Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Small and the Many

The title for this post was borrowed from the article in one of the recent issues of The Economist.  The timing of the article about satellites was fitting in few days before the anniversary of the first satellite, Sputnik, on October 4. But the concept discussed in it is also relevant to a number of other areas including energy and energy policies.
The concept is using a large number of small satellites instead of one or few large ones. The reasons for doing it this way are many. The article gives an example of two companies, both in business of making satellites, both not too surprisingly located in California. One called Space Systems Loral (SSL) from Palo Alto, currently owned by MacDonald Dettwiller (MDA), a Canadian aerospace company, is a veteran of the industry. It manufactures communication satellites intended to transmit radio and television signals over the high-altitude orbit. The first satellites (and most scientific spacecraft still, such as Hubble telescope or Juno interplanetary probe) were one of a kind, large and expensive. The SSL designed 1300 series platform based on modular architecture. Each satellite uses the same structure: a cylinder 1.2 meters across enclosed in a square box.

The more more the satellite has to do, the taller the box it is built on, the longer its solar PV panels and the larger and more complex the array of antennae and reflectors through which it sends data to its earthbound clients. Few days ago SSL has delivered one of the biggest, Sky Muster II, designed to provide broadband communications to remote areas of Australia. It stands nine meters tall, with a complex array of reflectors attached to it. Despite the modular design, intended to bring the cost down, these satellites are very expensive. The smallest of them may sell for $100 million, while the biggest can approach half a billion. Add on another $100M for the launch, and the satellite may not start showing a profit for a decade.
There is another consideration. The industry which is supposed to be innovative, must be very risk-averse. Because of the need for a long lifetime in a hostile environment and already a high sticker price, a new advanced technology will not be flown.
The example of a totally different company and a different approach is Planet Labs from San Francisco. While the SSL's clean room for the satellite assembly could be compared in size with a cathedral, the Planet's assembly is of the size of Starbucks. The satellites it manufactures are 30-cm long and weigh about 5 kg. Their design is based on the so called "1U" standard. Making one of them utilizing many of the smartphone components takes about a week. "This is the new face of space: small objects, large numbers".
What makes this approach extremely attractive is several reasons. One is pretty obvious - cost. Small satellites are much-much cheaper than the large ones (an additional advantage, they do not require a dedicated launcher but are flown - often in batches - as a secondary payload utilizing the room left after a primary payload). Second, as noted above it does not take much time to make them which is a very important consideration in a highly competitive market. Now, because of the large number of the satellites, they are not indispensable - the reliability of the service they provide does not depend on any one of them. Related to that, because of the short time, low cost and relatively high frequency of the launches, the company can afford consistent improvement of their products!

Let's look at another area, energy generation and transmission. Be it electricity used for lighting and numerous other needs, or some fuel such as natural gas, delivered to homes and businesses for heating, energy structure is based on large facilities such as power plants, oil refineries etc. These facilities are expensive, take long time to build and often have a large environmental impact - such as area flooded by the hydro power plants. They are also vulnerable to all sorts of risks - from technical glitches to natural disasters and targeted attacks (more often recently, cyber-attacks which are easier to perform than physical attacks). The examples of such events are well known, from Chernobyl to Fukushima, and from BP oil spill in Mexico Gulf to disruption in Ukrainian energy network. These risks may lead not only to significant costs to restore the operation of the large facility but typically affect a large number of end-users. Also, because energy has to be delivered from generation facility to end-users, additional expenses, more environmental impact and more risks are involved. Large number of users can cut off the energy by a disruption in transmission lines or pipelines.         
By analogy, an alternative "the small and the many" approach can be successfully applied to the energy infrastructure. Instead of large centralized power plants, small-scale integrated on-site energy generation offers numerous advantages. Yes, I am talking of course about solar and other clean energy technologies. Firstly, energy conservation/efficiency measures should be implemented. Then solar thermal or geoexchange system can provide entire heating, cooling and hot water needs. Then the remaining electrical load for lighting, electronic equipment etc. can be addressed by a small solar photo-voltaic array and/or small wind turbine (where appropriate) with an on-site energy storage.    
Such a system would be much cheaper (per installation), quicker to implement, less expensive to maintain and repair, plus have smaller to none environmental impact comparing to large centralized energy generation. This would also eliminate the need for expensive and unreliable means of energy transmission. Such distributed energy generation will be much more reliable as a whole because the problem in one location will not affect anyone else. Every system can be attended and serviced and even its generation optimized on an individual basis. Finally, every subsequent deployment can be improved based on the performance monitoring of the previous installations and due to the constant technology evolution. 

So, should we continue building gigantic power plants, refineries and pipelines or move to an agile and intelligent distributed energy network? The choice is ours.


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Transportable Solar Power Station

Sorry for not appearing online more often. I keep reminding myself of the need to write about the new connecting technologies. This time I can't ignore it.

 Transportable clean energy plant is the bridge between the current centralized grid - someone called it "the biggest machine ever built by humankind" - to a decentralized distributed efficient energy generation. More often than anything else the subject is electrical power.

However, where thermal energy is needed - from heating to cooling and hot water for domestic or commercial needs - it can be produced much more efficiently bypassing the conversion to and from electricity. Modern solar thermal systems combined with state-of the art thermal storage and/or auxiliary source (small heat pump or other) cam provide 4-5 times more thermal energy than PV -based system of the similar size could. Connecting them in the Integrated Energy Module would result in the best of both worlds and could be made in a size of a small trailer.    

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Time to invest in solar disruptive off-grid technologies

Guess who is in the disruptive solar off-grid business? Caterpillar - a synonym of everything slow - invests in the technology of the future.

Caterpillar Inc. has run its Tucson proving ground near Green Valley since 1990, putting mining trucks and other massive machines through their paces in the shadow of Freeport-McMoRan's Sierrita mine.
All the while the relatively remote, off-grid facility has been powered solely by Cat's own diesel generators - but now the sun will do part of the work.
The construction machinery giant last week launched a new product line with the christening of a hybrid solar-generator 'microgrid' system at the proving ground.
The proving ground's system consisting of 500 kilowatts' worth of photovoltaic arrays and an equal amount of battery storage linked to the facility's generator system will cut the proving ground's reliance on diesel generation by about one-third, the company said.
It will also serve as a demonstrator for the company's new line of Cat Microgrid products, which range from mobile trailer-mounted rigs to scalable custom, on-site installations, said Rick Rathe, managing director of microgram and energy storage for Caterpillar's electric-power division.
'We're taking that same value proposition out to our customers right now,' said Rathe, who announced the company's new Cat Microgrid branded product offering as the company flipped the switch on the proving ground's microgrid on Wednesday.
Long a leader in large diesel generators, Cat has been looking at integrating renewable energy with combustion generation for some time as prices for photovoltaic panels tumbled and battery technology improved, Rathe said.
'Today, solar energy is a very cost-efficient form of energy more efficient than running diesel generators all the time,' he said.
Cat Microgrid systems combine solar panels, state-of-the-art energy storage and advanced monitoring and control systems with Caterpillar's traditional line of power generation equipment,including Cat generator sets, switchgear, uninterruptible power supplies and automatic transfer switches.
Caterpillar says the systems are ideal for off-grid applications such as telecommunications towers, industrial facilities, mining installations, remote villages and islands and rural communities.
The company also has partnered with two Arizona companies to create its Cat-branded hybrid micro product. Tempe-based First Solar is supplying the thin film photovoltaic panels.
Caterpillar also invested in Scottsdale-based Fluidic Energy for advanced metal-air energy storage technology.

I am convinced solar and other hybrid technologies will at least win a off-grid market niche. But I also think that connected in an intelligent network autonomous energy modules and micro-grids are a better alternative to the centralized grid: