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Smart electrical grids and broadband over power lines – two winner propositions

Posted by evolvingwheel on March 22, 2008

Over the recent years we have heard, talked, and ruminated about informatics – clinical informatics, bio-informatics, neuro-informatics, social informatics. Now we are adding one more – power-informatics. Yes, that could be a very legitimate name for a science that blends sophisticated engineering, advanced conservation, and proactive allotment of resources in electrical power development, distribution, and savings. All these together are forming a very potent tool in power consumption and smart-grid management.

So what is a smart electrical grid. Even few days back I didn’t know much about this concept – a concept that develops its fundamentals from advanced monitoring of power production, distribution, and usage at both the source and the consumer end. Minneapolis-based utility Xcel Energy has embarked on a project that will ‘equip homes with smart power meters that help people reduce demand when electricity is most expensive. Substations will also use information from the meters to automatically reroute power when problems arise’. You may read the full article [here]. the smart grid is all about saving energy, over-usage, and bottlenecks in grids, power lines, and cluster nodes. In a nutshell, as I understood, when there is peak hour, your intelligent monitor installed in the garage will send a signal to the washer to wait for few hours when the grid load mellows down. Further, the household electrical utensils will pass usage analytics to the power company that would help them forecast usage volume and cost peaks across demographics that stretch across geographic, economic, and cultural spectrum within the population. powerlines-squareweb.jpg

Now there are two other things that came to my attention.

First, one partner of this project, called Current Group, has designed and deployed what is known as BPL systems – Broadband over Power Lines. Now this is just amazing. Being interested in ubiquitous access of the Internet in remotest parts of the world (and poor parts as well), I have often encountered insurmountable difficulties in envisioning accessibility to broadband in under-served communities of the world. Now BPL creates a whole new dimension and henceforth a disruptive innovation that could be called RADICAL. As electricity is considered fundamental to modern civilization, every government have tried their best to push the electrical outlet as deep as possible into villages and remote corners of their countries. Internet is a new phenomenon. But power lines had been growing for decades and have evolved their way into households affected by poverty and other infrastructure disparities. Now if BPL becomes a viable option, then communication accessibility to these parts of the world will be a very very reasonable option. I am very excited by this opportunity. Got to do some real research on the policy, infrastructure, and capital investment needs to bring this to fruition.

Second, is a whole new market development in electrical utilities that talk to the user over broadband – whether that is laid through power lines or wifi or other wireless networks. I will just give a small use case and you can dream all different ways to extend it. When your washing machine gets a warning from your power provider about peaks, it sends you a ping to your cell phone and you communicate back asking it to start two hours later. If you plan to override, your power system charges you premium and you bear the cost by confirming the alert through your mobile device. Is this sounding like sci-fi. May be 5 years from now it won’t!

Last but not the least: My salute to one of the greatest sci-fi author Arthur C Clarke, who passed away in Sri lanka on March, 19. A true dreamer and a visionary of the time.


Posted in broadband, Communication, electricity, Energy, Environment, Innovation, social innovation | Leave a Comment »

Can this electric-car charging infrastructure make Israel greener?

Posted by evolvingwheel on January 21, 2008

A news article popped up in the media circle yesterday that got me all ears! Israel plans to make electric-car a reality by 2010. The government initiative is a path-breaking collaboration among a California based start-up, a Japanese-French auto maker, and a large global financial institution that recently got beaten up by sub-prime market disaster! Nevertheless, this could be a perfect example of how inclusive and proactive policies can realize a dream by juxtaposing corporate incentive, public benefit, and environmental consciousness in a region vulnerable to a continuous onslaught of terrorism.

You may read the news in detail by clicking the following links:




I am just impressed (and to certain extent skeptical!) about the grandiose picture of the project. Automaker Renault-Nissan will manufacture the cars and Better Place, a California start-up founded by former SAP executive Shai Agassi, will build the infrastructure, which may eventually consist of 500,000 charging points and up to 200 battery-exchange stations. Now that is some infrastructure to be placed together within next two years. I believe the planners have laid out the ecosystem trajectory associated with not only the development of such a network of service and change stations but also a continuous development of newer green technologies with better efficacy and cheaper cost. Just wondering, what if you invest billions of dollars to build these stations and in 5-7 years some other form of hybrid/solar/hydrogen powered technology got prevalent with much lower demand of frequent refills and change points? How would you recycle this network? Has the technology developed to the extent where older energy delivery models can be retrofitted with new form of energy distribution systems with minimal cost? whokilledtheelectriccar.jpg

In my earlier article on Brazil going to ethanol 30 years back, there are certain factors that played in sustaining the change out there for the long haul – first gasoline usage was not substituted by any other cheaper (cheaper than ethanol) type across the world from early 70s. So there was no cost-savings incentive challenging ethanol infrastructure development for years to come. Furthermore, Brazil developed flex vehicle that could use both types of energy with no major investment or switch of human habit. This cushioned any possible failure in embracing ethanol due to production problems, supply-chain impossibilities, cost-revenue issues, or lack in government’s commitment over the long haul. Now, is Israel thinking in that line too since future is full of uncertainties. shimon_peres.jpg

One thing for sure though – this effort will definitely instigate new research in battery and charging. When the implementation of new policies is mandated by the government and over time is absorbed by the population, the inertia sets in. This dynamic has a stability of its own as long as the engineering, financial, and government support continues to come. With increasing demand for better performance, R&D investments steer towards a particular technology supporting the infrastructure and money is re-invested to sharpen an evolving methodology. I hope this model succeeds and we use this great opportunity to initiate change in our lifestyles and behaviors for a better future!

Posted in automobile, Energy, Environment, fuel, Innovation, pollution | 1 Comment »

Tata Motor brings car of $2500 – Can India handle it?

Posted by evolvingwheel on January 10, 2008

First post of 2008! Hope this one talks about my interest for this year 🙂

So the Tata Motor Companyof India has finally accomplished an unprecedented feat by bringing a car that costs a meager $2500! From the post-independence era, Tata has been delivering indigenous solutions for the Indian automobile market and has become a household name when it comes to trucks and cars that can sustain the harsh environment of heat and monsoon and strained infrastructure. However, this time Tata has done something that could not only change the landscape of Indian automobile market but could also shakeout the socio-economic, environmental, and infrastructure aspects of a country beleaguered by poverty, income disparity, and an emerging middle class with increasing buying capacity. /photo.cms?msid=2684679

I am not talking here about the car itself or the business impact from the perspective of automobile industry. You can find all those in this link. What I am interested in is the short-term and long-term effect of bringing a car to the market that could invigorate a whole different buyer’s segment – the bottom of the pyramid (as claimed by Prof. Prahlad).

Let me bring few things into perspective and ask some critical questions.

  1. Buyer’s segment – two wheeler buyers or the ones with low income and somewhere between lower middle class and wannabe middle-class. Millions like that live both in cities and villages. Consider cities first- if the car ownership increases 4-6 fold, does India have that road infrastructure to support the traffic? Even today the country is struggling with new cars hitting the roads. How would this increased number be tackled by a antagonizing political environment fighting over draconian policy implementations and let aside implementing a overhaul change?
  2. In village side – who will take the onus of building roads to the deepest corners where these cars (and ridership) would penetrate? If this car sustains the environmental and infrastructure hardship and ends up surviving for more than 5 years on Indian roads, the explosion of ownership can be daunting. Just think about the environmental impact, recycling of scrap, and junk spare parts after usage!
  3. Now, implications on the positive side are enormous. I can see how cell phones changed the whole way of doing things in the cities and semi-rural areas. Social innovation entered deep into the countryside when fishermen would use cell phones to find out the wholesale market price and distribute their catch according to the prospects of profitability. This car can bring changes like that but in a more amplified scale!
  4. And then there are the prospects of employment style, pattern, location, and timing shifts. When a biker wouldn’t try to go beyond a certain distance and limit his/her business/profession according to those restrictions, this car could break down that deterrence and create whole new format of earning, living, and spending. There is a very good possibility of a nationwide economic and henceforth a social shift that could emerge from communities that fenced for years!

Opportunities as well as problems are enormous. I am more excited to think about the future trajectory of the market and human behaviors when such innovations enable a possibility beyond ones imagination.

Picture: Ratan Tata

Add On: News release – http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22575262/

Posted in automobile, Energy, fuel, Innovation, materials, pollution | 1 Comment »

Electric cars as power storage for grids – an entrepreneur goes ahead of the curve

Posted by evolvingwheel on December 5, 2007

This came as a very interesting idea to start with – electric and hybrid cars acting as storage facilities for extra power in an electrical grid. I will briefly state the background or the problem that seeks such an effort: Electric companies produce power that are drawn from the grid to different degrees at different times of the day. During the morning rush hour, the power draw is heavy. It slows down a bit during later periods before hitting another high during the evening hours. The draw also depends on demographics, usage, industrial density, and other attributes. However, it’s extremely difficult to store the power during off times. As stated, the storage capacity available is only for 1% of yield in the US.

Dr. Willet Kempton at the University of Delaware College of Marine and Earth Studies, has developed a system called V2G (vehicle-to-grid) that enables electric and hybrid cars to store this extra power and supply it back to the grid when idle. Gasoline driven cars are literally useless when idle. However, if connected to a grid node, electric cars can store the excess electricity and provide it back when not running. Rad the article [here] v2g.jpg

The concept is cool if there is a decent volume of participant cars. Nearly 100 vehicles available for two-thirds of the time could provide a megawatt of storage power. let’s now see the cost-benefit picture – The researchers estimate each car can provide $4,000 (£2,000) worth of storage to an energy company per year. It would cost roughly $600 (£300) to install the high-power connection system required. To encourage drivers to help out, power companies would need to pass on some of their savings, says Kempton.

Now certain areas that the true commercialization of this research hinges on are as follows:

  1. For every 1000 combustion-powered cars, how many electric/hybrid cars are there? In order to see a significant platform for implementation, what density of hybrid cars are required in cities and small towns? What is a possible timeline to reach that density?
  2. For density growth purpose – who will market for awareness? Will it be power companies, car companies, consumer advocacy groups, governments, or other third-party entities?
  3. What kind of infrastructure costs are associated with bringing the grid network to the individual consumer’s garage? How do you do that for cars that are parked on streets, office parking lots, and city paid garages?
  4. If volume is the question, how do you market the concept for its adoption within a favorable timeline? Is this just a very theoretical approach or does it have the possibility of mass acceptance? v2g_car.jpg
  5. How will this affect the car batteries in the long run? If the store-n-supply is hammering the battery, how will that contribute to the wear-and-tear of the power system of the hybrid? Are the researchers planning to work with car companies to make adjustments in the hybrid/electrical system? What is the incentive for the car companies to do that? Will the power companies reimburse them? What will be the cost-share and revenue structure around this?

Well, I have many questions. Thinking from the business implementation line kind off. Any inputs?

Posted in Energy, Environment, fuel, hybrid | 1 Comment »

How Brazil made it possible with ethanol? – Consumer hedging bets at the pumps

Posted by evolvingwheel on November 24, 2007

Last week my good friend Shalabh mentioned about a CNN program on Brazil’s independence from Middle East oil. The program delineated the story of ethanol and the growth of an economy around that. I got interested about it and started digging for more information. In fact I am also looking for that video. Meanwhile, I stumbled upon an article published by the Wall Street Journal early last year. The article has a very interesting perspective. It doesn’t talk much about the stats and the numbers. However, it gives a nice case study of Brazil’s long-term vision back in early 70’s. You can take a peek at [As Brazil Fills Up on Ethanol, It Weans Off Energy Imports]. sugar_cane_brazil.jpg

What I enjoyed most from reading the article is the progressive story of one country’s vision, dogged determination, strict enforcement, and controlled cost-guarantee (more on a short-term basis) to encourage a new scientific development and eventual mass acceptance. The good thing that the military ruler Gen. Ernesto Geisel achieved was a stringent adherence to the policy of mixing more ethanol to gasoline. Over time, this adherence paid off as the % of ethanol in gas rose to more than 25%.

One other thing I loved about the development is the production of cars that are capable of running both on ethanol and gasoline, and some totally on ethanol. The government forced Petrobas to provide outlets for ethanol at gas stations. This effort had an initial effect of visibility in spite of an investment that didn’t promise a ROI right away. But this push allowed car companies to come up with ethanol based models due to the infrastructural availability to support the promise. I talked about a similar case of infrastructural support for hydrogen fuel in the US in a previous article [First hydrogen cell bus in Texas – infrastructural impediment to economy of scale]. With a continuous support from the government through tax breaks and other investment incentives, soon other car companies started launching ‘flexible fuel‘ cars. Hence, availability of the fuel, vehicles manufactured to run on it, and a solid state mandate and support resulted in a mass scale acceptance of a new form of energy. — A great story!

Picture Courtesy Washington Post: Sugar cane arrives at a plant belonging to Cosan SA Industria e Comercio, the largest sugar and ethanol producer in Brazil. Most of Brazil’s ethanol comes from sugar cane.

Photo Credit: JC Franca, Bloomberg News

Posted in Energy, Environment, fuel, Innovation, investment | Leave a Comment »

Piezoelectrics on steroids – researcher creates artificial compound

Posted by evolvingwheel on November 17, 2007

Pradeep Sharma and his research team at University of Houston are in the process of testing an engineered piezoelectric material that could revolutionize the way piezoelectrics produce power. In naturally occurring piezoelectric materials there are several limitations. Even though these compounds are being used in increasing commercial products such as airbags, lighters, etc., there extensive growth in market utilization and efficiency are limited by their brittleness and the requirement of a lot of energy. Sharma’s research encompasses theoretical approach to design fabrication of materials and then practical testing of real compounds created artificially from ground up. pradeep_sharma_houston.jpg

If a fairly good amount of energy can be created from a tangible mechanical pressure, these compounds have the potential to appear in several commercial applications that require power generation to run internal operations of devices. Considering the claim that the artificially engineered materials are steroids, numerous mechanical applications can be associated with the method of generating power by pressure. Prosthetic limbs is one area of application. Another good application could be tying this process of deriving decent electricity from the gas and brake pedals in cars. Or even from steering wheels. Guess how many times we press these objects while driving.

I will try to do some more research on the nanoscale effects that produces these compounds. With my interest in nanotechnology realm, the process of adding or manipulating attributes in materials with the help of nano-optics will be something worth knowing. Read the article [here].

Picture: Pradeep Sharma; Courtesy University of Houston website

Posted in Energy, Innovation, materials, nanotechnology | Leave a Comment »

First hydrogen cell bus in Texas – infrastructural impediment to economy of scale

Posted by evolvingwheel on November 7, 2007

UT Austin and Gas Technology Institute (GTI) have joined hands to roll out the first hydrogen cell driven commuter bus in Texas. The 22-foot bus operates on a hybrid system that utilizes power provided by advanced battery and a hydrogen fuel cell. The bus, manufactured by Ebus Inc. has the ability to run on highways and uses fuel efficient regenerative breaking. The best part – the tail pipe spews water vapor out. Read the full article [here]. hybrid_bus.jpg

One of the problems mentioned in the article is the lack of infrastructure for hydrogen delivery points. Hydrogen, a safe fuel, is expensive to transport and store. Gasoline infrastructure in place makes the fuel cheaper to transport and deliver. However, hydrogen delivery has so far limited the commercial rollout of hydrogen enabled cars. Further, oil lobby and giant oil corporations make it more difficult to create the environment to do more research and development of hydrogen distribution systems.

The biggest takeaway from this project is the creation of a fully integrated hydrogen fueling station that generates, compresses, stores, and dispenses hydrogen on-site. It will be worth watching how this effort unfolds. Will there be enough investments to create hydrogen stations all over? Some interesting questions:

  1. How will the government regulations and policies drive the commercial proliferation of hydrogen stations?
  2. What will be time curve for investment, innovation around this technology for efficiency, break-even point, and profitability? How will the curve look?
  3. Will the big car companies slowly create a product portfolio with hydrogen enabled cars? Will that start from the commercial vehicles first or from the individual sedans, etc?
  4. How will the awareness be generated? Will private sector pay for marketing or will the governments pay for marketing targeted towards awareness and mass acceptance?

This will be a major business case study for innovation-to-market where government policies and openness will dictate the dynamics of growth.

Posted in Energy, Environment, fuel, Innovation | 2 Comments »

Polluting the body by driving too long – How do we curb UFP emission?

Posted by evolvingwheel on November 1, 2007

You get behind the wheel in the morning, turn the FM on, pull the windows up, and put the air to RECYCLE – and you believe that you have warded off traffic pollution! NO – you just haven’t!! New environmental studies reveal the extent of pollution that our body gets exposed to while commuting in our cars. The findings are further scary when we are sitting inside a mass transit vehicle that runs on diesel. traffic_nyc.jpg

While we commute 6% of our daily time, it accounts for more than 60% of our exposure to polluted air. Diesel fumes and ultra fine particles (UFP) are the major culprits. The danger with UFP lies in the fact that they can penetrate cell walls and can diffuse throughout the system much faster than large sized pollutants. These exposures have been found to increase our susceptibility to cardiovascular diseases, breathing problems, and other chronic respiratory problems. Read the article [here].

A big concern will be the pollution exposures in communities of the developing world where lack of regulation and enforcement, corruption, and ignorance harm the population to a level that also goes undetected. Emerging economies should consider this problem more seriously. Regardless of nations, curbing of polluting sources should be addressed by technological and scientific innovations, awareness, proper governance, and diligent and uncorrupted enforcement.

I am attaching another article that may of interest. no_escape_from_diesel_exhaust_summary.pdf

Posted in Energy, Environment, fuel, pollution | 2 Comments »

The United States – a member of an imminent thirsty planet

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 28, 2007

For last few months, I have been concerned with the growing issue of freshwater availability in the rapidly expanding economies and communities of South Asia. What came to me as a shock is a similar catastrophe in the making right here in the homeland. Some of the numbers are staggering – US used more than 148 trillion gallons of water in 2000. With a surging growth in population, immigration, usage, and wastes. My jaws fell learning that we use nearly 500K gallons of water per capita. The global problem of depleting freshwater has started to reach our shores, and that’s too pretty fast. As I kept on reading about it in the article published in MSNBC [read article here], I felt that the awareness about this impending problem is quite insignificant. However, keeping our eyes closed wouldn’t promise a continuous flow from our taps. This is one of several things we have taken for granted!

Well, following my philosophy of problems-lead-to-opportunities, I see a great potential in innovation, invention, private sector-government collaboration, governance, and conscious management of services around development of freshwater facilities. Distribution will be another big concern. As again mentioned in the MSNBC article – it will cost us nearly 300 billion dollars to just upgrade our pipes to support increased capacity. Who is going to bear the cost? Will it be government alone (using our tax money) or should it be individual citizens bearing a subscription based cost structure as found in tollway road systems. Pay as you go! However, that model will not be able to support the infrastructure totally since the pipes won’t stop coming to the tap that stays unopened. freshwater.jpg

I like the idea of desalination plants. However, the cost-benefit structure may be preventing an expansion of its capacity. On the other hand, the desalination capacity is not significant either. If you look at the numbers in Florida, they are not impressive either. One component that would be really beneficial is the recycling of waste water. If we can convert a large amount of industrial and farming wastes (water) by different organic technologies (microbial treatments, etc.), we will be able to bring freshwater back to the ecosystem. That will be a very prospectful industry.

Finally, I came across a global perspective in the following article published in BBC. Wanted to share with you: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/755497.stm

Posted in Energy, Environment, Innovation, Water | 2 Comments »

GE’s greener approach – cutting down mercury from fluorescent lightbulbs

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 24, 2007

GE has taken an initiative to cut down the amount of mercury in compact fluorescent light-bulbs (CFLs). Currently, the cock-screw shaped energy-saving bulbs carry 5 mg of mercury. A pretty small amount per unit. But with soaring sales of CFLs over the last few years (150 million just last year), the amount just multiplies to a significant amount. Environmentalists are complaining about the fact that many of these bulbs are ending up in landfills rather than the recycling facility – leading its way to environmental waste and thereby to the ecosystem.

The article can be found [here]. You can read about the initiatives and the numbers for CFLs growth. However, I would like to take the opportunity to talk about the amazing nature of industry around a growing acceptance of an innovation and its commercialization. Again, my interest lies in the development and maturity of an ecosystem around an invention. cflstandard.jpg

I have earlier wrote about CFLs [here] and their tremendous market growth where mass acceptance drives the price/unit down. This cock-screw shaped bulb saves lot of energy and limits CO2 emission considerably. However, as the CFLs catch up, so does the consumption of mercury. Meanwhile, the shear number of waste that ends up in landfill create a hazard for the garbage workers, who often come in direct contact with exposed mercury.

Considering the energy savings, several countries are starting to ban the incandescent light bulbs. However, GE and other manufacturers are still not phasing out the regular bulbs, which has the maximum penetration in the market. There is an obvious balancing act where in one hand a product is slowly reaching its demise (! well eventually) whereas another product from the same portfolio class is ramping up for fine tuning and cost adjustments. The two curves are moving dynamically in opposite directions but with different speeds. Meanwhile, another influential parameter driven by social and governmental policies enforces a greater speed in the declining curve. This can modify the ecosystem with different market players (smaller companies) who may bring new innovations to mitigate the disparity while the big manufacturer adapts.

Ecosystem dynamics is just amazing!

Picture: NPR

Posted in Energy, Environment, Innovation, investment | Leave a Comment »