AC/DC 101

Much of your editor’s reporting in 2012 focused on the re-emergence of direct current or DC power — through pieces in IEEE Spectrum, Technology Review, and Power & Energy Magazine — and there is more in the works. Some of you, however, may still be wondering what DC power is and how it differs from the alternating current or AC power flowing from most electrical sockets. So here are some answers.

The questions were posed by Andrew Huang, a 9th grader at High Technology High School in Lincroft, NJ, who recently interviewed me for a history project on Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison’s late-19th Century War of Currents. (Check out The Oatmeal’s Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived for a rather tilted yet entertaining take on a key combattant in this epic tech tussle.)

What are some differences between the physics of AC and DC? Continue reading

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

Subversive Additives to Save the “Cash-for-Clunkers” Bill

Bike parking in Freiburg Germany COPYRIGHT P FAIRLEYProspects for a “cash-for-clunkers” bill to stimulate new car sales in the U.S. are dimming amid dissatisfaction with the law’s slim environmental benefits. There are some creative options available to green the bill.

As Energywise reported, representatives in the House led by Michigan Democrat John Dingell converged on an automotive scrappage bill earlier this month that would provide cash vouchers worth up to $4,500 to buyers of new cars and trucks that get at least 22 miles to the gallon if they scrap an old one that gets no more than 18 mpg. Duke University researchers estimate that the reduced energy consumption from such a swap would make up for the energy required to manufacture the vehicle. But some senators were hoping for a more.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein is leading the charge. Continue reading

GPS-enabled Software Boosts Hybrid Vehicle Efficiency

Mechatronics meets the plug-in hybrid this month at IEEE Spectrum Online:

Drivers use all manner of data these days to travel efficiently, and vehicles should follow their lead, according to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee mechatronics expert Yaoyu Li. He predicts that vehicles privy to data in the latest GPS-enabled electronic navigators — which download real-time traffic data to update route suggestions on the fly — will provide substantial fuel savings in the decades to come.

That’s because:

An uninformed plug-in is almost certain to discharge its battery power either too quickly or too slowly. If it simply uses the battery until it is discharged, it will lack an electric option for later stop-and-go situations where running the internal combustion engine is inefficient. Alternatively, if the plug-in acts like a conventional hybrid and lives in the moment, blending its electric and gasoline energy based on the driving conditions that second, it is likely to arrive at its destination with leftover battery charge. Either way, the plug-in will have consumed more gasoline than necessary.

Continue reading

Nukes, Gas, Oil and Coal All Losers in EU Energy Strategy

The European Commission issued its Strategic Energy Review yesterday, proposing energy efficiency investments, a shift to alternative fuel vehicles to end oil dependence in transport, and more aggressive deployment of renewable energy and carbon capture and storage to “decarbonise” the EU electricity supply. Figuring prominantly among its first six “priorities essential for the EU’s energy security” are the North Sea offshore electric power supergrid that Energywise covered in September and the Mediterranean Ring electric interconnection of Europe and North Africa that I’ve been harping on this week. 

The EC energy strategy not only endorses the MedRing, but views it as a component of a future supergrid traversing Europe and stretching beyond the Mediterranean to Iraq, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.

How would this new vision (and $100/barrel oil) alter the complexion of European energy consumption? The energy review projects that by 2020 total energy demand drops from the equivalent of 1811 metric tons of oil in 2005 to 1672 MTOE in 2020. Demand met by renewables such as wind, solar and hydro more than doubles in real terms from 123 to 274 MTOE, while their share of total demand leaps from 6.8% to 16.4%. Imported renewables – with the MedRing delivering North African wind and solar power – jump 10-fold from 0.8% in 2005 to 8.8% in 2020.

Oil, gas, coal and nuclear, meanwhile, all see a diminished role, both in real terms and as a share of European energy demand. Interestingly the role of natural gas – the low-carbon fossil fuel – drops the most, from 25% to 21%, reflecting EU concern over dependence on gas imports from Russia. Nuclear’s share drops the least, from just slightly over to slightly under 14% of demand; this assumes that nuclear phaseout plans, particularly Germany’s, are followed through. 

How to make it all come true? Accompanying the EC review is a ‘green paper‘ (the EU’s unbleached alternative terminology for what we’d call a ‘white paper’) outlining a variety of new regulatory and financial mechanisms. The EU is already a world leader in terms of incentives for lower carbon energy with strong price supports for solar and wind and a carbon cap and trade program up and running (though still lacking teeth as my Energywise colleague Bill Sweet notes). However, the energy review warns that the primarily national-level financing that drives energy projects today are inadequate to drive infrastructure that is pan-European or larger. A perfect example is the massive investment in high-voltage dc lines needed to turn the MedRing into a bulk power mover (see the second half of our feature on MedRing: “Closing the Circuit”). 

Even less viable under existing financing mechanisms are those projects that entail considerable “non-commercial risks” such as threats of political instability or terrorism. Did someone say North Africa?

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This post was created for EnergywiseIEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Physicists Talk Tough on Efficiency and The War

I recall well a meeting of journalists at the Kennedy School of Government in 2003 where I was regarded as a wingnut + conspiracy theorist for seeing a linkage between U.S. intransigence on greenhouse gas controls and the War in Iraq. Never have I felt as alienated as an American intellectual. These days I reflect instead on how far the national conversation has come in the years since. I happened upon the latest sign of hope quite unexpectedly in a report on energy efficiency issued earlier this month by the American Physical Society: “Energy = Future. Think efficiency.” 

I’d been feeling guilty about letting the APS report pass by without a mention. Energy efficiency is a tough story for journalists — making do with less energy simply lacks the sex appeal of faster cars or new power generating technologies such as high-tech techniques for pollution-free coal power or the latest in photovoltaics. And yet, as the APS rightly points out, the U.S. is in a better position than most countries to meet its need for clean, domestic energy by squeezing a bigger bang out of every joule of energy consumed.

What will be useful about the APS report is its explicit connection between the technologies available to boost efficiency in the key sectors of transportation and buildings, and the shortcomings in science & technology policy that thwart their ready adoption or rapid adoption.

But what I really appreciated was the no-nonsense manner in which the analysis unfolds. The relatively frank prose of the executive summary (considering the genre) sets the stage for what follows:

“Nowhere is the standard of living more rooted in energy than in the United States, and, with its defense forces deployed in the most distant regions around the world, nowhere is the security of a nation more dependent on energy…Yet only in times of extreme turbulence — the OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo in 1973, the overthrow of the shah of Iran in 1979 and the Persian Gulf War in 1991 — when public frustration became politically intolerable did American officials devote serious attention to energy policy. Although some of the policy initiatives yielded significant benefits, others were left on the drafting board as the nation reverted to a business-as-usual energy routine once the turbulence passed and public dissatisfaction dissipated.”

How refreshing. Now, let’s get to work.

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This post was created for Tech Talk - Insights into tomorrow’s technology from the editors of IEEE Spectrum.

A Power Grid Smartens Up

That’s the headline that an editor at MIT Technology Review popped onto my story (topping TechReview.com today) on a project to turn Boulder, Colorado’s power system into the world’s smartest grid. The punch phrase would be pronounced ‘schmahten up’ by my old boss at Ferranti-Dege, a professional photo shop in Harvard Square that finally gave way to the digital revolution and Boston’s soaring property values just a few years ago. And Bill’s sentiment would fit perfectly: You know how to do it right, so get to it.

Electrical engineers have the wherewithal to install smart meters and otherwise upgrade our power grids to deliver power more efficiently and accomodate intermittent but clean renewable energy. As utility IT chief Mike Carlson told me this week: “We’re not talking the Jetsons or Star Wars here.”

What is needed–and where Carlson’s project for Xcel Energy truly innovates–is a way of getting the required demonstrations paid for. To date conservative public utility commissions in state capitols around the country have been relucant to finance much-needed investments in grid modernization, without the kind of proof that Xcel hopes its Boulder project will provide.

That’s an emerging theme: Public utility commissions have immense control over investment in power infrastructure, but have a bottom-line mentality that tends to override environmental concerns. This is one factor delaying adotpion of coal gasification technology for power plants. The coal gasification or IGCC power plants are cleaner-burning but more expensive to build up front and, barring an EPA mandate to even consider the technology, public utility commissions have been relucant to approve the extra expense. 

For the full scoop on Boulder’s smart grid, click “A Power Grid Smartens Up”

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