Navigant Research Blog

Obama Should Make Energy Research Accessible

— May 29, 2009

The Obama Administration has somewhat backed up candidate Obama’s promises of transparency by directly communicating with the public and launching a website to show how Recovery Act funds are being spent. Using that same principle in energy research could advance science as well as save taxpayer money.

The DOE will spend about $26.4 billion this year, with much of the money dedicated to research activities. Energy Secretary Steven Chu — who used to head the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab — knows the important role of research, and should streamline the sharing of information.

Part of that money will be spent on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s new multi-million-dollar Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC), one of 46 such centers.

The monolith that is DOE has countless fiefdoms, regulations, grant programs and projects, and organizing using the latest information sharing technologies would serve the interests of government, the private sector, and the people.

A DOE Wiki that organizes all of the related research and funding grants would reduce the amount of work that is duplicated, give the private sector clearer insight into the state of technology being developed, and provide greater accountability.

For example, if you want to know about the work being done by DOE to research algae as a fuel source, you’d have to find the various projects being done at the Idaho National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, as well as the office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. It is highly likely that some of the work overlaps, and public and private researchers are repeating some work already being done because of lack of easy access to information.

The Wiki could be open for everyone to read and comment on, but editing could be limited to qualified personnel at the research labs , university researchers, as well as vetted private entities. Instead of published papers only being read in journals, their fine work would be open for all (including the media and analysts) to investigate.

The open source philosophy of collaboration should also be reinforced by lab directors. This would require a cultural shift as researchers can be protective of their projects and funding allocations.

Opening the books as to where the money comes from would also give citizens more confidence that public funds are being used wisely. Earmarks granted by senators to start projects in their districts could be compared to research already in progress.

These brilliant minds that can make fuel from pond scum deserve a platform for sharing information that enables them do their job most effectively.

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Trilliant Acquires SkyPilot Networks: Strengthening the RF Mesh Option for Smart Grid Communications

— May 28, 2009

There are few battles fiercer in the cleantech business than the holy war currently being waged over which communications and networking technologies will prevail in smart grid deployments.  Wide area networking technologies are integral to the fabric of smart grids, and will be essential elements of any electric utility’s smart grid program.  Current utility communication systems are highly fragmented, purpose-built for specific applications, and often based on proprietary technologies.  However, the prevailing winds are blowing in the direction of more unified architectures that utilize two-way, low-latency, standards-based networking technologies that are scalable and flexible to support a variety of applications using varying bit rates. 

Today Trilliant, already a significant player in RF mesh networking for smart grids, announced that it is acquiring SkyPilot Networks, a provider of broadband wireless mesh networking products for public safety, wireless ISP, video surveillance, VoIP, and AMR markets.  SkyPilot utilizes standards-based Wi-Fi chipsets, but its special sauce includes synchronous switching technology that utilizes directional antennas to extend the range far beyond that of standard Wi-Fi. 

With the merging of SkyPilot’s technologies into its own RF mesh product line, Trilliant asserts that it will gain a flexible, self-configuring mesh platform that has the following competitive advantages: 

  • Lower recurring cost than cellular machine-to-machine (M2M) plans offered by major wireless carriers like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile
  • Lower capex than WiMAX, with longer range
  • Lower capex and longer range than competing Metro Wi-Fi solutions such as the GridCom architecture recently announced by Tropos Networks
  • More standardized technology than competing RF mesh networking platforms, including those offered by smart meter vendors as well as third-party providers

The major utility business models currently developing within the smart grid networking market can be categorized in two general groups:

1. The capex/operator model, where utilities invest in their own proprietary infrastructure (usually RF mesh). This approach can reduce total cost of ownership, but requires more upfront capital investment, involves more operational complexity that may be outside the utility’s comfort zone, and poses the risk that the chosen technology may not be the best long-term bet.

2. The opex/outsource model, where utilities purchase network capacity on a wholesale basis, usually from a cellular carrier using technologies like EV-DO, GPRS, EDGE, or WCDMA. This approach has the advantage of minimizing upfront capital investment and creating a more predictable, variable cost structure that usually boils down to cents-per-megabyte. Cellular modules and terminal equipment are affordable, standards-based, and widely available, and the utility gains the advantage of a service level agreement with the carrier, while maintaining the flexibility to switch technologies at a later date. The big downside is higher recurring opex and, over time, likely a higher total cost of ownership. Additionally, many utilities have a need for 100% coverage and, as we all know, there are still plenty of dead zones that cellular networks simply don’t reach.

While Pike Research believes that #2 will be the more common approach as additional utilities settle on their smart grid deployment plans, segment #1 will still represent a significant portion of the market.   Within that segment, the Trilliant-SkyPilot combination creates a potent combination of the best of RF mesh capabilities and economics, combined with the cost and standards advantages of Wi-Fi.  In a sector that is increasingly obsessed with adopting standards-based solutions, this strategy may just tip the scales in favor of Trilliant for utilities that are on the fence about their technology decision.  Now, if the company could just find a way to play nice with cellular M2M solutions and serve as a gap-filler for mission critical utility applications and other corners of coverage where cellular can’t reach, they would truly have the best of all worlds.

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Nations Gamble on Carbon Capture

— May 27, 2009

Around the world governments are betting billions of dollars on research to develop technology to capture carbon emitted from coal plants. It’s probably even money right now whether carbon capture becomes the next thin film solar (a long-pursued technology that is now bearing out) or the next hydrogen car (a technology full of promise that is always just around the corner — if the corner is a generation away).

Norway will spend 140 million Euros over the next five years on developing carbon capture technology. Canada has committed the bulk of $860 million in research funds to reducing carbon, while in Brazil, a pilot project will capture carbon dioxide and feed it to algae to produce biofuel, a very smart idea.

The U.S. Department of Energy is schizophrenic when it comes to carbon capture. On the one hand the FutureGen project, a small-scale power plant that would capture and sequester carbon, last year was scuttled based on concerns about high cost. New Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, who is no friend of coal, is doubling down on carbon capture, building a National Carbon Capture Center in Alabama. After it goes online in 2010, the center will test carbon capture technologies in a real world environment, and participants in the project include the Electric Power Research Institute and a handful of energy companies.

Secretary Chu recently said that the U.S. should develop carbon capture technologies so that they can be exported to developing nations that will have an expanding appetite for coal, such as China and India.

Chu has a point, and it underscores the driving force for continuing the research. Coal will continue to be a primary energy source around the world, and rather than pour everything into renewables that will take time to become cost competitive, we might as well do something to cut down its impact.

But “something” and “spend billions” aren’t the same thing. Countries have to weigh the risk between nothing coming from the research dollars versus developing nations increasing their coal consumption and emissions long after we’ve cut back because of the economics.

The selection of energy producer Southern Company to manage and operate the DOE’s center is somewhat curious because of its environmental track record. Southern Company operates some of the dirtiest coal plants in the country according to the Environment News Service.

One energy company that won’t be running to join the team is Duke Energy. CEO James Rogers recently said that his company will stop building coal power plants because carbon capture and sequestration technology is “15 years away.”

While cost effective carbon capture and sequestration is a long shot, it appears to be the best idea scientists have come up with for reducing the impact of coal, which will continue to keep the lights on in many homes for the next generation. So while you can argue that pouring all of that money into advancing solar or wind technology is a safer bet, even long shots occasionally come in.

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Plasma Energy Systems Leave Nothing to Waste

— May 26, 2009

Organic materials are a popular source of renewable biomass feedstock for biofuels or electricity, but a growing number of companies are turning waste of all kinds into a synthetic gas.

If there’s anything Americans are good at, it’s creating waste in abundance. Plasma converters superheat organic waste — in the form of liquids or solids such as manure, industrial waste or medical waste — at temperatures sufficient to break their molecular bonds and turn it into a plasma gas that can be converted into a natural gas.

Waste Management, which processes countless tons of waste per day, has started a joint venture with InEnTec of Bend, Oregon to turn medical and industrial waste into an energy source. S4 Energy Solutions will use InEnTec’s plasma technology to process municipal waste.

One of the oldest companies delivering plasma conversion technology is "_blank">StarTech Environmental, which has been licensing its technology and building plants around the world, including the U.K., Poland and Panama.

This technology will enable companies that produce and process waste to create new revenues based on the energy value of materials that previously they had to pay a premium to have hauled away.

For centuries native peoples in the Americas and elsewhere have learned how to survive in difficult conditions by finding a use for every natural resource. In a way, plasma conversion plants copy that philosophy by finding a use for our unnatural waste as an energy source. Reducing the amount of waste by recycling or cutting down on materials going in is always preferable, but making energy from waste a worthwhile enterprise.

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