Monthly Archives: October 2017

Your Next Home Could Run on Batteries

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A combination of solar power and the rise of residential energy storage paves the way for a new kind of cable cutting

A customer inspects a Tesla Motors Inc. Powerwall unit inside a home in Monkton, Vt., in May 2016. Vermont's largest electric utility, Green Mountain Power, in partnership with Tesla Energy, is offering 2,000 customers the chance to have a Powerwall in their home for $15 a month.
A customer inspects a Tesla Motors Inc. Powerwall unit inside a home in Monkton, Vt., in May 2016. Vermont’s largest electric utility, Green Mountain Power, in partnership with Tesla Energy, is offering 2,000 customers the chance to have a Powerwall in their home for $15 a month. PHOTO: IAN THOMAS JANSEN-LONNQUIST/BLOOMBERG NEWS

In the near future, your home could be battery operated.

This is especially true if you live in New York, California, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Vermont, Arizona or a growing roster of other states and municipalities experimenting with revamping their electrical grids for the 21st century.

You might not even know your lights are being kept on by the same chemical process that powers your smartphone, since the batteries could be tucked into what looks like a neighborhood junction box, or behind a fence in a substation. But now, thanks to efforts by startups and the utility companies they sell to (and sometimes battle), you might get one right inside your home.

The rise of these home batteries isn’t just a product of our collective obsession with new tech. Their adoption is being driven by a powerful need, says Ravi Manghani, of GTM Research: renewable energy.

Without batteries and other means of energy storage, the ability of utility companies to deliver power could eventually be threatened.

Solar power, especially, tends to generate electricity only at certain times—and it’s rarely in sync with a home’s needs. In some states, such as California and Arizona, there’s an overabundance of solar power in the middle of the day during cool times of the year, then a sudden crash in the evenings, when people get home and energy use spikes.

For utilities, it’s a headache. The price of electricity on interstate markets can go negative at certain times, forcing them to dump excess electricity or pay others to take it.

“This is not a long-term theoretical issue that might happen—this is now,” says Marc Romito, director of customer technology at Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electric utility.

There’s something ruggedly individualistic and inherently American about having batteries in your home. They’re good for keeping power going in a disaster, as customers of the two biggest firms by sales volume in this field, Sonnen and Tesla, demonstrated in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. And in combination with rooftop solar panels, they free people from total dependence on the grid—a kind of energy cable-cutting that wonks call “grid defection.”

Solar power tends to generate electricity only at certain times and is rarely in sync with homes’ needs. Here, a portion of the Stafford Hill solar power project in Rutland, Vt., developed by Green Mountain Power, in September 2015
Solar power tends to generate electricity only at certain times and is rarely in sync with homes’ needs. Here, a portion of the Stafford Hill solar power project in Rutland, Vt., developed by Green Mountain Power, in September 2015 PHOTO: WILSON RING/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The very real possibility of grid defection is changing the power dynamics between utilities and their customers.

Last week, real-estate developer Mandalay Homes announced a plan to build up to 4,000 ultra energy-efficient homes—including 2,900 in Prescott, Arizona—that will feature 8 kilowatt-hour batteries from German maker Sonnen. It could eventually be the biggest home energy-storage project in the U.S., says Blake Richetta, senior vice president at Sonnen.

The homes, which will come with the Sonnen battery preinstalled, will be part of a Sonnen-managed “virtual power plant for demand response” that could allow the houses to stabilize the grid, lower its carbon footprint and decrease peak load, says Mr. Richetta.

An exterior shot of the Mandalay Homes development in Prescott, Ariz. The real-estate developer announced plans to build up to 4,000 ultra energy-efficient homes.
An exterior shot of the Mandalay Homes development in Prescott, Ariz. The real-estate developer announced plans to build up to 4,000 ultra energy-efficient homes. PHOTO: MANDALAY HOMES

While the Mandalay Homes project is still in the blueprint stage, with only one test home built so far, this kind of radical, battery-enabled rethink of the grid is already happening in Vermont.

In partnership with Tesla Energy, Green Mountain Power is offering 2,000 of its customers the opportunity to have a Tesla Powerwall in their home for $15 a month. The 13.5 kilowatt-hour batteries retail for $5,500, but the utility can afford to put them in homes because they help the company save on other grid infrastructure, says Mary Powell, GMP’s chief executive and president. “Peaker plants,” for instance, are fired up only when the grid is strained to maximum capacity, saving the utility from using one of its most expensive forms of electricity.

GMP also uses batteries from Sonnen, SimpliPhi and Sunverge. Ms. Powell says the larger battle for home battery storage will be over how each of these companies—and dozens of others—differentiates itself, selling different size batteries adapted for different uses in homes, businesses and utilities.

Arizona Public Service’s Mr. Romito says not all of these batteries are created equal—though he wouldn’t name names.

The biggest challenge to home battery storage remains economics. Utilities’ current rate structures don’t charge most homeowners for using excess power, nor do they change the price based on time of day. For the overwhelming majority of homeowners, the payback on a solar power system with battery storage could take decades.

Batteries aren’t the only way to reduce the need for short-order energy, or so-called “demand response,” says Mr. Romito. Smart thermostats, managed by the utility company, can precool homes when solar power is at peak production, reducing load on the grid in the evening.

The Mandalay homes will come with 8 kilowatt-hour batteries from German maker Sonnen. From left, Sonnen CEO Christoph Ostermann and Mandalay Homes CEO Dave Everson pose beside a Sonnen battery.
The Mandalay homes will come with 8 kilowatt-hour batteries from German maker Sonnen. From left, Sonnen CEO Christoph Ostermann and Mandalay Homes CEO Dave Everson pose beside a Sonnen battery. PHOTO:MANDALAY HOMES

This cannot only be as useful as batteries in certain cases, it can be more cost effective. Other possibilities include remotely determining when electric vehicles charge and even shifting large industrial loads to different times of year.

In states where electricity is more affordable, it’s still early days for batteries in homes. But Mr. Romito says users and utilities will continue to move toward them with the inexorable addition of more and more renewables to the grid.

Mr. Manghani of GTM Research agrees. His battery storage adoption forecasts track closely with states and regions where renewable energy is being generated.

Falling prices also help. Battery pack prices have decreased, on average, 24% a year since 2010. Cheaper batteries shorten the resulting payback period, which in turn makes renewable energy more attractive to home owners. In 2016, solar grew faster than any other energy source, according to the International Energy Agency.

At the intersection of these and other trends is a simple fact: For the first time since the discovery of fire, the way humans get energy is set to fundamentally change.

Boeing Deal Targets Flying Taxis

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Proposed acquisition of Aurora Flight Sciences could pave way for fleets of pilotless flying taxis

Uber selected the Aurora eVTOL to explore potential flying taxis, with 50 due to be delivered by 2020.
Uber selected the Aurora eVTOL to explore potential flying taxis, with 50 due to be delivered by 2020. PHOTO: AURORA FLIGHT SCIENCES

Boeing Co. BA 0.98% on Thursday said it plans to acquire Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., a maker of aerial drones and pilotless flying systems in a move the company said could pave the way for fleets of small flying taxis.

Virginia-based Aurora is a specialist in autonomous systems that allow military and commercial aircraft to be flown remotely, including technology that automates many functions, and has been working with Uber Technologies Inc. on a new vehicle that would take off and land like a helicopter.

Flying taxi-style concepts have attracted interest and funding from technology and aerospace companies, though face big hurdles including regulations that would allow fleets to operate alongside commercial airliners and other air traffic, as well as batteries to keep them aloft for several hours.

The purchase of Aurora would also expand Boeing’s reach in the new field of electric-powered aircraft.

Flying car concepts and designs have been around for awhile. But some firms are looking to transform the idea and provide a point-to-point passenger vehicle service–or a flying taxi. Graphic Simulation: Volocopter (Originally published June 20, 2017)

Boeing’s venture capital arm also this year invested in Zunum Aero, a Washington state-based startup that on Thursday unveiled its plan for an electric-hybrid regional passenger jet.

“These types of technology are helping pilots today and are a steppingstone to pilotless aircraft,” said John Langford, Aurora’s founder and chief executive, in a live-streamed interview.

Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief technology officer, said the work on autonomous systems also had potential benefits for a host of other industries looking to leverage the potential of so-called machine learning, where computers improve from experience.

The proposed Aurora deal marks Boeing’s second acquisition in less than a year involving autonomous systems following last December’s purchase of Liquid Robotics Inc., a maker of ships and undersea vehicles, and adds to a portfolio that includes aerial drone maker Insitu.

Terms for the proposed purchase of Aurora weren’t disclosed. The firm has more than 550 staff and will be run as an independent unit in Boeing’s engineering and technology business.

Aurora also produces composite parts for aircraft and other vehicles. Boeing is looking to produce more of its own parts as part of an insourcing strategy to reduce costs and potential disruption in its supply chain.

Boeing has been considering further acquisitions as part of the push to expand sales at its newly formed services arm to $50 billion over the next several years from around $14 billion at present.

Giving the Dry-Erase Whiteboard a High-Tech Makeover

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Your videoconferences are going to become far more productive.

MIT Technology Review by Elizabeth Woyk
September 11, 2017

As far as unproductive meetings go, it doesn’t get much worse than being on a videoconference when someone in a conference room 3,000 miles away starts scribbling on a dry-erase whiteboard you can’t see.

Organizations are increasingly hiring employees around the globe, and they need tools that help people collaborate across distances. But using a regular webcam to live-stream a whiteboard usually produces a mirror image in which the letters are displayed in reverse. Even when all participants can see the board correctly, shadows and reflections can make words and drawings frustratingly difficult to decipher.

Cyclops, a startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is developing a new approach: an online videoconferencing service that uses computer-vision algorithms to clarify writing on whiteboards and flips their orientation so both the meeting host and remote viewers can read them easily. The technology, which took about two years to develop, reduces the “noise,” or visual distortions, produced by consumer-grade laptop cameras and webcams. Cyclops’s algorithms also scan whiteboards for marks that look like text or lines and enhances them to give viewers a more vibrant, higher-contrast image.

In recent years, Cisco, Google, and Microsoft have introduced large, Internet-connected touch-screen monitors that people can write on using a stylus. A crop of startups, including Altia Systems and Kaptivo, sell cameras that use Web-based software to make regular whiteboards interactive. But these cameras typically cost hundreds of dollars and require annual subscriptions to software packages, while digital whiteboards like Google’s Jamboard and Microsoft’s Surface Hub are as much as $9,000. Both types of products also necessitate software configuration, hardware mounting, or both.

Cyclops says its tool is easier to use and more affordable. With a webcam and a Slack account, remote colleagues can be connected to a shared whiteboard with just a few clicks. Toggles located within the app let them customize the computer-vision algorithms and adjust the image’s contrast, sharpness, and texture. An augmented-reality feature allows them to draw and type comments on top of the whiteboard image. They can also take screenshots of the board and upload the picture directly to Slack or e-mail it.

For now, the tool is entirely free. Cyclops cofounder and CEO Waikit Lau says the startup might charge a small monthly subscription fee in the future.

Cyclops still has some kinks to work out. Currently, only eight people can log in to a videoconference at the same time. The platform’s whiteboard-enhancing algorithms also result in blurriness when trying to capture fast motions, such as people gesturing or walking past the camera. Lau says Cyclops hopes to solve that problem by refining its technology so it will be able to augment just the lines on the board rather than the entire video feed.

Early users say Cyclops’s video streams stutter at times and look grainier than those produced by other videoconferencing services. But they also think its whiteboard feature and convenience set it apart from competitors, such as Appear.inGoogle HangoutsGoToMeetingSkypeWebEx, and Zoom. Before discovering Cyclops, Boston-area technology entrepreneur Paul Morville used Google’s Slides program to create online presentations that groups of people could view and edit together. He says Cyclops is a faster, simpler way to brainstorm: “You can be on a phone call and say, ‘I want to show you something on my whiteboard,’ and within 15 seconds, you’re projecting that whiteboard to the other party—and it’s clear and easy for them to read.”

Another satisfied user is Brett Terespolsky, the chief technology officer of Switch Innovation in Johannesburg, South Africa. He used to end meetings by e-mailing a photo of his marked-up whiteboard to remote colleagues. Now he opts for Cyclops, so his entire team can review and plan projects around a single whiteboard in real time.