Navigant Research Blog

Wearable, Solar Soldier Power Nears the Battlefield

— December 31, 2013

Seeking to solve one of the most intractable challenges of 21st century low-intensity warfare – supplying power to troops laden with electronic devices and deployed to remote battlefields – the U.S. Army is developing wearable solar panels that will be integrated into uniforms.

Today’s infantryman (or, rather, infantryperson) carries around a dozen pounds of batteries, according to Chris Hurley, battery development team leader at the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC).  “If we can cut down on the need for batteries, we’re saving fuel costs with the convoys that have to deliver these items to the field,” Hurley told Mashable.

More importantly, wearable solar could save lives: as documented in Navigant Research’s report, Renewable Energy for Military Applications, in forward operating theaters like Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous assignments is delivering fuel (and batteries) to soldiers in the field.

CERDEC is looking for other innovative, lightweight ways to provide what it calls “Soldier Power,” including kinetic energy.  Bionic Power, a Vancouver-based startup, has developed a knee brace that would capture the kinetic energy of a marching soldier and supply it to portable devices.  Called the PowerWalk M-Series, the brace could supply up to 12 watt-hours of electricity, enough to charge two or three smartphones.  The lightweight device would be another step forward for the technology movement examined in Navigant Research’s report, Energy Harvesting.

Last year Bionic Power announced that it has secured contracts with the Army, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Canadian Department of Defense to test the PowerWalk.

Paging Tony Stark

The eventual goal, naturally, is an Iron Man-style exoskeleton that can collect its own energy, enhance the wearer’s physical capabilities, and supply data and communications from integrated devices.  Known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, the superhero armor is being developed by universities and commercial labs under the direction of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command.  TALOS was first announced by the perfectly named Admiral Bill McRaven, the commanding officer of the Special Ops branch, earlier this year.  It’s still somewhat theoretical – a prototype is not expected for at least 3 years – but it’s already spawning some potentially powerful innovations in materials research.

One of the most intriguing is a nanotech “liquid armor” that would morph on impact (i.e., when struck by a bullet) from a flexible fabric into an impenetrable shell.  “It transitions when you hit it hard,” Norman Wagner, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, told NPR. “These particles organize themselves quickly, locally in a way that they can’t flow anymore and they become like a solid.”

On the Runway

The military, of course, is not the only field interested in wearable solar and other futuristic forms of apparel.  The fashion world is forging ahead in this area as well.  The Wearable Solar project, launched by Christiaan Holland from the HAN University of Applied Sciences, in the Netherlands, collaborating with solar energy developers and fashion designer Pauline van Dongen, has produced a line of dresses with built-in solar cells.

“Wearable Solar is about integrating solar cells into fashion, so by augmenting a garment with solar cells the body can be an extra source of energy,” Van Dongen told the online fashion magazine Dezeen at the Wearable Futures conference, in London.


California’s Risky Path to Grid Reform

— December 30, 2013

In June, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) presented a draft roadmap for integrating demand response (DR) and energy efficiency (EE) into California’s electric grid.  On December 17, a final version of the roadmap was released.  According to the report’s vision statement, “The ISO envisions demand response and energy efficiency becoming integral, dependable and predictable resources that support a reliable, environmentally sustainable electric power system.”  The ISO is working with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission (CEC) to create market opportunities for DR and EE as preferred resources, as the report title suggests.

The roadmap includes four interdependent paths that run from 2013 through 2020: load reshaping, resource sufficiency, operations, and monitoring.  Load reshaping focuses on applying DR and EE resources to the demand side of the market.  These resources will create a flatter load shape for the ISO system through enhanced EE programs and dynamic retail electric rates.  The needed alignment between retail and wholesale markets entails at least three primary approaches: smart grid automation, retail tariff changes, and the encouragement of energy conservation during times of grid stress.

Mind the Duck

Resource sufficiency focuses on the supply side of the equation to ensure sufficient resources are available in the right places and at the right times, while operations aims to make the best use of all resources that are made available through the resource sufficiency path.   Finally, monitoring is the feedback loop for the other three paths.   Systematic monitoring will foster a deeper understanding of the operational capabilities of DR resources, the effectiveness of procurement programs in aligning with system needs, and the impacts of EE and other load-modifying programs in reshaping load profiles.

Implementing new, more flexible and responsive resources will further advance California’s goals of a more reliable and cleaner power system, with the added potential of replacing or deferring investments in more expensive energy infrastructure.   From an operational perspective, DR resources will contribute to the low-carbon flexible capacity needed to maintain real-time system balance and reliability, while also supporting the integration of increasing levels of renewable energy resources, as displayed in the ISO’s famous duck graph.


(Source: California Independent System Operator)

California continues to walk the tightrope between markets and mandates as it confronts its rapidly changing energy landscape.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure it will be able to keep its balance and make it to the platform.  Rather, I think it may fall and need to create a new safety net in a few years.  The state needs to choose to either let the markets find solutions, or to stay fully regulated and not create paper markets.  I understand it has been burned by free-market solutions in the past and may be gun shy, but making quasi-markets is not the answer.

That’s not to say that other regions have pure markets.  State policies always interact with grid operations, whether it’s in single-state regional transmission organizations (RTOs), like New York and Texas, or multistate RTOs like PJM, ISO-NE, and MISO.  All have seen battles between market operators and regulators, but there still seem to be some sense of respect for each side’s territory of control.  Of course, California likes to blaze its own trail.  Sometimes that leads to glory, but in this case, it may lead back to the starting line.


New Discoveries Change Notions of Fresh Water

— December 30, 2013

Two new water discoveries have the potential to significantly alter our understanding and future use of this increasingly scarce resource.  One involves semi-fresh water located under the ocean, and the other is a find below the frozen surface of Greenland.

First, scientists have determined that an estimated half million cubic kilometers of low-salinity water (low enough to be turned into potable water) are trapped beneath the seabed on continental shelves around the world, according to a new study published in the international scientific journal Nature.   The amount of potentially useful water is staggering: a hundred times greater than the amount extracted from the earth’s sub-surface since 1900, according to Dr. Vincent Post, the study’s lead author and a professor in the School of the Environment at Flinders University, which oversees Australia’s National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT).

This offshore groundwater has been found off Australia, North America, South Africa, and China.  It could be utilized to supplement existing water sources for coastal cities and surrounding areas, and could potentially sustain some regions for decades. There are two methods of extracting this water, according to Dr. Post:  build an offshore drilling platform and pipe the water to shore, or drill from the mainland or from islands near the aquifers.  Previously, scientists thought this water only existed under rare and special conditions.

Under the Ice

The second discovery was made in Greenland, where researchers drilling through an ice core found something very surprising about 30 feet down: a giant aquifer estimated to be 27,000 square miles, larger than the state of West Virginia.  Details of the discovery were published recently in Nature Geoscience.

The Greenland aquifer is not considered as a water source for human activity; however, the environmental significance of this finding could be very important.  Scientists theorize the aquifer connects to a network of crevasses and streams that flow to ice sheets and helps lubricate the flowing glaciers.  They also suspect that the aquifer acts like a giant storage area, which could burst at some point, sending a large volume of water out of the ice sheet.  It may be a little of both phenomena taking place, according to Richard Forster, a glaciologist at the University of Utah whose students were among those drilling the core.  Forster has applied for more research funding to study the huge aquifer and how it might affect future ocean levels.  Given the amount of water – perhaps more than 100 billion tons – it could be enough to raise global sea levels by 0.4 millimeters, if it all flowed into the sea at once.  The melting of Greenland’s ice sheet adds about 0.7 millimeters of sea-level rise each year, under current conditions, so a 0.4 millimeter increase would be significant.

Uncharted Seas

These revelations come on the heels of the earlier discovery this year of aquifers in Africa, where large underground reservoirs could help ease drought conditions in North Kenya, as noted in a previous blog.

At this point the implications of these two latest discoveries are not fully known, and neither offers a panacea for the many issues surrounding water.  One could be a big boost for coastal areas in need of additional water sources, and the other could help deepen our understanding of fluctuating ocean levels.  Both are worthy of further study to determine what course of action, if any, makes sense.  Clearly, the aquifers under the sea could pay dividends by helping to reduce the effects of drought or water shortages on land.  But it will require careful drilling techniques and, among other things, the application of smart distribution technologies (some of which are described in Navigant Research’s report, Smart Water Networks).  As Dr. Post warns, “These water reserves [under the sea] are non-renewable,” and “we should use them carefully – once gone, they won’t be replenished until the sea level drops again, which is not likely to happen for a very long time.”


Seeking Cleaner Alternatives, Lenders Pass On Coal

— December 27, 2013

It’s one thing when environmental groups, street protesters, and politicians oppose the expansion of your industry.  It’s a whole different matter when the financial community stops investing in it.

That’s what’s happening to the coal industry today, as multilateral development banks, government funding institutions, and commercial lenders cool to the idea of financing new coal power plants.  The latest signal came in mid-December, when the U.S. Export-Import Bank issued new funding guidelines that will effectively end its financing for new coal-fired plants, except in rare circumstances.  From 2010 to 2013, the Ex-Im Bank provided more than $2 billion in financing for coal plants, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

In July, the Bank canceled funding for a new coal plant in Vietnam – a nearly unprecedented move.

The move will “add to the growing list of public finance institutions that will stop using public funding to support overseas coal power plants,” the NRDC’s Jake Schmidt noted in a blog. Those institutions include the World Bank, which in July announced a new policy to shift resources away from fossil fuel projects and toward renewable energy; the U.S. Treasury Department, which said in October it is “ending U.S. support for multilateral development bank (MDB) funding for new overseas coal projects except in narrowly defined circumstances;” the European Investment Bank, which in July introduced a new Emissions Performance Standard that effectively rules out coal funding; and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, whose board voted in December to scrap funding for most coal projects.

Risk and Reward

Commercial lenders are gradually following suit.  Private sector investment in the U.S. coal industry sank 50% from 2011-2012, according to the Coal Finance Report Card, which is produced by the Rainforest Action Network and two other environmental groups.  Wall Street firms Goldman Sachs and Citigroup have both recently released reports questioning the growth of the global coal industry, and Deutsche Bank has forecast that coal’s share of U.S. energy generation will fall to 20% by 2030, from around 45% today.

These moves reflect a broad recognition that the risks of investing in coal – from tightening government regulations, public opposition, and the long-term damage of global climate change – are eroding both the private financial return and the wider social benefits of new coal investments.

“Banks are becoming more aware of the harms caused by coal and the risks associated with an industry in decline,” Ben Collins, the lead author of the Rainforest Action Network, told Bloomberg News.

However, these shifts also include some inherent contradictions.  Almost all of the new policies from multilateral lending institutions include exceptions for countries where “no feasible economic alternative options” exist to coal-fired generation.  In practice, that is likely to include much of the developing world.  What’s more, these policy shifts, in general, do not eliminate funding for coal mining.

In China, Little Choice

Several big international lenders, including the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation and Development, Nippon Export Investment Insurance of Japan, and the Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau in Germany, have not announced coal funding bans, meaning that capital for these projects may still be available from other sources.

Finally, three-quarters of the 1,200 proposed coal plants in the world, according to the World Resources Institute, are in China and India – countries that have historically not relied on international funding for big new infrastructure projects and that may well not need overseas lenders to proceed with their coal plant plans.  Despite the official announcements, the world is in the midst of a coal boom that may not be slowed because First World banks turn up their noses at funding coal plants.

“China’s main resource is coal,” Zou Ji, the deputy director of China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy, said in an interview with the website China Dialogue earlier this year.  “Moving to clean energy is a massive challenge. Meanwhile, we still need to urbanize and educate hundreds of millions of rural residents. Quality of life needs to be improved.”


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