Category: Energy

5 years after Fukushima: is nuclear dead?

photo: Energy Council

Since the nuclear accident in the Japanese Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in March 2011, nuclear power popularity has dropped around the world. In Germany, the public reaction lead to an hastened nuclear phase out.  China and India slowed down their nuclear roll-out, Switzerland suspended the licensing for three new plants. Japan itself deferred all its plants until the structure of regulations for nuclear power plants was reviewed by a government’s commission. Is nuclear power dead? And should we regret that? Read on to find out.



Morocco unleashes the force of the sun


In case you didn’t notice it yet: solar power is booming. Last week saw another milestone, with Morocco opening its Ouarzazate [wa-za-zat] concentrated solar power utility. Being the largest utility of its kind in the world, the town Ouarzazate — known from movies and TV shows like Lawrence of Arabia and Game of Thrones— kicks off what could become a revolution in solar power. It’s the first step of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI’s dream to turn his country in a renewable energy hub.

In contrast with photovoltaic solar power technology, concentrated solar power (CSP) is less known. This is how it works. Big parabolic mirrors focus the sun’s rays onto tubes filled with a fluid that heats up and transports the heat towards a central hub where it creates steam to drive a turbine. That way the solar energy is used to generate electricity.

What is so particularly interesting about this technology is that it can be combined with temporary energy storage. During the day, part of the hot fluid is used to heat up molten salt stored in large tanks. Those stay warm hours after sunset to keep the turbine running during the evening. The technology is very promising for countries with a lot of sun hours — in fact so promising that the International Energy Agency estimates that by 2050 11% of world’s electricity will come from CSP.

The Ouazazate concentrated solar power plant is the first in Morocco's plan to build out its renewable energy supply (photo: Digitaltrends)

The Ouazazate concentrated solar power plant is the first in Morocco’s plan to build out its renewable energy supply (photo: Digitaltrends)

The first phase that opened last Thursday provides 160 MegaWatts of what will become a total 580MW by 2018 when the construction will be finished. The 35 soccer fields big plant powers 650 thousand people and avoids 240 thousand tons of CO2 emissions every year, the equivalent of 80 000 cars.

It is the proof that Morocco takes its climate pledge in Paris in December last year very seriously. By 2020 it aims to get 42% of its electricity generation from renewables, by 2030 it wants to have its CO2 emissions 32% below the business-as-usual scenario. And of course they want to make a good impression, being the host of this year’s climate summit.

The project has its price tag of course. Nearly 4 billion US dollar has been invested, half of which comes from German investment bank KfW, the European Investment Bank and the World Bank. Climate Investment Funds (CIF) calculated that for every 1 GigaWatt additional solar power installed, electricity production costs could fall by 3%. “Morocco is showing real leadership and bringing the cost of the technology down in the process.” told a manager of CIF to the Guardian. Keep up the good work Morocco!


Japan’s floating solar farms

Japan relied on nuclear energy to feed its energy hungry industry and population for many years. With 50 nuclear reactors, atomic energy provided 28% of its electricity needs. Everything changed after the Fukushima Dai-Ichi accident in the wake of the 2011 devastating earthquake and tsunami. After significant release of radioactive material in the environment and the evacuation of a zone around the power plant of 630 km², Japan’s government decided to take out all its other nuclear plants out of operation under huge public pressure.

Withdrawing one of their major energy sources meant they had to look for alternatives.  The country started to import fossil fuels on a massive scale. Nearly 90% of the electricity is now generated based on natural gas, oil and coal. Japan suddenly became the biggest importer of LNG (liquid natural gas) and second importer of coal, after China. The move undid all the greenhouse gas reduction efforts of the last decade. Recently some nuclear reactors have started up again, after safety upgrades imposed by the government. Due to the heavy public resistance, it is unlikely that Japan will turn back to nuclear power and its original emission reduction ambitions soon. Luckily, there is another option: renewables.

There is one big problem with Japan though: it is so small. Land is precious on the mountainous island, which doesn’t leave much room for large scale solar or wind projects.

Kyocera's floating solar farm will deliver electricity for around 5000 households (photo: Kyocera Corp.)

Kyocera’s floating solar farm will deliver electricity for around 5000 households (photo: Kyocera Corp.)

Electronics company Kyocera has come up with a good compromise: build floating solar farms on large water reservoirs. With 50 000 panels, their latest project on the Yamakura dam reservoir would be good for 13.7 MegaWatt  — enough to power nearly 5000 households. It’s not the first of its kind, but when finished it will be the biggest one in electricity production.

Water and electricity are not best friends, so the electrical equipment needs to be sealed carefully. On the other hand, a floating solar farm doesn’t need the heavy steel frames as on land.

cover photo by aotaro


Photo of the Week: Grabbing power from the air

You’re probably not aware of it, but the air around you is a dense cloud of radio frequency signals. And you’d rather be happy about that: they provide your mobile phone with 3G, your laptop with wifi and your TV with digital broadcast. Without going into details –let’s leave that for a physics class — the signals are electromagnetic waves that carry energy from a sending antenna to a receiver. Imagine you could tap of a little bit of the energy of all the waves bouncing around. That’s exactly what Freevolt does.

According to developer Drayson, Freevolt is the first commercially available technology that extracts energy from the ambient radiosignals. It’s extremely efficient thanks to its simplicity: it consists of only three parts, being an antenna to pick up the power out of the air, a rectifier to turn the alternating current into direct current and a power management module to store and ouptut the electricity.

A demo of the Freevolt technology, powering a small speaker (photo: Sebastian Anthony)

A demo of the Freevolt technology, powering a small speaker (photo: Sebastian Anthony)

You are probably wondering how much energy this neat little device could harvest from the surrounding air. I’ll tell you: around 100 microWatts. That may sound little –it actually is, it would take ages to charge your smartphone with it– yet it is sufficient to power small devices such as smoke detectors, small security camera’s, sensors in fridges, parking lots… basically all small devices that could be part of the internet of things.

Imagine you would never have to worry about charging these devices or changing batteries. Freevolt branded it Perpetual Power for a reason. Yet as an engineer I want to get rid of some misunderstandings here. This technology is freewheeling on existing waves boucing around and since in the future we rather will have more than less of them, it may sound like an infinite power source. Too bad there’s the first law of thermodynamics, which tells us that energy cannot be created (nor destroyed). The Freevolt technology is doing nothing more than extracting some energy from the waves, energy that was invested by the sender to emit the wave in the first place.

A developers kit is available for the geeks to play around with the technology. Dryson also developed the Tag, a small sensor that keeps track of the air pollution around you and gathers the data on an the Cleanspace app on your mobile device. It rewards you when helping to improve the air quality, like leaving the car and taking the bike instead. It’s a nice showcase for their technology and hopes to build awareness on air pollution at the same time.

Freevolt website
CleanSpace app




Photo of the Week: Washington’s biggest electricity consumer is now running on poo

Sometimes it does not take as much as fancy electrical SUVs to have a positive impact on the planet. Being the biggest electricity consumer in Washington D.C., the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment plant wanted to lower the environmental burden of their activities. And they didn’t have to look far.

The facility used to treat the wastewater stream in a classical way: it goes though a set of filters to shed the debris, then through a treatment process that seperates the biosolids — the political correct term for poo — from the water. It finally results in 60 truckloads of dump a day that go to landfill.

But since last September, an additional process developed by Norwegian company Cambi and that carries the name thermal hydrolysis is able to produce enough electricity to power 10 500 households or one third of the whole plant’s electricity demand.

View of the thermal hydrolysis installation during construction, with the pulper, reactors and flash tanks in front and the actual digestion silos in the back (photo: PC construction)

View of the thermal hydrolysis installation during construction, with the pulper, reactors and flash tanks in front and the actual digestion silos in the back (photo: PC construction)


Via a cooking step, the biosolids that used to go to landfill, are treated and sterilized. In eight-story high tanks they are then digested by microbes to form methane gas. This is burned to drive turbines that generate energy. The total installation has a capacity of 12MW. From poo to power, very nice. The final left-over biosolid is only half the amount it used to be and thanks to the additional processing it is safe to use as fertilizer in agriculture or gardening.

So next time you’re flushing in Washington D.C., bear in mind that you are generating power –kind of. And some of your biosolids could turn up on the shelves of a home garden store. Maybe you turn out to be buying it back. Think about that.


Washington Post

Cover Photo by Dean Hochman 


Photo of the week: Google launches Project Sunroof

Technology firm Google is here with another innovative project. Have you been thinking whether installing solar panels on your rooftop is a good idea, what it could cost or save you? Based on the Google Maps data and 3D-models, project Sunroof calculates how well your rooftop is suited for photovoltaic panels. It takes into account shadows cast by nearby buildings and trees, brings in the positions of the sun over the course of the year and takes into account historical cloud and temperature patterns.

When your rooftop is the perfect place to install solar panels, it will be painted golden on the map, the less it is suited the more the colour shifts to deep purple. By providing your energy consumption data, the tool is able to compute your energy bill savings for various financing plans such as leasing, buying or taking a loan. It helps you connect with solar providers in the neighborhood if you’re convinced solar is the way to go.

The Project Rooftop tool colours roofs according to their suitability for photovoltaic panels (photo: captured from Project Sunroof)

The Project Rooftop tool colours roofs according to their suitability for photovoltaic panels (photo: captured from Project Sunroof)

Unfortunately, the tool only operates in a few locations at the moment: Boston, San Fransisco Bay Area and Fresno. The developer team is working on the expansion of the tool, but you probably need to have some patience before it becomes available at your hometown if you’re not living in the US. But after all, the project’s slogan goes Mapping the planet’s solar potential, one roof at a time. But for sure, the project will make the step to solar smaller again for everyone willing to make the shift to renewables.

Google Sunroof Project