Monday, April 28, 2014

Fuel Cell vs Solar

Continuing the subject of future mobility (see also 90% Rule) here are a couple more examples, which are hopefully not a very distant future after all.  

Toyota is pushing its FCV hydrogen fuel cell concept car. (A side note - it doesn't look like your typical Corolla, does it?)

Ford comes up with a solar powered car, charged by a special canopy with Fresnel lenses.

Interesting to see which technology will eventually become a disruptive innovation?

Should some day write about self-driving cars...

Monday, April 21, 2014

Energy: Choices we make. Part 2

In the Part 1 of this series we were looking at some of the energy alternatives offered today. What conclusion we can make?

Is there any pure "clean" technology - the one which would not burn fossil fuels creating pollution and greenhouse effect, would not use toxic materials, would not require destructive mining to extract rare minerals and would not jeopardize valuable land and habitat? If you pay any attention to the recent debates about technology and energy in particular, you would be inclined to answer No. May be cold fusion or antimatter are the answer, but if we want to be realistic, we should be able to implement the solution on a global (or at least national) scale within a reasonable time frame and without exhausting all national resources.
What do we have to do then to satisfy our thirst for energy and not to kill ourselves and the planet? Can we do anything, is there any answer? I take a liberty to argue Yes, there is. And I am not asking you to turn off all the lights, stop manufacturing goods and go hunting and gathering.

The answer is Systems Architecture, specifically its principles of modularity and evolvability. Let's look again at my favorite example of aviation history. Did jumbo jets carrying 300-400 people appear first, or they were preceded by evolution of the technology? Note that any technology evolution - similar to its biological counterpart - is not straightforward. In the case of aviation, planes with piston engines and propellers were gradually becoming bigger, faster and more capable until they reached their ceiling of capability. By that time the new type of engine - jet - had been introduced into aviation. It became a disruptive innovation - first in military airplanes, initially in those requiring speed the most, fighters, then gradually in all others, until jet aircraft became dominant in aviation. Do you know however that before the airplanes era, lighter than air vehicles were flourishing and were promising to become the major means in military and civilian applications? Pictures of gigantic airships carrying thousands of passengers were on the pages of futuristic and scientific magazines. Did that promise materialize? It didn't! Not unlike their biological cousins - dinosaurs - they were wiped out and replaced by more advanced, heavier than air "species" - airplanes.

Clean energy should come through the similar path. Why do we need to build enormous wind turbines (or even fields of them), solar farms taking large areas or super-expensive geothermal plants (not even talking about nuclear plants, especially in the areas with known seismic activity)? We know all these technologies are still far from perfect! Economy of scale you say? This argument however makes sense only for the producer (or rater a seller) of the particular technology - be it wind turbines, PV  modules or other. But what if we consider side effects mentioned above, add long time to construct and commission and then wait many years for payback? A recent study in Iceland shows that it may be more efficient to build several wellhead geothermal generators one at a time rather than one big geothermal field plant because they can be implemented sooner. One big plant requires long transmission lines with all associated cost and operation losses. For some new technologies (e.g. hydrogen fuel transport) extensive infrastructure has to be built to replace existing one. But what if the path chosen is a dead end like airships? What if, for example tomorrow's fuel cell technology would not require an extensive infrastructure while we will have already heavily invested in it? It is a missed opportunity and wasted resources...

I believe the focus should be on small-scale technologies but implemented incrementally. Being small means less expensive, therefore can be built with less capital and faster. Being small also means more flexible, i.e. fitting much wider range of applications. For example, a small solar thermal system with optimized configuration and adaptive real-time control can provide hot water and/or space heating not only for a big commercial building, but to a single-family residential house, for a temporary accommodation in a logging or exploration camp and even as a mobile platform for rapid deployment in military or disaster relief operations. Small unit (module ) can be easily repaired, replaced, moved or upgraded. Multiple modules can be connected in an array for increased capacity. Importantly, the technology can be improved, made more efficient, compact, less expensive etc. and expandable without dramatic disruption which would be the case for a large centralized system. This works similarly for small wind turbines, where we might find that vertical axis turbine provide better efficiency vs. traditional horizontal axis propeller due to its omnidirectional sensitivity, lower operating speed and less impact on birds. Micro-hydro can be implemented in many more places than a huge dam, without a need to flood big areas. And so on.

What is especially important, decentralized energy system - and I am speaking in general terms - makes it more resilient against fluctuations of the load in the "grid" of any kind, robust to the point of autonomy, in case of a technical failure, an environmental disaster or a terrorist act.       
I see energy of the future not as one or few super hubs distributing energy at their own will, but rather as many smaller individual energy sources each controlled by its own smart control system, but all connected in the intelligent network sharing information between each other about their performance, consumption pattern and other important data such as weather, solar irradiance etc. leading to much better overall efficiency.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Energy: Choices we make

“All serious mistakes are made on the day One. Worse yet, you may have to live with them for decades”. This was said about project development, but can also be applied to political decisions and national strategy.

The case in point: Australian National Broadband Network.

Canada (as the rest of the world) is currently at a crossroad in respect to its long-term national energy strategy. What choice will we make? Here are some of the possible options:


Coal is one of the traditional and still the "cheapest" sources of energy. It is however recognized even by its proponents that its impact on the environment, mostly  CO2 emissions, is not something which can be ignored. The so called "clean coal" is only a temporary solution - as its business case based on the purchasing of the recycled CO2 by the oil industry (see Clean Coal - Is It for Real?)  - until other alternatives will make it unnecessary and obsolete.   


It seems the world turned 180 degrees since just few years ago since the new reserves and new technologies of extracting oil and natural gas came to light. We seem to forget the concept of the "oil peak" popular a decade ago and tend to ignore now that even with comparatively lower direct CO2 emissions from natural gas there are many other negative factors associated with the oil and natural gas, particularly methane (which has 23 times more greenhouse potential than natural gas itself) and other harmful bi-products. What especially bothers me is that choosing this way will only prolong our addiction to fossil fuels and divert resources and capital from developing real clean alternatives - thus making inevitable migration away from fossil fuels in the future more painful      
Safety is an additional - and ever increasing concern. The oil and gas extracted from Northern Alberta or other places has to be delivered to the processing plants and eventually to their end-users. Pipelines are susceptible to leaks and to terrorism. Delivery by train carries an inherent danger which was tragically demonstrated by the derailment and explosion in Lac-Megantic. Also, the risk of spill from tankers, however small it can be, may as it already had in the recent past, have very serious consequences.      


Electricity produced by hydro plants is generally considered "clean". One of the best examples of it is British Columbia where 90% of electricity is produced by hydro plants. At the same time construction of new large hydroelectric dams, like the one is planned in the Peace River region of British Columbia (Site C dam C dam), is met with increasing and well justified resistance due to the large areas of agricultural and lands with valuable habitat would be lost.  An ambitious plan to build a large number of hydro dams in China which is in desperate need of energy while reducing air pollution causes the same concern.   


It is impossible to discuss nuclear energy within few paragraphs without addressing both its high output, nuclear industry reliability track record, but also potential dangers of catastrophic failure and enormous complications related to storing of nuclear waste. I will limit the discussion by one comment only - assuming all hurdles of such endeavor as new nuclear project are overcome, it will take many years and billions of dollars of capital investment  to implement such a project.


Wind turbines are a source of clean energy and become increasingly popular and wide-spread, especially in Europe. The capacity factors and useful service life of industrial wind turbines (IWT) are important determinants of levelized wind energy costs. However, some recent studies have brought to light the capacity factors are less and useful service life is shorter than typically assumed. Based on analyses of actual production results, it appears the capacity factors of wind energy projects in many areas of the world are much less than previously estimated. As a result, the capital costs and environmental impacts of implementation would be much greater. It is typically assumed that the life span of the wind turbine is 25 years. But even 20 years may be too optimistic.

The analysis of almost 3000 onshore wind turbines in the UK - the biggest study of its kind - warns that they will continue to generate electricity effectively for just 12 to 15 years.
The “load factor” - the efficiency rating of a turbine based on the percentage of electricity it actually produces compared with its theoretical maximum - is reduced from 24 per cent in the first 12 months of operation to just 11 per cent after 15 years.
Icing in the Northern and mountainous regions is a factor significantly affecting the turbine's efficiency and is often underestimated. 
Because of the moving parts and exposure to the external environment, wearing of equipment require regular maintenance, and more so the longer it is in operation.

Transmitting energy from the wind turbines incurs energy losses, which is a serious addition to other losses when located in remote areas which typically is the case.
Finally, the impact on habitat. In the US alone wind turbines kill more than 14 million birds and 42 million bats a year!   

Geothermal electrical plants is another source of clean energy because it does not require fossil fuels to be burned . A big advantage of the geothermal energy is its reliability and consistency comparing to wind or solar. It has its challenges however.
Open geothermal systems emit air pollutants. This include hydrogen sulfide, arsenic, and some toxic minerals. Mineral build-ups are frequently deposited in landfills. Closed loops avoid this problem.
The equipment and installation are both very expensive. Despite their long-term cost savings, geothermal plants have very high up-front costs. Installation can also be very destructive. It requires significant amount of drilling and digging around. Also, the under surface footprint of a geothermal plant is much larger than its above surface footprint.


Sun gives energy for life on Earth and is one of the best sources of energy we could think of. It is clean, safe and because we know pattern of its movement across the sky, is also predictable. There are several ways of utilizing solar energy.

    Solar Photovoltaic

More familiar for most people than other solar technologies, photovoltaic (PV) technology originated first in space applications, found ts place in commercial and residential market and are even entering transport - from airplanes to ships (e.g. see Electric Aircraft  and  Solar Ship).
While their efficiency is still low to compete with any conventional or other alternative sources on a cost basis, solar PV modules have one extremely important advantage - they involve no moving parts, meaning practically no maintenance, and also zero noise.  
Despite recent dramatic improvements in efficiency and reduction in costs, solar PV systems  have a very long payback period, which holds their large scale implementation.

   Solar Concentrated Plant
These exotic looking installations with thousands of mirrors are popular in Europe, particularly in Spain, and are most efficient in regions with high solar irradiation like in in Africa, or California deserts. They require large secured unpopulated areas which limits where they can be deployed. Their efficiency can also be seriously reduced when the reflecting surface of the mirrors is damaged by sand storms and other factors.  

   Solar Updraft Tower 

This a concept which utilizes energy of the heated air rising in a very tall pipe with a fans inserted in it, connected to a generator - a sort of vertical wind turbine. Due to its relatively low efficiency and the lack of expertise these kind of systems did not receive wide acceptance in North America.

[to be continued]