Monitoring Energy Use And Saving Money

On the surface, the electric grid might seem like a solved piece of infrastructure. But there’s actually been a large amount of computerized modernization going in the background for the past decade or so. At a large scale this means automatic control of the grid, but for some electric utility customers like [Alex] this means the rates for electricity can change every hour based on demand. By keeping an eye on the current rate, you can extract the most value from these utilities.

[Alex] is located in the United Kingdom and has an energy provider whose rates can change every half hour. This information is freely available well enough in advance to download the data and display it visibly in with a NeoPixel LED ring around a clock. The colors displayed by the LEDs represent an increase or decrease in price for the corresponding time and allow him to better plan out the household’s energy use for the day. The clock uses a TinyPICO ESP32 module to gather the data and handle the clock display. A second wall-mounted device shows real-time energy readings for both gas and electricity using two old analog voltmeters modified to display kilowatt-hours.

While not everyone has a utility which allows this sort of granularity with energy pricing, having one can make a bit of a difference as electricity rates under this system can sometimes go negative. [Alex] estimates that using these two displays to coordinate his energy usage has saved around £50 a month. Even if your utility offers minimal or no price adjustments for time-of-use, it’s still a good idea to monitor energy use in your home. Here’s a fairly comprehensive project that does that without modifying any existing wiring.

Bending Light To Fit Technology

Solar power is an excellent way of generating electricity, whether that’s for an off-grid home or for the power grid. With no moving parts maintenance is relatively low, and the downsides of burning fuel are eliminated as well. But as much as it’s revolutionized power generation over the last few decades, there’s still some performance gains to be made when it comes to the solar cells themselves. A team at Stanford recently made strides in improving cell efficiency by bending the properties of sunlight itself.

In order to generate electricity directly from sunlight, a photon with a specific amount of energy needs to strike the semiconductor material. Any photons with higher energy will waste some of that energy as heat, and any with lower energy won’t generate electricity. Previous methods to solve this problem involve using something similar to a prism to separate the light out into colors (or energies) that correlate to specific types of cells calibrated specifically for those colors. This method does the opposite: it changes the light itself to an color that fits the semiconductor material. In short, a specialized material converts the energy from two lower-energy photons into a single higher-energy photon, which then strikes the solar panel to create energy.

By adding these color-changing materials as a layer to a photovoltaic solar panel, the panel can generate more energy with a given amount of light than a traditional panel. The major hurdle, as with any research, is whether or not this will be viable when produced at scale, and this shows promise in that regard as well. There are other applications for these materials beyond photovoltaics as well, and the researchers provide an excellent demonstration in 3D printing. By adding these color-change materials to resin, red lasers can be used instead of blue or ultraviolet lasers to cure resin in extremely specific locations, leading to stronger and more accurate prints.

Harvesting Mechanical Energy From Falling Rain

Collecting energy from various small mechanical processes has always been something that’s been technically possible, but never done on a large scale due to issues with cost and scalability. It’s much easier to generate electricity in bulk via traditional methods, whether that’s with fossil fuels or other proven processes like solar panels. That might be about to change, though, as a breakthrough that researchers at Georgia Tech found allows for the direct harvesting of mechanical energy at a rate much higher than previous techniques allowed.

The method takes advantage of the triboelectric effect, which is a process by which electric charge is transferred when two objects strike or slide past one another. While this effect has been known for some time, it has only been through the advancements of modern materials science that it can be put to efficient use at generating energy, creating voltages many thousands of times higher than previous materials allowed. Another barrier they needed to overcome was how to string together lots of small generators like this together. A new method that allows the cells to function semi-independently reduces the coupling capacitance, allowing larger arrays to be built.

The hope is for all of these improvements to be combined into a system which could do things like augment existing solar panels, allowing them to additionally gather energy from falling rain drops. We’d expect that the cost of this technology would need to come down considerably in order to be cost-competitive, and be able to scale from a manufacturing point-of-view before we’d see much of this in the real world, but for now at least the research seems fairly promising. But if you’re looking for something you can theoretically use right now, there are all kinds of other ways to generate energy from fairly mundane daily activities.

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Formation Flying Does More Than Look Good

Seeing airplanes fly in formation is an exciting experience at something like an air show, where demonstrations of a pilot’s skill and aircraft technology are on full display. But there are other reasons for aircraft to fly in formation as well. [Peter] has been exploring the idea that formation flight can also improve efficiency, and has been looking specifically at things like formation flight of UAVs or drones with this flight planning algorithm.

Aircraft flying in formation create vortices around the wing tips, which cause drag. However, another aircraft flying through those vortices will experience less drag and more efficient flight. This is the reason birds instinctively fly in formation as well. By planning paths for drones which will leave from different locations, meet up at some point to fly in a more efficient formation, and then split up close to their destinations, a significant amount of energy can potentially be saved. Continue reading “Formation Flying Does More Than Look Good”

New Renewable Energy Projects Are Overwhelming US Grids

It’s been clear for a long time that the world has to move away from fossil energy sources. Decades ago, this seemed impractical, when renewable energy was hugely expensive, and we were yet to see much impact on the ground from climate change. Meanwhile, prices for solar and wind installations have come down immensely, which helps a lot.

However, there’s a new problem. Power grids across the US simply can’t keep up with the rapid pace of new renewable installations. It’s a frustrating issue, but not an insurmountable one.

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Supercon 2022: Irak Mayer Builds Self-Sustainable Outdoor IoT Devices

[Irak Mayer] has been exploring IoT applications for use with remote monitoring of irrigation control systems. As you would expect, the biggest challenges for moving data from the middle of a field to the home or office are with connectivity and power. Obviously, the further away from urbanization you get, the sparser both these aspects become, and the greater the challenge.

[Irak] solves his connectivity problem by assuming there is some WiFi network within range, building a system around the Blues Wireless WiFi note card. Substituting their cellular card would be an option for applications out of WiFi range, but presumably without changing too much on the system and software side of things. Leveraging the Adafruit FeatherWing INA219, which is a bidirectional current sensor with an I2C interface, for both the power generation and system consumption measurements. For control, [Irak] is using an Adafruit ESP32 board, but says little more about the hardware. On the software side, [Irak] is using the Blues Wireless NoteHub for the initial connection, which then routes the collected data onto the Adafruit IoT platform for collation purposes. The final part of the hardware is a LiPo battery which is on standby to soak up any excess power available from the energy harvesting. This is monitored by an LC709203f battery fuel gauge.

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Big Chemistry: Liquefied Natural Gas

The topic of energy has been top-of-mind for us since the first of our ancestors came down out of the trees looking for something to eat that wouldn’t eat them. But in a world where the neverending struggle for energy has been abstracted away to the flick of a finger on a light switch or thermostat, thanks to geopolitical forces many of us are now facing the wrath of winter with a completely different outlook on what it takes to stay warm.

The problem isn’t necessarily that we don’t have enough energy, it’s more that what we have is neither evenly distributed nor easily obtained. Moving energy from where it’s produced to where it’s needed is rarely a simple matter, and often poses significant and interesting engineering challenges. This is especially true for sources of energy that don’t pack a lot of punch into a small space, like natural gas. Getting it across a continent is challenging enough; getting it across an ocean is another thing altogether, and that’s where liquefied natural gas, or LNG, comes into the picture.

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