Navigant Research Blog

The Next Smart Grid Investment Frontier: Rural Cooperatives

— January 8, 2014

On December 13, the United States Department of Agriculture announced another $1.8 billion in guaranteed loans for rural electric utilities.   This comes on top of $188 million announced in July and $280 million in April, for a total of nearly $2.3 billion in 2013.  While most of that money will go toward building new transmission lines and substations (and bringing service to millions of Native Americans), more than $68 million is committed to smart grid projects.

Thirty-five cooperatives in 26 states were recipients of the loans.  Details on the specifics of the projects aren’t available, but it’s interesting to compare the dollar figures for the projects with the cooperatives’ membership numbers.  Where some projects equate to more than a $500 investment per member, others are in the low single digits.  For example, it wouldn’t appear that smart meters are going in at Maquoketa Valley in Iowa – yet. (Click here for a comprehensive list of loan amounts, recipients and dollar amounts per member.)

Nonetheless, with ARRA stimulus funds largely spent by the investor-owned utilities (IOUs), many in the industry (particularly vendors) have been wondering from where the next big spending spurt will come.  Cooperatives, with their member-governed boards, are not burdened with proving rate cases before public utility commissions (PUCs).  And with their relatively small customer bases and large geographical service areas, co-ops that can build a compelling business case and build member support might just provide the industry with the next swell of investment.

In fact, with such large territories, the benefits of distribution automation and remote asset monitoring might be easier to defend for the co-ops, which serve roughly 20 million members nationwide, but which cover 75% of the United States’ geography.

This is not to suggest that smart grid spending by co-ops will rival the billions spent by IOUs over the past few years.  It will come in slowly but, I believe, surely.  With defensible business cases the highest priority for smart grid investments, the cooperatives’ unique structure and geographic challenges make them logical candidates for the types of reliability and efficiency projects that smart grid technology makes possible.

 

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.

 

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