Saturday, October 25, 2014

Wake up call for Canada

Dear Gerald,

I read with interest your article in the SPIN. May I offer my two cents of opinion on the subject?   
First I must admit I agree with many points you made. For example, there is no need in 21st century to fly over the world to demonstrate support for climate change action. I totally agree that televised video-conference would be not only more efficient but also more effective. A great example of this approach I witnessed at the Green Buildings Council Conference in Vancouver last year where Cisco technology (which was one of the sponsors of the Conference) allowed to connect live audiences from Portland Oregon, Germany (forgot the city) and Shanghai China with Vancouver over the gigantic wall screens. 
I would leave the discussion of the level of urgency on the climate change aside for time being – but I hope we agree that both so called “green” side and its opponents (should we call it “black” for oil?) have their agenda and political lobbies. Either side is supported and promoted by various sectors of industry and because of that they have more in common than different. They all want to build mega-gigantic projects – economy of scale of course – be it a wind farm, a solar power plant the kind you mention in your article, a hydroelectric dam nuclear power plant or any other. 
Any technology has its hurdles. And any large-scale projects create large-scale problems. Wind turbines kill birds and bats (by the way, encasing them in the “housing” will significantly reduce turbine's efficiency so this is not a good option). Solar plants expropriate large areas of land and contribute to the grid instability. Hydro dams flood huge areas and disturb regional ecosystems (Site C comes to mind). Fukushima disaster reminded again of potential dangers of nuclear meltdown. 
But keep being reliant on fossil fuels – be it oil or natural gas - is not an alternative. “Business as usual” is an equivalent of stagnation at best, and in a world moving forward with a fast pace it is a guarantee to be left behind. The statement that fossil fuels are “wonderfully efficient, abundant throughout the world’s crust and will not go away” is extremely misleading. If a definition of efficiency is simply "being cheap” in a short run, then I want to know a long-term cost. "Abundance" is a very relative notion. Distribution of fossil fuels around the planet is very uneven – this is why some parts of it have to bring them from the other side of the globe spending lots of the same fossil fuel on the way. “Will not go away” doesn’t even fit common sense. All natural resources are finite, and in the case of fossil fuels the rate of their extraction exceeds the rate of their natural generation by thousands times - this is the fact which will not go away. Don’t forget oil is used not only for fuel – all plastics, paints, a lot of cosmetics and number of other products are derived from oil. While we may change our estimates of when the so called “oil peak” occurs, new methods of the natural resources extraction can only accelerate the rate of their depletion. They are also becoming more costly, which eats into the so called “efficiency” of fossil fuels. Alternative technologies, particularly solar PV and solar thermal, at the same time are becoming less expensive and more efficient in terms of their performance. 
Cost of one alternative versus another deserves more discussion. Even if one would wave away an indirect cost of a long-term consequences of a greenhouse effect and global warming - which although would be not wise but it is in the human nature to think what would happen later - he or she can hardly do the same about the health affecting air, ground and water pollution. And what about after-cost of unavoidable equipment failures and human errors? Shall we recount events like oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, derailment in Lac-Megantic, an explosion at pump station in Saskatchewan and barely avoided another disaster with the Russian cargo ship which lost power near the British Columbia coast? 
Risking of falling victim of the overused (and may be over-politicized) term “sustainability” I need to say few words about it. Any system – technical, economical, biological or social – consists of a number of components. In very general terms, sustainability is a system’s ability to remain in balance over extended period of time without need for external resources or energy. In other word’s it is a measure of a system’s stability. It is a lesson of generations of engineers that the more complex system is – i.e. consisting of a larger number of components – the less stable it is.
One of the most familiar and relevant examples of a complex system is a power grid, consisting of a large number of energy producers (typically power plants), even a bigger number of all sorts and sizes energy consumers (from residential homes to institutions and industry) and an extremely tight and interconnected energy transmission and distribution network including under and above ground power lines, substations and many other. In a centralized grid all components are highly inter-dependent, which on numerous occasions was demonstrated by big blackouts, recently in Calgary. Residents of Sun Peaks are very well familiar with the consequences of a drunk driver hitting a power pole. Several hours in darkness, and often in cold during the winter is not fun to say the least!
Take another example, from a subject which became touchy recently – distribution of oil and natural gas over pipelines. Complex, expensive, subject of environmental concerns and political disagreements, their short-term benefits are unstable. As with any resources, demand for Canadian oil is highly dependent on an unpredictable international business and political environment. Pipeline like the Northern Gateway is an easy target for terrorists’ attacks and political manipulation. Take example of Russia using its natural gas supply as a tool for political pressure on Ukraine and not too subtly - on Western Europe. Bet on China is a very risky gamble. For one, Russia will easily and happily overflow it with much cheaper oil and gas than Canada can ever afford to offer. US is already resisting Canadian oil – not only they have enough of its own but they are steadily moving away from oil dependency. 
I hear you asking - what is the alternative? Glad to oblige. I am not a supporter of government mandated or subsidized technologies, but I strongly think we need a long-term sustainable national energy strategy based on the System Approach and Real Options methodology.
Decentralized energy system should be very seriously considered. Continuous progress in solar, particularly solar thermal technologies in combination with air and ground source active heat exchange, as well as in in energy storage technologies including fuel cells and phase-change thermal accumulators, makes a self-sufficient house or a building a real possibility. We are talking about more than “net-zero” building where more energy produced than consumed at some periods of time but it needs to draw energy from the grid at other times averaging to about zero over the year. We are talking about a building as a self-sufficient system. Passive design, energy conservation measures and new highly thermoresistant materials in combination with ultra-efficient lights, appliances and electronic equipment significantly lower energy demand. Equipped with on-site renewable energy generation, heat recovery, water recycling. No more blackouts or freezing while waiting for a power to be restored. Individual houses are connected in an “intelligent network”. A further evolution of a “smart grid”, it is a sort of an “energy cloud” in which all nodes are independent from each other but can combine the power when needed.  
The projects like Northern Gateway and alike take an enormous amount of financial and intellectual resources which could not be used elsewhere. The more we invested in these the more difficult it will be to change the course later. It is more than likely that much higher return on investment in 30 to 50 years of projected lifetime would be achieved if invested in the research of new technologies. This would have more than economical and environmental benefits but also decide on which way Canada would be moving in the future – slide to a backward resource dependent state or move toward the advanced technological society. And if the government still wants to build something large across the country I have a proposal - high-speed train connecting Canadian West and East Coast. It works for Japan, Taiwan and Korea - why it shouldn't in Canada? 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Saskatchewan - More Lessons To Learn

I hate to sound negative and say "I told you so" but in fact I did. The fire at the pump station in Prud'homme Saskatchewan showed that not only electrical power grid is susceptible to failure with wide and costly impact, but the same with potentially more dangerous consequences applies to a gas and other pipeline grids.

And we still want to build more pipelines ... 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Calgary - Lessons To Learn

In one of the previous posts I made a point which I have been trying to emphasize for quite some time already. We do not need gigantic power grids with all their complexity and stability problems. Another confirmation of it was the latest incident in Calgary where underground fire left thousands of people struggling without a power for several days, disrupting traffic and businesses and will be certainly costing many millions for the city.

What if each building had its own power generated in sufficient volume on-site? This would give each individual unit (building, facility, business operation etc.) an independence from the grid preventing such blackout incidents. It would also remove a problem of power fluctuations in the grid which is a subject of such a many problems. There is technology which makes it possible today. Note that examples of the so-called "net-zero" or even "net-positive" buildings although a move in the right direction are not totally autonomous self-sufficient systems. They are still dependent on the grid in that they draw from it when there is not enough energy produced on-site to satisfy the building's demand, while sending energy to the grid when they have excess of it (e.g. solar PV in the middle of the day during summer).

Fully autonomous building would not depend on the grid at any time! It however does not have to be completely "off-grid". On the contrary, all independent on-site generation systems should be connected in the "intelligent network" which would utilize its resources most efficiently, while never leaving any of the nodes starving without energy. Intelligent energy network built on the Systems Architecture principles of modularity, re-usability and scalability, is actually much more than what is usually known as a "smart grid" although it can certainly be considered its evolution.   

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Connecting Technologies - Conecting the World, part 2

Technology has certainly advanced dramatically in any areas since 90-s but not that much in the area of offshore wireless communication which I was talked about tn the post about Techwest Startrack system.

Imagine you are on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles from land, and want to make a phone call or access the Internet. Did you ever wonder how your wireless device works when there are no cell towers or traditional infrastructure available like at home?  And more importantly why it does not work better, faster or cheaper for voice and data applications?

English: MS Majesty of the Seas, one of Royal ...The ability to communicate while at sea is incredibly complex and has only been possible and reliable within the past ten years. Unfortunately, the connectivity comes at a steep price because of the high investment required by the cruise lines and satellite carriers who must price access by the amount of bandwidth that is used. It turns out that this is a highly inefficient and costly method to allow passengers and crew to communicate, and the formula is about to change.
While the state-of-the-art has dramatically improved there are still many technical obstacles to achieving the same level of interconnectivity that we experience on land through wired or wireless networks. Cruise ships are seeing dramatic increases in traveler demand for communications services caused by the use of smartphones, laptops and tablets as part of their vacation experience. The bottom line for the consumer is that current cruise communications networks aren’t designed to meet these voracious demands for mobile connectivity.
Consider the following statistics from MTN Communications, one of the biggest sellers of telecom equipment to the cruise ship industry:
  • Internet Logins – In the past five years, Internet logins on the MTN network almost doubled from approximately 15 million to 27 million per year;
  • Voice Usage – Based on revenue data over the past five years, voice usage increased approximately 50 percent;
  • VSAT Bandwidth – In the past five years, bandwidth demand among MTN VSAT (high-speed) customers increased six-fold from 75 Mbps to 475 Mbps per year
Limited bandwidth is still the main reason network speeds, quality of service and data rates are better on land than at sea, coupled with the failure to integrate other technologies that could optimize the transport of large amounts of data by using different networks.
Virtually all of the fleet has WiFi throughout their ships but it is painfully slow at times which is due to the number of users and available bandwidth. There are also severe limitations on the types of files that can be accessed in order to protect the network and compensate for the bandwidth limitations. Internet access costs between $.25 and $.75 per minute, depending on the selected plan.
Cellular voice and data is available on all ships but is very costly, up to about five dollars a minute through your local carrier, or up to ten dollars a minute if you use Intelsat satellite links through the ship’s voice network. Data connections through cellular can also be very pricy unless you have a data plan. Verizon is the only American carrier that offers a good deal for their customers that use tablets or smartphones on ships. They have a monthly cost of $25 for each 100 Mbytes.
While AT&T has a similar plan it doesn’t allow for data access at sea, which means you can pay around $20 per megabyte. That translates to a high cost for using email and sending pictures, to say nothing of downloading documents. If you try to save money by using a VoIP service such as Skype to make and receive calls you will have limited success because of the latency issues with voice transmission through a satellite, whether you establish a WiFi or cellular connection.

Every cruise ship has one or more satellite dishes and complex antenna arrays to provide the primary communications link to other ships and land for passengers and crew. MTN is the primary provider of such facilities for almost thirty years.
When you are on a ship, all telephone, data, and video traffic is carried through a complement of large satellite dishes found on the top deck.
One global company based in Florida, MTN has for the past thirty years pioneered and developed satellite-based services for virtually all of the cruise ships and cargo carriers in the world. The Maritime Telecommunications Network began offering services when the Intelsat  constellation was launched in 1965. The introduction of these orbiting repeaters changed the way the world communicated and four years later we watched the result during the first lunar landing that was relayed through Intelsat.
There is no simple technical solution to improve the passenger experience in connecting with the outside world while at sea. Provisioning more bandwidth from the satellites is not the answer without also considering land-based services and on-ship clouds for caching of data. As reported by the Wireless Broadband Alliance, smartphone sales have overtaken PC sales in 2012 and in the future will dwarf the amount of data used by laptops. This is also true for ship passengers and has caused the industry to respond.
Consumer demand, economics, and technological advancements have driven MTN to launch its next-generation platform to serve the cruise ship industry. It is called NEXUS, and it will ultimately change the way we communicate to fellow passengers and to the rest of the world.
One deficiency in the way communications facilities are presently configured is the lack of interoperability between onboard WiFi systems and those on shore when the ship docks. That means that cruise lines cannot take advantage of the newest technology to handoff high-volume traffic and to cache large files. To solve this problem MTN is building a seamless network to tie onboard and on-shore systems together as part of a larger plan to enhance connectivity, regardless of where the passengers wishes to talk, text, or transfer data.
MTN has invested in the design and launch of special-purpose satellite payloads that will ride on the next generation Intelsat EPIC platform  which will offer at-sea communications experience which is presently impossible to achieve.
There are three essential components to NEXUS: network, applications, and storage. In simplified terms the system will be a hybrid network of satellite and terrestrial facilities tied to a ship cloud to transfer very large amounts of data and store it onboard. Client applications, Internet café, cellular Mobile at Sea, TV, social media and other applications will all be merged and seamless for passengers.
This is accomplished by sophisticated control and manipulation of satellite spot-beams, on-the-fly bandwidth allocation from the satellites, and data compression. A large part of the equation is WiFi for data transport which is why MTN is building an infrastructure to tie WiFi on land to ships when they are within a few miles from shore. This will allow them to optimize expensive bandwidth from Intelsat to route all other traffic to land-based systems.
If you have wondered why connections are so slow it is because presently there are only a few megabytes of bandwidth that must be shared among all passengers and facilities on any ship. In the future it will not be megabytes but terabytes that will be available.
The next generation system will also offer a unique application called Connect at Sea. This will fill a needed gap in ship-to-shore communications and also provide for friends and family to be able to communicate onboard without high cost by giving direct dial capability between smartphones. Connect at Sea will eliminate this problem and allow voice, text, and messaging between smartphones, just like Skype and other applications can accomplish on land. This is a WiFi-based service that can be used onboard, in port, or anywhere there is a suitable WiFi connection. It will go a long way to reduce the high cost of communications for passengers on a global basis.
In the near future whether you are in the middle of the ocean or docked at a foreign port, your personal communications device (whether smartphone, Blackberry, laptop or tablet) will provide equivalent communications that we have all come to expect at home. It will all be possible because of sophisticated networks, powerful computing, low cost bandwidth terrestrial integration, and seamless switching. No more $5.00/minute phone calls and no delays in transmitting or receiving emails or access to websites.
A short half-century ago when the first Sputnik satellite was launched by the Soviet Union it is fair to say that nobody could have foreseen the results today. Today, we expect and demand such services whether we are on a mountain top or in the middle of an ocean.

From Forbes.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Connecting Technologies - Connecting World

In 1994-1996 I worked in a small Canadian company Techwest Data Systems which developed a communication system via geostationary satellite for offshore applications. The system consisted of an antenna stabilized in 3 axis with gimbals, signal beacon receiver and the controller. Simple and reliable it utilized a rectangular scan pattern to search and lock the antenna on the satellite. It worked well in calm conditions. But in severe weather (when stable communication is especially important) it was loosing the signal and it was taking a very long time to re-acquire it. The solution for the problem was seen in using more powerful receiver which would make the system significantly more expensive. At that time I was responsible for developing control software for Startrack. I devised a non-orthodox algorithm which was implemented and tested - it resulted in the pointing accuracy and signal stability requirements of then customer ComSat to be exceeded more than twice. The system was successfully installed on a number of cruise ships in Caribbean and elsewhere.  
Since then the company was bought by Data Marine Systems from Aberdeen, Scotland for their floating oil rigs in the North Sea. Later it found its way to China.

Recently I came across of the old publication which returned me back in time:
TECHNOLOGY Vessel Movement Influences Offshore Communications System Design.

Below is a direct quote from the publication:
"Startrack" (Techwest of Burnaby, B.C.) system could be modified economically to mount a C-band antenna.
An Andrew 3.6-m antenna was selected to enhance reliability during monsoon conditions and improve the "link budget." A radome protects the antenna dish from wind loading and prevents water fill because of the severe up angle that was required because of the almost overhead satellite. 

A geostabilized platform has some interesting aspects. For one, in the link budget calculations, one may use zero pointing error. The stabilized platform homes on the satellite beacon, and constantly "nutates" (wobbles) around the signal to keep optimum signal strength. Thus, it does not matter how well the satellite crew keeps its "bird" on station. For this reason, one major market for stabilized platforms is for otherwise useless, unstable satellites.
On the other hand, the system is active, not passive pointing, and therefore must be operating correctly to receive a signal. The benefit to the satellite operator is that the offshore station cannot interfere with another satellite because it cannot point at it unless it has the same beacon.
Because of controversy about too many satellites in this same area, side lobes were of great concern. Asia Satellite required the running of a complete set of pattern tests on the antenna with the platform operating and fixed.
Another interesting engineering aspect of stabilized antenna platforms is that they are dynamic, and can be dynamically unstable. Because the system was modified with a much larger, heavier antenna than the original, Techwest used its motion simulator to run extensive tests.
It is quite impressive to see the floor rocking and rolling ... in a storm, and the big 3.6-m antenna solid as a rock on the signal. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Is 3D-printing a Disruptive Innovation?

No talk about Disruptive Innovation today will be complete without mentioning the 3D-Prnting phenomena, or in the technical term "additive manufacturing".

Not being an expert in the area myself, I would rather link to a couple of interesting articles from IEEE Spectrum:

3D-Printer  Makes Soft Objects

3D-Printed Model Robots