Tag Archives: electricity

So you’re telling me that my electric car’s battery is in the paint?

What comes to mind when you picture a battery? The familiar Duracell Coppertop AA battery? A clunky  automotive battery? The small rectangular battery in your cell phone? Researchers at Rice University are reinventing the concept of batteries and battery packaging by creating a lithium-ion battery with spray paint. That’s right, your local neighborhood hoodlum taggers can now be more energy forward than you sitting at home watching Cops.

A team of researchers from Rice University have demonstrated in a paper in Nature Scientific Reports that special “spray paints” can be used sequentially to build up the layers needed to form a lithium-ion battery. A spray-on battery could be used on a variety of materials, both rigid and flexible. They point out that the technology could be coupled to energy conversion devices such as solar cells.

Simply put, a lithium-ion battery is created by tightly layering cathodes and anodes like in the image shown below. The researchers at Rice University replicate this cylindrical design in a customizable form using the spray coatings that they developed. They applied the battery painting process to a variety of materials including stainless steel, glass, ceramic tile, and flexible polymer sheets. An SEM image of a cross section of the battery is shown below. Each of the spray painted batteries performed as a typical battery. They even applied the spray paint to a coffee mug to spell out the name of their Alma mater while also storing energy. They added that more complicated surface geometries could be possible using different spray nozzle designs that are tailored to the different viscous properties of the paints.

The are a few drawbacks to a spray painted lithium-ion battery. For one, the materials are highly toxic, corrosive, and flammable, hence why they are always tightly packaged and hidden away in their conventional form. Secondly, the batteries are highly sensitive to oxygen and moisture. This sensitivity currently restricts their widespread use because they still have to be packaged like their conventional brethren, reducing their novel promise. A spray painted battery is shown below on a glazed ceramic tile alongside its final packaged form. One of the researchers’ next steps is to develop a sealing layer to protect the batteries from these elements. Because who wants to paint their electric vehicle with a new battery but then have the painter tell them that they always have to keep the car cover on.

Typical lithium-ion battery construction.

Conventional and spray painted lithium-ion batteries.


SEM image of spray painted lithium-ion battery cross section.


Glazed ceramic tile with spray painted battery prior to packaging (left) and post-packaging (right)




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Smart Grid and Infrastructure Security Implications

Image via Washington Post

It’s time for real talk. Existing power generation in Texas is having a tough time meeting the state’s rising power demand. The February 2, 2011 cold snap took the state by surprise and temporarily disabled the Oak Grove coal-fired power plant. The 1.6 GW shortage cascaded across the state and disabled back-up natural gas turbines, forcing the Electric Reliability Counsel of Texas (ERCOT) to issue rolling blackouts across the state. It’s not to say that Texas is unprepared for these kind’s of surprise weather conditions, but current demand management techniques are falling short. ERCOT would like the state’s peaking power reserve margin to sit at 13.75% of the state’s total generation capacity, but this number is pretty idealistic when considering how quickly Texas is growing.

So what’s the solution? Depending on who you ask, integrating a smarter infrastructure with distributed renewable energy sources is the way to go. This means installing new smart grid technologies with renewable power sources like wind and solar and taking dependence off centralized peaking power stations. The US Department of Energy is enthusiastically embracing this modus and has already allocated $4.5 billion in grants to smart grid technologies, along with setting clean energy generation targets to 80% of national generation by 2035. This is good news for Texans, where 10.9 GW of existing wind infrastructure is ready to help offset demand loads, not to mention all that untapped solar potential. So how exactly does a smart grid help?

It’s all about information feedback. By giving the power generators insight into how electricity is being consumed and where the faults lie, we collectively gain more control over how we use electricity. Smart grid  is often touted as a self-healing technology, in that it can respond to system outages much quicker than the existing electro-mechanical infrastructure. In addition, smart grid is expected to combat the rising cost of energy. By 2050, utilities are expected to increase by up to 400% of current prices. With smart grid in place, we can expect these to increase by about 50%. Not bad. However, an underdeveloped smart grid network could have catastrophic consequences for national security.

In 2010, the US media revealed that uranium enrichment plants in Iran had been catastrophically damaged by a very complex computer program known as Stuxnet. The malicious code was specifically engineered to damage industrial control systems and SCADA networks. These networks can be found in the oil and gas industry, water management,  power generation, etc. In the case of the Iranian enrichment facilities, the code was able to gain control of the uranium centrifuges and effectively destroy them before operators realized something was awry. The truly alarming thing about Stuxnet, though, is that it was operational and in the open for a full year before anyone realized it. The code is designed to install and exploit system back doors, known as rootkits, and can be installed on any media plugged into infected hardware. That means a flash drive plugged into a corrupted system becomes an infectious vector for other industrial infrastructure. Like a smart grid network. Stuxnet is kind of like the bull in the china shop. It’s very capable of causing a lot of damage, but it isn’t too particular about what it breaks. That means any existing industrial control system can be implicated.

There isn’t solid proof as to who designed Stuxnet. The United States has been implicated, as well as Russia and Israel. However, it is an extraordinarily complex piece of work and is almost assuredly the product of a technologically developed government. This would make Stuxnet the first form of cyber-warfare that is capable of targeting entire infrastructures. Scary stuff, especially if your entire electric infrastructure is tied to an integrated smart grid system.

It’s often said that no network is impenetrable, but good people are doing a lot of pioneering work to make sure that the bad guys can’t get in. Smart grid is a very promising avenue to bringing electricity generation into the future, but we need to be confident that we’re not unnecessarily introducing vulnerabilities into existing infrastructure.


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Insurance, Water, Electricity, and Climate Change

As discussed in class, the validity of climate change is inevitable; the cumulative evidence that exists in support of climate change will eventually lead to a unanimous consensus [1]. However, it is important to know how climate change might be affecting us today.

In a recent article on the website Co.Exist (which I encourage all of you to regularly visit), Terry Tamminen adopts an interesting approach to assessing how climate change will play a significant role this year in four markets: insurance, water, real estate, and electricity. I offer my opinions on each of his analyses. Tamminen writes that the Insurance Information Institute recorded national insured losses of close to $36 billion in 2011 “from record-setting extreme weather catastrophies” [2].  While this is a significantly high number, the chart from the III puts things into perspective [3]. There definitely seems to be a higher frequency of losses post-1988 compared to pre-1988. In fact, it seems like the three years with the highest insured losses on record were all after 1994. Tamminen is perhaps right on the trend of increasing insurance costs.


Another kind of disaster discussed in the article is drought. In our class last Thursday, Mark Strama alluded to a general consensus in Texas that water is one of the state’s biggest concerns [5]. Spicewood Beach, a town not too far from Austin in Burnet County, has become the first town in Texas to officially run out of water [4]. The town is currently transporting in their water from miles away and costs the agency roughly $1000 a day. In 2011, Texas experienced its driest year since 1917, and if it continues this way, it’s not unimaginable to see these costs being passed down to consumers in the foreseeable future.

Tamminen discusses how the cost of coastal real estate will also rise as a consequence of preparing for more intense storms. But the last – and perhaps the most interesting – argument he makes is that the cost of electricity bills will go down. In California, specifically, the Energy Commission has been releasing some fairly detailed guidelines on the energy consumption of household goods. The 2010 edition, for example, has a stipulation that “a television shall automatically enter … stand-by mode after a maximum of 15 minutes without video and/or audio output” [6]. Tamminen believes that regulations like these, along with higher standards on chargers, will save $306 million a year off Californian energy bills, because they will have to build capacity for a lower peak load. I couldn’t find the source of this information, but a quick look at the USA’s energy consumption seems to imply that our energy consumption has reduced its rate of growth, while we consumed less in the years 2008-2010 compared to 2007 [7]:

While history has definitely shown that we can consume less, it’s hard to say definitively whether per unit energy costs will go down as a result of these measures. We trade energy on a global market, and the rising energy consumption of countries like China, India, and Brazil will probably have a bigger impact on the cost of energy compared to progressive local standards.

Do you agree/disagree with Tamminen’s views? Do you think he missed other important indicators?

[1] Dr. Webber’s Lecture on Energy, Technology, & Policy. The University of Texas at Austin, April 3, 2012

[2] 3 Things That Will Cost More in 2012, Terry Tamminen. http://www.fastcoexist.com/1679610/3-things-that-will-cost-more-in-2012

[3] http://www.iii.org/facts_statistics/catastrophes-us.html

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/04/us/texas-drought-forces-town-to-haul-in-water-by-truck.html?_r=1

[5] Mark Strama’s Lecture on Energy, Technology, & Policy. The University of Texas at Austin, April 5, 2012

[6] http://www.energy.ca.gov/2010publications/CEC-400-2010-012/CEC-400-2010-012.PDF

[7] Data from EIA Annual Energy Review.


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A new idea to save energy

I came across this article entitled “Die Electric Project” in a book called Green Design by Marcus Fairs and thought it to be very interesting. Led by conceptual artist and electrical engineer Scott Amron, the Die Electric Project consists of a series of designs that are intended to make people “think about the amount of electricity they use while proposing alternative uses for electrical fittings in the home.”[1] Cleverly derived from the word “dielectric,” which is an insulating material that does not transmit electricity, the products displayed in this project are designed and placed in a particular manner so that they do not consume electricity and force the owner to think about electricity conservation.

“Plugged,” shown to the left, is a simple yet meaningful example of this exhibit. It tries to convey the fact that our electricity, whose generation burns up enormous amounts of fossil fuels, is often wasted through leaks such as poor insulation and continual electric use when appliances are off. The cork physically and symbolically plugs potential electric leaks, thus helping us save appreciable amounts of electricity.

The light switch hook shown to the right presents a similar case. This hook serves as a functional hanger only if the light is turned off.

Upon reading this article, my first impression was that the electrical fitting would be useless and that people would simply unplug the devices and continue using the outlet.  After careful consideration, however, it seems like even if one disconnects the dielectric device to use the outlet, the decision will be made with a conscious regard for the electricity being used.

Around 13.5% (154 KWh) of the electricity used in houses pertains to home electronics.  Of this amount, a discernable percentage of this electricity is consumed when devices are turned off.  Appliances such as “televisions, stereo equipment, laptops, cell phone chargers, printers, microwaves, and pretty much anything with a transformer or a clock on it, continue to use electricity unless unplugged”[2] and are consequently the cause of wasteful electric leaks. In addition, electric plugs are significant sources for air leaks throughout the house, which result in insulation losses.  Plugging these and other air leaks may have the potential to increase one’s energy savings from 5% to 30% per year.

While existing programs, such as the joint Energy Star program between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, aim to set a standard for energy efficient appliances, the conversion to these appliances requires investment. Simple designs similar to those presented in the Die Electric Project could be a cheap, quick option to help decrease consumption and reduce energy losses as we transition into a more energy efficient era.


[1] Fairs, Marcus. Green Design: Creative Sustainable Designs for the Twenty-First Century.  pg. 128-129

[2] http://www.ehow.com/how_4872963_of-electrical-leaks-conserve-energy.html

[3] http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=about.ab_index

[4] http://www.energysavers.gov/your_home/energy_audits/index.cfm/mytopic=11170

[5] http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/reps/enduse/er01_us.html

[6] http://www.consumerenergycenter.org/myths/appliances.html

[7] http://www.dieelectric.org/


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What is Masdar City?

I was able to volunteer at the Cleantech Forum 2010 in late February. There I became familiar with Masdar, the lead sponsor. Masdar is located in the heart of the global oil and gas industry, Abu Dhabi, but it’s all about renewable energy and sustainable technology. In short, their mission is to turn Abu Dhabi in to an international hub for renewable energy and support the development, commercialization and adoption of sustainable technologies. Their four integrated business units (Masdar Institute, Masdar Carbon, Masdar Power and Masdar City) are all cutting edge, but I’d like to focus on what they call the “physical embodiment of Masdar,” Masdar City.

The thought is to create a place for innovators and entrepreneurs to test energy science, city design, sustainable development and environmental architecture. The focus is not only on test and design, but also on making an alluring place to live and work. If your creating the city of the future and money is not an object(budgeted at $22 billion), why not reach for the sky? They have!

Masdar City will be powered by 100% renewables, it will be zero waste, zero carbon and it will have a sustainable water system. Transportation, materials, foods…all sustainable. They are going all out and the level of detail is amazing. From the orientation and width of the streets to the wind cones (shown in the Masdar Headquarters photo above) that naturally ventilate interior spaces to the retractable shades (shown below) covering City Plaza, nothing was overlooked.

Transportation is beneath the city, leaving the ground level open for pedestrians. The transportation system includes a light rail and a Personal Rapid Transport (PRT) system that a transports up to 4 adults to any PRT station at the touch of a button.

The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology(MIST), developed in cooperation with MIT will be at the heart of the R&D in Masdar City. It will eventually be home to 600 master’s and PhD students, with over 100 faculty members. MasDar City with also be the home of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) headquarters and host operations for companies like GE and BASF.

They are currently in Phase One of seven, which focuses on MIST. This means that first residents will be students testing new technologies, while being test subjects themselves. I would encourage you to learn more about Masdar City.

Source: http://www.masdarcity.ae/en/index.aspx

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What a Nodal Market Means for Texas and ERCOT

What a Nodal Wholesale Market Means for Texas and ERCOT 

First, before I get into Texas’ electricity market, let me first explain a little bit about the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the organization responsible for the management of this market.  ERCOT evolved from the Texas Interconnected System in 1970 and is considered an Independent System Operator (ISO).  ISOs were originally formed through the direction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and charged with coordinating and managing the electrical power system to ensure reliable and efficient operation of the electrical power system within a region or an individual state.  Power generation companies within ERCOT generates the majority of the electricity load in Texas (approximately 85%) and currently have about 80 GW of generation capacity that provides electricity for over 22 million customers and represents an annual market of about $34 billion[1].  

In 2003 the Public Utility Commission of Texas asked ERCOT to create a nodal wholesale market in order to improve market and operating efficiencies (i.e., reduce local transmission congestion costs) by using more rapid and detailed pricing and scheduling  (i.e., better price signals for locating generation and transmission) of energy services.  The current price tag for development of the nodal market is about $538 million. Additionally, ERCOT will also develop a day-ahead energy market, which should also increase the overall efficiency of the market[2].

The Current Market – Zonal

The current zonal-based market determines the price of electricity (paid to the generators) every 15 minutes, this price is also known as the market-clearing price because it the price that balances the supply and demand of electricity.  In the zonal market the grid is organized into congestion management zones.  These zones are meant to increase the reliability of the system because often the generation of electricity takes place far from the point of consumption, which can cause congestion of the transmission lines (i.e., they cannot carried all the power being generated) and reduce the reliability of the system.  To avoid congestion ERCOT can “balance” the source of generation – thereby reducing congestion, but only between zones and not within zones.  This balancing of generation may actually require the cheaper generator to curtail their production, which then increases the price of electricity paid by the end user.  Nodal markets are able to address congestion within a zone – this means that the price of electricity should decrease while the reliability increases[3]

The Nodal Market

Unlike the current zonal market, the nodal market calculates transmission costs from the point of generation from several thousand delivery points or nodes across Texas.  Nodal pricing should help provide a more detailed and accurate picture of transmission and generation, which will enable the market to better reveal areas of more expensive electricity (e.g., congestion) and thereby reduce costs and encourage more efficient transmission solutions or dispatch (i.e., using the least expensive generator).  The nodal system will also improve market and operating efficiencies by increasing the rate that the market-clearing price is calculated – reducing the time from 15 to 5 minutes[4]

A principal reason for transitioning to the nodal market is to saving money.  A cost-benefit analysis by the PUCT calculated that electricity consumers would save $5.6 billion during the first 10 years of operations due to increased market efficiencies.  Since the Texas electricity market began the process of deregulation there have been some difficulties during the transitions, but the nodal system should help ensure that ERCOT continues to provide cost-effective and reliable electricity market[5].  

[1] http://www.puc.state.tx.us/about/commissioners/nelson/present/pp/NodalMarket_082109.pdf

[2] http://nodal.ercot.com/about/news/2010/0129c.html

[3] http://www.window.state.tx.us/specialrpt/energy/app1/

[4] http://www.window.state.tx.us/specialrpt/energy/app1/

[5] http://www.puc.state.tx.us/about/commissioners/nelson/present/pp/NodalMarket_082109.pdf

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Wind Will It End?

Please forgive me for the cheezy post title, but if you choose to read on I think you will see it is relevant. When we discuss the challenges facing wind energy we hear about the intermittency and storage issues, destroying the visual landscape, lack of transmission and even the dangers posed to birds. Many people also raise valid concerns regard whether or not wind can be economically feasible without government subsidies, regulations and mandates. A recent Scientific American article shows that wind proponents should also worry about the challenges we don’t hear about every day.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these less discussed challenges are coming from wind’s competitors. The Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy believes wind producers should fork over the funds needed to expand the transmission infrastructure from the areas of the country where wind energy is produced (the Midwest) to the areas with the highest energy demand (the East Coast). While this seems like a reasonable idea on the surface you should be asking yourself who is this Coalition?  Turns out the Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy is made up of East Coast utilities.

Closer to home we have players in the natural gas game demanding that wind developers be held responsible for some of the costs associated with running backup natural gas generators. These generators are essential in providing electricity when the wind slows down and is unable to produce the needed amount of electricity. As before this appears to be a reasonable suggestion. Why shouldn’t wind energy producers help foot at least part of the costs generated when a gas turbine is turned on to make up for a decline in wind energy? At the same time this seems like an attempt by the natural gas industry to increase their competitions costs and help keep natural gas competitive on price.

Anyone who is familiar with the wind industry understands the large role played by the government. While people can certainly debate whether the government should be involved at all and if so to what level, nobody can deny the importance of politics in the past or in the future. In my podcast I touched on the concerns Senator Charles Schumer raised regarding the spending of stimulus funds on projects that were creating more jobs in China than in the United States. Now Schumer and three other Senators proposed a plan that would prevent federal grants being issued to any project used blades or turbines manufactured outside of the U.S. opponents of the Senators’ plan claim that the U.S. cannot afford to slow or limit the growth of the wind industry because it will only put us at risk of falling behind Chinese and European manufacturers. They also point out that Schumer and his colleagues are simply trying to funnel jobs to their states and the number of jobs going overseas has been exaggerated. As with most things in politics the number of jobs being created in and outside of the United States differs significantly depending on who you talk to and before you know it the whole issue has taken a nasty turn towards “he said, she said”-ville.

It is obvious each of these parties (Senators, utilities, the natural gas industry) and their actions are motivated through their own self-interests, but it should be just as obvious that we cannot simply dismiss these legitimate concerns simply because we do not support the people raising them. In a perfect world we would be focused on finding solutions for the “natural” problems facing wind instead of creating additional artificial roadblocks. In that same perfect world everyone would be working towards the common goal of creating clean renewable energy and the traditional utility, natural gas and coal industries would be okay with that. Reality is the world isn’t perfect and the future of wind energy is hardly certain. For the wind industry to continue its impressive growth they will have to learn to be just as focused on navigating the wonderful world of politics and viciously competitive energy industry as they are with coming up with solutions to their storage issues.

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