Tag Archives: infrastructure

IBM software patch upgrades power grid to version 2.0

IBM software patch upgrades power grid to version 2.0 | ExtremeTech.

In the past 120 years, the world’s aging energy grid has not seen much innovation. Companies are still making implementation decisions based on principles that were developed in the grid’s infancy. As the world faces down a growing energy problem in the light of there now being almost 7 billion people walking the planet, companies are deciding that it is time to bring about some change to take advantage of modern technology to help with resource conservation. A consortium that includes IBM, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and other power companies has decided that a software update is the first major step to both regulate power consumption, and integrate new renewable energy technologies; “Grid 2.0? if you will. The consortium is getting ready to install the system across five states in the Pacific Northwest, after a successful trial run in Washington state last year.

The main idea behind the software platform is simple: Give the power companies the ability to control energy consumption at peak times by making small changes in each home that will equal big savings when looking at the zoomed-out, macro picture of the grid. This is accomplished by installing “smart” thermostats in the homes of customers who opt into the program. By giving these consumers rebates and different incentives, the providers increase adoption to help make the project viable. Simply put, the power company is able to remotely tweak your thermostat, ultimately reducing the energy your home is using. Taking a page out of the airline executives book that saved his company millions by taking away one olive in each salad it served during flight, the power providers seek to save energy by the volume of micro-changes it makes in smart thermostats since they are saving a large amount of energy overall.

In addition to consumption control, IBM is helping the consortium tie other energy sources such as wind and solar into the grid to store them for use during periods of high demand. Integration of renewable energy sources is a big part of the consortium’s overall plan for the future of the grid. On paper, this plan certainly looks like it could be a winner, but there are two large problems to overcome: First, dealing with Big Brother — second, dealing with infrastructure.

I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave

George Orwell's 1984 (Big Brother)Let’s start with the most obvious problem there is with this plan, the idea that a “Big Brother” company is going to be able to take control of a user’s thermostat and other household appliances. There are some serious concerns that have been voiced with this idea. Exactly how much control will the company assert? If they make a change to your thermostat and you change it back, will the software reassert the temperature change? Could this lead to energy “caps” like consumers already have with home and mobile internet connections? It sure would be a bummer to hit a cap on one of the coldest days of the year and not be able to heat your home.

The consumer is said to benefit from this plan by enjoying a flat rate based on average consumption of the grid overall. At the end of a billing cycle, if a home has used significantly less than that average, the consumer will get a rebate. There is a problem here as well as companies could regulate the power usage so that users never fall below that point. This might sound overly cynical and rather “Skynet” in nature, but these possibilities are there, and a result would be subject to heavy governmental regulation that could bog down the process until it’s no longer viable. There would need to be some real transparency and an implementation of some sort of real-time information on the power usage of a home. The consumers have the right to see how the software run by their power company is regulating their homes. Google had a great project called Google Power Meter, now retired, which allowed users to see how much energy they were burning. Something like that is what is needed for this overhaul to work.

Supersize me

It can be argued that this is what is needed to help curb the high rate of energy consumption, especially in the US. Environmentalists hold that without this kind of plan in place, people will inherently wasteful because that is what they have been taught to do. They may have a point as many of the “dumb” thermostats in homes are left unset despite some having some intricate scheduling systems. The issue is that any kind of control asserted by a company might be looked upon as draconian in parts of the country used to expressing individual freedoms.

The other hurdle to leap over is the practical aspect of the power grid’s aging infrastructure. Simply put, some of it is ancient and costly to replace. It is a sound idea for this plan to start with software that will take advantage of existing infrastructure, because the cost of a complete overhaul would be staggering. Add in the fact that the software project was funded in large part by the economic Recovery Act of 2009 in the US, there is a looming question of who will pay. Where does the power company responsibility come in as far as the monetary side of an overhaul?

Wind farmThere are some logistical issues as well with the integration of renewable energy sources. Windmill farms are usually pretty distant from heavily populated areas, solar panel arrays the same. Getting the power from these sources to the consumer is an issue because the current wiring in use is “lossy,” wasting precious energy in transport. One has to think of the grid as a large factory system with supply and demand and logistical challenges that rival UPS. Any overhaul would require some research into carrying power over long distances without losing much volume.

Problems aside, this is as good of a plan as any out there at the moment to help reduce energy consumption. Make no mistake, this is a problem that we as a planet must face and work together on. We are in the infancy of the work that needs to be done. The exciting part is that through this kind of work comes great innovations that can carry over into other technology, bringing new advances in ways that have not be thought of yet. The pursuit to overcome the hurdles of this project will be nothing but positive on the whole. It will be exciting to see where this project goes.

Space Junk Collision Could Set Off Catastrophic Chain Reaction, Disable Earth Communications

Pentagon: A Space Junk Collision Could Set Off Catastrophic Chain Reaction, Disable Earth Communications | Popular Science.


Orbital Debris The dots on this NASA-generated chart represent known pieces of large orbital debris. NASA

Every now and again someone raises a stern warning about the amount of space junk orbiting Earth. Those warnings are usually met with general indifference, as very few of us own satellites or travel regularly to low Earth orbit. But the DoD’s assessment of the space junk problem finds that perhaps we should be paying attention: space junk has reached a critical tipping point that could result in a cataclysmic chain reaction that brings everyday life on Earth to a grinding halt.

Our reliance on satellites goes beyond the obvious. We depend on them for television signals, the evening weather report, and to find our houses on Google Earth when we’re bored at work. But behind the scenes, they also inform our warfighting capabilities, keep track of the global shipping networks that keep our economies humming, and help us get to the places we need to get to via GPS.

According to the DoD’s interim Space Posture Review, that could all come crashing down. Literally. Our satellites are sorely outnumbered by space debris, to the tune of 370,000 pieces of junk up there versus 1,100 satellites. That junk ranges from nuts and bolts lost during spacewalks to pieces of older satellites to whole satellites that no longer function, and it’s all whipping around the Earth at a rate of about 4.8 miles per second.

The fear is that with so much junk already up there, a collision is numerically probable at some point. Two large pieces of junk colliding could theoretically send thousands more potential satellite killers into orbit, and those could in turn collide with other pieces of junk or with satellites, unleashing another swarm of debris. You get the idea.

To give an idea of how quickly a chain reaction could get out hand consider this: in February of last year a defunct Russian satellite collided with a communications satellite, turning 2 orbiting craft into 1,500 pieces of junk. The Chinese missile test that obliterated a satellite in 2007 spawned 100 times more than that, scattering 150,000 pieces of debris.

If a chain reaction got out of control up there, it could very quickly sever our communications, our GPS system (upon which the U.S. military heavily relies), and cripple the global economy (not to mention destroy the $250 billion space services industry), and whole orbits could be rendered unusable, potentially making some places on Earth technological dead zones.

Space Junk Problem Is Waxing Threat

Space Junk Problem Is More Threatening Than Ever, Report Warns | NASA’s Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris Programs | National Research Council Report | Space.com.

An artist's illustration of a satellite collision that destroys a spacecraft in orbit.
An artist’s illustration of a satellite collision from space debris in orbit. Space traffic accidents only beget more such accidents.
CREDIT: European Space Agency

There is so much junk in space that collisions could start to increase exponentially, leading to a continuously growing pile of rubble in orbit, a new report warns.

The independent report, released today (Sept. 1), surveyed NASA’s work to meet the threat of space debris. It was sponsored by NASA, and conducted by the National Research Council, a nonprofit science policy organization.

Space debris — an accumulation of broken satellites, spent rocket stages and other junk in orbit — is dangerous because it could hit and damage working satellites, as well as spacecraft like the International Space Station. [Worst Space Debris Events of All Time]


Furthermore, when two pieces of junk collide, they can break apart into many smaller pieces, significantly increasing the amount of debris in space. This happened, for example, in the 2009 crash of a U.S. Iridium communications satellite and a broken Russian spacecraft.

It’s a problem that will likely become more visible, and urgent, over time.


Kessler Syndrome

“Space is becoming essential to our current civilization,” Donald Kessler, chairman of the report committee and retired head of NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, told SPACE.com. “If for any reason we weren’t able to use satellites as easily as we do today, there would be a reduction in the standard of living.”

The situation we’re in now is called the Kessler Syndrome, a term named after Kessler, in which the amount of debris has reached a critical threshold. There is now enough orbital debris that collisions will cause a continual cascade, with each adding to the total amount of debris and increasing the chances of further collisions, according to several studies, Kessler said.

“Even if we add nothing else to orbit, the amount of debris could continue to increase as a result of random collisions between fairly large objects,” Kessler said. “You’d generate debris faster than the natural decay process could return it.”

Budget woes

But while the dangers posed by growing orbital detritus are increasing, NASA’s budget and management structure has not kept pace, the new report found.

“The program really started from the ground up and has expanded over the last 35 years considerably, and has a lot more facets to it,” Kessler said. “Its responsibility keeps increasing, but the management and funding just has not kept up with the program.”

Another complication is the fact that most of NASA’s space debris programs consist of a single staff member.

“If anyone retires or moves you have a pretty large gap,” Kessler said. “There’s usually just one civil servant that’s been charged with a whole bunch of things.”

Primary among the report’s recommendations is for NASA to come up with a strategic plan to prioritize the areas within its micrometeoroid and orbital debris program that deserve the most funding and attention.

This computer illustration depicts the density of space junk around Earth in low-Earth orbit.
This computer illustration depicts the density of space junk around Earth in low-Earth orbit.

Crunching the numbers

The report also highlighted the need for NASA to spearhead the gathering of urgently needed data in several areas to improve scientific models and predictions of the effect of debris collisions. For example, the committee recommended that NASA study the differences in how various types of spacecraft behave and break up during a collision.

The report also recommends that NASA help establish a better database of information about spacecraft anomalies. Too often companies don’t share details about problems that occur on their satellites, often for proprietary reasons. But this information is important for calculations about how spacecraft fail and become uncontrollable.

Kessler suggested that an anonymous registry would allow companies to share information without attaching their names to the data.

Currently, NASA’s programs focus on studying and tracking orbital debris. At some point, however, it will likely become necessary to somehow remove especially risky pieces of junk from orbit. That will require technology that doesn’t exist yet.

“The program has been very good at identifying the need to clean space, but in terms of the how-you-do-it part, the technology required is going to require quite a lot of work,” Kessler said.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Infrastructure bank could be part of jobs package

Infrastructure bank could be part of jobs package – Yahoo! News.

WASHINGTON – A national infrastructure bank that would entice private investors into road and rail projects could be a major part of the jobs package that President Barack Obama hopes will finally bring relief to the unemployed.

The White House hasn’t divulged the contents of the package that Obama is to unveil in an address to a joint session of Congress next week. But the president has pushed the idea of an infrastructure bank in recent speeches and has praised Senate and House bills that create such a government-sponsored lending institution.

Whether the bank, which would need time to organize, could have any real impact on the jobs situation in the coming year — and particularly before the November 2012 elections — is in dispute.

Obama seems to think it would.

“We’ve got the potential to create an infrastructure bank that could put construction workers to work right now, rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our vital infrastructure all across the country,” he said at a news conference in July.

But Janet Kavinoky, director of infrastructure issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, cautioned that “even in the next two years I don’t believe the bank is going to be that kind of job creator.”

The best way to spur job growth in the short term is for Congress to pass long-stalled bills to fund aviation and highway programs, she said.

The Chamber of Commerce strongly supports the infrastructure bank. Kavinoky said the United States is one of the few large countries that lack a central source of low-cost financing for construction projects. But she said it’s going to take time to get it running and come up with a pipeline of projects where funds can be invested.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who’s sponsoring an infrastructure bank bill, argued that “we have projects all across America that are ready to go tomorrow.” He said the bank “could have money flowing in the next year easily.”

Michael Likosky, senior fellow at the NYU Institute for Public Knowledge and author of “Obama’s Bank: Financing a Durable New Deal,” says he is working with transportation agencies in California and New York that “are waiting for the federal government to say they are going to support these projects.”

A commitment to a national infrastructure bank could also provide a positive spark to financial markets and encourage investment, he said.

The bank would supplement federal spending on infrastructure by promoting private-sector investment in projects of national or regional significance. The private sector currently provides only about 6 percent of infrastructure spending.

Supporters, which range from the Chamber of Commerce to the AFL-CIO, say pension funds, private equity funds and sovereign wealth funds have hundreds of billions of dollars ready to be invested in low-risk infrastructure projects.

It’s better than having pension fund money go to Treasury bonds, Likosky said. “It’s really about changing our approach; we’re in tough economic times and we will be for a while. We have to make sure the money we have goes further.”

The Kerry bill would require $10 billion in start-up money from the government to get the first loans going and cover administrative costs. The bank would be government owned, run by a board of directors, independent of any federal agency and self-sustaining after the initial expense. Public-private partnerships, corporations and state and local governments would be eligible for the loans.

The bank’s directors would pick which projects to finance based on an analysis of costs, benefits and revenue streams, such as from tolls or fees, for repaying the loan. Once the terms of the loan, including interest rates and fees to cover risk, are set, the Treasury Department would disburse the loan.

Urban projects would have to be at least $100 million in size, rural ones $25 million. The infrastructure bank’s loan could cover no more than 50 percent of a project’s costs.

“There is going to be a revenue stream for payback and therefore the project is going to stand on its own because it will be a good enough project to attract private-sector funding,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, one of several Republican co-sponsors of the Kerry plan.

Supporters estimate the bank could set up as much as $160 billion in government loans over a decade and anchor as much as $650 billion in projects.

In the House, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has a similar bill that relies on $25 billion in start-up money and makes use of bonds as well as loans to stimulate construction projects. Both Kerry and DeLauro would cover transportation, water and energy projects.

DeLauro would also include communications projects. She says her bill is modeled after the European Investment Bank, which has been financing infrastructure projects for 50 years and last year invested more than $100 billion.

Obama, in his 2012 budget proposal, envisioned spending $30 billion to start an infrastructure bank within the Transportation Department that would provide grants as well as loans to transportation projects.

That idea drew opposition from the House Transportation Committee chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. He said in a recent article in the congressional newspaper Roll Call that it would be better to increase help for existing state infrastructure banks “rather than increasing the size of the bloated federal bureaucracy, as some advocate, by creating a national infrastructure bank.”

Kerry pointed to a 2009 American Society of Civil Engineers report that said $2.2 trillion needs to be spent over five years to bring the nation’s roads, bridges and water systems up to an adequate level. He said Congress needs to both pass a new highway bill and agree on alternatives like the bank.

“If we can leverage $650 billion and get money going in the transportation bill, we can begin to nibble away at the problem,” Kerry said.

Fixing America with an infrastructure bank

Job creation: Fixing America with an infrastructure bank | Reuters Money.


We have iPhones, iPods and iPads. Why not an “iBank?”

This wouldn’t be an electronic gizmo that’s obsolete in a year, though. It would be a public-private partnership to bolster America’s infrastructure. It will create jobs, cut the deficit and repair what needs to be fixed all over the country.

An infrastructure bank, or iBank, solves a lot of problems without busting the budget. Instead of providing direct government grants or earmarks for specific projects, loans are made by a government-banking entity.

The U.S. is inexcusably late to the game on this time-tested idea. The European Investment Bank has financed some $350 billion in projects from 2005 through 2009. China spent 9 percent of its gross domestic product — also roughly $350 billion — to build subways, highways and high-speed rail in 2009 alone. Brazil invested $240 billion over the past three years.

The idea is not without high-level support. President Obama recently called for the creation of an iBank. In backing a U.S. iBank, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts testified last year that “a national infrastructure bank will make Americans builders again.”

If the iBank became reality — and really it’s a necessity to compete in a globalized economy — there’s no shortage of projects. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, more than $2 trillion is needed to fix U.S. bridges, dams, waterways and wastewater plants.

The sheer scale of a big fix is staggering: Some 69,000 bridges need to be repaired. The outdated electrical grid needs to be modernized everywhere. You can build solar plants and windmills all you want, but if you have no power lines to transport the electrons from the deserts and plains, you’re whistling in the wind.

Several spin-offs of an iBank have been floating around for years, and the idea already has support across the political spectrum. A “Clean Energy Bank” would fund solar energy equipment. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, supports legislation that would install 10 million roof solar panels. Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois proposed a “Lincoln Legacy” infrastructure bill.

How is the iBank different from just handing out the money to each Congressional district and letting the local representative decide where the money should go?

In Kerry’s vision, federal dollars would be matched with private dollars from pension funds and endowments. Kerry told the Time’s Joe Klein recently that “a $10 billion federal contribution will leverage about $640 billion in private investments.” Kerry claims he has support from business, labor and Republican Senators.

Instead of doling out pork-barrel funding for bridges to nowhere, an independent board would decide which projects are needed most. It’s the inverse of a military base closing commission. Instead of shutting down facilities, this entity would greenlight and finance the most-worthy projects.

One thing an iBank wouldn’t be is another big-check stimulus plan, which Congress passed in 2009. That nearly $800 billion package was a huge fiscal band-aid to help states, school districts and wage earners through the recession. Yes, there were some public works projects that created short-term jobs, but the bulk of the money went to tax relief and the states.

The U.S. needs a new approach to economic triage. The June jobs report was nothing short of dismal as employment growth hit a wall with only 18,000 new jobs coming on the market.

Crumbling infrastructure will cost the U.S. economy nearly 1 million jobs and shave $3.1 trillion from gross domestic product by 2020, the Society of Civil Engineers estimates.

What about the budget? Isn’t there a disconnect between the current passion for cutting the federal deficit and spending money to fix America?

There’s little question that putting people to work will help the economy. Working people pay income, sales and property taxes, which flow back into communities. The steadily employed buy homes, vehicles and appliances. Increased tax revenue in turn reduces the deficit.

The iBank may be able to accomplish what a decade of personal income and estate-tax cuts didn’t: Provide the necessary public-private capital to revive the economy. Not even Harry Potter can make magic work on the U.S. economy without some significant infrastructure investment.

Solar toilet turns sewage into power

One Per Cent: Solar toilet turns sewage into power.

Combine sunlight and sewage and what do you get? Sanitation, of course.

Michael Hoffmann at the California Institute of Technology has been experimenting with solar-powered water treatment on a small scale. Now he plans to incorporate this technology into a portable toilet.

Sunlight powers an electrochemical reaction with human waste in water that generates microbe-killing oxidants and releases hydrogen gas. The researchers plan to collect the hydrogen in a fuel cell to power a light or possibly even a self-cleaning mechanism.

Solar.jpg(Image: Brian Lee)

He received a grant this week from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to build a prototype. He says he can build one toilet for $2000 and hopes to reduce the cost through design refinement and mass production.

This grant is part of the Gates Foundation’s latest global public health initiative to improve sanitation.

Several other awarded projects propose to build toilets that generate energy for the community, either processing solid waste into biological charcoal or vaporising it into plasma that generates hydrogen and carbon monoxide to run a fuel cell.

According to World Health Organization estimates, 2.6 billion people – about 40 per cent of the world’s population – do not have access to sanitation.