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Archive for the ‘water tech’ Category

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photo: IBM

IBM on Friday unveiled a series of  “smart water” services to deploy sensor networks and data-crunching software to help environmental officials better manage an increasingly scarce commodity.

“What we got back from people who monitor water systems is that they had a huge amount of data, that they were often entering the data by hand, and that they didn’t have time to analyze the data,” says Sharon Nunes, vice president for Big Green Innovations at IBM. “What we’re trying to to do is build more intelligence into their water systems.”

Here’s how it works in a nutshell: Sensors are scattered throughout a water district’s infrastructure – from reservoirs to the pipes that deliver H20 to homes – and gather information on water quality, leakage and other conditions. IBM (IBM) software analyzes that data and organizes it on a computer dashboard so water managers can at a glance detect problems and balance supply and demand.

A demonstration of the IBM technology and its reach is underway in Ireland’s Galway Bay. Working with Marine Institute Ireland, IBM’s SmartBay project has equipped several hundred buoys like the one in the photo above with sensors that are networked through wireless links. The sensors measure such things as water temperature, salinity and oxygen content. Nunes said some sensors measure wave height to determine the best locales for wave energy production while another experimental intelligent sensor detects phosphates and then essentially does a science experiment in a box to determine whether the data is of sufficient quality to beam back to the home base.

The project also uses fishermen as “nodes on the network,” allowing them to text-message reports of floating debris on the bay. SmartBay crunches that data and sends back a map showing the likely position of flotsam over the next 24 hours so boats can avoid collisions.

Nunes says all this data – presented on a computer dashboard – allows the Galway harbor master to get a quick snapshot of the the bay’s health and potential navigation hazards so decisions can be made quickly – like whether to close the beaches because of a spike in pollution.

She estimates the potential market for smart water technology to be between $15 billion and $20 billion. The $64,000 question, though, is whether IBM’s likely customers – cash-strapped municipalities and state and local governments – can afford to get smart.

The answer, Nunes says, is that federal stimulus package money is available for water projects while other countries like China have set aside cash – $53 billion in China’s case – for water quality projects.

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San Francisco on Friday made a bid to rule the waves, filing an application to build a 30-megawatt wave energy farm off its coast in a move to sink a Seattle company’s claim on a nearby patch of ocean.

The company, Grays Harbor Ocean Energy, has filed applications with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, for wave projects to be built from New Jersey to Hawaii. Wave energy technology remains in its infancy but there’s been something of a land – or sea – rush to secure rights to the most promising ocean sites to produce clean green electricity.

Last October, Grays Harbor filed for a preliminary permit to test technology for a 100-megawatt wave park to be floated 20 to 25 miles off the San Francisco coast.  Grays’ San Francisco Ocean Energy Project “may also generate power from wind turbines” placed on the wave-energy converters, according to the company’s application.

So far the project has generated heated opposition from a coalition of environmental groups, surfers and commercial fishing organizations that have intervened in the case.  They argue that the wave farm’s location in federally protected marine sanctuaries near the Farallon Islands could harm endangered whales, turtles and seabirds as well as interfere with surfers, sailors and pose a navigation hazard for oil tankers and other ships.

“Wave energy projects raise many potential environmental concerns, including elevated hydrocarbon concentrations, electromagnetic field effects, interruption of migratory patterns, toxic releases from leaks or spills, impacts to sensitive spawning areas,” wrote the coalition, which includes the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a Jan. 26 letter to FERC.

The next day, the city of San Francisco moved to intervene in the Grays case, saying it would file a competing application. On Friday, the city did so, asking federal regulators to give priority to its Oceanside Wave Energy Project, arguing there’s only room for one wave farm off the San Francisco coast.

The city’s project would be located eight miles offshore, outside the marine sanctuaries. As San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom – a Democratic gubernatorial candidate for 2010 – blogged about the municipal wave farm on Friday, the city filed an affidavit from its consultant stating that the Grays project would “impact the nature, quality and direction of the waves” to be used by the Oceanside wave energy plant.

It’s not the first time that San Francisco has tried to scuttle other wave projects. In June 2007, the city unsuccessfully petitioned FERC to deny utility PG&E’s (PCG) application for wave farms hundreds of miles up the coast from San Francisco, contending companies were trying to lock up choice sites.

Despite the rush to file claims, there’s no guarantee that any wave farm will be built. The preliminary permit that San Francisco has applied for would give it the ability to conduct a feasibility study and test wave energy technology with first rights to secure a license build a full-scale wave energy plant.

Although a range of wave technologies are being developed, they generally involve devices that float or are anchored to the seabed that that transform the motion of waves into mechanical energy which drives an electricty generating turbine. The electricity is transmitted through undersea cables to an onshore substation.

In its application, San Francisco said it was considering a number of technologies but anticipates floating between ten and 30 1-megawatt wave energy converters.  The city estimates it would spend between $1 million and $3 million on the feasibility study over the next three years.

San Francisco’s green scheme isn’t the only headache for Grays. Like the company’s other proposed wave energy projects, the San Francisco wave farm would sit on the outer continental shelf. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service claims jurisdiction over projects on the outer continental shelf and a fight has broken out between the agency and FERC over who gets to issue permits for OCS wave projects. On Jan. 26, the agency filed a challenge to FERC’s right to license eight of Grays wave farms that would also feature wind turbines.

Wrote Interior Department attorneys: “Some believe the preliminary permit application is part of an attempt to stake a claim to certain areas through the FERC process with the objective of siting wind energy projects, over which FERC does not claim jurisdiction, or then, according to press accounts, selling those rights.”

image: Pelamis Wave Power

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The ecobiz buzz these days is all about greening the grid, what with tens of billions of dollars in the stimulus bill for transforming the electricity system into a digitalized, interactive version of the Internet. Just on Wednesday, the European island nation of Malta announced a $91 million deal with IBM to not only create a smart power grid but to smarten up its water system as well.

Water, in fact, is likely to emerge in coming years as big an opportunity as electricity for tech companies. Just as climate change is driving efforts to add intelligence to the power grid to more efficiently manage electricity usage and new sources of renewable energy, a warming world is making water an even scarcer resource.

“How do you look at the ecosystem of water and make it a smart grid?” asks Drew Clark, director of strategy for IBM’s Venture Capital Group.  “It really makes a lot of sense if you think about it. It’s a scarce commodity, just like electrons —  it’s more scarce, in fact. It needs to be kept secure, it needs to be kept safe, it very often is abundant except when you need it a certain time and in a certain place.”

Clark’s job is to find companies – startups usually – with technology IBM (IBM) can tap for business units like its Global Energy & Utilities Industry. These days that means companies that develop sensor networks and other technologies that can be deployed across smart grids as part of IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative to essentially create a physical version of the Internet for the natural and man-made worlds – water systems, transportation, agriculture.

That, of course, would generate untold terabytes of data that would need to be crunched, mined and analyzed, spurring demand for the type of software and Big Iron computing that is IBM’s forté.

“We look at taking otherwise less-smart systems and essentially instrument them with these sensors and make them intelligent,” Clark told Green Wombat at IBM’s San Francisco offices. “Every one of these smart grids are based on some collection, in some cases millions, of smart sensors that are sensing some characteristic. IBM looks at it and says this is an information management problem. How do we take the information from all these devices and sensors and bring it together in a way to make sense out of it, business sense out of it.”

Take water. In California, for instance, a three-year drought has put water districts under pressure to cut their customers’ consumption while conserving every drop possible. Many districts still rely on dispatching workers in trucks to check on water quality and water levels and check for pipeline leaks and breaks.

IBM is designing systems to automate that process by placing small sensors in reservoirs and along pipelines right up to homes and businesses. “These sensors are wireless and form a mesh network,” Clark says. “This one talks to this one that bridges to this one that bridges to another and every so often there is an access point that is able to gather up all the information.”

Big Blue analyzes that data and displays it on a computer dashboard that allows water managers to monitor their systems and head off problems like leaks or contamination. For example, General Electric (GE), Clark says, makes a sensor the size of a half-dollar that can detect multiple environmental conditions.

IBM has pilot projects underway with some water districts but faces a business challenge: Those public agencies typically are underfunded and don’t have millions of dollars on hand to roll out smart water systems. Money is usually not so much of a problem for Big Agriculture and Clark says IBM’s early customers are corporate farming giants like Archer Daniels Midland (an ADM spokesman points out that the company is a crop processor, not a farmer) that want sensor networks to better manage everything from irrigation systems to soil conditions.

Clark expects that after energy, water will be next up on the legislative agenda. IBM, along with other tech giants, appears to have the ear of the Obama administration. IBM chief executive Sam Palmisano joined the CEOs of Google (GOOG), Applied Materials (AMAT) and other tech companies last week in a meeting with President Barack Obama about investment in green technology.

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Photo: Visit Malta

The Mediterranean island nation of Malta on Wednesday unveiled a deal with IBM to build a “smart utility” system that will digitize the country’s electricity grid and water system.

Granted, Malta is a microstate with a population of 403,500 (smaller than Sacramento; bigger than Iceland). But the world — and utility infrastructure giants like General Electric (GE) — will be watching closely. Not only is Malta the first country to green its national grid but it will also serve as a test case for whether integrating so-called smart technologies into both electricity and water systems can help mitigate the increasing deleterious effects of global warming on the island.

As with other island states, power and water are intricately linked on Malta. All of the archipelago’s electricity is generated from imported fuel oil while the country depends on energy-intensive desalinization plants for half its water supply. Meanwhile, rising sea levels threaten its underground freshwater supplies.

“About 55% of the cost of water on Malta is related to electricity – it’s a pretty staggering amount,” Guido Bartels, general manager of IBM’s Global Energy & Utilities Industry division, told Green Wombat from Malta on Tuesday.

So how can digitizing the grid help? IBM (IBM) and its partners will replace Malta’s 250,000 utility meters with interactive versions that will allow Malta’s electric utility, Enemalta, to monitor electricity use in real-time and set variable rates that reward customers that cut their power consumption.  As part of the $91 million (€70 million) project, a sensor network will be deployed on the grid  –  along transmission lines, substations and other infrastructure – to provide information that will let the utility more efficiently manage electricity distribution and detect potential problems. IBM will provide the software that will aggregate and analyze all that data so Enemalta can identify opportunities to reduce costs – and emissions from Malta’s carbon-intensive power plants. (For an excellent primer on smart grids, see Earth2Tech editor Katie Fehrenbacher’s recent story.)

A sensor network will also be installed on the water system for Malta’s Water Services Corporation. “They’ll indicate where there is water leakage and provide better information about the water network,” says Robert Aguilera, IBM’s lead executive for the Malta project, which is set to be completed in 2012. “The information that will be collected by the system will allow the government to make decisions on how to save money on water and electricity consumption.”

Cutting the volume of water that must be desalinated would, of course, reduce electricity use in the 122-square-mile (316-square-kilometer) nation.

With the U.S. Congress debating an economic stimulus package that includes tens of billions of dollars for greening the power grid, IBM sees smart grid-related technologies as a $126 billion market opportunity in 2009. That’s because what’s happening in Malta today will likely be the future elsewhere – no country is an island when it comes to climate change. Rising electricity prices and water shortages are afflicting regions stretching from Australia to Africa to California.

IBM spokeswoman Emily Horn says Big Blue has not yet publicly identified which companies will be providing the smart meters, software and other services for the Malta grid project.

Malta’s greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise 62% above 1990 levels by 2012, according to the European Environment Agency, and as a member of the European Union the country will be under pressure to cut its carbon. A smart energy grid will help but Malta, like Hawaii and other island states, will have to start replacing carbon-intensive fuel oil with renewable energy.

The island could present opportunities for other types of smart networks. According to the Maltese government, Malta has the second-highest concentration of cars in the world, with 660 vehicles per square kilometer. That also contributes to the country’s dependence on imported oil and its greenhouse gas emissions.

Given that Silicon Valley company Better Place has described islands as the ideal location to install its electric car charging infrastructure, perhaps CEO Shai Agassi should be looking at adding Malta to the list of countries that have signed deals with the startup.

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Golden_gate_bridgephoto: Doogie Boogie
California utility PG&E, the city of San Francisco and a green energy company will collaborate on a study to determine the potential for tapping tidal power in San Francisco Bay by placing turbines on the sea floor below the Golden Gate Bridge.  Earlier studies estimated that tidal power could provide greenhouse gas-free electricity to as many as 40,000 homes in San Francisco. PG&E (PCG) will kick in $1.5 million for the study by outside experts, which will be completed in about a year. Depending on the outcome of the research, it could be three to five years before a tidal project goes online. Golden Gate Energy of Washington, D.C., currently holds the federal permits  to conduct tidal power studies in San Francisco Bay and has committed $346,000 to the effort, according to PG&E. The joint study – the latest of several – will be only the first step in a complicated regulatory dance, complicated by a likely tussle over who ultimately wins the right to develop tidal power. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently voted to determine the feasibility of pulling the plug on PG&E and securing its own electricity supplies from renewable sources. A 400-megawatt tidal power plant would obviously help the city achieve that goal.

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Anyone who has read Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent New Yorker article on the impact of global warming on the world’s oceans knows there’s an apocalyptic sea change under way, wrought by climate change, over-fishing and coral bleaching. Next year an inexpensive but technologically advanced autonomous underwater robot is expected to hit the market to boost scientists’ efforts to monitor an area that covers two-thirds of the planet’s surface. The Starbug will keep tabs on water quality, map fish habitat and survey threatened coral reefs. Starbug’s designer, scientist Matthew Dunbabin, told Green Wombat that the little yellow robot also could be deployed to monitor fish populations and detect over-fishing as well as for use in underwater gas and oil exploration and to patrol harbors. DevelopeStarbug2d by Dunbabin’s team at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the 4-foot-long (1.2 meter) Starbug (CSIRO photo above) is highly manueverable thanks to innovative thruster technology that lets it explore coral reefs and other areas off limits to traditional – read big and heavy – submersibles. That means the Starbug doesn’t have to be tethered to a boat and can operate independently without human intervention.
Another breakthrough: the Starbug "sees" its surroundings, using robotic vision to navigate rather than expensive sonar. Its cameras and the onboard Linux operating system also allow the Starbug to identify and count, for instance, the invasive crown-of-thorns starfish. The marine pest is killing off parts of the Great Starbug5_1
Barrier Reef, an ecological cash cow that generates $11 billion annually in tourism revenues. Given that the Great Barrier Reef covers some 135,000 square miles (349,000 square kilometers), detecting outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish is an impossible and prohibitively expensive job for human divers. Dunbabin envisions fleets of Starbugs launched from small boats that will swim around the Great Barrier Reef, transmitting data back to base.  For monitoring of bays and harbors, the Starbug can be launched from shore. The Starbug’s estimated cost of around $US 24,000 should fall with
mass production. Dunbabin’s team is now building the next generation Starbug and will use
the robot to conduct two habitat mapping trials early next year. "Currently we are talking with local and international companies for the commercialization of Starbug," says Dunbabin, pictured below with a Starbug prototype.

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Air_showerAustralian scientists have developed a showerhead device they say cuts water use by 30 percent by injecting tiny air bubbles into water droplets. "The Aerated Showerhead creates the sensation of having a full and steady stream of water even though the water is now more like a wet shell around a bubble of air," according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the  Australian government’s super science agency that created the technology. While aerated showerheads have been around for awhile, the CSIRO nozzle-like gadget is a new technology the agency claims could save the average household 15,000-20,000 liters (about 4,000 to 5,300 gallons) of water annually. Jie Wu, the CSIRO scientist who lead development of the "air shower," says the nozzle is expected to sell for about $15 and can be installed by homeowners. Part of CSIRO’s mandate is to commercialize its technology and it often works with investors and startups on spin-offs or licensing deals. The person to see in this case is Dilip Manuel, the business development manager for CSIRO Manufacturing & Materials Technology. Given its low rainfall, frequent droughts and desert environment, it’s no surprise that Australia leads when it comes to inventing water-saving technology. With a global water crisis looming, such technology will inevitably be in demand.

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