Navigant Research Blog

Modular Mobile Phones Could Connect Vehicles

— December 23, 2014

If you drive to work or school or the grocery store, there’s a good chance that your vehicle is at least 11 years old and probably runs just fine.  If, on the other hand, you dig an 11-year old cell phone out of your junk drawer, there’s a good chance it won’t even start up and if it does, it might not have a network to connect to.

That dichotomy between vehicle longevity and electronic obsolescence will pose an increasing problem going forward as our vehicles become more connected to the world around us.  Connectivity is likely to be one of the key building blocks toward a world of automated driving (as described in Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles), and an idea from a young Dutch designer that’s being brought to reality with the help of Google could be an important part of the solution.

In mid-2013, Dave Hakkens created a modular phone concept called Phonebloks that would enable users to pick and choose the components that make up their communication devices.  By swapping out modules for cameras, processors, batteries, displays, and other components, consumers could upgrade only the pieces they needed, reducing electronic waste and prolonging the life of the devices.  Google engineers subsequently picked up on the idea and launched Project Ara to help bring Hakkens’ concept to reality.

Keep the Vehicle, Toss the Phone

The Project Ara team has developed a novel magnetized mechanical interface to hold the modules together and provide the electrical interconnects that enable the whole system to work.  In October 2014, Google demonstrated a working prototype Ara phone running Android.  However, as Hakkens acknowledges, the idea doesn’t have to be restricted to the devices we carry in our pockets.

In 1996, General Motors launched OnStar, the first successful vehicle telematics system with a built-in cellular radio that enabled customers to get their cars remotely unlocked or automatically call for assistance in the event of an accident.  Unfortunately, those early systems used the first-generation analog cellular network, and by 2007, they were permanently disconnected as the network was decommissioned.  Mechanically, those vehicles still had many years of useful life left in them, but it would have been impractical to replace the OnStar systems with newer technology.  That pace of change in wireless communications is not expected to slow down anytime soon, as we’ve already moved past 3G into 4G wireless in the 7 years since the original OnStar shutdown.

Insert Here

If it works, Project Ara could provide the solution to the conundrum of long-lived vehicles and changing communications technology.  Google has not responded to a request for comment on the project, but if the company follows its past practice with Android and Chrome, it would not be surprising to see Google either open-source or license the interface on reasonable terms.  This would enable automakers to incorporate one or more Ara-style slots in the vehicle while companies such as Qualcomm or Samsung produce new radio modules to support updated networks or capabilities.  Manufacturers could even produce aftermarket systems to allow the installation of Ara modules into existing vehicles, enabling them to join in with the expanded connected vehicle ecosystem.

Decoupling the communications technology from the vehicle lifecycle could enable drivers to keep existing vehicles on the road while gaining the potential safety and efficiency benefits powered by ever-more affordable and capable electronic systems.  What seemed like a fairly simple idea from Dave Hakkens could ultimately have a much wider impact on society.

 

Oil Price Crash Rocks Producers’ Worlds

— December 22, 2014

The effects on U.S. consumers of the steep decline of oil prices in recent months have been very welcome: in mid-December, average nationwide gas prices dropped below $2.50 a gallon, leading some analysts to predict a very green and merry Christmas.

The geopolitical ramifications, however, are much less benign.  They can be seen most visibly in Russia, where the value of the ruble is collapsing and the economy is slipping into recession.  The impacts of a crippled economy, clobbered by plummeting oil prices and economic sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, on the government of Vladimir Putin are impossible to predict.  But Russia in chaos is not a good thing for international security.

The December issue of Navigant’s NG Market Notes examines the likely implications of the current price dive on the global oil and gas industry.  Below is a rundown on the consequences in three critical OPEC countries.

Venezuela

Plunging oil prices have deepened Venezuela’s economic crisis, bringing “massive shortages of basic goods, the world’s highest inflation rate, and a steep currency devaluation,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.  The decline poses a serious threat to the government of President Nicolas Maduro, who has attempted to continue Hugo Chavez’s program of massive socialized welfare and subsidized prices.  In mid-December, Fitch Ratings downgraded Venezuela’s credit rating to “CCC,” which signals a strong possibility of default.  Low oil prices also deepen Venezuela’s dependence on China, which has lent some $40 billion to prop up the faltering Venezuelan economy through loans and other credits.  Venezuela now exports about 540,000 barrels of oil a day to China, most of which is unprofitable because it goes to repay Chinese loans.

Iran

Overruled at the November OPEC meetings in its bid to push the producing countries to cut production, the Islamic Republic of Iran has moved to the paranoid phase.  Oil minister Bijan Zanganeh declared, “The prolongation of the downward trend of the oil price in world markets is a political conspiracy going to extremes,” according to the British newspaper The Telegraph.  Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost 8% of its value against the dollar in recent weeks as Iran copes with not only plummeting oil prices, but also the crippling effects of economic sanctions from Western nations over its pursuit of nuclear weapons technology.  The impact is also being felt in neighboring Syria, where the Assad regime is propped up in the country’s 4-year-old civil war by support from Shi’ite Iran.  Iranian officials have insisted that support for Syria will continue.  But the steep price fall “will break Iran’s back, not just the level of support for Assad,” a Syrian businessman told Reuters.

Saudi Arabia

Perhaps the most significant effects of falling oil prices can be seen in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil producer for decades until being overtaken by Russia and, more recently, the United States.  The Saudis, who can produce oil from their desert fields at a cost of as low as a few dollars per barrel, have calculated that, at least for the time being, they can endure the effects of very low-priced oil.  In so doing, they are choosing to price other, higher-cost producers out of the market.  Already, production in the North Sea and western Canada is jeopardized, although the common notion that the Saudis are waging a “war on shale” by making U.S. shale oil production uneconomical is probably wrong.  U.S. shale producers can still make money with prices as low as $30 a barrel, according to Morgan Stanley.  How long Saudi Arabia can put up with oil below $70 a barrel, however, is an open question.  The desert kingdom has spent billions on defense, largely with U.S. material, in the last 5 years.  According to RBC Capital Markets analyst Helima Croft, whose calculations were presented on BusinessInsider.com, if prices persist at around $75/barrel, Saudi Arabia’s government reserves could be depleted by 2018.

 

As Coal Declines, Low-Emissions Engine Plants Spread

— December 22, 2014

In September, the world’s largest reciprocating engine power plant was completed in Jordan.  IPP3, as it’s called, has 38 Wärtsilä 50DF engines, with a total capacity of 573 MW in the extreme desert conditions of Jordan.    The plant uses tri-fuel engines that can run on natural gas, heavy fuel oil, and light fuel oil.  They can start and ramp up to full capacity in less than 10 minutes, and they can do this multiple times a day without any maintenance cost impact.

The modular nature of the plant also allows it to operate at peak efficiency (45%-50%) across its entire output range by shutting down individual engines as needed and leaving others at high load.  In addition, the plant will enable Jordan’s existing turbine plants to operate more efficiently, as they will be used for baseload while IPP3 fills in the gaps where there is fluctuation in demand.

Reliable, Flexible, and (Relatively) Clean

IPP3 is fitted with a nitrate (NOx) control system for reducing emissions and meeting strict environmental health and safety guidelines set by the International Finance Corporation.  The plant follows international requirements for sulfides and particulates as well, and it is expected to produce 35% fewer carbon emissions than an existing steam turbine plant would if both used heavy fuel oil.  IPP3 will also have a close to zero usage of water once gas is employed as fuel, minimizing its environmental footprint.

So what makes this plant important?  It’s important because before IPP3, Jordan’s utility professionals had never contemplated the installation of a reciprocating engine plant, preferring to generate baseload power through combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) facilities, which have peak efficiencies of 55% to 60%.  It’s also important because many utility professionals around the world, not just in Jordan, are looking for a solution that is reliable, offers fuel and operational flexibility, is quick-starting and efficient across a wide range of loads, and consumes less water and produces fewer emissions.

Reciprocal Benefits

And, as in Jordan, many other utility professionals are choosing reciprocating engines.  Wärtsilä alone has been installing an impressive number of large gensets recently.  For example, a 175 MW gas engine plant was completed by Wärtsilä in South Africa for Sasol, one of the country’s largest industrial companies, in December 2012.  The company is also in the process of building the 200 MW Pesanggaran Bali power plant, which will be the largest engine-based power plant in Indonesia when it is completed in 2015.

In the United States, Wärtsilä has been contracted to supply a 56 MW Smart Power Generation power plant in Oklahoma, and the company is expected to install a 50 MW plant in Hawaii on the island of Oahu, pending approval of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission.  There is also a 225 MW plant being proposed in Texas and, reportedly, another 225 MW plant already under construction in Oregon.  All of the plants in the United States will be used to balance wind and solar generation on the grid.  With cheap natural gas, emissions standards, and the grids around the world becoming increasingly unstable, it appears that reciprocating engines’ stock is on the rise.

For more detail on the future of reciprocating engines, please see Navigant Research’s report, Natural Gas Generator Sets.

 

How Green Is My Casino?

— December 21, 2014

On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I found myself wondering just how much energy is being consumed compared to other cities around the country.  It doesn’t take much research to grasp the enormous amount of energy needed to power all the neon, slot machines, sound systems, sportsbook TV screens, and massive air conditioners required to make the desert city an international tourist destination.  While recent efforts by resorts to “green” their operations have made an impact, they don’t address the root of the problem.  Sin City is unique in its geographic location – which provides both challenges and opportunities to operate a sustainable energy system.

Can’t Take the Heat

Las Vegas’ desert location would be very uncomfortable throughout the summer without modern air conditioning.  This presents significant challenges to resort designers who must overcome the desert sun to provide comfortable environments across millions of square feet.  At the scale of an individual hotel room, this challenge is easier to understand.  Large floor to ceiling windows are quite popular in the city but allow tremendous amounts of heat to enter the room.  Simply installing automatic blinds or smart glass windows could dramatically reduce this effect.

Although HVAC systems have been a target of recent conservation efforts, older hotels rely on outdated systems.  The New York, New York hotel I stayed in had only a very basic analog thermostat with simple controls and no ability to schedule.  Innovations to improve the efficiency of commercial HVAC system are discussed in Navigant Research’s report, Advanced HVAC Controls.  Perhaps the most effective addition to this hotel would be the installation of advanced occupancy sensors.  Visitors in Las Vegas often spend long periods of time outside of their hotel rooms.  In many cases, lights are left on and cooling systems set at full blast while a room is unoccupied for hours.  Occupancy sensors, integrated with a more intelligent building management system (BMS), could dramatically reduce the amount of energy used by each hotel room.  This could be an extremely beneficial investment for hotels that must absorb the cost of energy used by their guests.  Solutions to improve efficiency in hotels are explored in detail in Navigant Research’s recent report, Energy Management in the Hospitality Industry.

Untapped Resources

While the natural environment of southern Nevada poses challenges to conserve energy, it also provides vast untapped potential to generate it.  The Hoover Dam has enabled dramatic growth in Las Vegas over the years, although it currently provides barely 20% of the city’s peak energy needs.  As noted in a recent blog by my colleague Mackinnon Lawrence, recent droughts threaten the reliability of this resource, as well as the viability of fossil fuel plants requiring large amounts of water to keep cool.  A quick glance out my hotel room window revealed a massive casino roof – a perfect spot for a solar array totally unutilized.  Satellite images of the city show that this is very common and little to no solar power is installed on roofs of power-hungry mega-resorts.

For a city that receives intense sunshine nearly year-round, this is a huge opportunity to generate clean and affordable power.  And efforts are underway to take advantage of the clean energy resource available to the city.  This past summer, MGM Resorts announced a partnership with NRG Energy to install a massive rooftop solar array at the Mandalay Bay Resort.  The 20,000 panel, 6.2 MW installation is expected to generate nearly 20% of the Mandalay Bay’s power demand.  This project represents an important step in the right direction; hopefully, it will inspire others in the city to fully utilize the natural resources available to them.

 

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