Navigant Research Blog

Zero Emissions from a Fossil Fuel Plant … Really?

— June 6, 2017

The claim of zero emissions from a fossil fuel plant sounds too good to be true. I was skeptical when I first read the headline, “Goodbye Smokestacks: Startup Invents Zero-Emission Fossil Fuel Power,” on the Science website. But on second glance, this does appear to be a big deal in the carbon capture realm.

Oxymoron or Innovation?

Author Robert Service notes: “Zero emissions fossil fuel power sounds like an oxymoron.” And indeed, it does. But the people behind startup NET Power believe its technology makes this possible. The company is backing a 25 MW demonstration plant in the Houston area that will be activated later this year. Basically, the plant will burn natural gas in a pure oxygen combustor. By using mostly pure, high pressure CO2, the plant can avoid the phase changes of traditional steam cycles. And instead of driving a steam cycle and losing heat up a smokestack, the NET Power plant retains heat within the system, resulting in less fuel used for a turbine to reach the necessary temperature.

The result, the company claims, is a stream of nearly pure CO2 that is then piped away and stored underground, or that can be shot into sapped oil reservoirs to recover what oil remains. This latter process is called enhanced oil recovery. In either case, the CO2 is kept out of the atmosphere. The system is based on work done by Rodney Allam, a retired British engineer, and is called the Allam Cycle. The key to Allam’s idea is the recycling of the CO2 in a loop.

A Fossil-Fueled Game Changer

NET Power says it can produce emissions-free power at about $0.06/kWh, which is about the same as the cost from a state of the art, natural gas-fired plant. And lower than most renewable energy. If the demonstration meets expectations, the company intends to move to a full-scale, 300 MW version that could be operational in 2021 at a cost of about $300 million. Such a power plant could supply more 200,000 homes. One expert, John Thompson from the Clean Air Task Force, says the breakthrough plant would be “a game-changer if they achieve 100% of their goals.”

We shall see. The NET Power facility could fail to reach its goal; as carbon capture expert Howard Herzog says, “There are only a million things that can go wrong.” But if successful, the zero emissions plant could be a bridge to a cleaner environment, and could drive more aggressive use of renewable sources. So, what’s not to like about this kind of audacious engineering that aims to solve a problem in a practical way? Failure is a possibility, but success is, too.

 

Cybersecurity Pros Are Hiding the Breaches: This Must Stop

— May 31, 2017

Even the security good guys are failing us. That’s the upshot from the new survey of cybersecurity experts conducted by Bromium, a cybersecurity firm based in Cupertino, California.

The company surveyed attendees at the RSA Conference 2017 and others as part of a combined extended study and found startling results:

  • On average, 10% of security professionals said they had paid a ransom or hid a breach without telling their team members (5% at RSA, 15% in the extended study). Note: some 638 million ransomware attacks took place in 2016, which implies that tens of millions of such attacks are likely going unreported.
  • On average, 35% of security professionals said they went around, turned off, or bypassed their own corporate security settings (38% at RSA, 32% in extended study of United States and United Kingdom security professionals).

The folks at Bromium said the results “kind of blew their minds.” No kidding. This level of failure to act is shocking. But on further analysis, perhaps understandable. The bad guys have both the incentives and easy access to the tools needed to break into servers and cause havoc.

For grid operators, this is not good news. An updated U.S. News & World Report article last year noted it took hackers just 22 minutes to get employees at an electric facility north of Seattle to bite on phishing emails. It was only an exercise, but proved the point that the grid is vulnerable and that humans are often the weakest link.

Security Fatigue

One of the root causes among cybersecurity professionals for this lack of diligence is security fatigue, as pointed out in a TechRepublic story. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines this fatigue as “weariness or reluctance to deal with computer security.” The author recommends that companies reduce such fatigue by boosting the relevance and importance of security alerts to an IT team and emphasizing the need for constant security vigilance.

It is hard to argue with that recommendation. However, I would take things a step further: institute regular focused training on how to combat threats combined with controlled drills or testing, like the one at the plant near Seattle. It is unacceptable that people we need to trust have such careless attitudes and avoid actions in the face of threats. It is hard to admit, but we are in far deeper trouble on this front than imagined. We must do better.

 

Microsoft Pushes IoT as a Service as Competition Heats Up

— May 12, 2017

In a quiet way, many different businesses are helping to establish a stronger foothold for the Internet of Things (IoT), moving beyond the hype and delivering on the buzzy promises from several years back. As evidence, Microsoft recently launched IoT Central, an IoT as a service (IoTaaS) offering that enables companies to deploy IoT technologies without having to do so from scratch using in-house resources.

Early Adopters

IoT Central’s goal is to help companies rapidly design, build, and deliver smart products and integrate them with enterprise-scale systems. So far, early adopting companies of IoT Central—thyssenkrupp Elevator, Rolls-Royce, and Sandvik Coromant, according to reports—are in the manufacturing and engineering sectors. IoT Central is part of a suite of IoT-related products from Microsoft, including Azure Suite IoT (a platform as a service [PaaS] offering for developing backend applications) and Azure IoT Hub, which acts as the messaging infrastructure for distributed device communications.

But Microsoft is not alone in helping to establish a stronger corporate foothold for the IoT. Competitors like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud, and Oracle, to name a few, offer several IoT-related services for business clients. And recently the head of AWS, Andy Jassy, said, “Of all the buzzwords everybody has talked about, the one that has delivered fastest on its promises is IoT and connected devices.” That’s a strong validation.

IoT and Utility Patents

IoT has also arrived for utilities. A recent piece by Alec Schibanoff, a vice president at patent broker and consulting services firm IPOfferings LLC, notes the many patents for operational efficiency and security that have been granted over the years form the basis of the modern grid. One was granted as far back as 2002.

Next Steps for IoT

These are all signs of a maturing IoT landscape, one that will underpin Energy Cloud 2.0 as envisioned by Navigant Research and outlined in the free white paper, Navigating the Energy Transformation. But there is much more value to be unleashed from IoT devices and connected systems. We’ve only scratched the surface around data analytics, and future applications and services have yet to materialize. Many companies are starting to explore the possibilities. It won’t be too many years before the IoT will make louder noises as a solid platform for business innovation and efficiency.

 

IoT Cybersecurity Clouds

— May 4, 2017

The dark Internet of Things (IoT) cybersecurity clouds keep hanging around with the latest news about malware that can wipe data from infected devices. Researchers from Palo Alto Networks discovered malicious software called Amnesia that can infect digital video recorders. If Amnesia senses it is running in a virtual environment, it can wipe critical directories from the file system. The researchers say this is a new capability in malware aimed at Linux-based embedded devices—which include smart TVs, wireless routers, switches, set-top boxes, in-vehicle entertainment systems, navigation hardware, industrial automation equipment, and medical instruments. This potential threat goes beyond consumer devices and could affect the electrical grid. Several other threats against IoT devices have surfaced as well:

  • University of Michigan researchers demonstrated they could hack into sensors on smartphones, automobiles, and IoT devices using a $5 speaker. They targeted microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS accelerometers, which measure speed changes in three dimensions. Using acoustic tones, they deceived 15 different accelerometer models into registering movements that never happened.
  • Engineers at Israeli firm Argus Cyber Security remotely shut down a car engine using a smartphone app, a Bluetooth connection, and a $75 dongle, which insurance companies install frequently to monitor driving. The engineers triggered a signal that disabled a car’s fuel pump, something that would only happen after a collision, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
  • A doll named Cayla was investigated by regulators in Germany for being a security threat. The doll does not link directly to the Internet, but can be accessed via Bluetooth to any mobile device that has the doll’s dedicated app. Researchers found the dolls recorded voices and sent data to a third party specializing in voice recognition.

Security Is Top Concern for Developers

Among developers who write software for IoT devices, security concerns remain high. Nearly 47% of developers who responded say security is their top concern and has remained number one for 3 years, according to an annual survey (see slide 16) by the Eclipse Foundation. The situation does not seem to be getting much better in terms of the potential threats posed by IoT devices. However, beyond the negative headlines, there is some positive work taking place:

  • The prpl Foundation is making progress on efforts to reduce threats to IoT devices. Members of this open source and community-driven foundation are focused on enhancing the security and interoperability of embedded devices.
  • Two industry groups joined forces to improve Internet security. The Online Trust Alliance (OTA) has partnered with the Internet Society to improve security and data privacy. For several months, the OTA has promoted a new framework for securing the IoT, supporting multiple built-in security measures for devices from the beginning, and advocating strong security through the entire IoT product lifecycle.
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) continues to push a broad set of initiatives to create a safer marketplace through its Cybersecurity for IoT program.

Will the Clouds Part?

So where do we stand in this process to create a more secure IoT world? In short, there is progress taking place. One thing to keep in mind: the IoT security threat is not going away anytime soon. That said, key stakeholders need to stay focused on providing stronger security measures for IoT devices and services. Otherwise, IoT market opportunities (see Navigant Research’s Emerging IoT Business Models report) will be lost or needlessly delayed. We are in for cloudy skies for the next several years, so get used to a blend of bad news about breaches coupled with positive steps to thwart them.

 

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