July/August 2011

Automation by the Numbers

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Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) is testing an intelligent street lighting system,  which uses up to 80% less electricity than the current systems and  is cheaper to maintain. The system consists of street lights with LED lighting, motion sensors, and wireless communication. This enables the installation to dim the lights when there are no cars, cyclists, or pedestrians in the vicinity. Wireless communication between the street lights and a control room is also possible. The system was developed by TU Delft alumnus Management of Technology, Chintan Shah. Shah's system consists of electronic gear that can be added to any-dimmable-street light. In Shah's system, all surrounding street lights light up if anyone approaches. And the lights never go out completely; they are dimmed to approximately 20% of the standard power. An added bonus is the fact that the lights automatically communicate any failures to the control room. The Netherlands currently spends more than $423 million (E300 million) a year on electricity for street lighting. The network of street lighting also emits over 1.6 million tons of CO2 a year.

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Nissan is working on what to do with the battery packs inside of its Leaf EV once they have reached EOL status for automotive duties. Nissan said the battery will likely have 80% of its original capacity when the car is ready for the scrap heap and have use in other markets such as energy storage. To find a green and profitable use for the old batteries, Nissan is pursuing the possible use for the batteries in storing electricity. Nissan has demonstrated a new system that uses old Leaf battery packs. The system has four Leaf batteries in a cellar inside a Nissan building. These batteries are hooked to 488 solar panels on the roof of the building. Nissan reports the battery packs store energy the solar panels create. The power created is enough to charge 1,800 Leaf vehicles per year.

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The White House recently announced a $250 million loan bonanza for major Smart Grid deployment, but a 4-millimeter-thick chip that costs just a few dollars may actually be the key to ensuring our aging power grid infrastructure does not die on us. The chip, developed by a team from Switzerland's EPFL Electronics Laboratory (ELab) and backed financially by ABB, can reportedly manage defects on a power grid network-generator problems, power cuts, power line failures-a thousand times faster than current software. The whole thing is so fast it can model thousands of failure scenarios and figure out the best solutions before they happen. So in the event of a hot day where everyone is using their air conditioners, stretching the network to the brink, the chip can quickly figure out what to do to prevent a sudden power failure. ELab's chip could also easily integrate grid-connected renewable energy sources, which will become increasingly common over the next decade.

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California Institute of Technology researchers said they believe a new approach to wind farm design-one that places wind turbines close together instead of far apart-may provide significant efficiency gains. "Because conventional, propeller-style wind turbines must be spaced far apart to avoid interfering with one another aerodynamically, much of the wind energy that enters a wind farm is never tapped. … To compensate, they're built taller and larger to access better winds," said John Dabiri, professor of Engineering and Applied Science, and director of the Center for Bioinspired Engineering at Caltech. But this increase in height and size leads to frequently cited issues such as increased cost and difficulty of engineering and maintaining the larger structures, other visual, acoustic, and radar signatures problems, as well as more bat and bird impacts. "The available wind energy at 30 feet is much less abundant than that found at the heights of modern wind turbines, but if near-ground wind can be harnessed more efficiently there's no need to access the higher altitude winds," he said. "The global wind power available at 30 feet exceeds global electricity usage several times over. The challenge? Capturing that power." The Caltech design targets that power by relying on vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWTs) in arrangements that place the turbines much closer together  than is possible with horizontal-axis propeller-style turbines. VAWTs provide several immediate benefits, according to Dabiri, including effective operation in turbulent winds like those occurring near the ground, a simple design (no gearbox or yaw drive) that can lower costs of operation and maintenance, and a lower profile that reduces environmental impacts.