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Who killed the world?

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This is a prototypical world in a 1950s sci-fi film.

It takes place in a world similar to one in which the viewer lives.

But there’s an existential threat looming in the background. It’s mysterious, scary – and a bit exciting.

In the narrative, the protagonists explore this mysterious phenomenon.

They use science and technology to learn more about it.

And even though the story presents the possibility of failure, the protagonists figure it out.

It feels like the triumph of humanity.

I analyzed the top 200 sci-fi films and tv shows every decade from the 1950s to present day.1 What I found was that sci-fi narratives from yesteryear were quite different from today’s stories.

¹ Based on votes the film or tv show received from IMDB users. More on methodology at the end of the story.

In the 1950s, only a few sci-fi films and shows took place in the future, like the Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956) which is a film about astronauts landing on one of Jupiter’s moons. For the most part, these stories were set in the audience’s present day – so, the 1950s.

(Hover on a box for details)

In these 1950s stories, the world is often upended by an existential threat.

But in the majority of films, the protagonists figure it out – and leave the world better than the beginning of the story.

Sci-fi is an amazing genre.

It helps us explore our feelings about the unknown, the future, and the possible. It lets us imagine “what if” scenarios, and then build out rich worlds that our minds can occupy. It depicts dystopias we should fend off and utopias we should seek – and it teases us with the scintillating possibility that humans may actually be able to build the world we want.

But over the last few generations, it’s been harder for us to imagine this better world – and our sci-fi reflects that.

This is a prototypical sci-fi setting in more recent years.

We’re in the near future – often a world that looks like ours, but with hints that something has already gone terribly wrong.

Today’s sci-fi is more likely to depict a world that is worse than our reality.

It’s maybe even a dystopian or post-apocalyptic world

This world is almost always marked by economic inequality, human suffering, and sometimes even a militarized, authoritarian society.

In this world, the protagonists face an existential threat.

And to defeat the threat, we must face societal conflicts that feel insurmountable – and we must face conflicts within ourselves that make us question who we are and what we’re doing .

Ultimately, the story is likely to be a commentary on today’s social issues. It’s a warning of what is to come – or a reflection of a current reality that we’ve tried hard to ignore.

The changes to sci-fi stories didn’t happen overnight. Sci-fi slowly evolved over the last few generations.

There’s been a steady increase in sci-fi stories that take place in the future – and it’s usually the near future, like the 2013 film Her – a world where a man falls in love with an artificial intelligence.

Even plots that take place in the present could be interpreted as the near-future.

The stakes are still the same as before; these sci-fi stories still present existential threats.

But we’re now more likely to face these existential threats in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic world, like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). In the film, the world is a desert wasteland ruled by a warlord who enslaves several women to produce his offspring. When the women escape, in hopes of finding a preserved paradise, they leave behind a message:

“Who killed the world?”

This dystopian society is more likely to be marked by inequality – gaps in opportunity, wealth, and basic rights.

This often leads to a world marked by great amounts of suffering.

And increasingly, sci-fi stories depict militarized societies – although we might be seeing that trend turn around this decade.

There’s almost always a “bad guy” – a human antagonist who tries to kill the world or at least gets in the way of saving the world.

But these days, it’s much more likely that protagonists also have to overcome societal forces – political movements, systemic inequality, rampant capitalism.

These are basically things that seem too big to fix.

It’s also far more likely that the narrative explores inner conflicts – moral dilemmas, identity crises, and wrestling with our understanding of what it means to be human.

We don’t just face outside threats; we also face threats within ourselves.

Ultimately, today’s sci-fi stories are far more likely to be a commentary on current social issues. These might be critiques of political ideologies, runaway capitalism, irresponsible innovation, human apathy, or eroding mental health.

But even though the narrative arc starts us off in a terrible place, the protagonists make the world better over the course of the story. Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton argued that this is necessary: “Futuristic science fiction tends to be pessimistic. If you imagine a future that’s wonderful, you don’t have a story.”

It’s often framed as the triumph of humanity.

But it certainly doesn’t feel triumphant. It often feels pessimistic – and it’s something that critics have noticed.

I think it’s because today’s sci-fi is set in a world where humans have already screwed up, and the narrative arc is basically the protagonists digging out of that hole.

Line chart of a narrative arc showing stories start at the bottom of the arc.

But as we walk out of the theater, we’re thrust back into reality – a world where we’re still facing existential threats like climate change, authoritarianism, devious technology, and war. And if these sci-fi stories are prescient, it means that we will soon experience those existential threats; the world will soon turn into a dystopian hellscape; and only after that do we figure it out.

In other words, the worst is still ahead of us.

Line chart of a narrative arc showing the bottom of the arc is ahead of us.

News stories constantly remind us that we’re headed for trouble. Children are being murdered, authoritarianism is on the rise, and Earth is inevitably going to warm so much that it will likely kill millions of people. Given this, how could we possibly imagine a less bleak future?

But maybe that’s what sci-fi can explore.

Author Neal Stephenson wrote in 2011: “Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place.” Journalist Noah Smith argues that optimistic sci-fi needs to have “several concrete features corresponding to the type of future people want to imagine actually living in.”

So, what if we figure it out?

What if we create spaceships that explore further than we could have ever imagined?

What if we embrace our natural curiosity and work toward discovering more and more of this wondrous universe?

What if we ensure that even the least fortunate among us have reliable housing, food, and healthcare?

What if we reject the notion that an economy must produce more and more, but rather embrace the idea that a functioning society is only as successful as its least privileged soul?

What if we build civilizations that don’t try to conquer nature, but rather try to be a part of it?

What if our technological innovations didn’t come from efforts to decimate each other, but rather from a constant desire to better each other’s lives?

I know, I know.

Right now, it’s hard to see that future. We see terrible things all around us – hunger, disease, mass murder, greed, an increasingly uninhabitable planet.

But unlike the world of Mad Max, our world has not yet been killed. There are still monumental efforts to stop hunger, to limit disease, to build more resilient governments, to wake us from the hypnosis of war, to sail deeper into the galaxy and to see closer into the atom. We can still create a world where the patches of paradise blossom into the wastelands.

I admit it’s hard to see. In fact, I admit that I’ve spent most of my journalism career telling a narrative about the wastelands bleeding into our lives – a sort of fear-mongering, I suppose.

But maybe that’s why it’s so important for us to imagine a different future – precisely because people like me made it so hard to see.

After all, if we can’t see paradise, how can we possibly navigate toward it?

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strugk
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Ants can perform life-saving amputations on their wounded, study says

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Until the discovery of antibiotic medicine last century, doctors frequently performed amputations to save the life of a patient with an infected wound.

But humans aren’t the only animal to perform this type of surgery on one another.

Scientists have discovered that a species of ant found in the southeastern United States also perform amputations when their nestmates are perilously injured on the leg, staving off the spread of infection from an open wound and effectively saving their comrades’ life.

“The level of sophistication with which they have evolved to care for their injured is unrivaled in the animal kingdom. Our human medical system would be the closest match,” said Erik Frank, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Würzburg who led the study, in an interview Wednesday. “These amputations stopped infections from spreading into the body … the same way medieval amputations worked in humans,” he said, adding that the findings mark the first recorded example of a nonhuman animal performing an amputation on a fellow member of its species to save its life.

The study, published Tuesday in the journal Current Biology, suggests that Florida carpenter ants (Camponotus floridanus) are able to differentiate between types of wounds and adapt their healing responses accordingly. It adds to our growing understanding of the sophisticated strategies ants deploy to care for one another when injured, including by triaging the wounded and treating the infected with microbial substances.

The scientists observed the amputations in laboratory conditions as performed by the Florida carpenter ants, a reddish, black, or brown ant which typically measure under 1/2 an inch in length. Unlike some other ants, Florida carpenter ants do not have the ability to produce antimicrobial secretions from their glands to combat pathogens in wounds. “We wanted to see how a species that lost this gland would still care for their injured,” said Frank.

The scientists set out by deliberately injuring around 100 ants on the leg: either the femur (closer to the body) or the tibia (farther down the leg), to compare how fellow ants in their colony responded. They found that the ants effectively performed amputations when their nestmates had sustained femur injuries, but never performed amputations when an equivalent injury was sustained on the tibia.

In the former, a helper nestmate performed an amputation on the injured insect’s entire leg in over three-quarters of cases.

The ant amputation procedure lasted around 40 minutes and followed the same pattern each time: “They start licking the wound with their mouth parts and then they move up the leg with their mouth until they reach the shoulder. There, they will start to bite quite ferociously for many minutes at a time,” said Frank. “The injured ant will sit their calmly, allowing the procedure to occur and not complaining until the leg is cut off.”

Among the ants with a femur injury, 95 percent of those that received an amputation survived, while only 45 percent of those who did not receive an amputation survived, Frank said.

“The ants — in their world, in their context — have found a strategy that is highly efficient and has a very, very high level of success,” concluded Frank.

Laurent Keller, an evolutionary biologist who also worked on the study, said the amputations were performed very effectively. “It means that when they do the amputation they must do it in a very clean way to prevent bacteria from entering the wound,” he said.

In contrast to the treatment received by ants that sustained a femur injury, ants that sustained a tibia injury (further down the leg) were never observed receiving an amputation from fellow nestmates. “In this case, they only clean the wound,” said Keller, who said the nestmates instead provided an extended wound care session involving lots of licking.

The wound cleaning method also proved effective. While around 70-75 percent of those who received wound cleaning from fellow ants survived, only 15 percent of the ants with tibia injuries survived when they were isolated from their fellow ants and left unattended, Frank said.

One possible explanation offered by the scientists for the decision on when to perform an amputation has to do with how hemolymph — a fluid equivalent to blood — flows within invertebrates.

The theory has not been tested yet, but scans show that the tibia area of the leg has greater hemolymph flow than the femur area, meaning that pathogens that enter through the tibia will spread more quickly to the rest of the body. This, in turn, significantly shortens the window of opportunity for an amputation to stave off an infection from spreading. “If the wound is at the level of the tibia then they don’t do an amputation. This is because normally the blood — or hemolymph for insects — circulates quite rapidly. So within 40 minutes the blood will already carry the bacteria into the body of the ant,” explained Keller.

The painstaking efforts adopted by ants to care for each others’ wounds illustrates how social insects reap benefits from behaving altruistically, said Keller. “By helping each other, they are indirectly helping themselves,” he said.

“Evolutionarily speaking, the colony saves a massive amount of energy by making sure their injured keep well, rather than just throwing them away and replacing them with a new worker,” he said. Previous studies show that ants that have lost one or even two legs can still be productive members of their colony, returning to their normal running speed in as soon as one day — and are often deployed to perform the most dangerous tasks. He added: “Even in ant societies, the individual holds value.”

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The Energy Transition Requires a Holistic Approach

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Unless U.S. energy policy and industry practice is systemically shaped to intercept and exploit the exponential improvements in clean-energy technology and cost reductions now occurring, the United States could end up with the worst of all situations by 2040: a dystopian grid where energy costs are high and reliability is poor, decarbonization progress is stalled, and the economic gains that have been made over the last century are at risk.

That’s a central premise of Energy 2040: Aligning Innovation, Economics and Decarbonization by Deepak Divan, professor and the founding director of the Center for Distributed Energy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and recipient of the 2024 IEEE Medal in Power Engineering, and his coauthor Suresh Sharma, a former General Electric executive and the entrepreneur in residence at Georgia Tech. The book explores how new sources of energy are disrupting long-held beliefs and assumptions on how energy should be generated, transmitted and distributed. In the following interview IEEE Spectrumcontributing editor Robert N. Charette talks with Divan about how to align economic imperatives and climate goals for sustainability and affordability.

One of the fundamental themes of your book is that the technological learning curve that has resulted in the rapid reduction in the costs of renewable energy has been sustained for 50 to 70 years and shows no signs of slowing down. You also write that these declines were not predicted by experts in the field just two decades ago. What do you mean by the technological learning curve? What did you find in terms of cost reductions in different types of renewable energy as a result? And why were the experts so wrong in their predictions of renewable energy costs?

Deepak Divan: The technological learning curve is at the heart of our book. We spent a lot of time in the beginning of the book going through the history of why we are where we are because it is important to understand the process and nuances of how we got here. It is quite complicated, but I’ll try to simplify it.

man smiling for a portrait in a suit jacket and white shirt  against a gray backgroundDeepak Divan

We start at a place where science lagged technology and the market by a significant amount in the early years of the power industry. In other words, the processes of taking technology to market through innovation, through tinkering, through entrepreneurs who were willing to invest, helped create the underlying structure of today’s utility industry.

When the electricity grid was established, it was the Wild West, with every entrepreneur trying to get ahead of the others with their own proprietary solutions. However, it soon became clear that the grid, which was not just a single device but a physically coupled network of a large number of devices, needed to be coordinated and controlled as a whole—very different from most previous technological innovations. Everybody’s appliances needed to work with the same voltage and the same frequency, for instance. So, electricity providers were forced to make everything work seamlessly—challenging in a world before microprocessors and power electronics.

Yet at the same time, the early electricity providers also focused on where the money was, so they ended up targeting those pieces of the market that had best return on their investments. As a result, big, broad swaths of the country, typically rural, were being left in the dark. This helped create the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1934 that forced more regulation on the electricity industry. It also promised utilities better and more stable economic returns, but in exchange for providing universal access, and so we end up getting the grid that we have right now.

I keep thinking that Elon Musk should not be worrying so much about autonomous cars today. Give me an autonomous inverter first.—Deepak Divan

However, industry regulations also strongly influenced the way electricity providers thought. With the utility industry now regulated, it was not possible to bring innovation to market very easily. Reliability was the most important objective and any new technological innovations that might reduce reliability were frowned upon. As a result, it took 10 to 20 years to bring new technologies to market.

So, the electricity industry went from a fast-moving, risk-taking one to an industry that was very, very slow moving, very risk averse. That was fine as long as technological innovation was also moving slowly.

Over the past two decades, however, something radically changed. Traditional learning curves, where one gained experience over time and the product or service cost went down a modest amount until the next S-shaped learning curve began, started to disappear. Instead, the learning curve across many energy-related technologies and their resultant cost reductions started to happen without much notice over decades seemingly without limit, with few indications when they will ever saturate.

We’ve seen this in microelectronics ad nauseam, for example. We have also seen it reflected in the photovoltaics space, where the learning curves began in the early 1970s. Since that time, there have been hundreds of technologies that have intersected and interconnected to create a 23 percent reduction in price for each doubling in sales volume with no signs that it’s going to slow down.

The same kind of curve is occurring in the battery space because, again, it is micromaterial-based and multiple new smart materials all coming together to give you both more kilowatts and kilowatt-hours. The battery market is now tasting success; it is attracting huge investments, again, with no signs of slowing down.

Why did no one in the energy industry see this coming?

Divan: If we go back to around the year 2000, at that point, solar LCOE (levelized cost of energy) was $850 per megawatt-hour, and batteries were $1,200/KWh. There was nobody in their right mind who thought that that would ever become competitive with gas and coal sitting at around $35/KWh and $50/KWh.

No one believed that the learning rates in solar or batteries, for example, could be sustained. Everyone in the industry thought that the technology was gimmicky and was not really going to be able to scale. After all, solar panels are small little things. How could you compete with a 500-megawatt gas plant?

Additionally, the utilities all used similar 20-year integrated resource planning cycles. So, they were already making investments in terms of what needed to be done and there was not a consultancy in the world who was willing to advise them to say stop everything you’re doing and let’s start moving towards solar. There was no rational basis for that.

The energy industry also believed they had so much economic and policy clout, they could hold off any threat from renewable energy forever.

I do not think the transition to renewables and EVs can be stopped, but I think it can be made extremely messy. —Deepak Divan

A former CEO for PJM, the biggest grid operator in the United States, told me that even in 2010 there was not a single CEO of a grid operator, electric utility, automotive or oil company who thought that electric vehicles, solar power or batteries were going to be cost competitive any time soon.

But by 2015, new energy companies were disrupting energy incumbents’ long-held assumptions. This was reflected by an astounding 97.5 percent reduction in the cost of solar from 2000 to 2022, and this is installed cost! And similarly with batteries, there has been a 92 percent cost reduction over the same period that is just continuing because there are so many new technologies being brought into play.

As to why the biggest companies in the world that are responsible for a huge part of global GDP, have the smartest people in the world and are advised by the smartest consultants in the world, could not see this coming is a fundamental question that we have asked in the book.

One of the implications you discuss is that the distributed energy resources, or DERs, like solar power, windmills and large-scale energy-storage systems are going to change the electric grid from a synchronous generator and inertia-driven system to an inverter-based resource (IBR) rich grid where grid voltage and frequency are not regulated by inertial sources. Can you explain the difference, why and what needs to happen both from a technology perspective to move to a decarbonized IBR grid?

Divan: Getting to an inverter-based grid is one of the things that the industry is struggling with on the technology side. Fundamentally, the existing grid is electromechanical in nature.

There are these big, rotating, energy-generating turbine-driven synchronous machines, and over 100 years we have figured out how to make them work to make the grid reliable. All the simplifications and efficiencies, all the standardizations and designs and synchronous generators that were needed have been figured out and now there is a system that works reasonably well. The grid that has been built in the United States has been called the largest machine ever built, with all these rotating machines possessing huge amounts of rotational inertia, all rotating together in lockstep because of the way synchronous machines operate.

an aeriel view of numerous wind turbines in a line on a green rolling hillsRyanJLane/Getty Images

When even a small disturbance occurs anywhere on the grid, all of them continue to operate locked together and to share the power delivered, with the ability to clear any faults as they occur on the system. The entire system is structured around this model. While it is often called a smart grid, there’s nothing smart about it. It’s an extremely good grid but it’s really a passive grid. All the smarts are sitting 15 minutes away at the operator level. So, for 15 minutes, the system has to keep operating until the next command is received.

This enormous machine has several interesting characteristics that make it work well. One is that the grid has a lot of damping built into it. Anytime there is a deviation because of a disturbance on the system, there’s a restorative torque that automatically occurs on it.

Another characteristic is that it is usually thought that frequency is the universal parameter on the system, since all the generators essentially use a power-frequency droop principle to share power equally. However, the problem is that in the synchronous generator world, frequency command is a DC quantity, while the three-phase AC voltages are generated and locked in by the machines’ action itself, not by control action.

Now, as synchronous generators are replaced with inverters, you don’t have any intrinsic rotation or inertia in the system. We don’t have any of the attributes of damping that are automatically built into it. Further, there are now inverters with DSPs [digital signal processors] and FPGAs [field-programmable gate arrays] which allow the measurement of the grid voltage and to act very, very quickly.

For the first time in our history, decarbonized climate-friendly solutions are also lower cost than traditional fossil-energy-based solutions. For the first time ever, what is good for our wallet is also good for the planet! —Deepak Divan

In the early years and all the way until very recently, we only built what we call grid-following inverters. Essentially, the voltage of the grid was taken as given and power was pushed against it. The inverter followed the grid and power could be dispatched per utility command, which worked fine. This has allowed us to scale IBRs in many locations around the world.

The difficulty is as one gets to high penetration of inverter-based resources, the grid is no longer being formed nicely, and so the system can become unstable.

Now there is a need to start thinking about how the grid is going to be formed when we have an inverter-dominant grid. The issue is that one does not have that rotating machine, one doesn’t have that restorative torque, and one doesn’t have the system damping. None of those things are there.

Each inverter thinks it is very smart and it’s going to try to form the voltage based on local information. However, it is also going to have to interact with what another inverter is trying to do to form voltage and what another inverter is doing, and so on. This becomes a problem.

So as these inverters interact with each other, it’s often hard to keep them stable. While we have been able to demonstrate grid-forming inverters and every manufacturer now claims to have one, we do not exactly know what a grid-forming inverter should do, especially when done at scale, to ensure that they do not interact with each other, particularly when millions of inverters are deployed. This creates a challenge.

There is also the concern that each of these inverters is made by a different manufacturer. Some of them were made 20 years back, some were made 10 years back some and these now need to be compatible with what will be made in the next 10 years. They are no agreed standards. Standards are lagging by 10 years or more.

The question is what does one do, if it takes you 10 years to get a new standard out, and given that the rate of solar deployment is so high that in that time some 1,000 gigawatts of PV solar will be deployed, but none of it will be compliant with the future, as yet unknown, standard?

How do you also stabilize the grid in this environment?

Divan: The utilities today have grown up without having to worry about any of these issues. They just focused on how to restore power, how to connect this to that, how to manage the workforce, and so on. Not this dynamic beast which they have few skills in dealing with. In fact, most big electric utilities have few people in their workforce who are skilled in power electronics, because the old system did not need it.

These are very complex issues and part of the challenge is that it is a different operational paradigm than today. We do not have these fundamental issues resolved. The important question, I think, and part of the problem is that nobody can stand in public and say, “Hey, there’s a problem here!”

I keep thinking that Elon Musk should not be worrying so much about autonomous cars today. Give me an autonomous inverter first. That is a much, much more important priority in the near term.

In the book, you were careful to also lay out factors that could derail your energy vision for 2040. Could you discuss a few of them, and what might be done to avoid or minimize them?

Divan: I do not think the transition to renewables and EVs can be stopped, but I think it can be made extremely messy.

Major energy transformations have taken 50 to 70 years, and they have been very messy from a regulatory standpoint. People are pushing back against going to renewables, but I do not think they can win because at the end of the day, everybody is going to respond to the economics and functionality of inexpensive renewables and new holistic solutions.

Even if we in the United States do not do it because of the politics and incumbent resistance, the Chinese and others are going to continue to move the technology along and to drive the prices down. And so you know, you’re going to at some point say, oh, ****, I think we have to adopt this new stuff, because it’s going to seep into widespread use. By then, I am concerned that we will have been left behind.

Nobody can argue with economics of renewables in the future; it is going to drive everything. However, if you do not think about the economics and government policies properly together, they will drive bad outcomes. —Deepak Divan

Another issue that could make things messy is that the utilities do not have the ability to change easily. They must meet their reliability requirements in the near term, which becomes problematic when all these new technologies are coming in. They are not going to absorb these technologies easily.

In addition, the energy load is moving in. Data centers, especially those for AI, are coming online, as well as electric-vehicle charging, heat pumps and green hydrogen. How do you meet those requirements?

It is tempting to say, “Let’s go back to the old days and fire up the gas and coal plants.” While that is not the answer, that is something that easily could happen.

The point I am trying to make is that I do not believe this energy transition can be stopped, but it can be made extremely expensive. It can be made extremely messy and then we will have lost the climate battle at the same time. But it does not have to be so! For the first time in our history, decarbonized climate-friendly solutions are also lower cost than traditional fossil-energy-based solutions. For the first time ever, what is good for our wallet is also good for the planet!

Nobody is laying the difficulties out. Nobody. The hope with writing this book was to start this conversation because we are not seeing anybody addressing these issues holistically.

Unfortunately, most people are unable to act on something that has a long-term benefit but is more expensive in the near to midterm. They will only act in the short term. So, you have to give them a short-term reason for doing something by making it the attractive thing to do financially.

aerial view of trees and road in the shape of a electric plugViaframe/Getty Images

This is very important in my mind. Nobody can argue with economics of renewables in the future; it is going to drive everything. However, if you do not think about the economics and government policies properly together, they will drive bad outcomes.

Who do you hope will read your book, and what are the two or three fundamental messages they should take away and, more importantly, act on and when?

Divan: I think the audience is everybody who is interested in energy in general, including researchers, engineers, policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs and students. People are interested in the topics we raise. Every time I go into a room, I have six people approach me and want to talk about it. They are reading something in the news, and they have only a narrow sliver of information. They are not able to connect all the dots together.

I think part of the problem is that this field is very complex and very nuanced, and when you try to simplify it, you can get to the wrong conclusions. My objective for writing the book was that we really do not hear this line of conversation in the industry. In other words, a holistic view of the problems confronting the industry is required because everything you do intersects with something else.

The utility industry does not fully understand this. When I go to the IEEE Power and Energy Society general meeting, I go to every conference room and I ask a question about the dynamics and scaling of IBRs and distributed systems. Nobody has an answer. This is scary. I mean, this whole industry is there, and they’re absorbing gigawatts after gigawatts of renewable energy and don’t have any idea what the hell is going happen as we move to a distributed energy resources dominant zero-carbon grid (which EPRI has also set as the target for 2050).

Again, oversimplifying is going to lead us to the wrong place, not looking holistically is going to lead us to the wrong place. We have an opportunity where we have alignment between economics and decarbonization for the first time. Let’s not blow it.

This article was updated on 10 July 2024 to correct the units in solar LCOE in 2000 to US $850 per megawatt-hour instead of per kilowatt-hour.

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strugk
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Full-scale self-assembling wind turbine system funded for construction

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The sheer size of today's wind turbines is mind-boggling – they're among the biggest machines humanity has ever built, and the bigger they get, the more potential value you can get by adding a little extra length to the blades.

But all that size comes at a considerable cost – not just in materials, but in logistics and installation. And particularly the cranes involved; remember, the heaviest bit of a regular pinwheel-style wind turbine is the generator right at the top of the tower.

With these towers now reaching several hundred feet high, imagine the crane ship you'd need to lift a 20-plus megawatt generator up there and hold it still. Actually, don't imagine, take a look:

The costs can be astronomical, and some of these operations can only be done in the flattest conditions, leaving equipment that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a day sitting around and waiting.

A number of fascinating 'climbing crane' designs are starting to pop up to solve this problem, both onshore and off – and they look amazing, but mounting the crane directly to the turbine tower means you need to beef up the tower, so it can handle those asymmetrical loads.

The WindSpider design doesn't, since it builds its own little scaffold around the tower, section by section, and mounts the small crane unit directly to that. This means the system works with any old wind turbine design – and it can scale to handle more or less any size of turbine tower. You still need a crane ship, but it's a comparatively tiny one.

Another interesting feature here is the "blade tool." Wind turbine blades, of course, are lightweight and custom-designed to catch the wind. Installation sites are chosen because they're among the windiest spots in the world. So lifting these things on a regular crane rope could be a very hairy experience.

The WindSpider's blade tool clings to the side of the scaffolding, and holds a blade steady as it climbs up to the top, where it can then hold the blade in position as it's attached to the nacelle – even in heavy winds.

The company promises huge savings not only on installation, but on repairs and maintenance throughout the life of a turbine.

The Norwegian company has just received a grant from Innovation Norway, to continue developing the aluminum lifting solution, control system and simulator. "The project marks the start of building the first full-scale unit of the WindSpider system," reads a press release, " which has the potential to become one of the tallest cranes in the world."

We look forward to seeing these things in operation – lord knows, offshore wind could do with some help reducing costs as the world pivots toward clean energy.

Source: WindSpider via Recharge Energy

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strugk
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Offshore wind turbine platform pivots downwind like a weathervane

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A new offshore wind farm system that promises faster, cheaper installation and operations will be tested in the Mediterranean. Called the NextFloat+ Project, it received a €13.4-million (US$14.4-million) grant from the European Commission.

Setting up wind farms at sea seems like a logical idea. Sea breezes tend to blow regularly and open water provides a more predictable and dependable wind pattern than on land. Plus you don't have to worry so much about compulsory purchase of the building site.

However, the engineering challenges of setting up turbines at sea are so great that they often outweigh the benefits. This is because not only do the turbines need to be very robust, with blades that won't bend under load and strike their own mast, they also require heavy mooring systems to keep them in place that are expensive to install.

NextFloat+ is a consortium led by Barcelona-based X1 Wind and includes Technip Energies and NextFloat Plus SAS. Its purpose is to build a prototype 6-MW wind station called X90. This is a triangular floating platform with a single turbine that is assembled onshore and then towed to the installation site.

The X90 uses Single Point Mooring (SPM) and a Tension Leg Platform (TLP) system that doesn't require special heavy equipment to install. In a TLP, the triangular structure floats on the surface and three cables connect to a mooring on the seabed at depths of over 1,600 ft (500 m). These are then tensioned to keep the platform precisely in place. For the X90, the TLP uses a SPM to the cable trio that allows the platform to passively turn into the wind. Before the platform is floated out, the SPM is installed with a quick-connect system that lets the platform be snapped into place on arrival.

This setup is designed around what at first seems like a backward turbine. Conventionally, wind turbines face into the wind and the assembly turns on top of a mast as the wind shifts. This means that the mast must be able to withstand a lot of strain and the rotor blades must bend as little as possible or they could end up striking the mast, which would be most unfortunate.

With the X90, the rotor is fixed on the platform, which does all the turning. In addition, the turbine pivots like a weathervane and faces away from the wind, so the air pushes the blade from behind. Since there's no mast to strike, the blades can pretty much bend as they please. This not only makes for a simpler and lighter design, but one that is cheaper and easier to maintain.

In all, the platform, mooring arrangements, and turbine reduce the installation's seabed footprint. It also lends itself to scalability thanks to its modular design, with a new mass-produced commercial platform of over 20 MW already on the drawing board.

"We’re thrilled to receive support from the Innovation Fund," said X1 Wind CEO and co-founder Alex Raventos. "The grant represents a cornerstone in the fundraising for the NextFloat+ Project, adding to finance already secured through the European Commission under the Horizon Europe program, finance secured through the French Government as part of the France 2030 plan operated by ADEME, plus private funding from partners and shareholders. Crucially, it will provide an opportunity to drive substantial improvements in the competitiveness of floating wind as we prepare for long-term mass deployment in locations around the world."

The video below shows a prototype of X1 Wind's PivotBuoy system in storm conditions.

X1 Wind's PivotBuoy Floating Wind Platform in Storm Conditions

Source: X-Wind

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