International solar experts focus on Australia

SolarPACES – the ‘United Nations’ of concentrating solar power. The event, where over 20 countries were represented, was recently held at the CSIRO Energy Centre in Newcastle.

It’s one of the biggest international events of the year for solar thermal experts and for the first time it was held in Australia!

SolarPACES symposium attendees viewing CSIRO's solar tower in action.

‘Future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.’ SolarPACES symposium attendees viewing CSIRO’s solar tower in action.

The SolarPACES (Solar Power and Chemical Energy Systems) executive committee meeting and conference enticed experts from countries including USA, Spain, Germany, France and China. During the event they discussed important solar thermal issues and all the latest developments in the technology, markets and the future of the technology.

CSIRO’s Wes Stein told us, ‘We’re hearing from the experts about their experiences in their different countries, not only around research and technology programs, but also around the measures that have made advancements possible in their country.’

This is important stuff for the future of solar thermal research and technology – to help get this technology operating efficiently and make it more affordable. 

CSIRO’s two solar towers were operating for the visitors during the event as working examples of the technology.

The SolarPACES executive committee and CSIRO's Chief Executive, Dr Megan Clark.

The SolarPACES executive committee and CSIRO’s Chief Executive, Dr Megan Clark, strike a pose at the Newcastle Energy Centre.


Happy Earth Hour!

Greeting the sun and a lovely rosy dawn, our heliostats in formation for Earth Hour (8.30pm, Saturday 23 March).

Solar field in the formation 60+.

The 60 represents the minutes of Earth Hour and the + is all about continuing your energy saving beyond just the hour. Thanks to the Newcastle Herald (29 March 2012) for the pic.

Want some practical energy saving tips? Our energy efficiency expert, Glenn Platt, blogged with The Newcastle Herald recently and answered all your ‘hot’ questions including saving money on your power bills and electric cars for the future.


Hot new projects part 4: Plug and Play solar

And the final post in our series of hot new projects! ‘Plug and Play solar’ is not a new PlayStation game (we wish); it is a project to develop energy management software to manage the various renewable and traditional energy sources a building or site might have.

For example, remote mining operations or towns – like Marble Bar or Hermannsburg – have traditionally been powered by fossil fuels like gas and diesel, but more and more are turning to renewable sources such as solar. Traditionally, it has been up to the system operator to decide when to use which sources. This is often not as easy as it sounds, mostly because of the variable nature of renewable energy sources. Often this means that fossil fuel backup systems are left running just in case a cloud might pass or wind might drop – not the most fuel-efficient solution. What would really help would be an automated system able to intelligently handle multiple fossil and renewable sources.

CSIRO is working on the answer.

Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory.

Remote communities like Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory, which are powered by a mixture of renewable and fossil fuel sources, could benefit from the Plug and Play technology. Image source: Solar Systems

Plug and Play is a system where a user can ‘plug’ in the various sources and the system automatically and intelligently ‘plays’, or works out what source to use, when to use and how it should be used. You tell the system what your top priorities are – minimising diesel usage, lowering maintenance costs, or maximising power availability, for example – and it will make the best decisions about when to schedule the diesel generator, when to make the most of the solar panels and when to charge the batteries.

The tool will also be invaluable when designing new remote area power supplies. It’ll help to choose the best mixture of energy technologies for the site’s needs and decide how to size them. And then, instead of needing to have custom hardware and software designed to manage that unique mix, the Plug and Play system will help do it for you.

Senior project scientist Dr John Ward says it’s in the commissioning phase of these power systems that some of the most significant benefits will be seen. “Reducing the need for ‘on the ground’ engineers will be an important outcome,” he told the solar blog. “Currently each is different and unique and needs considerable specialised and costly engineering.”

This project is also expected to have flow-on effects that’ll benefit more than just remote towns. “Next stop would be rural areas, specifically with SWER (single-wire earth return) power lines,” Dr Ward says. “Such areas only have a very ‘weak’ connection to the grid, so they face similar issues to the islanded systems being targeted for this project.

“Our team believes that as the electricity grid evolves to have more interplay between consumer demand and resource availability, there’ll be a role for Plug and Play type systems to become mainstream in every part of the electricity grid.”

A remote site.

Benefits of the technology could flow on from remote locations to play a more mainstream role in the grid. Image: AdelaideNow

It’s no easy feat however. The project is worth over $2.9 million and will take several years to complete. We’re working with ABB Australia, the United States’ National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The first phase of the project will involve the development of the technology and the second phase will see pilot systems set up in both the United States and Australia. The final product will be a cost effective, retrofit system that can be easily installed, without the need for expert labour. We think it will ultimately be of benefit to thousands of remotely based residents.

The project is one of four projects announced in December 2013 as part of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and United States-Australia Solar Energy (USAEC) Collaboration. It builds on our existing expertise in areas including solar intermittency, customer load management, the virtual power station, mini grid planning, and the work we’ve done on Australian standards for inverter energy systems and load control.

Check out the factsheet for more information.


We’re all going on a solar holiday….

By Simon Hunter

Our scientists are pretty passionate about their work. So much so that they don’t just take their work home with them – they take it on holiday.

Organic printed solar cell floating in the water.

Scientist Scott Watkins recently took this holiday snap of an organic printed solar cell floating in Callala Bay on the NSW south coast. He thought the cell deserved a treat after helping secure funding for a new, $87 million Australia-US partnership in solar cell research. The funding will be used to establish the US-Australia Institute for Advanced Photovoltaics (IAP). This centre will work on solar cells – those that convert sunlight directly into electricity.

The solar cell partnership is a parallel program to the solar thermal research partnership that we reported on back in December.

For CSIRO, our involvement in the IAP represents a great chance to continue our work on manufacturing thin-film solar cells while working alongside new colleagues with deep expertise in existing, silicon-based solar cells. Who knows where this research will take us next.

You can read more about our organic solar cell work on our website and keep up to date with all of our Flexible Electronics news on twitter @FlexElectronixx


Knowledge is Power: an overview of CSIRO Local Energy Systems

KL120222_Energy_LESBrochure_draft3_120717_to print for CEE_Page_1The CSIRO Local Energy Systems team is a group of researchers who want to help you save energy – without noticing you’re doing so.

They’re developing new technologies for use at home or work which can decrease energy costs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, all while letting you maintain your lifestyle. The group’s projects include solar technologies – like the solar cooling systems we’ve mentioned here before – and other things, like the Electric Driveway project. That’s an ingenious system where your electric car can help your house cut its power bills and increase local grid stability.

Interest piqued? Read more here by downloading our super-nice new brochure.


News @ CSIRO

Today we celebrate the career of Dr Lan Lam – the primary inventor of CSIRO’s UltraBattery – an invention putting two technologies together into one awesome storage unit! Bringing down the cost of hybrid electric vehicles and making it easier to integrate more renewable energy into the grid are just some of the achievements of the UltraBattery.

Dr Lam and his team took the world’s 150 year-old battery technology and revolutionised it in the CSIRO labs. Today Dr Lam retires and leaves a legacy of impact.

“It was always my dream to create a better battery. I knew the success of hybrid electric and electric vehicles were dependent on it,” said Dr Lam.

This year the first UltraBattery will be released in the automotive market, powering hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) in Japan, United States, South America, Europe and Asia. The use of HEVs decreases our reliance on fossil fuels and thereby…

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Saving energy on site, part 5

Messing with our heads… in a good way

This post is part of a series on CSIRO Newcastle’s energy-efficient office buildings. Read all the posts in the series here.

Are you reading this in an office building right now? If so, how’s the temperature? Is the air-conditioning turned up too far or down too low? Are you too cold or too hot? If so, research has shown something surprising: you might be happier if there was no air-conditioning at all – even if it makes the room even colder or hotter than the temperature you’re uncomfortable with right now.

To explain this crazy-sounding result we need to go back to some research that started in the 1980s, and led to some findings that influenced the design of the CSIRO office building that I’m sitting in at the moment.

In the mid-1980s, researchers in the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) began to fund some studies into building temperature and comfort. They were interested to find out what range of temperatures people found too hot, too cold and just right – and how it varied with things like season and climate. With this data, people designing new buildings would have a better understanding of what sort of air conditioning or heating systems they’d need in order to keep most people comfortable and happy. (Note: it’s widely recognised that you can never make everyone happy with the indoor temperature. That’s why building standards generally consider an 80% satisfaction rate to be perfectly acceptable.)

One decade and several additional studies later, ASHRAE had collected around 21,000 sets of data from 160 different office buildings. This included locations over 4 continents, spanning climates from tropical Singapore to sub-arctic Canada. With all this data it became possible to work out a nice equation into which you could feed information about the outdoor temperature, indoor air speed, humidity, metabolic rate and even the sort of clothing people wore inside, and it’d tell you where to set the air-con to make most people happy.

This equation was pretty accurate for most standard air-conditioned offices, which you can see from the image below. If the scientists knew what they were talking about, the thick black line, showing the predictions given by the equation, should match up with the lighter line with white squares, which shows the office temperature people were actually most happy with. As you can see, it’s almost a perfect match. Equations predicted a narrow ‘Goldilocks’ window from 22.5 to 24°C where people would feel not too cold or too hot, but just right – and this is exactly how people behaved (on average) in real life.

Predicted and observed ‘comfortable’ indoor temperatures for air-conditioned office buildings. From de Dear & Brager, 2002.

But something really weird happened when researchers tried to apply the same equations to buildings that didn’t have air-conditioners; buildings in which if people were hot or cold they’d simply open or shut their windows. For these buildings, the wheels fell off, and the equation – which included every factor scientists knew of that influenced thermal comfort levels – couldn’t account for what was being observed. People were, in fact, much more tolerant of higher and lower temperatures than was predicted.

Predicted and observed ‘comfortable’ indoor temperatures for naturally-ventilated offices. (From de Dear & Brager, 2002.)

In short, there seemed to be something mysterious about air that came through an open window that made it better. Natural air seemed comfortable from about 20 C (on freezing cold days) right up to 27 C (on searing hot days), but take the exact same air and deliver it through an air conditioner, and people would generally find it several degrees too hot or too cold.

Clearly, something else was going on that scientists didn’t understand. But Richard de Dear from Macquarie University in Sydney and Gail Brager from University of California, Berkeley had a hypothesis. They proposed that the difference was mainly psychological.

They believed the differences arose partly because people are more tolerant of situations they can control (like being able to open a window) than those they can’t (such as when someone else has set the air-conditioning, and there’s nothing you can do about it!). They also hypothesised that people get used to the narrow temperature variations of air-conditioned buildings, and that this in turn makes them less agreeable to further variation. If you can open a window on a hot day, on the other hand, a hotter office feels more ‘natural’, and likewise for a cold office on cold days. For more information about de Dear and Brager’s work, see this paper from which the above graphs are also taken.

This hypothesis has been fairly well substantiated over the years, and it goes a fair way towards understanding why, when our building has so many smart energy-saving gizmos with computer control, the architects chose to give us windows that could be opened manually. While the temperature control might be more precise if a computer decided when to open and shut them, it turns out people are much less fussy about temperature if they are simply given the ability to open and shut their own windows.

In reality, our building engineers have gone a step further and combined the two. We have manually-opening windows and a computer system that suggests, by changing the colour of an icon in our system tray, when it might be best to have them open and shut.

A colour-coded icon in our system tray tells us when to open our windows (green), keep them closed (blue) or try and reduce energy usage during critical peak periods (red).

Importantly, too, the computer system also accepts feedback from users, who can send instantaneous comfort reports saying if they’re too hot or cold. The computer knows which zone of the building the feedback’s coming from, and takes into account all the feedback to adjust the temperature setting or ventilation mode. All this gives people more control over their environment and increases the chances we’ll feel comfortable.

The electronic comfort survey in our building. If people are feeling uncomfortable, the temperature set-point or ventilation mode is automatically changed.

What’s the message from all this? In a society where buildings account for 20% of all energy usage, and air-conditioning accounts for the largest portion of this, we might be able to use far less energy – and be even more comfortable – if we turn our air conditioning off from time to time and throw open the windows instead.

◊  ◊  ◊

This is the last post in the series I’ve been doing on the energy-efficiency features of our buildings at CSIRO in Newcastle. As you can imagine, what I’ve put here on the blog only scratches the surface. If you’re interested in reading about our building in more depth I’ve uploaded some recent conference papers by our building engineers on the site’s recent performance and on-going improvements:

And finally, you can see a video below that summarises most of what I’ve written about recently. It’s a few years old now but most of the details are still correct.

Remember, too, that Earth Hour is coming up on the last day of March. It’s a chance to take stock of how much electricity you use in your house – and how much of that you could do without. Perhaps the information in the last few posts has given you food for thought about energy reduction and some ideas for your own place. If so, or if you have other energy-reduction strategies that have worked for you, leave a comment and tell us about it!