Change is on the horizon

Battery 413x289Wind is currently the cheapest way for suppliers to produce electricity, with solar catching rapidly. Rooftop PV is the cheapest way for homeowners to meet their household energy needs. But although over 1.3 million Aussie homes have solar panels on their roofs our nation still produces a LOT of emission from electricity generation. In my humble opinion the only thing holding the electrical revolution back (other than vested interests) is storage.

The variable nature of the renewables means that our society’s current energy habits can’t be fully satisfied without a much greater investment in renewables at a scale that is not achievable by the individual and seemingly undesirable by our government. If only there was a way that the excess energy being produced by renewables during peak times, especially rooftop solar during the day, could be stored and used at night.

Another area where energy storage has been holding the electric revolution back is cars. There have been many excuses the motor industry has given for not producing electric cars: cost, performance, long recharge times, range anxiety, battery lifetime. Tesla Motors has pretty much single-highhandedly addressed everyone of these excuses. Tesla’s latest car, the Model S, is incredibly quick, can go up to 500km on a single charge and is competitively priced with rivals. However, the naysayers out there will still complain that Model S isn’t a car for everyday people (as it is a luxury car with a $100,000 price tag) and that the recharge time, which is a few hours,  is too long as it only takes a few minutes to fill a car with petrol. However, it looks like all the remaining hurdles on the path to the electric revolution (households storing energy from rooftop solar, electric cars being too expensive and the recharge time of electric vehicles being too long) are about to be jumped.

Tesla Motors is creating the world’s largest battery factory, which it calls a Gigafactory. Once the Gigafactory is fully operational by 2020 it expected to double the world’s production of lithium-ion batteries, and bring prices down 30%. The massive increase in battery numbers will allow Tesla, and other car manufactures, to greatly increase the number of electric cars being built, and greatly reduce costs. This extra supply will also help increase availability and affordability of energy storage options for homes, the impact which is best described by this article; here are my highlights:

Just as the precipitous decline in the cost of solar cells and wind turbines over the past 10 or 15 years has made it possible for people to easily make their own power, these batteries will make it possible to easily and cost-effectively store it, freeing consumers from the tyranny of the big power companies.

And it will happen fast, according to Jemma Green, a researcher at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute.

“We’re talking about grid parity in 24 to 36 months,” she says.

“And what that means is it will make more sense to put batteries in and store excess energy during the day than it will to buy power from the grid at night.”

In as little as 2 to 3 years households world-wide may be in a position to disconnect from the grid (although in practice probably wouldn’t want to) and consume nothing but clean energy and zero on-going cost. Although the Tesla Gigafactory will address energy storage, it won’t help with improving recharge times for electric cars, but don’t worry, someone else has.

Researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have figured out how to make lithium-ion batteries with a new architecture, which speeds up the charging time and increases the battery life by a factor of 10 or more. Thus allowing cars to be recharged in as little as 5 minutes. The best news is that the team believe the technology is only 2 years away from being on the market.

It appears that the next few years are going to see a lot of changes in world of energy storage, which should hopefully cause event bigger changes in global energy generation and usage.

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Humans need not apply

A couple of years ago a magazine cover caught my eye with the title Technological Singularity. Being not familiar with the term I decided to read the article to find out what on earth it could be. In short the technological singularity is some time in the future when technology – specifically artificial intelligence – overtakes the ability of humans and lead to human beings being replaced in the workplace by robots and other technological marvels. The magazine then went on to say that once this happens society will experience a rapid acceleration in wealth, technology and living standards. The article used history to back up its claims.

When humans realised it was easier to plant crops and raise herds than it was to hunt and gather they did so. As man was no longer nomadic, settlements were formed and there was an a sudden and sharp increase in the global population, which had been fairly constant during hunter-gatherer times. This discontinuity happened around 10,000 BC and is referred to as the Neolithic or Agrarian revolution.

The next significant revolution (in my humble opinion) is the Industrial Revolution. With the introduction of machines the days of mankind producing everything by hand were gone. The rate at which technology progresses increased sharply, and as a result living standards over the past 200 years improved far more than any time in history.

With both the agricultural and industrial revolutions the need for workers was never replaced, the roles humans had in the workforce simply changed. However, what do humans do once we make machines and computers that can do any job better than ourselves? Some might say that there will always be a job for humans to do, even if it’s just to build better robots and computers. But what happens when machines can make themselves better than we can. If you’re still not convinced, watch this:

This video was created by CGP Grey.

Who resurrected the electric car?

A passion of mine is cars. I absolutely love them. However I am keenly aware that they are a major contributor to the problem of global warming. If only there was a car I could buy that had zero greenhouse gas emissions.

In the 1990s General Motors was the first company to start seriously investigating the possibility of purely electric vehicles. The result of GM’s efforts was the EV1 – the first mass-produced electric car. Between 1996 – 1999 over 1000 EV1s were made and leased out to customers. However after a loosening of regulations in California, which had been GM’s primary motivator for investigating zero emission vehicles, and a collective effort by the major US automakers to prevent further regulations GM killed off its electric car programme and crushed every single EV1 it had made. With the exception of Toyota’s hybrid Prius, the world’s car makers weren’t making headway towards electric vehicles.

Teslta RoadsterFlash forward to 2008 and a new car company, Tesla Motors, releases it’s very first car, the Tesla Roadster – a purely electric, two-seat sports car that was quick! For the first time ever a car company was mass-producing electric cars for people to buy. In all, 2,450 Tesla Roadsters were built and sold between 2008 – 2012 for a sticker price of US$109,000.

With the Roadster’s success other car companies started developing mass-produced electric vehicles. Mitsubishi released the i-MiEv in 2009, Nissan released the Leaf in 2010 and General Motors released the Volt in 2011. Although these cars cost less than a Tesla Roadster, none of them could come close to matching the Roadster’s (almost) 400 km range from a single charge.

Tesla Model STesla then move the goal posts further in 2012 when it released its second car, the Tesla Model S – a luxury sedan, with amazing performance and a range of up to 350/450 km depending on the model, for a price of US$70,000/US$80,000. But although Tesla makes truly great electric cars, they aren’t exactly affordable.

The good news is that Tesla hopes it’s third car will be something suitable for the average person, with a 320 km (200 mi) range for US$35,000. The better news is that Tesla hopes to begin selling the car as soon as 2017. However, the great news is that General Motors hopes to beat them. The race is on!