These 3 energy storage technologies can help solve the challenge of moving to 100% renewable electricity


Energy storage can make facilities like this solar farm in Oxford, Maine, more profitable by letting them store power for cloudy days.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Kerry Rippy, National Renewable Energy LaboratoryIn recent decades the cost of wind and solar power generation has dropped dramatically. This is one reason that the U.S. Department of Energy projects that renewable energy will be the fastest-growing U.S. energy source through 2050.

However, it’s still relatively expensive to store energy. And since renewable energy generation isn’t available all the time – it happens when the wind blows or the sun shines – storage is essential.

As a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, I work with the federal government and private industry to develop renewable energy storage technologies. In a recent report, researchers at NREL estimated that the potential exists to increase U.S. renewable energy storage capacity by as much as 3,000% percent by 2050.

Here are three emerging technologies that could help make this happen.

Longer charges

From alkaline batteries for small electronics to lithium-ion batteries for cars and laptops, most people already use batteries in many aspects of their daily lives. But there is still lots of room for growth.

For example, high-capacity batteries with long discharge times – up to 10 hours – could be valuable for storing solar power at night or increasing the range of electric vehicles. Right now there are very few such batteries in use. However, according to recent projections, upwards of 100 gigawatts’ worth of these batteries will likely be installed by 2050. For comparison, that’s 50 times the generating capacity of Hoover Dam. This could have a major impact on the viability of renewable energy.

Batteries work by creating a chemical reaction that produces a flow of electrical current.

One of the biggest obstacles is limited supplies of lithium and cobalt, which currently are essential for making lightweight, powerful batteries. According to some estimates, around 10% of the world’s lithium and nearly all of the world’s cobalt reserves will be depleted by 2050.

Furthermore, nearly 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Congo, under conditions that have long been documented as inhumane.

Scientists are working to develop techniques for recycling lithium and cobalt batteries, and to design batteries based on other materials. Tesla plans to produce cobalt-free batteries within the next few years. Others aim to replace lithium with sodium, which has properties very similar to lithium’s but is much more abundant.

Safer batteries

Another priority is to make batteries safer. One area for improvement is electrolytes – the medium, often liquid, that allows an electric charge to flow from the battery’s anode, or negative terminal, to the cathode, or positive terminal.

When a battery is in use, charged particles in the electrolyte move around to balance out the charge of the electricity flowing out of the battery. Electrolytes often contain flammable materials. If they leak, the battery can overheat and catch fire or melt.

Scientists are developing solid electrolytes, which would make batteries more robust. It is much harder for particles to move around through solids than through liquids, but encouraging lab-scale results suggest that these batteries could be ready for use in electric vehicles in the coming years, with target dates for commercialization as early as 2026.

While solid-state batteries would be well suited for consumer electronics and electric vehicles, for large-scale energy storage, scientists are pursuing all-liquid designs called flow batteries.

Flow battery diagram.
A typical flow battery consists of two tanks of liquids that are pumped past a membrane held between two electrodes.
Qi and Koenig, 2017, CC BY

In these devices both the electrolyte and the electrodes are liquids. This allows for super-fast charging and makes it easy to make really big batteries. Currently these systems are very expensive, but research continues to bring down the price.

Storing sunlight as heat

Other renewable energy storage solutions cost less than batteries in some cases. For example, concentrated solar power plants use mirrors to concentrate sunlight, which heats up hundreds or thousands of tons of salt until it melts. This molten salt then is used to drive an electric generator, much as coal or nuclear power is used to heat steam and drive a generator in traditional plants.

These heated materials can also be stored to produce electricity when it is cloudy, or even at night. This approach allows concentrated solar power to work around the clock.

Man examines valve at end of large piping network.
Checking a molten salt valve for corrosion at Sandia’s Molten Salt Test Loop.
Randy Montoya, Sandia Labs/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

This idea could be adapted for use with nonsolar power generation technologies. For example, electricity made with wind power could be used to heat salt for use later when it isn’t windy.

Concentrating solar power is still relatively expensive. To compete with other forms of energy generation and storage, it needs to become more efficient. One way to achieve this is to increase the temperature the salt is heated to, enabling more efficient electricity production. Unfortunately, the salts currently in use aren’t stable at high temperatures. Researchers are working to develop new salts or other materials that can withstand temperatures as high as 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (705 C).

One leading idea for how to reach higher temperature involves heating up sand instead of salt, which can withstand the higher temperature. The sand would then be moved with conveyor belts from the heating point to storage. The Department of Energy recently announced funding for a pilot concentrated solar power plant based on this concept.

Advanced renewable fuels

Batteries are useful for short-term energy storage, and concentrated solar power plants could help stabilize the electric grid. However, utilities also need to store a lot of energy for indefinite amounts of time. This is a role for renewable fuels like hydrogen and ammonia. Utilities would store energy in these fuels by producing them with surplus power, when wind turbines and solar panels are generating more electricity than the utilities’ customers need.

Hydrogen and ammonia contain more energy per pound than batteries, so they work where batteries don’t. For example, they could be used for shipping heavy loads and running heavy equipment, and for rocket fuel.

Today these fuels are mostly made from natural gas or other nonrenewable fossil fuels via extremely inefficient reactions. While we think of it as a green fuel, most hydrogen gas today is made from natural gas.

Scientists are looking for ways to produce hydrogen and other fuels using renewable electricity. For example, it is possible to make hydrogen fuel by splitting water molecules using electricity. The key challenge is optimizing the process to make it efficient and economical. The potential payoff is enormous: inexhaustible, completely renewable energy.

[Understand new developments in science, health and technology, each week. Subscribe to The Conversation’s science newsletter.]The Conversation

Kerry Rippy, Researcher, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Labor proposes discounts for electric cars and ‘community batteries’ to store solar power


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraAnthony Albanese will promise a Labor government would deliver a discount to cut the cost of electric cars and install community batteries, in modest initiatives costing $400 million over several years.

The announcement, to be made Wednesday, comes as Labor debates its platform at a “virtual” national conference involving some 400 participants.

At present only 0.7% of cars sold in Australia are electric – considerably under the global average of 4.2%. There are only about 20,000 electric cars registered in Australia.

Labor’s policy would cut taxes on non-luxury vehicles – the luxury threshold is $77,565 in 2020-21 – exempting them from tariffs and fringe benefits tax.

The Electric Vehicle Council has estimated a $50,000 model would be more than $2000 cheaper if the import tariff was removed. These tariffs are not on all the imported vehicles – there are exclusions where Australia has free trade agreements.

If a $50,000 vehicle was provided through employment, exempting it from the fringe benefits tax would save the employer (or employee, depending on how the FBT was arranged) up to $9000 annually, Labor says.

The opposition at the last election had a policy to promote electric cars, with a target of 50% per cent of new car sales being electric vehicles by 2030.

This came under heavy attack from the government, which cast it as a “war on the weekend”.

The government recently released a discussion paper on electric cars, and flagged it would trial models for the COMCAR fleet which transports politicians.

In a statement on the initiatives, Albanese and energy spokesman Chris Bowen said electric vehicles remain too expensive for most people, although a majority of Australians say they would consider buying one. There are no electric cars available in Australia for less than $40,000.

“By reducing upfront costs, Labor’s electric car discount will encourage uptake, cutting fuel and transport costs for households and reducing emissions at the same time,” Albanese and Bowen said.

The discount would begin on July 1 2022 and cost $200 million over three years.

The community batteries would help households who have solar panels but do not have their own battery storage, which is expensive.

Australia has one in five households with solar, but only one in 60 households has battery storage, which gives the capacity to draw overnight on the solar energy produced during the day.

Labor would spend $200 million over four years to install 400 community batteries across the country. This would assist up to 100,000 households.

Albanese and Bowen said the measure would cut power bills, reduce demands on the grid at peak times and lower emissions.

“Households that can’t install solar (like apartments and renters) can participate by drawing from excess energy stored in community batteries.”

A community battery is about the size of 4WD vehicle and provides about 500kWH of storage that can support up to 250 local households.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Electricity has become a jigsaw. Coal is unable to provide the missing pieces



Bohbeh/Shutterstock

Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

There’s something the energy minister said when they announced the early closure of Victoria’s second-biggest coal-fired power station last week that was less than complete.

Yallourn, in the Latrobe Valley, provides up to 20% of Victoria’s power. It has been operating for 47 years. Since late 2017 at least one of its four units has broken down 50 times. Its workforce doubles for three to four months most years to deal with the breakdowns. It pumps out 3% of Australia’s carbon emissions.

On Wednesday Energy Australia gave seven years notice of its intention to close it in mid-2028, four years earlier than previously announced, a possibility for which regulators had been preparing.

In what might have been a rhetorical flourish, Energy Minister Angus Taylor warned of “price spikes every night when the sun goes down”.

Then he drew attention to what had happened when two other coal-fired power stations closed down — Victoria’s Hazelwood and South Australia’s Northern (South Australia’s last-remaining coal-fired generator).

He said “wholesale prices skyrocketed by 85%”.

And there he finished, without going on to detail what really mattered. South Australia and Victoria now have the lowest wholesale power prices in the National Electricity Market — that’s right, the lowest.

Coal-fired plants close, then prices fall

Before Northern closed, South Australia had Australia’s highest price.

Five years after the closure of Northern in 2016, and four years after the closure of Hazelwood in 2017, South Australia and Victorian have wholesale prices one-third lower than those in NSW and two-fifths lower than those in Queensland.

Something happened after the closure (largely as a result of the closure) that forced prices down.

South Australia became a renewables powerhouse.

South Australian wind projects congregate around power lines.
AEMO

The Australian National University’s Hugh Saddler points out that renewable-sourced power — wind and grid solar — now accounts for 62% of power supplied to the South Australian grid, and at times for all of it.

Much of it is produced near Port Augusta, where the Northern and Playford coal-fired power stations used to be, because that’s where the transmission lines begin.

Being even cheaper than the power produced by the old brown-coal-fired power stations, there is at times so much it that it sends prices negative, meaning generators get paid to turn off in order to avoid putting more power into the system than users can take out.

It’s one of the reasons coal-fired plants are closing: they are hard to turn off. They are just as hard to turn on, and pretty hard to turn up.

Coal can’t respond quickly

There are times (when the wind doesn’t blow and there’s not much sun, such as last Friday in South Australia) when prices can get extraordinarily high.

But coal-fired plants, especially brown-coal-fired plants such as Victoria’s Hazelwood and Yallourn and Victoria’s two remaining big plants, Loy Yang A and B, are unable to quickly ramp up to take advantage of them.

Although “dispatchable” in the technical meaning of the term used by the minister, coal-fired stations can’t fill gaps quickly.




Read more:
The death of coal-fired power is inevitable — yet the government still has no plan to help its workforce


Batteries can respond instantly to a loss of power from other sources (although not for very long), hydro can respond in 30 to 70 seconds, gas peaking plants can respond within minutes.

But coal can barely move. As with nuclear power, coal-fired power needs to be either on (in which case it can only slowly ramp up) or off, in which case turning it on from a standing start would be way too slow.

What was a feature is now a bug

That’s why coal-fired generators operate 24-7, to provide so-called base-load, because they can’t really do anything else.

Snowy Hydro generators can be turned on and off at will.
Alex Ellinghausen/AAP

Brown coal generators are the least dispatchable. Brown coal is about 60% water. To make it ignite and keep boiling off the water takes sustained ultra-high temperatures. Units at Yallourn have to keep burning coal at high output (however low or negative the prices) or turn off.

In the days when the other sources of power could be turned on and off at will, this wasn’t so much of a problem.

Hydro or gas could be turned on in the morning when we turned on our lights and heaters and factories got down to business, and coal-fired power could be slowly ramped up.

At night, when there was less demand for coal-fired power, some could be created by offering cheap off-peak water heating.

But those days are gone. Nationwide, wind and solar including rooftop solar supplies 20% of our needs. It turns on and off at will.

Wind often blows strongly at night. What was a feature of coal — its ability to provide steady power rather than fill gaps – has become a bug.

Gas and batteries can fill gaps coal can’t

It’s as if our power system has become a jigsaw with the immovable pieces provided by the wind and the sun. It’s our job to fill in the gaps.

To some extent, as the prime minister says, gas will be a transition fuel, able to fill gaps in a way that coal cannot. But gas has become expensive, and batteries are being installed everywhere.

Energy Australia plans to replace its Yallourn power station with Australia’s first four-hour utility-scale battery with a capacity of 350 megawatts, more than any battery operating in the world today. South Australia is planning an even bigger one, up to 900 megawatts.




Read more:
Huge ‘battery warehouses’ could be the energy stores of the future


Australia’s Future Fund and AGL Energy are investing $2.7 billion in wind farms in NSW and Queensland which will fill gaps in a different way — their output peaks at different times to wind farms in South Australia and Victoria.

Filling the gaps won’t be easy, and had we not gone down this road there might still have been a role for coal, but the further we go down it the less coal can help.

As cheap as coal-fired power is, it is being forced out of the system by sources of power that are cheaper and more dispatchable. We can’t turn back.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate explained: could electric car batteries feed power back into the grid?



petrmalinak/shutterstock

Alan Brent, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz


Why can’t I use the battery from my electric car to export solar power to the grid when I don’t need it?

Technically it is possible. You could charge your electric vehicle (EV) with solar photovoltaic panels (or any other means), and if the EV is not used, the stored energy could be pushed back into the grid, especially during hours of peak demand for electricity when market prices are high.

This is known as vehicle-to-grid technology and is seen as the future as we move towards more electrification of transport and a smart grid.




Read more:
New Zealand wants to build a 100% renewable electricity grid, but massive infrastructure is not the best option


But manufacturers of electric vehicles have been reluctant, at first, to allow the bidirectional flow of power, for two reasons.

First, it could accelerate the degradation of batteries, which means they would need to be replaced more often. Second, the EV has to connect to the grid in the same way a solar photovoltaic system does, complying with standards to protect line operators and maintenance personnel working on the grid.

Such advanced bidirectional charge controllers come at an additional cost. Nevertheless, EV manufacturers such as Audi and Nissan have now taken steps to enable vehicle-to-grid connection with some of their models.

For EV models that do not have onboard inverters (to convert the DC electricity in the electric car to AC electricity we use in our homes), there are now bidirectional inverters available to connect any electric car. But the issue of battery life remains.

The continual charging and discharging through a 90% efficient converter shortens the life of the battery, and depending on brand and model, it may need replacing every five years. At more than NZ$5,000, this is a significant price tag for “energy prosumers” – people who both produce and consume energy.




Read more:
Climate explained: the environmental footprint of electric versus fossil cars


Economic and practical considerations

There are other considerations that are very context-specific. These relate to the additional charges for enabling the export of electricity from households, which vary between lines companies and retailers (or local authorities), as well as the buy-back rate of the electricity, which again depends on the purchaser of the electricity.

At the moment, these specific circumstances are seldom favourable to justify the additional cost of the infrastructure needed to connect an electric car to the grid.

There are also practical considerations. If the EV is used for the morning and evening commute, it is not at the home during the day to be charged with a solar system. And if it is (hopefully) not charged during peak demand hours, but mostly in off-peak hours at night, then the vehicle-to-grid route makes less sense.

It only starts to make sense if an EV is not used daily, or if EVs are available to a larger network than just one household. There are major opportunities for EVs to be used in communities with microgrids that manage their own generation and consumption, independent of the larger grid, or if large smart grid operators can manage distributed EVs remotely and more efficiently.

Investigations are ongoing to make this a more practical reality in the near future.The Conversation

Alan Brent, Professor and Chair in Sustainable Energy Systems, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Batteries made with sulfur could be cheaper, greener and hold more energy


Mahdokht Shaibani, Monash University

Lithium-ion batteries have changed the world. Without the ability to store meaningful amounts of energy in a rechargeable, portable format we would have no smartphones or other personal electronic devices. The pioneers of the technology were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

But as society moves away from fossil fuels, we will need more radical new technologies for storing energy to support renewable electricity generation, electric vehicles and other needs.




Read more:
Charged up: the history and development of batteries


One such technology could be lithium-sulfur batteries: they store considerably more energy than their lithium-ion cousins – in theory as much as six times the energy for a given weight. What’s more, they can be made from cheap materials that are readily available around the world.

Until now, lithium-sulfur batteries have been impractical. Their chemistry allows them to store so much energy that the battery physically breaks apart under the stress.

However, my colleagues and I have engineered a new design for these batteries which allows them to be charged and discharged hundreds of times without breaking down. We hope to have a commercial product ready in the next 2–4 years.

What’s so good about sulfur?

Lithium-ion batteries require minerals such as rare earths, nickel and cobalt to produce their positive electrodes. Supply of these metals is limited, prices are rising, and their mining often has great social and environmental costs.

Industry insiders have even predicted serious shortages of these key materials in the near future, possibly as early as 2022.

In contrast, sulfur is relatively common and cheap. Sulfur is the 16th most abundant element on Earth, and miners produce around 70 million tonnes of it each year. This makes it an ideal ingredient for batteries if we want them to be widely used.

What’s more, lithium-sulfur batteries rely on a different kind of chemical reaction which means their ability to store energy (known as “specific capacity”) is much greater than that of lithium-ion batteries.

The prototype lithium-sulfur battery shows the technology works, but a commercial product is still years away.
Mahdokht Shaibani, Author provided

Great capacity brings great stress

A person faced with a demanding job may feel stress if the demands exceed their ability to cope, resulting in a drop in productivity or performance. In much the same way, a battery electrode asked to store a lot of energy may be subjected to increased stress.

In a lithium-sulfur battery, energy is stored when positively charged lithium ions are absorbed by an electrode made of sulfur particles in a carbon matrix held together with a polymer binder. The high storage capacity means that the electrode swells up to almost double its size when fully charged.

The cycle of swelling and shrinking as the battery charges and discharges leads to a progressive loss of cohesion of particles and permanent distortion of the carbon matrix and the polymer binder.

The carbon matrix is a vital component of the battery that delivers electrons to the insulating sulfur, and the polymer glues the sulfur and carbon together. When they are distorted, the paths for electrons to move across the electrode (effectively the electrical wiring) are destroyed and the battery’s performance decays very quickly.

Giving particles some space to breathe

A CT scan of one of the sulfur electrodes shows the open structure that allows particles to expand as they charge.
Mahdokht Shaibani, Author provided

The conventional way of producing batteries creates a continuous dense network of binder across the bulk of the electrode, which doesn’t leave much free space for movement.

The conventional method works for lithium-ion batteries, but for sulfur we have had to develop a new technique.

To make sure our batteries would be easy and cheap to manufacture, we used the same material as a binder but processed it a little differently. The result is a web-like network of binder that holds particles together but also leaves plenty of space for material to expand.

These expansion-tolerant electrodes can efficiently accommodate cycling stresses, allowing the sulfur particles to live up to their full energy storage capacity.




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When will we see working sulfur batteries?

My colleagues Mainak Majumder and Matthew Hill have long histories of translating lab-scale discoveries to practical industry applications, and our multidisciplinary team contains expertise from materials synthesis and functionalization, to design and prototyping, to device implementation in power grids and electric vehicles.

The other key ingredient in these batteries is of course lithium. Given that Australia is a leading global producer, we think it is a natural fit to make the batteries herea.

We hope to have a commercial product ready in the next 2–4 years. We are working with industry partners to scale up the breakthrough, and looking toward developing a manufacturing line for commercial-level production.The Conversation

Mahdokht Shaibani, Research Fellow, Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Happy birthday, SA’s big battery, and many happy returns (of your recyclable parts)


Aleesha Rodriguez, Queensland University of Technology

A year ago today, Tesla’s big battery in South Australia began dispatching power to the state’s grid, one day ahead of schedule. By most accounts, the world’s largest lithium-ion battery has been a remarkable success. But there are some concerns that have so far escaped scrutiny.

The big battery (or the Hornsdale Power Reserve, to use its official name) was born of a Twitter wager between entrepreneurs Mike Cannon-Brookes and Elon Musk, with the latter offering to build a functioning battery in “100 days or it’s free”.

Musk succeeded, and so too has the battery in smoothing the daily operation of South Australia’s energy grid and helping to avert blackouts.




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A month in, Tesla’s SA battery is surpassing expectations


The battery has also been a financial success. It earned A$23.8 million in the first half of 2018, by selling stored electricity and other grid-stabilising services.

These successes have spurred further big battery uptake in Australia, while the global industry is forecast to attract US$620 billion in investments by 2040. It’s clear that big batteries will play a big role in our energy future.

But not every aspect of Tesla’s big battery earns a big tick. The battery’s own credentials aren’t particularly “green”, and by making people feel good about the energy they consume over summer, it arguably sustains an unhealthy appetite for energy consumption.

The problem of lithium-ion batteries

The Hornsdale Power Reserve is made up of hundreds of Tesla Powerpacks, each containing 16 “battery pods” similar to the ones in Tesla’s Model S vehicle. Each battery pod houses thousands of small lithium-ion cells – the same ones that you might find in a hand-held device like a torch.

The growing demand for lithium-ion batteries has a range of environmental impacts. Not least of these is the issue of how best to recycle them, which presents significant opportunities and challenges.

The Hornsdale Power Reserve claims that when the batteries stop working (in about 15 years), Tesla will recycle all of them at its Gigafactory in Nevada, recovering up to 60% of the materials.

It’s important that Tesla is held account to the above claim. A CSIRO report found that in 2016, only 2% of lithium-ion batteries were collected in Australia to be recycled offshore.

However, lithium-ion batteries aren’t the only option. Australia is leading the way in developing more sustainable alternative batteries. There are also other innovative ways to store energy, such as by harnessing the gravitational energy stored in giant hanging bricks.




Read more:
Charging ahead: how Australia is innovating in battery technology


Solving symptoms, not problems

Tesla’s big battery was introduced at a time when the energy debate was fixated on South Australia’s energy “crisis” and a need for “energy security”. After a succession of severe weather events and blackouts, the state’s renewable energy agenda was under fire and there was pressure on the government to take action.

On February 8, 2017, high temperatures contributed to high electricity demand and South Australia experienced yet another widespread blackout. But this time it was caused by the common practice of “load-shedding”, in which power is deliberately cut to sections of the grid to prevent it being overwhelmed.

A month later, Cannon-Brookes (who recently reclaimed the term “fair dinkum power” from Prime Minister Scott Morrison) coordinated “policy by tweet” and helped prompt Tesla’s battery-building partnership with the SA government.




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A year since the SA blackout, who’s winning the high-wattage power play?


Since the battery’s inception the theme of “summer” (a euphemism for high electricity demand) has followed its reports in media.

The combination of extreme heat and high demand is very challenging for an electricity distribution system. Big batteries can undoubtedly help smooth this peak demand. But that’s only solving a symptom of the deeper problem – namely, excessive electricity demand.

Time to talk about energy demand

These concerns are most likely not addressed in the national conversation because of the urgency to move away from fossil fuels and, as such, a desire to keep big batteries in a positive light.

But as we continue to adopt renewable energy technologies, we need to embrace a new relationship with energy. By avoiding these concerns we only prolong the very problems that have led us to a changed climate and arguably, make us ill-prepared for our renewable energy future.

The good news is that the big battery industry is just kicking off. That means now is the time to talk about what type of big batteries we want in the future, to review our expectations of energy supply, and to embrace more sustainable demand.The Conversation

Aleesha Rodriguez, Phd Student, Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From drone swarms to tree batteries, new tech is revolutionising ecology and conservation



File 20180508 34006 eyxvq5.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Eyes in the sky: drone footage is becoming a vital tool for monitoring ecosystems.
Deakin Marine Mapping Group

Euan Ritchie, Deakin University and Blake Allan, Deakin University

Understanding Earth’s species and ecosystems is a monumentally challenging scientific pursuit. But with the planet in the grip of its sixth mass extinction event, it has never been a more pressing priority.

To unlock nature’s secrets, ecologists turn to a variety of scientific instruments and tools. Sometimes we even repurpose household items, with eyebrow-raising results – whether it’s using a tea strainer to house ants, or tackling botfly larvae with a well-aimed dab of nail polish.

But there are many more high-tech options becoming available for studying the natural world. In fact, ecology is on the cusp of a revolution, with new and emerging technologies opening up new possibilities for insights into nature and applications for conserving biodiversity.

Our study, published in the journal Ecosphere, tracks the progress of this technological development. Here we highlight a few examples of these exciting advances.

Tiny tracking sensors

Electronically recording the movement of animals was first made possible by VHF radio telemetry in the 1960s. Since then even more species, especially long-distance migratory animals such as caribou, shearwaters and sea turtles, have been tracked with the help of GPS and other satellite data.

But our understanding of what affects animals’ movement and other behaviours, such as hunting, is being advanced further still by the use of “bio-logging” – equipping the animals themselves with miniature sensors.

Bio-logging is giving us new insight into the lives of animals such as mountain lions.

Many types of miniature sensors have now been developed, including accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, micro cameras, and barometers. Together, these devices make it possible to track animals’ movements with unprecedented precision. We can also now measure the “physiological cost” of behaviours – that is, whether an animal is working particularly hard to reach a destination, or within a particular location, to capture and consume its prey.

Taken further, placing animal movement paths within spatially accurate 3D-rendered (computer-generated) environments will allow ecologists to examine how individuals respond to each other and their surroundings.

These devices could also help us determine whether animals are changing their behaviour in response to threats such as invasive species or habitat modification. In turn, this could tell us what conservation measures might work best.

Autonomous vehicles

Remotely piloted vehicles, including drones, are now a common feature of our skies, land, and water. Beyond their more typical recreational uses, ecologists are deploying autonomous vehicles to measure environments, observe species, and assess changes through time, all with a degree of detail that was never previously possible.

There are many exciting applications of drones in conservation, including surveying cryptic and difficult to reach wildlife such as orangutans

Coupling autonomous vehicles with sensors (such as thermal imaging) now makes it easier to observe rare, hidden or nocturnal species. It also potentially allows us to catch poachers red-handed, which could help to protect animals like rhinoceros, elephants and pangolins.

3D printing

Despite 3D printing having been pioneered in the 1980s, we are only now beginning to realise the potential uses for ecological research. For instance, it can be used to make cheap, lightweight tracking devices that can be fitted onto animals. Or it can be used to create complex and accurate models of plants, animals or other organisms, for use in behavioural studies.

3D printing is shedding new light on animal behaviour, including mate choice.

Bio-batteries

Keeping electronic equipment running in the field can be a challenge. Conventional batteries have limited life spans, and can contain toxic chemicals. Solar power can help with some of these problems, but not in dimly lit areas, such as deep in the heart of rainforests.

“Bio-batteries” may help to overcome this challenge. They convert naturally occurring sources of chemical energy, such as starch, into electricity using enzymes. “Plugging-in” to trees may allow sensors and other field equipment to be powered cheaply for a long time in places without sun or access to mains electricity.

Combining technologies

All of the technologies described above sit on a continuum from previous (now largely mainstream) technological solutions, to new and innovative ones now being trialled.

Illustrative timeline of new technologies in ecology and environmental science. Source and further details at DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.2163.
Euan Ritchie

Emerging technologies are exciting by themselves, but when combined with one another they can revolutionise ecological research. Here is a modified exerpt from our paper:

Imagine research stations fitted with remote cameras and acoustic recorders equipped with low-power computers for image and animal call recognition, powered by trees via bio-batteries. These devices could use low-power, long-range telemetry both to communicate with each other in a network, potentially tracking animal movement from one location to the next, and to transmit information to a central location. Swarms of drones working together could then be deployed to map the landscape and collect data from a central location wirelessly, without landing. The drones could then land in a location with an internet connection and transfer data into cloud-based storage, accessible from anywhere in the world.

Visualisation of a future smart research environment, integrating multiple ecological technologies. The red lines indicate data transfer via the Internet of things (IoT), in which multiple technologies are communicating with one another. The gray lines indicate more traditional data transfer. Broken lines indicate data transferred over long distances. (1) Bio-batteries; (2) The Internet of things (IoT); (3) Swarm theory; (4) Long-range low-power telemetry; (5) Solar power; (6) Low-power computer; (7) Data transfer via satellite; and (8) Bioinformatics. Source and further details at DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.2163.
Euan Ritchie

These advancements will not only generate more accurate research data, but should also minimise the disturbance to species and ecosystems in the process.

Not only will this minimise the stress to animals and the inadvertent spread of diseases, but it should also provide a more “natural” picture of how plants, animals and other organisms interact.




Read more:
‘Epic Duck Challenge’ shows drones can outdo people at surveying wildlife


Realising the techno-ecological revolution will require better collaboration across disciplines and industries. Ecologists should ideally also be exposed to relevant technology-based training (such as engineering or IT) and industry placements early in their careers.

The ConversationSeveral initiatives, such as Wildlabs, the Conservation Technology Working Group and TechnEcology, are already addressing these needs. But we are only just at the start of what’s ultimately possible.

Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University and Blake Allan, , Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sweden: World’s First Electrified Road


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the world’s first electrified road, an experimental road that charges the batteries of electric cars as they drive.

For more visit:
https://e360.yale.edu/digest/worlds-first-electrified-road-opens-in-sweden

South Australia is now coal-free, and batteries could fill the energy gap


Roger Dargaville, University of Melbourne

South Australia’s last coal-fired power station closed on Monday this week, leaving the state with only gas and wind power generators.

The Northern Power Station, in Port Augusta on the northern end of the Spencer Gulf, has joined Playford B – the state’s other coal-fired power station which has already been retired.

The coal mine at Leigh Creek that supplied brown coal to the power stations also closed earlier this year, so there is no easy option for re-opening the power stations.

The immediate impact of the closure was a brief wobble in wholesale electricity prices, with more energy brought in from Victoria’s brown coal power stations (adding to carbon emissions).

But how could it affect the state in the long term?

Could South Australia run out of power?

Average electricity demand in South Australia is 1.4 gigawatts, and the state record for peak demand of 3.4 gigawatts was set in January 2011. In the past two years the highest demand was 2.9 gigawatts.

Rollout of rooftop solar panels is one of the reasons demand from the grid has been going down. The impact on the peak demand – the time of day when most people are using appliances – is less clear, because if the peak occurs after sunset, solar panels will not reduce it.

With the closure of the 520 megawatt Northern Power Station, South Australia is left with 2,800 MW of capacity in its gas-fired generators, which can be fired up when needed, and 1,500 MW of wind farms, which of course produce energy only when the wind blows. Most gas generation capacity comes from the Torrens Island A (480 MW) and B (800 MW) installations, built in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively.

There have been discussions about retiring Torrens Island A (it was mothballed for a period in 2014), but the departure of Northern appears to have delayed those plans.

The state also has a total of about 600 MW of rooftop solar, but, as noted above, this technically counts as reducing demand rather than adding to supply.

South Australia is also connected to Victoria via two transmission lines, one at Heywood (recently upgraded to 650 MW) and one at Murray Link (220 MW). This gives the state access to a potential 870 MW of Victorian power.

If South Australia gets close to record demand, the state clearly outstrips the capacity of the local gas generators. If the wind isn’t blowing, then the state will depend on the interconnectors.

But there is an unfortunate factor that transmission lines tend to fail under very high temperatures, which correspond to the times of highest demand.

It may sound unlikely, but South Australia is at risk of failing to meet demand. This would depend on a very specific set of circumstances:

  • record demand (despite the increase in rooftop solar reducing demand)

  • no wind

  • failed interconnectors (or failure of local generators).

A role for storage

This situation means the state is the most likely location for investment in storage. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) recently published a report on storage that identified several locations in South Australia that would be logical places to install commercial-scale batteries.

We at the Melbourne Energy Institute have previously written about pumped hydro storage options, in particular the novel approach of using salt water. This may be of particular use in a very dry state such as South Australia.

But batteries are only going to be attractive investments if there is sufficient volatility in the market to provide arbitrage opportunities. Arbitrage, put simply, is the process of buying low and selling high.

Storage systems need be able to be charged with low-cost energy (for instance, overnight when demand is low, or when the wind is blowing hard) and dispatch the power back onto the grid at a sufficient profit to cover the investment costs.

We are currently in a low-demand period of the year (the shoulder seasons have both low heating and cooling requirements). This means there has not been much shift in electricity prices coming out of South Australia with the removal of Northern. It might not be until next summer, with hot temperatures and increased demand from air conditioners, that we are able to see the true magnitude of the impact of this exit on electricity prices and market volatility.

To date (only a couple of days since the closure), the wind has been blowing hard and there has been no need to increase substantially the generation from other fossil generators. Likewise, there have been no discernible shifts in the spot market prices.

Finally, the impact on carbon emissions will also be interesting. This will depend on how the remaining generators respond. The gap left by Northern may be filled with South Australian gas, in which case total emissions will fall, but more likely the gap will be filled with Victorian coal power via the interconnectors, resulting in no reduction in net emissions.

We will know the net result in due course – watch this space.

The Conversation

Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director, Energy Research Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Renewable Energy: Massive Wind Power Project in Texas


The following link is to an article on a major wind power project in Texas, USA. The technology being developed as part of this scheme could be of major importance for energy production and storage around the world. Being able to store electricity generated by wind power in massive batteries is an interesting development.

For more visit:
http://www.grist.org/wind-power/2011-04-15-no-trees-big-battery-texas-to-install-worlds-largest-wind