Increasingly more consumers desire meaningful, personal connections with one another and with their technology. Data analytics gives energy providers (and all other service providers) the means by which to cater to today’s customers. Energy will set the example by taking into account customer preferences for nearly everything: home temperature, appliance settings, access to their energy consumption data and bills. Home data factors in, as well, including where customers live, the types of structures they inhabit, those structures’ insulation and the weather in the region at any given time. Using all of these markers, energy providers will be able to deliver customized products and services to their customers. This shift in marketing will all happen automatically through enhanced energy management technology. The technology aggregates, analyzes and delivers useful data to energy providers so they can design programs that use customer preferences to improve energy efficiency and cut costs. These programs make energy management something that’s simultaneously effortless and fully within customers’ control. 2. A new way to market for utilities. This new era of personalization, in which customers expect enhanced services from their core providers and data analytics makes it possible to deliver these services, demands dramatic change from utilities. Until recently, utilities have served as pure-play energy companies that offered electrons over a...

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Alevo Opening US Operation Soon

Alevo Opening US Operation Soon

10.28.14 Alevo pulls back the curtain on its batteries for the grid Alevo Group, which has kept its energy storage technology secret for a decade, unveiled it on Tuesday, and said it has struck deals aimed at deploying its batteries in power grids in China and Turkey. Aleveo ‘s chief executive, Norwegian entrepreneur Jostein Eikeland, made the announcement in front of 500 people at a North Carolina factory it bought earlier this year. The company’s batteries would store excess electricity generated by power plants. Alevo said it has $1 billion in funding from anonymous Swiss investors and has accepted no government incentives. It plans to hire 2,500 people within three years. The Martigny, Switzerland-based company has yet to sign up any U.S. customers but said on Tuesday that it has reached a deal with China-ZK International Energy Investment Co Ltd, which will promote and commercialize Alevo’s energy storage systems in China. Alevo has also formed a joint venture with Washington-based international construction and project management firm The Sandi Group and Turkish infrastructure service provider RBM to deploy its batteries in Turkey. Eikeland had kept Alevo’s technology secret for more than a decade. Onstage at Tuesday’s event, he opened a curtain to reveal a storage container filled with lithium iron phosphate Alevo batteries. The company calls the containers GridBanks, meaning they can “deposit electrons and take them out when we need it,” Eikeland said. Alevo said its batteries are better than anything else on the market because they last longer and contain an inorganic electrolyte that reduces the risk of burning. The company is offering a 20-year warranty on its batteries. Alevo has teamed up with manufacturer Parker Hannifin Corp , which developed the power conversion systems for the GridBanks. Grid storage has become critical as more renewable energy – such as solar power or wind power – is introduced into the world electricity supply. Batteries can store power generated during windy nights to use during the day when the wind may not be blowing, or can extend solar power into the hours after the sun goes down. But the technologies needed to store large amounts of power are too expensive to deploy on a massive scale. Alevo says it will change that because its batteries can be charged and discharged four times as much as rival technologies. Alevo’s products will compete with those of established manufacturers like Samsung and...

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Court Upholds FERC Order 1000

Court Upholds FERC Order 1000

Terrific news! A federal court today upheld in its entirety the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) groundbreaking electric grid planning rule known as Order 1000. The unanimous decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is a major win for clean energy, the environment, and consumers. The court affirmed Order 1000’s requirements that grid operators must consider needs arising from public policies, including low carbon, renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, in planning for the electric grid used to transmit electricity across the nation. The decision also affirms FERC’s commonsense finding that regional transmission planning is better for consumers and the environment. The ruling also addresses the “who pays” question by affirming FERC’s cost allocation principles in which all those who benefit should contribute to the cost of new wires and towers and other equipment for transmission projects. Finally, the court upheld FERC’s removal of unfair preferences to local transmission-owning utilities in the planning process – the so-called “right of first refusal” to build new projects. No utility territory is an island Order 1000 – which NRDC, the Sustainable FERC Project, and other groups strongly supported — sensibly recognizes that we no longer live in our own small worlds, at least where the grid is concerned. Energy moves all around the country – no utility territory is an island – and we should plan on a broader, more regional scale for how we get electricity into America’s homes and businesses. Order 1000 is especially important for regions without regional electricity markets, like the Southeast and most of the West. Until recently, these regions had very little in the way of meaningful regional planning, with little transparency or stakeholder involvement. Each utility mostly did its own local planning. With the court’s affirmation of Order 1000, these regions, and every grid region in the country, have more reason to use regional planning to help meet consumer needs for a cleaner, low-carbon energy future. PS – NRDC and Earthjustice filed a brief in support of Order 1000 on behalf of Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund, NRDC and Union of Concerned Scientists, which the American Wind Energy Association also joined. Read...

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Sniper Attack Sparks Worry Over Security of US Power Grid

Sniper Attack Sparks Worry Over Security of US Power Grid

02.11.14 An organized sniper attack on an electrical substation near San Jose, Calif., last April raises unsettling questions about the vulnerability of our nation’s power grid. Judy Woodruff talks to Jon Wellinghoff, former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Mark Weatherford, former deputy undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, about future risks and protection. (Link to PBS NewsHour...

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Changing Energy Landscape May Save Plymouth Nuclear Plant

Changing Energy Landscape May Save Plymouth Nuclear Plant

12.30.2013 By Erin Ailworth — Perched on the eastern shore of this seaside community, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is a sprawling complex of sand-colored buildings completed during Richard Nixon’s first term. Above its main entrance, a sign proclaims, “Pilgrim: Our plant. Our Performance. Our Future.” That may seem a bold statement for one of the nation’s oldest nuclear plants. Over the past year, Pilgrim has struggled with unplanned outages, attracted increased scrutiny from federal regulators, and come under the same economic pressures that are shuttering nuclear plants across the country, including Vermont Yankee in Vernon, Vt. But analysts, regulators, and power industry officials, including Pilgrim’s owners, say the facility is likely to escape the fate of Vermont Yankee and other aging nuclear plants and keep operating for years to come. Ironically, Pilgrim is benefiting from the competitive forces driving so many other nuclear plants out of business, namely cheap natural gas. New England’s increasing reliance on natural gas for both heating and electricity has left Pilgrim as one of the few alternatives to keep generating power, should, for example, supply disruptions knock out gas-fired plants. Pilgrim already has filled that role during peak demand periods that have led to natural gas shortages because of the region’s insufficient pipeline capacity, according to ISO New England, the regional power grid operator. And that role will become more important in the next few years, as expected coal and nuclear plant retirements strip the power system of nearly 4,000 megawatts of generation — about an eighth of its current capacity — by the summer of 2017. “The Pilgrim generator, like the other non-natural gas-fired generators in the region, provides us with an amount of fuel diversity here so that we’re not just totally reliant on natural gas at any single point in time,” said Stephen J. Rourke, vice president of system planning at ISO New England. The fortunes of Pilgrim have changed dramatically since earlier this year, said Julien Dumoulin-Smith, an analyst at UBS Investment Research. In February, UBS warned that Pilgrim was potentially at risk of being closed by its owner, Entergy Corp. of New Orleans. But the series of nuclear and coal plant retirements expected over the next few years will keep Pilgrim in business, Dumoulin-Smith said. “It was poised to lose money and it was poised to retire,” he said, but now “things are turning sharply.” Entergy’s faith in...

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Could More Traffic Produce More Energy?

Could More Traffic Produce More Energy?

11.29.13 Mexican entrepreneurs developed a system capable of using the vehicular flow to generate electric energy. This development has the potentiality to produce sufficient electricity to power up a household through a device that “catches” the force of the moving cars. “This is a technology that provides sustainable energy and could be implemented at low prices, since it’s a complement of already existing infrastructure: the concrete of streets and avenues,” Héctor Ricardo Macías Hernández, developer of the system, said. He added that at a global level there are no records of similar projects, with exception of an English patent, but with the difference that in the European country piezoelectric floors are used, which are too expensive for developing countries. The technology consists in a system that integrates a ramp-step (elaborated with polymeric material similar to the ones used in the manufacture of tires) that elevates to five centimeters above the level of the street. When receiving the impact of the vehicle, this ramp exerts pressure on a set of bellows below. The bellows contain air that is expelled at a certain pressure through a hose; later, this element travels to a tank where it is compressed and relaunched to an electricity generating turbine. Macías Hernández also said that the accumulation of electric energy is proportional to the flow of cars over a determinate spot; however, in places with low vehicular flow, several ramp-steps could be placed to multiply the impact of every individual vehicle. The developer added that the technology could also be implemented in places with high pedestrian flow. This way, the steps of the people would generate electricity according to the laws of gravitational energy, and this principle could be implemented in places like the subway. According to Macías Hernández, this development is translated in a source of sustainable energy that implies a low execution cost. The entrepreneur also mentioned that the support of the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI) was essential to achieve the technological development given that the institution elaborated a previous study regarding the viability of the project and gave advice to structure the necessary patents of the invention. (Article...

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How Energy Storage is Transforming the Electric Power System

How Energy Storage is Transforming the Electric Power System

09.08.2013 by Janice Lin, Co Founder and Executive Director, California Energy Storage Alliance, and Alex Ghenis, Senior Analyst, Strategen Consulting Energy storage is a transformative technology class that does exactly what its name suggests: it absorbs electricity at one time and saves it for discharge later. It’s a simple concept and makes perfect sense considering how the electric system operates. Already commonplace in the consumer electronics and transportation industries, energy storage has taken years to evolve on the electric grid – but now, it’s at a turning point. This suite of technologies is seeing massive growth that will benefit markets and electric grids alike. A number of analysts have forecasted multi-fold increases in the energy storage market size, with global annual figures over $100 billion in 2020[1]. This is unprecedented growth – reflecting the cusp of an energy revolution. Here are a few reasons why energy storage is transforming the electric system – and why it will keep doing so for years to come 1: Better system efficiency – The electric system is a tricky beast. At any given time, supply needs to match demand, and the system itself has many interacting parts. Unfortunately, these factors and more have combined to create a very inefficient electric system. Among other things, we’ve built enough generators and transmission lines to meet the peak demand on the hottest summer day – but those resources largely sit idle and are expensive and incredibly polluting. Energy storage fixes this conundrum and more by charging up at periods of low demand and discharging during periods of high demand. And because storage is an incredibly diverse technology class, it can be installed anywhere in the electric power system and address a multitude of location-specific challenges. Whether it is substituting for dirty “peaker” plants, smoothing renewables’ output, integrating micro-grids, increasing efficiency of conventional generation, or alleviating local transmission congestion, energy storage enables greater system efficiency across the entire grid. 2: Technological Innovation – Commercially available energy storage projects are being deployed on the grid by the hundreds, ranging from kW-sized projects sited behind customers’ meters to greater-than-100 MW utility scale plants[2]. Investments in these projects, technologies, and creative new business models are being made by governments, entrepreneurs, and developers excited about energy storage’s economic and technical capabilities. Due to expanding grid storage installations, increasing electric vehicle sales, technological improvements and economies of scale, installed costs of grid...

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