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A High-Energy Future

Our energy supplies are greater than ever.

By Thomas Anderson  |  December 7, 2017

Our world of energy and technology is a series of advancements occurring at an ever more rapid pace, carrying our society along like a moving rocketship upon which we ride.

Even the symbols of speed have become anachronistic, conjuring images of Buck Rogers pursuing the evil Ming in a curved-wing craft spewing a smoky trail of poorly burned faux fuel. What has become of us, that the unattainable of the past is now boringly ordinary?

We have become jaded and our fascinations have turned to a few rather spectacular entrepreneurs who are making huge sums from their dreams. One of the stars of our current fascination with exotic tech is a genius from South Africa. Elon Musk got himself educated in London and Canada, and he rose to the top of the heap by doing what he likes to do, which is to innovate.

Musk’s brain has a goal of having fun; and the greatest fun to him seems to be the earning of large sums of money in novel ways. He began with Zip2, a pioneer in new forms of investing during the early ‘90s, and one of the first to provide online financial services. He leveraged that venture into PayPal in 1999, which gained him the wherewithal to begin his pie-in-the-sky enterprises.

With his billions, Musk founded SpaceX and Tesla, which are both highly innovative concerns, intending to advance technology and intellectual curiosity into new frontiers of fun solutions that will benefit all.

It is unclear what the financing arrangements for SpaceX were or are, but Tesla is mortgaged to the hilt in government-backed money, specialty tax breaks, and consumer financing of car sales.

The Tesla automobile serves a niche market at this time - although in talking to a current Tesla driver, one would find that his opinion is that it is far from a niche. Tesla drivers are convinced that it is the wave of the future.

But that is in the shadowy past of six months ago. Musk’s latest landmark is a battery - not just any battery, but the world’s largest:

Jay Weatherill, premier of the state of South Australia -- where the park has been built -- said Thursday, November 23, that Tesla Inc. had finished installing battery packs at the 100MW [100 MegaWatt – WOW!] facility and was ready to energize and test the site.

The park will officially launch next week, meeting a start of December deadline agreed by Musk in July. The Tesla CEO, in March, promised to deliver the storage facility within 100 days of signing a contract with the State Government and said, via Twitter, he would swallow the entire cost of the project and hand it over for free if he missed the deadline.

The 100 MW/129 MWh park is a key part of South Australia's A$550 million (US$419 million) plan to overhaul its failing energy grid, which has struggled to cope with increased demand during peak periods.

Tesla claims the park can store enough energy to power 30,000 homes and will be the biggest lithium-ion battery farm by a factor of three. It will be paired with a wind farm operated by France's Neoen Energy SA, which will supply power that will be stored in the Tesla batteries for redistribution into the power grid during peak periods of demand or when supply from South Australia's wind farms dip.

So Musk won the bet; the trouble is that he is connected to a wind-driven power source which will never work reliably. However, with a battery that big, wind energy reliability may not be an issue, as the battery can fill in the gaps if they aren't too long.

Musk has gone about this battery adventure in the same way that he seems to approach all of his interests: an all-or-nothing bet that he won. Not a terrible way to do business if you are in a position where you can afford not to care what the outcome is!

We as a civilization can’t do things that way, though. We’d do best to place bets on our economic future on a variety of choices. There is plenty of time for that, and our future is not hanging in the balance of one technology over all the others. A conservative approach would be to develop all of the energy sources and technologies that we can envision.

Some will turn out better than others; some are mostly wishes at the moment; some are currently early in their development. Our current sources of power have been proven reliable and affordable. Those energy sources will give us time to develop and refine the technology we will depend upon in the future.

The biggest mistake we can make – the one that is being made by China and by California – is to make assumptions about what our future will be. Elon Musk is not placing his bets on windmills, even though they are a part of the Australian battery project. His bet was independent of the means of charging his enormous battery. In a pinch, maybe, the Australian railroad could provide diesel train engines with their enormous generators to recharge the battery; the battery is the key, not the power source driving it.

That project is a worthwhile experiment, though. The thousands of individual cells that make up Musk’s giant battery can be connected in many different ways to provide many different voltages, current capacities, and other ways of using the stored power within it. It can even be converted to Alternating Current (AC) with a group of inverters.

Converting DC to AC and changing battery output voltages by connecting cells in different ways, are rather inefficient processes right now, but that could change when we learn how to do that conversion electronically rather than inductively which is the current method.

Basic Electronics: with current technology, the only practical way to step voltages up or down is by using AC sources. Inverters, which make AC from DC, are extremely expensive for the capacities needed and not very efficient based on dollars per watt. Transformers, which step up voltages on AC sources, are relatively inexpensive – they are what we use now, but some other technology will take over eventually.

Electronic means of accomplishing these same goals will be the way we do this in the future. Even this writer, an architect with previous military training in electronics, can foresee certain advances in electronics. He can even see how to do this in general terms with nascent technology that has become available since the turn-of-the-century. He can definitely foresee the uses which will occur in large buildings and building complexes.

The public tends to think of houses when they think of architecture, but houses are not usually designed one by one by architects. Architects will not be in charge of the revolutions that occur in electronics for consumer use in the home; individual homeowners will be.

For instance, there have been many advances in electronics for home hardware: Amazon is currently marketing a front door lock which will allow inside delivery of packages into a clients home. Security monitoring of approaches to the house is now available via the Internet. There is more in the way of homeowner electronics for security and other categories to come.

Revolutions in home entertainment have been underway for several years. The Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV are available now, and provide wireless Internet connections for TV programming. There are new sources, Hulu, HGTV, Food, and a hundred others which can be added to core providers of services. These innovations have come about in the last 5 to 7 years; home entertainment before flat screens and Internet Wi-Fi connections now seems antediluvian.

Most consumers will never see or even think about the huge changes that will take place in the use of energy in the workplace. The absolutely stunning reductions in power needed by low-voltage lighting as opposed to lights of the previous generation will allow simplification of the ways that buildings can be used. Heretofore, vast amounts of heat were produced by lights, which generated vast quantities of heat that caused enormous loads on HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, & Air Conditioning) systems in big buildings.

Large buildings, except in the coldest climates, have not needed much in the way of heating systems because the lighting load was ample to maintain a building’s temperature even on cold days.  On the other hand, frequently air conditioning had to be run even in the dead of winter. Sophisticated control systems already available today will save large amounts of energy in the future now that modern lighting is so much more efficient. This architect’s practice does not do large buildings, but he can see where this revolution in lighting technology will change the future.

There is a lot of emphasis on energy reduction in buildings. Grocery stores, for instance, have undergone enormous changes in the way that power is used. Some of this technology has been known for decades, simply waiting for the price of the needed apparatus to come down. The smart use of all our energy technology is to allow the market to decide, and to continue to assist the market by keeping the government out of it as much as possible.

Where government has stuck its nose into sources of energy development, there has been left a trail of failed technology where private money would never have been spent. Large-scale windmills are one case in point. We don’t know yet what the fate of the hyper-battery will be, but chances are that it will not become the way power is supplied in the future – city-sized batteries will probably not work out in the long run.

But, perhaps the knowledge that is gained from the development of this experiment will aid in the design of future grids with input power from a multitude of sources. No one except extreme environmentalists cares whether the electrons that move are pushed along by solar radiation, hydrogen becoming deuterium, or cattle-waste burning.

Power is power, and the future is going to need a lot of it.  Why not get it from everywhere we can?