How cool is this? A transparent solar cell

I’ve not been sharing enough of my “how cool is this?” moments, and believe me, I’ve had plenty of them in the digital and clean tech areas lately. I find this one very exciting: Michigan State researchers have developed a fully transparent solar cell that could be used for windows or device screens:

Instead of trying to create a transparent photovoltaic cell (which is nigh impossible), they use a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC). The TLSC consists of organic salts that absorb specific non-visible wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light, which they then luminesce (glow) as another wavelength of infrared light (also non-visible). This emitted infrared light is guided to the edge of plastic, where thin strips of conventional photovoltaic solar cell convert it into electricity. [Research paper: DOI: 10.1002/adom.201400103– “Near-Infrared Harvesting Transparent Luminescent Solar Concentrators”] …

So far, one of the larger barriers to large-scale adoption of solar power is the intrusive and ugly nature of solar panels — obviously, if we can produce large amounts of solar power from sheets of glass and plastic that look like normal sheets of glass and plastic, then that would be big.

The energy efficiency numbers are low, 1%, but they estimate they could go up to 5%. Figuring out how much cost this TLSC technology adds to large panes of glass and comparing that to alternative electricity prices is the next step in assessing its commercial viability. But the technology is seriously cool.


Esther Dyson on the future of 3D printing

3D printing is incredible. Take, for example, recent Northwestern mechanical engineering graduate and softball player Lauren Tyndall, who designed and printed her own more ergonomic and comfortable cast for her broken pinkie finger. Or consider the cost and energy use benefits of 3D printing of metal airplane parts in titanium, rather than machining them out of aluminum (a topic that my mechanical engineering colleague Eric Masanet is researching). Its potential as a core general-purpose technology is profound.

In a Project Syndicate essay, Esther Dyson puts some meat on the futuristic bones that I enthused about above:

The Internet changed the balance of power between individuals and institutions. It enabled millions of people to have jobs without having bosses. Instead, they have agents – such as TaskRabbit or Amazon Web Services or Uber – who match providers and customers.

I think we will see a similar story with 3D printing, as it grows from a novelty into something useful and disruptive – and sufficiently cheap and widespread to be used for (relatively) frivolous endeavors as well. We will print not just children’s playthings, but also human prostheses – bones and even lungs and livers – and ultimately much machinery, including new 3D printers.

Dyson lays out some areas where she sees these disruptive changes occurring, and some of the economic and environmental impacts of, say, the reduction in the demand for freight transportation and the increased ability to recycle and reuse physical resources locally. Her conclusion is optimistic on both economic and environmental counts:

In the short run, this means greater efficiency and more and speedier recycling, happening locally rather than centrally. In the long run, 3D printing will allow more efficient use of physical resources and faster diffusion of the best designs, boosting living standards around the world.


How cool is that nickel-iron battery?

It’s been too long since I’ve done a “how cool is that?” expression of awe and wonder at a piece of ingenious creativity. You may recall that early automobiles were battery-powered — the origins of the electric car are deep and over a century old. One battery technology, courtesy of (you guessed it) Thomas Edison, was nickel-iron; Edison was a proponent of electric vehicles.

Stanford researchers have been working on improving the performance of Edison’s nickel-iron battery, contributing to the portfolio of battery technologies that can improve electricity storage, which is the Holy Grail of electricity technology. As described by Stanford News,

“The Edison battery is very durable, but it has a number of drawbacks,” said Hongjie Dai, professor of chemistry. “A typical battery can take hours to charge, and the rate of discharge is also very slow.”

Now, Dai and his colleagues have dramatically improved the performance of this century-old technology. The Stanford team has created an ultrafast nickel-iron battery that can be fully charged in about 2 minutes and discharged in less than 30 seconds. …

Carbon has long been used to enhance electrical conductivity in electrodes. To improve the Edison battery’s performance, the Stanford team used graphene – nanosized sheets of carbon that are only 1-atom thick – and multi-walled carbon nanotubes, each consisting of about 10 concentric graphene sheets rolled together. …

“Our battery probably won’t be able to power an electric car by itself because the energy density is not ideal,” Wang said. “But it could assist lithium-ion batteries by giving them a real power boost for faster acceleration and regenerative braking.”

This approach to energy storage, using strongly-coupled nanomaterials, has a lot of promise for battery researchers working to improve efficiency, density, and charge decay over time.

The LIFX lightbulb: Bringing the Internet of things to electricity

Lynne Kiesling

The LIFX lightbulb is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in a while, even in a period of substantial innovation affecting many areas of our lives. It’s a Kickstarter project, not coming from an established company like GE or Philips, not coming from within the electricity industry. Go watch the intro video, and then come back … you back? So how cool is that? Wifi enabled for automation and remote control from your smartphone. Automation of electricity consumption at the bulb level. You can set your nightstand bulb to dim and brighten according to your sleep cycle. It’s an LED bulb, so it can change colors, any combination in the Pantone scale, from your phone, anywhere. And, as an LED bulb, you get all of these automation and aesthetic features in a low-energy, low-carbon package.

This discussion of their project provides insight into the entrepreneurial future of consumer-facing energy technology — it’s not about the hardware, it’s about the software:

The LIFX app is one of our favorite aspects of the entire project, and we’ve spent countless hours thinking about how you can interact with your lights. We have mapped out a very smooth configuration UX from the app to the LIFX master bulb. In essence you place your LIFX smartbulb into a light socket, turn the switch on and then launch the app. You will be guided through a process of choosing your home network from a list and then entering your password. The LIFX master bulb will then auto configure itself to your router and all the slave bulbs will auto connect to the master. If you add more slave bulbs down the track  these will also auto connect.

Regarding security: LIFX will be as secure as your WiFi network. eg. without the WiFi network password you can’t control the smartbulbs.

We’re aware that while the hardware is the most visible and interesting part of this project our software is the soul.

This. This is the right thing to do, from my perspective, from both economic and environmental perspectives. And while I think Kevin Tofel at Greentech is right that there’s a network architecture issue here (separate control systems vs. a single server capturing and implementing your automation decisions throughout the house), a system like LIFX’s seems to me to be flexible enough to be incorporated into a whole-house energy management setup. And, given how enthusiastically consumers have adopted wireless mobile technologies, that seems to be a good place to start to get consumers comfortable with this degree of automation and functionality. Transactive capabilities and dynamic pricing are next! Unless our electricity network is transactive it’s not smart, and intelligent end-use devices (and the connectivity to network them for automation) create value for consumers from that intelligence.

Note also the implications of software like LIFX’s for having electricity enter the Internet of Things. As sensors and the connectivity among them become ubiquitous, we can automate our consumption decisions much more deeply, at a much more granular level (down to the bulb, here), in ways that do not inconvenience us. We can use the technology to make ourselves better off by automating our choices in response to variables we care about, which eventually will include variables like the retail price of electricity and the carbon content of the fuel used to generate it. The Internet of Things reflects Alfred North Whitehead’s observation that “civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.”

The Internet of Things enables mass customization and the ability of each individual to choose a bundle, a set of features, a price contract that they expect to bring them the most net benefits. This is a dramatic technological and cultural break from the century-long custom and regulatory practice of uniform products, uniform quality, uniform pricing as a matter of social policy. The public interest ethic of uniformity ties us to mediocrity, to the extent that it constrains what features and pricing people can bundle and consume with technologies like these.

Another Internet of Things implication here is that, with each bulb having a unique sensor and identifier, we will generate very detailed, granular data about how the connected, sensing devices operate. Such “big data” can help us use less energy, save money, do more with less, and lots of other things I can’t imagine but some other entrepreneur will, and will bring to market, if regulation doesn’t stifle it, and with clear stipulations of consumer privacy and property rights in their data.

You can also tell that this is an interesting topic when I am not the first economist to write about it! I love seeing my colleagues interested in electricity-related technologies. Mark Perry shares my enthusiasm about the application of human creativity to generate such a product. Josh Gans shares my enthusiasm for the networking, the interoperability, and the open architecture. And Felix Salmon offers a worthy note of caution about the ability of LIFX to deliver on its promised features and timeline, given the time delays experienced in other Kickstarter projects.

Automating activities helps us thrive: three examples

Lynne Kiesling

[… and one of those examples is not using transactive technology to automate individual responses to energy-related variables like price or % renewable! Read on …]

Digital technologies do more than reduce transaction costs. They open up new activities, new behaviors that were not imaginable before but are now valuable and contribute to individual flourishing. Here are three examples that do indeed reduce transaction costs, but do much more as well. They change our opportunity set, and enable us to be creative in experimenting with new ways to live better.

Healthier, less invasively and less expensively: From Mark Perry and his invaluable Carpe Diem blog comes this note about a sand grain-sized sensor that can be embedded in a pill, ingested, and used to communicate internal health condition information to the person’s phone, for use by that person, caregivers, and clinicians. In addition to the “how cool is that?” factor, I am (of course) intrigued by the device’s ability to use stomach acid for power. Battery engineers, take note! Note also the discussion in the comments about colonoscopy risks and costs, and how technologies like this can reduce those.

Can’t afford a PA? How about a PA app? Technology Review compiles a list of phone apps that can turn your smartphone into a personal assistant. Out of them all, Donna’s the one that caught my eye:

Kevin Cheng, a former project manager at Twitter and cofounder of the stealth personal-assistant software Donna, is attempting to do something similar. Though he won’t get into many specifics about what Donna’s capabilities will be at launch, he says she (yes, he refers to the software as “she”) will help you stay organized and punctual by, for example, letting you know when you should leave to get to a meeting on time—a judgment made by analyzing traffic conditions, weather, and public transportation schedules. He expects Donna to be available this fall.

Note also that “[o]ne startup, Happiness Engines, lets users choose among five different robots (options include Robbie, who will “couch every message in an infectious can-do attitude,” and Haley, who is “quick, witty, and with a touch of friendly sarcasm”).” For you Hitchiker’s Guide fans out there, doesn’t Robbie remind you of the computer? What about a Marvin PA?

Your phone can wait in line for you. This Wired article describes an app that gets rid of those hockey-puck pagers at restaurants when you are waiting for a table.

Here’s how it works: You walk into a restaurant and ask for a table. The host gets your name and phone number, enters the information into NoWait’s app on an iPad (or any iOS device), and then sends a text message with an approximate wait time. If you have a smartphone, you are also sent a link that shows you how many parties are in front of you. You’re then free to go do whatever you want in the time NoWait has granted you. You’re confident that a table awaits, and that the pushy family of four hovering nearby won’t weasel their way to the front of the queue.

On the face of it, it doesn’t look like that valuable an innovation, right? Not a big deal, not likely to have a big impact. Guess again.

In return, the restaurant now has a directory of phone numbers and names to which they can send special offers, such as “show this message to your server for half off our nachos.” Hosts also have the ability to do more than signal someone that their table is ready. The NoWait system allows for a conversation — it could be about table selection or unforeseen delays. Customers can even send cancellation notices, so the restaurant isn’t left hanging when they decide they want Japanese food after all. The system also records average wait times, and the number of customers that come back to eat versus those that walk out. Best of all, the restaurant doesn’t have to worry about lost, expensive pagers.

The downside? If there is any for the restaurants, it’s that you might not stick around to drink at the bar. Still, the restaurants that have signed up for NoWait, including selected Red Robin and TGI Friday’s and locally owned establishments in 45 states, apparently aren’t concerned about that.

This innovation illustrates precisely the effect I highlighted above: sure, the technology reduces the transaction cost between producer and consumer and takes some rough edges off of the challenging situation of prioritizing the wait for a scarce resource (i.e., a table at a popular restaurant at a popular time). But it also opens up all sorts of different ways for producer and consumer to interact to create value/mutual benefit. It generates data for the producer that the producer can use to customize and tailor their offerings to different consumers with different characteristics, and it also generates data (such as average wait times) that the producer can use to optimize operations and make strategic decisions about expansion, pricing, and so on.

It’s these seemingly simple technologies that can have the most transformative effects.

That’s the lesson from these three examples for the electricity industry, and the potential that resides in home energy technologies. Technologies that reduce transaction costs and open up opportunities for producers and consumers to take different activities and change their behavior in unimagined ways can be value creating in ways that belie their simplicity. And consumers are increasingly used to using such technologies in such ways, and welcome them because such technologies can enable them to accomplish more, get more out of life, flourish.

Given these examples and our increasing comfort with and enthusiasm for autonomous coordination using digital technologies, this result from a Consumer Electronics Association 2011 study is striking:

… consumers are concerned about the cost of their energy use, yet lack awareness of emerging energy management systems.

While many consumers turn lights off, shop for energy efficient devices and practice other eco-friendly practices, just 10.2 million of 119 million U.S. households are estimated to have enrolled in electricity management programs. Utility companies, the study found, are in the best position to raise awareness of these programs to boost consumers’ understanding of energy consumption.

Currently, energy management systems allow consumers to control their home air conditioning and heating units through a programmable display. In the future, a smart grid would enable consumers to adjust home cooling and heating systems with a smartphone, run their dishwashers at times of low energy costs, or control home appliances remotely, among other applications.

The CEA thinks that the regulated distribution monopolist is in the best position to overcome this awareness gap among homeowners. But they don’t, and regulatory incentives give them little reason to.

One of the best ways to overcome this awareness gap is retail competition, to enable competing firms to offer a menu of retail contracts with different pricing models over time and over fuel source, and to offer complementary home energy management technologies that they think will appeal to consumers. Consumers shopping among those choices would become aware of ways to manage their electricity use differently, would be able to customize a combination of pricing and technology that enable them to accomplish more, get more out of life, flourish, by automating electricity consumption decisions in their homes.

That’s the technological equivalent of having your PA, Donna, in the house full time, running around and turning appliances and systems off, on, and up/down, without your having to lift a finger. Donna can be your electricity PA.

How does solar power work?

Michael Giberson

Many people are confused about how solar power works. Here is an illustrated explanation:

"I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me."


(HT to Nicole S. Thanks Nicole!)

Y’all have a happy holiday!

Michael Giberson

The KP Texas office is alive and functional, I am relieved to discover, just recently emerged from the end of semester rush and not yet enveloped in the holiday rush. So I’ll try to rediscover my internet legs, re-raise the Jolly Blogger flag, and set sail in search of curious, erroneous, surprising or provoking energy policy and/or economics stories.

Yo-ho-ho and happy holidays to all!