Next Generation Energy

I recently attended a fascinating seminar on emerging technology in energy. Here are some of my notes and thoughts on the next generation of energy:

Energy Harvesting

My favorite new term. It refers to using existing energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal, thermo) and turning them into electricity to feed the grid. Pretty much covers all the new energy sources. Excludes coal, nuclear, etc.

Smart Grid

Apparently, its just a dream.

Obama is pushing it and so is Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. All reasonable folk expect this is to be the foundation of our energy future. Without a modern grid we have no hope of utilizing the latest innovations. It would be like giving jet fuel to a horse drawn carriage.

Future, hah!, says the wizened gentleman behind me. He begins to explain his reaction after telling me he left the business and is only attending this seminar for nostalgia purposes. Suspect. He relates that the grid is already smart on a macro level. Utilities know how to share power, monitor, and get it to needed locations. What we are talking about is the micro level and involves pushing that technology to every city, home, and building. An expensive feat that will probably never result from government or utility spending.

More to be explained on that in following section.

What is a big deal then? Energy storage on the grid. If we are over-producing solar power in hot deserts and wind power at night, where will at all go. Our current infrastructure does not have an ability to use/transport/store this energy supply. If we can figure out a way to get the energy to high population areas then our grid will be smart.

Smart Metering

This is where the real change is happening. Power outlets with remote controls. Home appliances with timers. Motion sensors. Sleep modes for computers.

All of these involve the new energy monitoring lifestyle. They give us an opportunity to take control of our energy use.  A lot of us want more and this where smart metering comes into play. Hook up all those devices to a software package and you get data heaven. Charts, graphs, recommendations. This seems to be where the juice is (pardon the pun).

Google is offering a software package, called Power Meter, and partnering with Energy, Inc. Their product, the TED5000, has been flying off the shelves for over a year now. It appears that this version of the smart grid, one that is decentralized and at the individual level will be driving the market for years to come.

PV – Photo Voltaic

The process of converting solar energy into electricity. We all know about this and see it on many roofs. For many years the market has been stuck growing at a snails pace. New investments were needed to make this energy type economical. Now we are starting to see that and many seem to be surprised that the former ceiling of 20% (solar energy to electrical energy conversion) is being broken. Wikipedia tells us (with sourcing) that:

Photovoltaic production has been doubling every 2 years, increasing by an average of 48 percent each year since 2002, making it the world’s fastest-growing energy technology. At the end of 2008, the cumulative global PV installations reached 15,200 megawatts.

Second Generation PV

As the investments ramp up the technological innovation is booming. Folks with pent up projects are finally getting dollars (or more likely Yuan) to operationalize their theories. A big group of these innovations are centered around ultra-thin, low cost solar arrays. Instead of the bulky flat panels we will get complex micro solar panels with interesting features like: solar tracking (panels follow the sun), economies of scale (driving down cost), and mirrors (increasing efficiency through reflecting). Our presenter mentioned that these second generation panels have the capability to drive down costs to match that of nuclear and coal power.

Third Generation PV

This one feels more like a laboratory study than a real consumer product. Still their are companies releasing this on the market and our presenter even said that it is in calculators now. This grouping of PV focuses on the materials used to create solar panels. Searching for organic, nano, and molecular replacements for the raw materials (silicon, cadmium, lithium) that we use now. Definitely a major need since many of the raw materials used for solar panels are rare and sometimes for rogue states.

20% Problem

Touched on this a bit before. It boils down to a maximum reached by first generation solar panels. For many years their maximum solar to electrical conversion was 20%, with 80% lost/wasted. In comparison to coal and nuclear, which are 60-70%, this makes solar 3x as expensive and require 3x as many panels/turbines/etc.

The 2/3rd generation technologies mentioned above easily breach the 20% ceiling. One already at 35% through stacking panels, utilizing off band (UV) rays, and mirrors. I expect it wont be long until that number is doubled.

NIMBY

Not in my backyard. This is representing a real problem. In the coming years we will ‘plant’ thousands of solar panels and wind turbines. Few are happy to have them muddy up their roof or beautiful view.

Even worse this backlash is fostering more support for nuclear power plants. They don’t have to go in your backyard!

I just wish somebody would think long term on this. Nuclear Waste. Nuclear Countries. Nuclear Weapon. Not sure we need more nuclear in our lives, especially if the alternative is just a solar panel.

ARPA-E

Maybe you have heard of DARPA, an uber-advanced military research group that created the internet, builds robots, and many other amazing innovations. the Department of Energy has created ARPA-E which stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. A place to conceptualize and test the advanced energy projects of the future.

Wireless Sensors

Wireless sensors presents a massive new industry of tiny sensors that require little energy. They serve a simple function which is to turn on, send data, and shut down. They only turn on when activated and gather a specific amount of data to transmit. After transmission they shut back down.

This allows them to be placed nearly anywhere and even form a mesh network. Activate one sensor that passes data and/or activation signal to the next one. In a few minutes you can have data from thousands of sensors. My brother wrote a dissertation on this using planes as an example. Place a sensor on all critical plane equipment. When the plane lands activate the sensors and get a status report on the plane.

Wireless Electricity

Wireless charging is coming. At the recent CES it was the rage. Consumer products are on the market. An MIT startup, Witricity, has several patents and deals with government, industry, and consumables. Hooray for the day when we are free from our cable jungles.

Graphene

A new material created in the lab with amazingly sophisticated microscopes that can be manipulated into a ridiculous array of uses. The presenter showed it as rope, tires, and even circuits. He passed around prints, stickers, rope, and cardboard made out of graphene. It appears to be the next gore-tex, or material than can be turned into anything. Cheap and moldable. It will be fun to see how this material is used.

Gadgets Porn

After listening to the first of two episodes on Real Deal about gadget obessiveness, I decided to rummage through my collection. Turns out I have little to nothing in gadget porn. I guess my minimalist strategy is working well. Here it is:

Despite there only being 8 items on the list I don’t feel deprived. They are awesome and my favorites. Mostly expensive and catered to my individual hobbies:

  • Movies, Internet, & Podcasts

An interesting note is that as recently as 6 months ago, I had way more stuff. Due to a combination of craigslist, amazon, and ebay, I’ve offloaded all my old stuff for a good return on value. Which in turn has allowed me to purchase more, creating a sort of tech-geek life cycle.

2008 Xmas Wish List

I love gadget dreams. I was looking over my old dreams from Jan of this year (2008) and realized how much I have changed in the last 11 months. Of the 7 things I was dreaming about, I only got one!

  • Media Center PC
  • A Robot
  • Wireless iTunes Sync
  • 5 Wireless Devices (already had 3: iPhone, Lappy, Bluetooth)
  • New Laptop
  • High Def DVD
  • Xbox 360

The one dream that I satisfied was a new lappy. I’m typing on it right now, my MacBook Air. Of the other dreams only one carries over, but it has changed from a media center PC to a Mac Mini. I think the new list represents a change in my dreams: basic gadgets –> gadget hobbies: movies and music.

Here is the new list for Xmas 2008:

Well, that’s it. I am super stoked about the list. I can’t wait to go browsing and learning about which ones I want, and then add them to my Amazon Wish List. Yay!

My Amazon.com Wish List

Gadgets Dreams for 2008

The recent CES convention that I have been following prompted me to write up my 2008 gadget resolutions. Their are so many things I want!

Media Center PC

Currently, I take my laptop plug it into my LCD, switch over to projector mode, and then play content. I have no remote and my laptop is effectively locked for the duration of the show. I want a dedicated PC for my TV. I would need to have wireless connectivity, a remote, and small size. I will only be using it for streaming content, although, it would be nice to have some storage space. I’m not really into the “ownership” thing, I just want to watch tv. Still storing my epic music collection would be cool, especially hooked up to the surround sound.

A Robot

Will this be the year I get one? He (or she?) will need to be able to recharge himself. I don’t want to come home and find him powerless in the middle of the floor. Plus, he will need to be dog/cat friendly. Maybe he will need to battle with them, or maybe just keep them occupied for a few hours. In fact, if that is all he does I would be happy. Maybe he will do some household duties (vacuuming), play music on command (I’ll ask nicely), or just be a third pet (I always wanted a gecko).

Wireless iTunes Sync

Podcasts, I love them. iTunes I love you. Both of you work very hard to get me the content I want. You consantly update and are always full of new content. Too bad I only get a change to “sync” with you every few days. Wouldn’t it be nice to just drop my Apple gear close by, auto-sync, and then be good to go?

5 Wireless Devices

I am close. I have 3: my laptop, iphone, and bluetooth headset. What will be my next two? Hopefully a media center pc and robot!

New Laptop

My current baby (Dell XPS M170) got its first “slap in the face” in 2007. Guitar Hero 3 said that she wasn’t good enough for it. Stupid game requires dual core processors. Regardless, techies around the world know that as soon as you feel the “out of date” wave coming, it’s time to start shopping. For me, I want a cool Apple laptop or a PC gaming laptop…

High Def DVD & Xbox 360

These are my last wishes (for now). I don’t care which format I get, I just hope the industry sorts itself out this year, so I can buy one. Also, I will finally have to decide whether I want a Wii or 360…I can’t decide!!