Turning E-Waste into LIght

Bangalore street vendor with battery-powered light SOURCE IBM Research India

Bangalore street vendor with battery-powered light. Source: IBM Research India

Bangalore-based IBM Research India has a bright idea for keeping discarded lithium laptop batteries out of landfills: repurposing their cells as energy supplies for the powerless. The idea, presented at this weekend’s fifth annual Symposium on Computing for Development (DEV 2014) in San Jose, has passed a small proof-of-principle test run with Bangalore’s working poor.

The IBM researchers used disused lithium batteries to create a new device they dubbed the UrJar—a multilingual monicker uniting the Hindi word urjafor energy with jar. Hardware R&D firm Radio Studio, India, built the units.  The first phase was tear-down. Radio Studio disassembled laptop batteries to isolate those cells that could still hold several hours’ worth of charge—over 60 percent of cells on average, according to their sampling.
urjar_1Cells that passed quality control were repackaged in a housing with basic electronics [image left], starting with a charging circuit to limit the rate and level of charge on the lithium cells and thus minimize fire risk. Buck converters and a boost circuit feed power jacks for a variety of DC devices including cell phones, LED lights and small fans.

Testing by one non-electrified Bangalore resident and four street vendors led to favorable feedback after use of an UrJar for between one week and three months. One street vendor, who previously relied on a battery-powered compact fluorescent light at night, reported that he could keep his shop open two hours longer by using the UrJar powering an LED light.

Mohit Jain, a member of the IBM group, told Technology Review that “the main request was for rat-resistant wires and brighter bulbs.”

At a produciton volume of 100 they figure they can turn out UrJars, including a 3 W LED light and a mobile charger, for 600 rupee ($9.70). That is one half to one-third the cost of the rechargeable portable lighting devices marketed in Bangalore, most of which use shorter-lived lead acid batteries. Participants in the IBM study reported they would pay 1,000 rupees to own an UrJar.

That suggests there could be plenty of demand. According to the IBM paper there are more than 400 million people in India without power, including 45 percent of rural households. They envision rural residents charging UrJars at centralized solar-power stations.

There is certainly no shortage of tossed batteries to fuel this vision. The IBM paper estimates that 142,000 computers are discarded daily in the U.S. alone, while one large multinational’s India operations alone discarded more than 10 metric tons of laptop batteries last year.

BBC highlighted India’s growing indigenous e-waste problem in reporting on the UrJar last week, citing one estimate that its IT sector generates 32 metric tons of e-waste per day. That’s a lot of UrJars.

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

Internet-Exposed Energy Control Systems Abound

Two-and-a-half years ago researchers at Chicago-based cyber security firm Infracritical set out to measure how many industrial control systems are openly exposed to the Internet. Their disquieting findings are up for discussion today at the 2014 ICS Cyber Security Conference in Atlanta.

Infracritical remotely identified over 2.2 million unique IP addresses linked to industrial control systems at energy-related sites including electrical substations, wind farms, and water purification plants. And they were still logging an average of 2,000-3,000 new addresses per day when they closed the count in January 2014.

“We never reached bottom,” says Infracritical cofounder Bob Radvanovsky, an expert in securing supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. Continue reading

Nuclear Shutdowns Put Belgians and Britons on Blackout Alert

Doel nuclear power plant by Lennart Tange

Doel nuclear power plant. Credit: Lennart Tange

A bad year for nuclear power producers has Belgians and Britons shivering more vigorously as summer heat fades into fall. Multiple reactor shutdowns in both countries have heightened concern about the security of power supplies when demand spikes this winter.

In Belgium, rolling blackouts are already part of this winter’s forecast because three of the country’s largest reactors — reactors that normally provide one-quarter of Belgian electricity — are shut down. Continue reading

Germany’s Grid: Renewables-Rich and Rock-Solid

Grid graph German Energy TransitionLast Friday Germany’s grid regulator released the 2013 data for grid reliability, and the figures have renewable energy advocates crowing. The latest numbers (released in German) reveal no sign of growing instability despite record levels of renewable energy on the grid — 28.5 percent of the power supplied in the first half of 2014. In fact, Germany’s grid is one of the world’s most reliable. Continue reading

Amid Blackouts, India’s New Leader Vows 24-7 Power for All

Blackouts this week in New Delhi and surrounding states are providing a dramatic backdrop for a bold promise by India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party swept to power in a landslide election last month. As a scorching heatwave drove power consumption beyond the grid’s capacity, Modi’s government vowed to deliver “round-the-clock power for all by 2022,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

That will be an awesome task. Nearly one-quarter of India’s 1.26 billion citizens lack grid access. And India’s utilities have struggled to keep up with demand from those who are connected. Power cuts are frequent. Continue reading

Time to Rightsize the Grid?

Does Size Matter Source CarrerasLast week a team of systems scientists known for counter-intuitive insights on power grids delivered a fresh one that questions one of the tenets of grid design: bigger grids, they argue, may not make for better grids. University of Iowa electrical engineering professor Ian Dobson and physicists David Newman and Ben Carreras make the case for optimal sizing of power grids in last week’s issue of the nonlinear sciences journal Chaos.

In a nutshell, the systems scientists use grid modeling to show that grid benefits such as frequency stabilization and power trading can be outweighed by the debilitating impacts of big blackouts. As grids grow larger, they become enablers for ever larger cascading blackouts. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was a classic case. From a tripped line in northern Ohio, the outage cascaded in all directions to unplug more than 50 million people from western Michigan and Toronto to New York City. Continue reading

Minnesota Finds Net Metering Undervalues Rooftop Solar

Utilities should be paying more for their customers’ surplus solar power generation according to a solar pricing scheme approved by Minnesota’s Public Utility Commission last month and expected to be finalized in early April. Minnesota’s move marks the first state-level application of the ‘value of solar’ approach, which sets a price by accounting for rooftop solar power’s net benefits, pioneered by the municipal utility in Austin, TX.

Minnesota is one of 43 U.S. states that requires utilities to pay retail rates for surplus solar power that their customers put on the grid. Utilities across the U.S. are fighting such net metering rules, arguing that they fail to compensate the utility for services that their grid provides to the distributed generator. So last year pro-solar activists and politicians in Minnesota called the utilities’ bluff, passing legislation tasking the state’s Department of Commerce with calculating the true value of rooftop solar power. Continue reading