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Batteries may rewire world’s power grids, spell trouble for utility firms

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It’s just a marketing gimmick. But it casts a spell.


A pale orange-and-gold sunset bathes the macadamia plantations and avocado orchards that sweep down to Australia’s Byron Bay. The coming dusk is a cue for two sleek Tesla battery packs in the garage at Amileka, a secluded holiday villa nearby. They stir silently into action—powering the appliances in the five-bedroom home’s twin kitchens, recharging a $100,000-plus Model X SUV, driving a filter pump for an 18-meter swimming pool sparkling in the shade of a century-old native black bean tree.


From first light on this Southern Hemisphere autumn day, a bank of 33 rooftop solar panels has been capturing the sun’s energy. At times, the electricity is directed back to the local grid. But mostly it’s funneled into the garage and stored in Powerwall units, in the same type of rechargeable cells that fuel the automaker’s vehicles. The batteries—as tall as refrigerators, as thin as flat-screen TVs—will power this unusually energy-hungry villa deep into the evening.


But not all night. The solar array and batteries meet just half of Amileka’s average energy needs. So after a few hours, the 25-acre, $1,160-a-night miniresort that Tesla Inc uses to promote its products must tap into the local electricity grid.


The photogenic demonstration on Australia’s eastern coast presents a vision of what some see as the most significant shift in the energy sector since the late 19th century: rechargeable batteries—in electric vehicles, homes, industrial plants, and power grids—that will make the transition to renewable energy possible.


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The actual future of energy may be less postcard-worthy. It may look more like a fleet of electric school buses. And the end of utility companies as we know them.


“If you are wanting to run your home just on solar and batteries … it’s going to be tough. … At this point it’s pretty overstated.”


By 2050 solar and wind will supply almost half the world’s electricity, bringing to an end an energy era dominated by coal and gas, according to forecasts by BloombergNEF, Bloomberg LP’s primary research service on energy transition.


It can’t happen without storage. The switch from an electricity system supplied by large fossil fuel plants that run virtually uninterrupted to a more haphazard mix of smaller, intermittent renewable sources needs energy storage to overcome two key hurdles: using power harvested during the day to supply peak energy demand in the evening and ensuring there’s power available even when the wind drops or the sun goes down.


“We think storage can be the leapfrog technology that’s really needed in a world that’s focused on dramatic climate change,” says Mary Powell, chief executive officer of Green Mountain Power Corp, a utility based in Colchester, Vt, that’s worked with Tesla to deploy more than 2,000 residential storage batteries. “It’s the killer app in a vision to move away from bulk delivery systems to a community-, home-, and business-based energy system.”






ALSO READ: Govt softens stance on time frame for transition to electric vehicles



Utilities aren’t panicking yet. The prospect of large numbers of residential consumers moving fully off the grid is probably overstated, says Zak Kuznar, managing director of microgrid and energy storage development at Duke Energy Corp, a Charlotte-based utility that supplies electricity to more than 7.5 million customers in six American states. “If you are wanting to run your home just on solar and batteries,” he says, “from where the technology is today, it’s going to be tough. It’s something we are keeping an eye on, but at this point it’s pretty overstated.”


Lithium-ion batteries continue to have limits in terms of the amount of energy they can store, and they’re typically able to supply energy to grids for just hours at a time, not days or weeks. What’s more, concerns are rising over the environmental costs of mining lithium in Chile’s parched Atacama Desert and over a cobalt industry that’s tarnished by the use of child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to supply battery manufacturers. And the sector is just beginning to prepare for the future need to recycle or dispose of a torrent of expired battery packs.


Still, optimism abounds. Battery storage technology is nearing a tipping point like the one that accompanied the “massive” adoption of solar power some years ago, says David Frankel, a partner at McKinsey & Co in Los Angeles whose clients include energy and industrial companies.


ALSO READ: Telangana pitches for Giga-scale battery plant, is ready with 200-acre land


Mainstream adoption of electric cars is the third great stage in the transformation of the global energy sector—a natural outgrowth of the first two: the spread of cheaper renewable energy and the evolution of batteries, says Marcus Fendt, a managing director at Mobility House GmbH, a tech company in Munich.


And it’s coming, however slowly. By 2040, according to a BNEF forecast in May, almost 60 per cent of new car sales and about a third of passenger vehicles on the road will be electric.


On the Portuguese island of Porto Santo, a 16-square-mile outpost in the Atlantic where Christopher Columbus lived for a time, the convergence of automaker and utility company is plain to see. Renault SA and Empresa de Electricidade da Madeira are testing a suite of storage technologies as the isolated community strives to curb imports of fossil fuels. Twenty electric cars—rising to 100 or so next year—cruise the streets. Some are taxis, some are shared by residents, and one is even used by the police as a patrol car.


Islanders are also testing a network of about 40 charging stations. Banks of second-life batteries—cells that are no longer powerful enough to be used in a car but remain adequate for less-intensive storage applications—have been connected to a local grid to soak up excess energy from wind and solar farms.


The French automaker has a second project on Belle-Ile-en-Mer, off the northwest coast of Brittany. At a school on the island, rooftop solar panels and batteries power classrooms during the week and a fleet of rental cars over the weekend. Renault has struck an agreement with Electricité de France SA to expand these experiments elsewhere.


The next step in storage technology is to turn electric cars into money makers for their owners. The latest global experiments along these lines entail hooking the cars’ batteries directly to power grids. These vehicle-to-grid connections enable reversible charging, the two-way transfer of electricity from cars to houses or back to power grids. A vehicle’s battery can power home appliances, sure. But more significantly, whenever it’s parked and plugged in, the car can make money by storing energy or helping stabilise supply and demand on the grid.


ALSO READ: Chinese shadow growing longer over India’s electric-vehicle dream


Drivers will be able to carry renewable energy wherever they go. “You can be a virtual grid,” says Fendt, of Mobility House, which works with Nissan Motor, Renault, the Dutch grid operator Tennet Holding, and other clients. “I take the sun around with me.”


Fendt calls the pilot projects “playgrounds for the future.” Renault has begun tests in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, where electric cars have been fitted with reversible chargers. In Utrecht and elsewhere in Europe, says Yasmine Assef, program director of Renault’s new-energy business, “we’re not so much testing the technical part. What we really want to test here is the business case.”


Customers can already earn some money by charging their cars on a schedule determined by the availability of energy on the grid, Assef says. Under a program Renault operates in the Netherlands, a typical consumer makes €60 ($67) a year from the utility for charging during low-demand periods only, she says. “As a customer,” she says, “the journey is quite easy—you plug in, you forget, and you make money.”


In Hagen, Germany, a Nissan Leaf has been connected to the country’s power grid since January. By storing energy when there’s a surplus and returning it to the grid as demand rises, the car could eventually earn about €1,000 a year, Fendt says.


America’s iconic yellow school bus is getting into the act. To go electric, a vehicle that size—one that sits idle for much of the time—requires a huge battery. Macon, Ga-based Blue Bird Corp, which sells battery-powered models that carry 84 passengers, says it will begin selling vehicles with two-way connections to the grid before the end of the year.


Ride-hailing companies such as Uber Technologies Inc and other operators of large fleets will likely find ways to generate additional revenue from cars that are parked and not taking fares by plugging them into the grid, Fendt says: “They will connect the car and squeeze every last cent, every last euro out of it.”


Automakers are becoming “a part of the electricity ecosystem,” as Renault’s Assef puts it. They’re not just making EVs that can return power to the grid. Like Tesla, Nissan produces and sells energy-storage products, while Volkswagen AG—the carmaker with the most aggressive timetable for adding electric models—plans to supply homes and small businesses with renewable energy through a retail power subsidiary, Elli Group GmbH.


Oil giants are also investing in storage. Through its New Energies division, Royal Dutch Shell Plc is spending about $2 billion a year on these technologies. The company says it wants to become the largest electrical power company in the world by the early 2030s. In addition to acquiring a UK electricity provider and a car-charging operator, Shell this year bought Germany’s Sonnen GmbH, a leading supplier of residential storage systems. In May, Shell announced plans to install industrial-scale batteries at two facilities in Ontario, a crude refinery and a motor oil plant. Chevron, Total, and BP have also made investments in electric car charging or storage companies.


In parts of the US, storage batteries are already a cheaper option than so-called peaking plants. These typically are environmentally unfriendly fossil-fuel-fired power stations that are needed only for a couple of weeks each summer, when electricity demand spikes, and are idle the rest of the time. As some coal-fired power stations are retired, “there could be a situation where, instead of building that new peaking plant, I am putting more storage on the grid,” says Duke Energy’s Kuznar.


Duke has outlined plans to invest more than $500 million in battery storage projects over the next 15 years. Other utilities from California to China are also considering how battery systems can be added to existing networks, potentially deferring or eliminating the need for some investments in power plants.


Investors probably underestimate the impact falling battery prices will have on the energy sector, as well as the speed at which change will come, says Tom King, chief investment officer at Nanuk Asset Management Pty, a Sydney-based fund that focuses on renewables and energy efficiency. The consequences, he says, “will be profoundly negative for conventional utilities. That’s an almost unstoppable outcome.”


At a remote site about 150 miles north of Adelaide in the state of South Australia sits the Hornsdale Power Reserve. This is the world’s largest operating lithium-ion battery facility, a city block-size cluster of 2-meter-high Tesla battery units tethered to a field of 99 towering wind turbines.


The French renewable energy company Neoen SA spent €56 million on Hornsdale, which can deliver enough electricity to power 30,000 homes. But the plant’s key task is to help stabilise fluctuations in supply and demand, preventing outages in a state the size of Egypt where a rising share of renewables now accounts for almost half of power generation.


Australia is a natural testing ground for renewable energy research. Vying with Africa as the world’s sunniest continent, the nation of 25 million people grapples with some of the highest power prices in the world. This year, as many as 60,000 homes—admittedly, a minuscule fraction of the total—will add battery storage systems, making Australia the world’s largest residential storage market.


Glorious beaches, fine weather, a counterculture vibe—these things have drawn surfers and eco-conscious hippies to Byron Bay since the 1960s. More recently, stylish resorts and swank holiday homes have moved in. Most, like Amileka, have installed rooftop solar panels. And more and more, storage batteries are joining the list of eco-accoutrements.


At the Arts & Industry Estate—a collection of boutiques, galleries, artist studios, and the like—a microgrid and storage battery setup will enable about 30 tenants to pool and share solar energy, lowering their bills. Nearby, a refurbished 1949 passenger train runs on solar power, shuttling tourists between the town’s main shopping strip and a beachside resort and sending surplus electricity back to the local grid. This isn’t exactly an eco-warrior’s utopia, but maybe it’s enough to give conventional electricity producers pause.


“I wouldn’t want to be a utility provider, particularly in the suburbs, in another 30 years,” says James Kennedy, chief technology officer at Brisbane-based Tritium Pty. The company, which manufactures some of the world’s fastest electric car charging stations two hours north of Byron Bay, is also studying the integration of vehicles into power grids. “What might sound like science fiction is in reality only two or three years away.”




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What does Facebook’s plan to hire scribes mean for media industry?

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Facebook’s plan to hire professional journalists instead of relying solely on algorithms to deliver news is a positive step but is unlikely to shake up an embattled media industry, analysts say.


The social media giant said Tuesday it would build a small team of journalists to select the top national news of the day “to ensure we’re highlighting the right stories.”

It comes as the US media landscape is plagued by job losses and newspaper closures, with organizations trying to figure out how to record profits in the age of free news.



Stories will appear in a section called the “news tab,” which will be separate from the traditional news feed that displays updates and content from users’ friends and relatives.


“In theory I see this as a really positive development. It is something quite promising,” Danna Young, a communications professor at the University of Delaware, told AFP.


Facebook’s journalists will be curating stories from news sites and won’t be editing headlines or writing content.


The California-based company has consistently said it does not want to be considered a media organization that makes major editorial decisions, and this announcement does little to change that, experts add.


“It’s not transformative because it’s not going to change necessarily the behavior of individuals who are referencing stories on their feeds,” said Young.


“That’s where the power comes from — individuals you know and trust putting their tacit stamp of approval on stories by sharing them,” she added.


The tab will be the site’s first news feature using human moderators since it shut down its ill-fated “trending topics” section last year after a scandal over allegations workers had suppressed stories about conservative issues.


Articles not deemed top news stories will still be collated using algorithms based on the user’s history, such as pages they follow, publications they subscribe to and news they have already interacted with.


“Our goal with the news tab is to provide a personalized, highly relevant experience for people,” Facebook head of news partnerships Campbell Brown told AFP in San Francisco Tuesday.


The news tab feature comes as Facebook embarks on a series of initiatives to boost journalism, with traditional media organizations accusing it of benefitting financially from their hard work.


Internet platforms are dominating the internet advertising space making it difficult for established news organizations to transition what were very profitable print advertisements online.


Facebook announced in January that it will invest USD 300 million over three years to support journalism, particularly local news organisations.


It has also funded fact-checking projects around the world, including one in partnership with AFP.


Facebook will reportedly pay some publishers to license news content for the tab but Mathew Ingram, who writes about digital media for the Columbia Journalism Review, doesn’t expect that to trickle down to hard-up organizations that need it the most.


“The companies they are going to choose are ones already doing well I assume. It might give them a little extra cash but I don’t see it driving a huge amount of traffic,” he told AFP.


Print journalism in the US is in free-fall as social media overtakes newspapers as the main news source for Americans.


Around 2,000 American newspapers closed in the past 15 years, according to the University of North Carolina, leaving millions of residents without reporters keeping track of what their local authorities are up to.


“The death of local news has such destructive effects for democracy. It’s a complex issue that Facebook alone cannot fix,” said Young.


The number of journalists working at US newspapers slumped by 47 per cent from 2008 to 2018, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last year.


The total number of journalists in newsrooms fell by 25 per cent, the group found, while consultancy firm Challenger Gray & Christmas says this is going to be the worst year for layoffs since 2009.


It’s a difficult time for Stephen Groves, who recently earned a master’s in journalism at New York University, to be looking for work. When he heard about Facebook’s plans, he was skeptical.


“Facebook is not a journalism company and so before working for Facebook I would want to see their commitment to ethical, robust journalism,” the 30-year-old told AFP.


The digital sector is also in trouble.


When Buzzfeed cut 200 jobs in January, 29-year-old Emily Tamkin was let go from a position she had held for just a few months.


“I’m personally not cheered by the fact that Facebook is swooping in and hiring journalists. If that’s the silver lining then we have a very big cloud here,” she told AFP.

(Only the headline and picture of this report may have been reworked by the Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)




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Google ditches its desserts! Android Q’s official name is Android 10

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Breaking the 10-year history of naming Android releases after desserts, Google on Thursday announced it had officially named the next version as just Android 10.


“First, we’re changing the way we name our releases. Our engineering team has always used internal code names for each version, based of tasty treats, or desserts, in alphabetical order,” said Sameer Samat, VP of Product Management, Android, in a statement.



The naming tradition has become a fun part of the release each year externally too, like Android Lollipop or Marshmallows.


“As a global operating system, it’s important that these names are clear and relatable for everyone in the world. So, this next release of Android will simply use the version number and be called Android 10,” Samat explained.


“While there were many tempting ‘Q’ desserts out there, we think that at version 10 and 2.5 billion active devices, it was time to make this change,” he added.


Now, this year is Android 10 and next year will be Android 11, and so on.


Google also changed the logo from green to black.


It’s a small change but Google found the green was hard to read, especially for people with visual impairments.


Google will officially start using the updated logo in the coming weeks with the final release of Android 10.

(Only the headline and picture of this report may have been reworked by the Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)




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Bose adds Google Assistant, Apple AirPlay 2 to its smart speakers

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Google on Thursday announced an automatic software update that would bring the Google Assistant to all existing Bose smart speakers and soundbars.


The Google Assistant joins Amazon Alexa for voice control of smart home devices, and instant access to millions of songs and podcasts, help, information, and more.



Bose smart speaker owners can now also use Apple AirPlay 2 for simple streaming from Apple devices.


In addition, there is a small Bose smart speaker on the way. The Bose Home Speaker 300 can be pre-ordered on Amazon.in starting Thursday and would available from August 29.


Weighing a mere two pounds and measuring just over six-inch, the Bose Home Speaker 300’s acoustic package delivers powerful bass along with 360-degree sound – unlike conventional smart speakers that deliver a narrow beam of audio, the company said in a statement.


It would be sold directly from Bose stores, wholesale trade partners and online through Amazon.in for Rs 26,900.


 

(Only the headline and picture of this report may have been reworked by the Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)




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