It’s So Windy in Britain That the Price of Electricity Went Negative/Down

The U.K. is producing so much excess power from wind turbines the electricity price went down for the longest period in the country’s memory.

One of the biggest concerns with renewable energy is what to do when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining. But sometimes you can have the opposite problem, like last week in the U.K. when the wind blew so hard electricity prices went negative.

For several hours at night on June 7, electricity prices in Britain hit rock bottom, making this the longest prices have been negative in U.K. history. Back in March, electricity prices went negative twice in one day, the first that’s ever happened.

The U.K. isn’t alone, either. Denmark has repeatedly produced more wind power than it can consume over the past several days, and turbines are producing high amounts of energy across the continent. This can pose some problems for utilities looking to get rid of their excess power. Some countries, like Denmark, can sell their excess power to neighboring countries. But ideally, excess electricity could be stored for later use. Unfortunately, storing electricity from renewable sources is not easy.

As renewable energy becomes more prevalent, countries are going to have to figure out ways to store that energy for long periods of time. Energy storage can smooth out the power grid, and a constant power supply is better than one that always fluctuating, even if a fluctuating grid sometimes provides free power.

Source: Mashable

Henry Sapiecha

Europe Pledges to Quintuple Their Offshore Wind Power Generators by the year 2030

The new arrangement will add an additional 60 gigawatts of power and dramatically reduce expenses for any future projects.

A few decades from now, most of our energy will likely come from the sea. At least, from the wind above the sea. One of the fastest growing and most efficient energy markets is offshore wind, and today’s announcement by three European countries and 25 private companies could cement that lead for decades.

Offshore wind is still controversial in the United States (though its finally being accepted in some areas), but many European countries are aggressively pursuing the tech. Offshore wind makes sense in many ways: it’s easier and cheaper to install turbines offshore than on mountains, it costs less than most other forms of energy, and it doesn’t use up valuable real estate.

Europe has already installed 13 gigawatts of offshore wind power, and a new agreement between Germany, Denmark, and Belgium could see a five-fold increase in that number over the next decade, up to 60 gigawatts.

This agreement also includes 25 European companies, such as Dong Energy and Siemens Gamesa, two companies that have been heavily involved in the construction of offshore turbines.

This announcement comes on the heels of a plan to construct 7,000 offshore wind turbines in the North Sea by 2050, and an upcoming offshore project off the coast of Long Island in New York starting in 2019.

These ambitious offshore wind projects will do more than just provide power to homes. They would lower the costs of offshore turbines and make it easier for more countries to build them. Existing European projects have lowered costs by almost 50 percent in the last two years, and costs are expected to be competitive with fossil fuel generators by 2030.

Chances are, this is only the first of many large offshore wind projects over the next few years. By 2030 or 2050, most of the power to our homes will likely come from large turbines built off the coasts.

Source: Reuters

Henry Sapiecha

Awesome Mini Generator Extracts Energy From Saltwater

Where freshwater and saltwater meet, you get energy.

Where freshwater meets saltwater, Aleksandra Radenovic sees a wold of untapped renewable energy.

Radenovic is a nanoscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and today she published the schematics of a brand new type of flat, membrane-like power generator. The generator siphons energy from the process of osmosis—when the salts in salty water spread out evenly into freshwater though a membrane. Only three atoms wide at its thinnest point, the generator could be used in places like river mouths and estuaries, or other locations where waters of different salinities constantly mix.

Radenovic says the electric promise of her generator could be enormous. She estimates that just a three foot square made of her flat device could theoretically produce an entire megawatt of power. That’s enough juice to run 50,000 energy-saving light-bulbs. The generator is described today in the journal Nature.

Osmosis Power

At its core, Radenovic’s membrane is a thin sheet studded with an array of incredibly tiny holes. The sheet is made of a relatively cheap compound called molybdenum disulfide. These holes are just large enough that only certain sized salts can shuffle through. Thanks to the molybdenum disulfide material, the holes are also naturally electrically charged to repel certain types of salts away.

The researchers created an experiment with a tiny scrap of this material that had just one of these holes, which they call a nano-pore. Radenovic then set up a box with two compartments—each filled with water with a different level of salinity. She connected the two compartments with this scrap of her material. As the salts started their shuffle toward equilibrium, pushing through the single nano-pore, they generated a small amount of electricity. That’s because the salts have a small amount of electrical charge, and so can create current through their movement.

Expanding on how much energy one single nano-pore could generate (“between 10 and 20 nanowatts,” she says). Radenovic’s team concluded that a three by three-foot square of the stuff, dotted with these tiny pores on only 30 percent of the material, could produce a megawatt of power through the osmosis of fresh and very salty water.

Approaching the Megawatt

Here’s the holdup. Radenovic and her colleagues made a single scrap of her material with one lonely hole. Nobody is quite sure how you’d manage to evenly manufacture or puncture the millions of nano-sized holes you’d need for a larger sheaf of the material. “So we are still far away from this [megawatt] number,” writes Radenovic in an email.

As even Radenovic will acknowledge, the team wouldn’t be the first to see huge promise in osmosis power generation and then downsize their expectations under the cold, crushing fist of reality. Radenovic references a much hyped but never-completed prototype plant in Hurum, Norway, which was developed in 2009 but shuttered in 2013. This time, maybe this kind of energy can really punch through.

Henry Sapiecha

Scientists Discover New Process Converting Waste Heat Into Usable Electricity

This new material could allow power plants to recycle their waste heat and improve their efficiency.

A group of researchers have developed a new material that can be used to turn waste heat into electricity. This technology could allow power plants to recycle their waste heat and save money, while reducing our fossil fuel consumption and helping the environment. Their results are published in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In many power generators, such as coal plants and automobile engines, most of the energy produced ends up as heat. Some of this heat is then used to produce electricity but much of it typically gets lost when it escapes into the atmosphere. If it could be reclaimed and used to generate more electricity, it could dramatically improve the efficiency of those generators.

That’s the idea behind thermoelectric compounds—materials that convert heat into electricity. Thermoelectric materials convert a temperature difference into a voltage, essentially turning heat into electricity.

All materials show this effect to a small degree, but the challenge is to find a material with a strong enough effect to be useful. A useful material will either have a high efficiency or a high power factor. Efficiency is a measure of how well the material converts heat into electricity, while the power factor is a measure of how much electricity the material can generate at once.

Most research is dedicated to improving efficiency, but this group decided to try and improve the power factor instead. For large-scale applications like coal plants with lots of waste heat, efficiency is less important than total power.

The researchers developed a custom material made of niobium, iron, antimony, and titanium. They discovered that pressing the material at extremely high temperatures, around 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, resulted in an extremely high power factor.

As a result, the new material can generate around 22 watts per square centimeter, which is much higher than the 5 or 6 watts typically produced.

This could be a high enough power factor to justify using on a large scale, which would allow power plants to recycle waste heat into extra energy. This in turn would reduce the amount of fossil fuels we’d have to burn, which could save money and help prevent climate change.


Henry Sapiecha

Recycled Grass Clippings Could Perhaps Heat Your Home

A British renewable energy company intends to use grass from abandoned fields and meadows as a fuel source.

The gas that heats your home might come from the grass beneath your feet, at least if British renewable energy company Ecotricity is successful.

Ecotricity, one of the world’s first renewable energy companies, is building a ‘green gas mill’ at Sparsholt College near Winchester that will convert grass into methane, which can be used instead of natural gas to power and heat homes in the UK. When the mill comes online in 2018, it is expected to power around 4,000 homes.

Ecotricity plans to collect the grass from the many unused fields and meadows in the country. The company estimates that a single acre of grass is enough to fully heat a home. By maintaining those fields, the company also creates thousands of acres of wildlife habitat.

In addition, growing and harvesting grass is carbon neutral, or at least close to it, which is beneficial to the environment. And methane can be pumped through existing gas piping right alongside natural gas.

As Ecotricity seeks to build more mills in addition to the first one, it hopes that grass-based methane could completely replace natural gas produced by fracking, which has severe environmental and health concerns.

Source: The Guardian

Henry Sapiecha

Science is now One Step Closer to Using Algae for Bio-fuel

A breakthrough by a team of scientists makes algae a potentially viable source of biofuel.

The world is trying to wean itself off of fossil fuels. It’s vital we reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible in the next few decades, and many countries, states, cities, businesses, and people are committing to that goal. Most of the focus has been placed on renewable energy sources like solar and wind, but that does nothing for legacy vehicles and many power stations. For those, we’ll need a different solution: biofuels.

Today, most biofuels are made from corn and soybean oil, which is expensive to grow and harvest. This means biofuels struggle to be competitive with traditional fuels. Scientists have been trying to find a good alternative to these crops for years, and one team may have found it in algae.

Algae has a number of advantages over corn and soybeans: it can grow much faster, in all sorts of conditions, and it’s easier to harvest. The only problem is that algae doesn’t produce enough fats and oils to make it viable as a biofuel, so a group of researchers used genetic engineering to fix that.

The researchers, from the J Craig Venter Institute, spent eight years trying to manipulate the genomes of several different species of algae. At a conference on Monday, Venter himself spoke about the project and announced that the team had finally succeeded. They had more than doubled the amount of oils the algae could produce.

The most challenging part of the research was identifying the precise gene that controlled the amount of oil the algae produced. The team found it by starving the algae of nitrogen, which caused them to produce more oil. Through trial and error, the team identified the correct gene—a regulator called ZnCys—out of around 20 possible candidates.

Then, using the CRISPR gene-editing method, the team used this gene to force the algae to produce more oil. Their results were dramatic: typical algae can produce around 10 to 15 percent oil, but the modified version produces 40 percent.

“No algae in production that has anything like this level,” said Venter in an interview with Bloomberg.

That doesn’t mean algae-based biofuels are going to be replacing the oil in your car anytime soon, though. The team still has a lot of work ahead of it before this technology is market-ready. It could be years or even decades before we can start using algae-based biofuels commercially, but thanks to this research we’re a big step closer to seeing that happen.

Source: Bloomberg

Henry Sapiecha

Scientists by chance Discover Efficient Process to Turn CO2 Into Ethanol

The process is cheap, efficient, and scalable, meaning it could soon be used to remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee have discovered a chemical reaction to turn CO2 into ethanol, potentially creating a new technology to help avert climate change. Their findings were published in the journal ChemistrySelect. [Go here for a new in-depth interview about the findings with one of the lead researchers.]

The researchers were attempting to find a series of chemical reactions that could turn CO2 into a useful fuel, when they realized the first step in their process managed to do it all by itself. The reaction turns CO2 into ethanol, which could in turn be used to power generators and vehicles.

The tech involves a new combination of copper and carbon arranged into nanospikes on a silicon surface. The nanotechnology allows the reactions to be very precise, with very few contaminants.

“By using common materials, but arranging them with nanotechnology, we figured out how to limit the side reactions and end up with the one thing that we want,” said Adam Rondinone.

This process has several advantages when compared to other methods of converting CO2 into fuel. The reaction uses common materials like copper and carbon, and it converts the CO2 into ethanol, which is already widely used as a fuel.

Perhaps most importantly, it works at room temperature, which means that it can be started and stopped easily and with little energy cost. This means that this conversion process could be used as temporary energy storage during a lull in renewable energy generation, smoothing out fluctuations in a renewable energy grid.

“A process like this would allow you to consume extra electricity when it’s available to make and store as ethanol,” said Rondinone. “This could help to balance a grid supplied by intermittent renewable sources.”

The researchers plan to further study this process and try and make it more efficient. If they’re successful, we just might see large-scale carbon capture using this technique in the near future.

Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Henry Sapiecha

Scientists Discover Method to Turn CO2 Into Methane

The latest new catalyst can turn carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide into methane.

Carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is at an all-time high, and it’s not enough for us to simply stop emitting more. In order to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we’ll have to start taking lots of CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it someplace.

One group of scientists from Paris Diderot University believe they’ve found a way to do that, by inventing a catalyst that can turn CO2 into methane. Their new catalyst could be used either to create new fuels to burn—recycling the CO2 already in the air—or by turning the CO2 into a chemical that’s easier to store.

The catalyst the researchers discovered is similar to the chlorophyll in a plant, only instead of turning CO2 into oxygen it turns it into methane. The molecule uses energy from the sun to break up the CO2 molecule into carbon and oxygen atoms, which then combine with hydrogen to form methane and water.

The team was initially trying to turn CO2 into carbon monoxide, which is easier and more commonly done. They succeeded, but noticed their catalyst was also producing methane. After a series of experiments they realized that not only could their catalyst turn CO2 into carbon monoxide, it could then turn that carbon monoxide into methane.

This is useful because right now there are many different catalysts that can produce carbon monoxide from CO2, but pure carbon monoxide isn’t useful for much. The new catalyst can turn an otherwise useless gas into something far more useful.

The researchers still have a long way to go before their new catalyst is used commercially. The team hopes to make the process faster and more efficient by powering it directly with electricity instead of simply exposing it to sunlight, and chain it to a different catalyst that can produce the necessary carbon monoxide.

If this catalyst can become even slightly more efficient, in the near future we could be producing cheap methane literally out of thin air.

Source: Ars Technica

Henry Saqpiecha

Tesla installing world’s largest battery at South Australian wind farm

Tesla and the South Australian government have partnered to demonstrate energy-storage technology by installing the world’s largest lithium-ion battery on the Neoen Hornsdale Wind Farm.

Elon Musk’s pledge to build the world’s largest lithium ion battery within 100 days or it will be free seems too good to be true, but is it?

Tesla has announced that it will install the world’s largest lithium-ion battery on a wind farm in South Australia under an agreement with the state government and French renewable energy company Neoen.

The Neoen Hornsdale Wind Farm in Jamestown will be paired with Tesla’s 100MW/129MWh battery, which will be installed by the end of the year, after Neoen was chosen following a multi-stage procurement process that saw more than 90 expressions of interest.

CEO Elon Musk has guaranteed that Tesla will deliver the battery within 100 days of the grid interconnection agreement being signed with the South Australian government — otherwise, his company will provide the battery for free.

The battery is expected to provide backup and stability services through energy storage.

“At 100MW and 129MWh, the Hornsdale Power Reserve will become not only the largest renewable generator in the state, but also home to the largest lithium-ion battery in the world, with our company’s long-term direct investment in South Australia growing to almost AU$1 billion since 2013,” Neoen Deputy CEO Romain Desrousseaux said.

“South Australian customers will be the first to benefit from this technology, which will demonstrate that large-scale battery storage is both possible and, now, commercially viable.”

The deal will also see Neoen and Tesla invest in additional South Australian economic outcomes in the future.

“South Australia has been leading the nation in renewable energy; now, we are leading the world in battery storage,” said South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill.

“Battery storage is the future of our national energy market, and the eyes of the world will be following our leadership in this space. This historic agreement does more than bring a sustainable energy giant in Telsa to South Australia; it will also have some significant economic spin-offs.”

Earlier this year, the South Australian government had said it would be investing AU$550 million on the future of the energy sector after noting a failure in national energy market policies.

At the time, the government said this would include building a 250MW back-up gas power plant and a 100MW grid-connected battery, along with establishing a Renewable Technology Fund to look into funding low-carbon energy advancements.

The state said it would invest an additional AU$500,000 in battery technology over the next two years in order to install battery systems in Adelaide-based businesses to demonstrate energy-storage capabilities.

The South Australian government on Friday also announced appointing Blue Sky Venture Capital to manage the state’s AU$50 million 15-year venture capital fund (SAVCF).

According to the state government, the SAVCF will provide funding for “local ventures with high growth potential” in an effort to create more jobs and economic growth.

“The venture capital fund is structured as a unique co-investment fund that enables the state government to invest alongside private venture capital funds to assist innovative local ventures with high growth potential,” South Australian Manufacturing and Innovation Minister Kyam Maher said.

“This fund will turbo-charge venture capital attraction to South Australia, providing a strong incentive for investors to look at opportunities in our state.

“The state government is committed to supporting local entrepreneurs through our extensive support programs for innovation, such as the AU$10 million SA Early Commercialisation Fund and the AU$7.6 million GigCity Adelaide ultra-fast internet.”

Last week, South Australian government selected local internet service provider EscapeNet for its Adelaide fibre-optic network that will facilitate speeds of up to 10Gbps across the city.

The Ten Gigabit City Project uses an existing fibre-optic network jointly owned by the state government and universities, and began with a AU$4.7 million allocation in the 2016-17 state budget.

In the South Australian Budget announced earlier this month, AU$2.9 million was set aside over four years to extend the network into new precincts.

Henry Sapiecha

Researchers Discovered They Could Hack Complete Wind Farms

Over two years, University of Tulsa researchers performed penetration tests on five different wind farms

On a sunny day last summer, in the middle of a vast cornfield somewhere in the large, windy middle of America, two researchers from the University of Tulsa stepped into an oven-hot, elevator-sized chamber within the base of a 300-foot-tall wind turbine. They’d picked the simple pin-and-tumbler lock on the turbine’s metal door in less than a minute and opened the unsecured server closet inside.

Jason Staggs, a tall 28-year-old Oklahoman, quickly unplugged a network cable and inserted it into a Raspberry Pi minicomputer, the size of a deck of cards, that had been fitted with a Wi-Fi antenna. He switched on the Pi and attached another Ethernet cable from the minicomputer into an open port on a programmable automation controller, a microwave-sized computer that controlled the turbine. The two men then closed the door behind them and walked back to the white van they’d driven down a gravel path that ran through the field.

Staggs sat in the front seat and opened a MacBook Pro while the researchers looked up at the towering machine. Like the dozens of other turbines in the field, its white blades—each longer than a wing of a Boeing 747—turned hypnotically. Staggs typed into his laptop’s command line and soon saw a list of IP addresses representing every networked turbine in the field. A few minutes later he typed another command, and the hackers watched as the single turbine above them emitted a muted screech like the brakes of an aging 18-wheel truck, slowed, and came to a stop.

‘We Were Shocked’

For the past two years, Staggs and his fellow researchers at the University of Tulsa have been systematically hacking wind farms around the United States to demonstrate the little-known digital vulnerabilities of an increasingly popular form of American energy production. With the permission of wind energy companies, they’ve performed penetration tests on five different wind farms across the central US and West Coast that use the hardware of five wind power equipment manufacturers.

As part of the agreement that legally allowed them to access those facilities, the researchers say they can’t name the wind farms’ owners, the locations they tested, or the companies that built the turbines and other hardware they attacked. But in interviews with WIRED and a presentation they plan to give at the Black Hat security conference next month, they’re detailing the security vulnerabilities they uncovered. By physically accessing the internals of the turbines themselves—which often stood virtually unprotected in the middle of open fields—and planting $45 in commodity computing equipment, the researchers carried out an extended menu of attacks on not only the individual wind turbine they’d broken into but all of the others connected to it on the same wind farm’s network. The results included paralyzing turbines, suddenly triggering their brakes to potentially damage them, and even relaying false feedback to their operators to prevent the sabotage from being detected.

“When we started poking around, we were shocked. A simple tumbler lock was all that stood between us and the wind farm control network,” says Staggs. “Once you have access to one of the turbines, it’s game over.”

In their attacks, the Tulsa researchers exploited an overarching security issue in the wind farms they infiltrated: While the turbines and control systems had limited or no connections to the internet, they also lacked almost any authentication or segmentation that would prevent a computer within the same network from sending valid commands. Two of the five facilities encrypted the connections from the operators’ computers to the wind turbines, making those communications far harder to spoof. But in every case the researchers could nonetheless send commands to the entire network of turbines by planting their radio-controlled Raspberry Pi in the server closet of just one of the machines in the field.

“They don’t take into consideration that someone can just pick a lock and plug in a Raspberry Pi,” Staggs says. The turbines they broke into were protected only by easily picked standard five-pin locks, or by padlocks that took seconds to remove with a pair of bolt cutters. And while the Tulsa researchers tested connecting to their minicomputers via Wi-Fi from as far as fifty feet away, they note they could have just as easily used another radio protocol, like GSM, to launch attacks from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Wind Damage

The researchers developed three proof-of-concept attacks to demonstrate how hackers could exploit the vulnerable wind farms they infiltrated. One tool they built, called Windshark, simply sent commands to other turbines on the network, disabling them or repeatedly slamming on their brakes to cause wear and damage. Windworm, another piece of malicious software, went further: It used telnet and FTP to spread from one programmable automation controller to another, until it infected all of a wind farm’s computers. A third attack tool, called Windpoison, used a trick called ARP cache poisoning, which exploits how control systems locate and identify components on a network. Windpoison spoofed those addresses to insert itself as a man-in-the-middle in the operators’ communications with the turbines. That would allow hackers to falsify the signals being sent back from the turbines, hiding disruptive attacks from the operators’ systems.

While the Tulsa researchers shut off only a single turbine at a time in their tests, they point out that their methods could easily paralyze an entire wind farm, cutting off as much as hundreds of megawatts of power.

Wind farms produce a relatively smaller amount of energy than their coal or nuclear equivalents, and grid operators expect them to be less reliable, given their dependence on the real-time ebb and flow of wind currents. That means even taking out a full farm may not dramatically impact the grid overall, says Ben Miller, a researcher at the critical-infrastructure security startup Dragos Inc. and a former engineer at the North American Electric Reliability Council.

More concerning than attacks to stop turbines, Miller says, are those intended to damage them. The equipment is designed for lightness and efficiency, and is often fragile as a result. That, along with the high costs of going even temporarily offline, make the vulnerabilities potentially devastating for a wind farm owner. “It would all probably be far more impactful to the operator of the wind farm than it would be to the grid,” Miller says.

Staggs argues that this potential to cause costly downtime for wind farms leaves their owners open to extortion or other kinds of profit-seeking sabotage. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “Imagine a ransomware scenario.”

A Growing Target

While the Tulsa researchers were careful not to name any of the manufacturers of the equipment used in the wind farms they tested, WIRED reached out to three major wind farm suppliers for comment on their findings: GE, Siemens Gamesa, and Vestas. GE and Siemens Gamesa didn’t respond. But Vestas spokesperson Anders Riis wrote in an email that “Vestas takes cyber security very seriously and continues to work with customers and grid operators to build products and offerings to improve security levels in response to the shifting cyber security landscape and evolving threats.” He added that it offers security measures that include “physical breach and intrusion detection and alert; alarm solutions at turbine, plant, and substation level to notify operators of a physical intrusion; and mitigation and control systems that quarantine and limit any malicious impact to the plant level, preventing further impact to the grid or other wind plants.”1

Researchers have demonstrated the vulnerabilities of wind turbines before, albeit on a far smaller scale. In 2015, the US Industrial Control System Computer Emergency Response Team issued a warning about hundreds of wind turbines, known as the XZERES 442SR, whose controls were openly accessible via the internet. But that was a far smaller turbine aimed at residential and small business users, with blades roughly 12 feet in length—not the massive, multimillion-dollar versions the Tulsa researchers tested.

The Tulsa team also didn’t attempt to hack its targets over the internet. But Staggs speculates it might be possible to remotely compromise them too—perhaps by infecting the operators’ network, or the laptop of one of the technicians who services the turbines. But other hypothetical vulnerabilities pale next to the very real distributed, unprotected nature of turbines themselves, says David Ferlemann, another member of the Tulsa team. “A nuclear power plant is hard to break into,” he points out. “Turbines are more distributed. It’s much easier to access one node and compromise the entire fleet.”

The researchers suggest that, ultimately, wind farm operators need to build authentication into the internal communications of their control systems—not just isolate them from the internet. And in the meantime, a few stronger locks, fences, and security cameras on the doors of the turbines themselves would make physical attacks far more difficult.

For now, wind farms produce less than 5 percent of America’s energy, Staggs says. But as wind power grows as a fraction of US electric generation, he hopes their work can help secure that power source before a large fraction of Americans comes depend on it.

“If you’re an attacker bent on trying to influence whether the lights are on or not,” says Staggs, “that becomes a more and more attractive target for you to go after.”

Henry Sapiecha