The ‘smart grid’ is coming, but arriving at this future is likely to include some twists, turns and battles led by some ‘Big Grid’ utilities who might struggle to see their role in this alternative future.
At the surface ‘smart grid’ concepts sound like a logical next step for the modern day utility grid: minimizing downtime, managing peak demand, improving efficiencies, and anticipating problems before they occur all sound like a positive step for the world. But underneath it all the ‘smart grid’ is incredibly disruptive to the regulatory framework, operational standards, capital investment strategies and business models of most large utilities.
To understand the evolution of the ‘smart grid’ and the utility of the future, we can imagine two initial stages of development.
Part One: Software for Managing Infrastructure
The first steps to building a ‘smart grid’ utilize the power of software to maximize the efficiency of the grid. Simply put, we add a layer of information technology to improve management of existing one-way grid infrastructure to improve performance and reduce costs.
OLED Technology is soon to be the brightest light in the future of energy. OLEDs (Organic Light Emitting Diode) are made up of thin layers of individual ‘light emitting’ molecules that can be ‘printed’ and layered on thin film sheets.
The quality of OLED lighting is much greater than that of a LED. It can display a wide variety of colors, which are also brighter and easier on the eyes. Its light is similar to the sunlight so rooms and offices look much more inviting and comfortable. OLEDs are not only used as lighting, but can also come in use in TVs, and the backlights of cell phones, PDAs, and computers.
Earlier we featured ‘5 Videos on OLEDs’ which highlight this new technology.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the OLED is that it does not waste energy like the LED does. This is great in not only saving energy, but it also makes for longer battery life for cell phones, PDAs, etc. OLEDs are also very easy to use. Because of the thin film which it is made up of, it is very flexible. It can be moved around in any which direction, while also making holes in the product. More of this can be seen at a previous article posted, ‘OLED Screen so Flexible and Thin it Blows in the Wind’. This flexibility paves the way for more creative displays of lighting, rather than the simple displays of the LED. OLED technology is on its way to becoming an important part of our everyday lives’ and here are some ways how.
5 Ways OLED Technology Will Change the Way You Live
Mark your calendars! The business case for ‘smart infrastructure’ has been made by one of the world’s biggest companies. On November 6th, IBM CEO Sam Palmisano delivered a speech (text / video) at the New York Council on Foreign Relations. Palmisano highlighted ‘Big Blue’s vision of a ‘Smart Planet’ and the tremendous near term opportunities in building out the global smart infrastructures for energy, water, information, and transportation of people and goods.
Palmisano echoed a vision described by visionaries and futurists long ago of a ‘digital planet’. Now we might expect broader endorsements for ‘smart infrastructure’ by mainstream business and policy leaders especially in the US under the incoming Obama Adminstration. We can also build more reliable forecasts and roadmaps based on expectations for investments and application of technologies that improve the flow of traffic (without adding more lanes), more efficient energy grids, wider access to clean water and food, improved personal safety, and more secure information flows around financial, governance, and healthcare information.
Quotes from Palmisano’s address: What’s making this possible? First, our world is becoming instrumented
“There will likely be 4 billion mobile phone subscribers by the end of this year… and 30 billion Radio Frequency Identification tags produced globally within two years. Sensors are being embedded across entire ecosystems—supply-chains, healthcare networks, cities… even natural systems like rivers.“
Second, our world is becoming interconnected
“Very soon there will be 2 billion people on the Internet. But in an instrumented world, systems and objects can now “speak” to one another, too. Think about the prospect of a trillion connected and intelligent things—cars, appliances, cameras, roadways, pipelines… even pharmaceuticals and livestock.“
Third, all things are becoming intelligent
“New computing models can handle the proliferation of end-user devices, sensors and actuators and connect them with back-end systems. Combined with advanced analytics, those supercomputers can turn mountains of data into intelligence that can be translated into action, making our systems, processes and infrastructures more efficient, more productive and responsive—in a word, smarter.“
Michigan-based ECD Ovonic solar subsidiary Uni-Solar has signed a multi-year agreement with an Italian steel and metal materials company to build solar rooftop materials used in onsite power generation. Marcegaglia expects to introduce the low cost, durable thin film solar metal roofing products to the market in 2010. [Image shown from Spain factory installation]
Why is this important to the future of energy?
Energy entrepreneurs are thinking beyond power generation via large, expensive centralized power plants. The alternative is expanding the world’s capacity for ‘distributed power generation’ based on low cost solar, micro-wind, fuel cells, and micro turbines. These systems could soon provide a small percentage of power generation, but enough to reduce demand on power plants during ‘peak power demand’ periods, and lower our threat of grid failure by storing and producing energy at the local level. Why not tap square footage of rooftops?
Thin film solar based on plastic substrates are less efficient than traditional glass-based photovoltaic panels, but they are much cheaper and more durable. By layering, or ‘printing’, thin film solar modules onto rooftop materials we can bring solar power to buildings around the world at a low cost.
What if you could charge your portable device simply by having it move around in your pocket while you walk?
Texas A&M Professor Tahir Cagin believes that piezeoelectric materials, that convert motion into electric currents could be closer to applied applications thanks to their recent design breakthrough. (Not Image shown)
Professor Cagin and partners from the University of Houston are using piezoelectric material that can covert energy at a 100 percent increase when manufactured at a very small size – in this case, around 21 nanometers in thickness.
"When materials are brought down to the nanoscale dimension, their properties for some performance characteristics dramatically change," said Cagin who is a past recipient of the prestigious Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology. "One such example is with piezoelectric materials. We have demonstrated that when you go to a particular length scale – between 20 and 23 nanometers – you actually improve the energy-harvesting capacity by 100 percent.
"We're studying basic laws of nature such as physics and we're trying to apply that in terms of developing better engineering materials, better performing engineering materials. We're looking at chemical constitutions and physical compositions. And then we're looking at how to manipulate these structures so that we can improve the performance of these materials."
"Even the disturbances in the form of sound waves such as pressure waves in gases, liquids and solids may be harvested for powering nano- and micro devices of the future if these materials are processed and manufactured appropriately for this purpose," Cagin said.
Why is this important to the future? Micro power systems are in high demand for portable gadgets and sensors like RFID tags used on products in 'smart supply chain' logistics. While batteries and micro fuel cells might be required for higher demand applications, piezeoelectric systems could find a role in the world of micro-power.
MIT researchers are keeping hope alive in the long quest for fusion energy. Researchers have advanced our ability to harnesses one of the most complicated forms of energy science in the universe, but add a word of caution that real scalable reactors could still be 'decades away' as all eyes now focus on the ITER in France.
Fusion systems could generate enormous amounts of energy by tapping the same types of reactions found within stars. It has long been considered a 'holy grail' category within the energy sector because it produces no emissions or real waste, and its fuel sources are abundant.
MIT's Alcator C-Mod reactor has been in operation since 1993 and has the highest magnetic field and the highest plasma pressure of any fusion reactor in the world. It is also the largest fusion reactor operated by any university. [Image from MIT Fusion Movie]
Now MIT researchers believe they may have solved one of the most challenging problems how to propel the hot plasma (an electrically charged gas) around inside the donut-shaped reactor chamber so that the chamber doesn't lose its heat of millions of degrees to the cooler vessel walls.
"There's been a lot of progress," says physicist Earl Marmar, division head of the Alcator Project at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC). "We're learning a lot more about the details of how these things work."
The Power of Radio waves Physicist Yijun Lin and principal research scientist John Rice now describe a very efficient method for using radio-frequency waves to push the plasma around inside the vessel, not only keeping it from losing heat to the walls but also preventing internal turbulence that can reduce the efficiency of fusion reactions.
"That's very important," Marmar says, because presently used techniques to push the plasma will not work in future, higher-power reactors such as the plannedITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) now under construction in France, and so new methods must be found. "People have been trying to do this for decades."
Let's think beyond simply trying to find new ways to produce more energy, and focus on ways of storing energy. Why? Because this expands ways for us to produce more energy! Confused?
Solar and wind alone are a hard sell to utility providers because of intermittent production when the sun isn't shining or wind doesn't blow. Add utility scale storage to solar and wind farms, and you have a more valuable proposition.
Battery powered cars sound great, but not if we have to plug in our vehicles every 50 or 100 miles. Or what about a new iPhone with a battery that cannot last the entire day.
We have written dozens of posts on energy storage and believe it deserves much more attention from the media and policy leaders. 2009 could be a turning point for awareness around the importance of enabling next generation batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.
List of 20+ Energy Breakthroughs in Batteries, Fuel cells, and Capacitors
Most new technology platforms must walk up the stages of the 'Hype Cycle', and confront our tendency to overestimate short-term change, but underestimate the long term potential.
Fuel cells are this decade's poster child for failing to meet expectations of the Hype Cycle. But there are positive signs of progress.
PC World is reporting that Toshiba plans to release its first commercial version of a Direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) battery recharger by the end of the first business quarter.
Micro Fuel cells help you unplug Micro power applications are widely considered to be the first market application for fuel cells. Dozens of startups and incumbent energy companies are developing micro methanol fuel cells as portable power solutions that help us 'unplug everything'.
Rather than carry around a charger+cord, you could carry a small fuel cell to recharge. Of course the idea of a fuel cell battery recharger is still a strange concept to consumers, and could remain an early adopter niche product.
The inevitable step for micro fuel cells is to replace batteries entirely. To arrive at this future, hardware makers must integrate MFCs into products, and consumers must be able to buy small fuel cartridges (e.g. liquid methanol, solid hydrogen) on every retail shelf. Until that day, the 'recharger' concept is the industry's best option.
Batteries & Fuel cells are like Peanut Butter and Jelly, not Oil and Water
The world economy would be better off to move beyond combustion conversion towards more efficient, non-mechanical, and modular electrochemical conversion devices like fuel cells. (This doesn't require pure hydrogen, since you can still use hydrocarbon fuels.)
But I admit that diesel engines are not going away anytime soon, so efforts to improve efficiency for industrial applications could move us further down the road.
Now scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have created the first three-dimensional simulation that fully resolves flame features, such as chemical composition, temperature profile and flow characteristics in diesel engines. Their efforts could lead to new lower temperature engine designs that are more efficent.
3D Models / 120 Terabytes of Data Reveals Combustion Process Unfolding
[Note: Sadly, this is a Production chart focused on alternative 'decline rates', and does not include Global Demand forecasts. Only know that there is a gap in any scenario!]
The upside of 'Peak Oil Production' is that it might be a more effective message than Climate Change in spurring dramatic changes to our transportation sector. The worst case 'peak production' scenario is that it might remain marginalized among mainstream audiences and political leaders just long enough to really matter. What if confusion reigns?
People might confuse the idea of 'running out of oil' (not true) with the reality that global production is not keeping up with increasing demand. People might place misguided hope into potential 'solutions' like solar or nuclear that have nothing to do with liquid fuel markets. You cannot put electricity into a gas tank!
Why Data Has Replaced 'Assumptions' & Why 'Peak and Plateau' Matters
GM & Segway are hoping to commercialize a new category of smart micro-vehicles for urban environments by 2012 (See previous post). I love the application of Segway software, but am skeptical of a 'plug in' battery version.
I'm not sure how many wall sockets are accessible to urban dwellers who don't have garages! So I love the idea, but think the real potential is the 'access' business model. Let's keep the PUMA owned and operated by mobility service companies, not urban dwellers themselves!
Information about new forms of renewable energy seems to come
out in waves. A few months ago, solar was everywhere. Now, I’m
seeing a lot about energy derived from water. In particular, two
projects caught my eye, one in Ireland and the other in South
Korea. Both operate on the premise of harnessing the power of
fast-moving tidal streams to generate electricity.
In Northern Ireland, Marine Current
Turbines is planning to have the world’s first tidal stream
device up and running this Monday. The SeaGen turbine is being
installed in the mouth of Strangford Lough – one of the fastest
tidal flows – giving it the capacity to provide sustainable
electricity to about 1,000 homes. The company believes it can
improve the technology significantly, so that one turbine could
power over 400,000 homes by 2015.