Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login

That is some amazing technology right there, almost fun to read because it sounds like science fiction but it's real.

And privately designed/built/owned particle accelerators? It's definitely a new era.

What if one day the other side of the globe getting sunlight powered the grid for the other half? Of course this would require very peaceful nations on each continent, so even if we had the cost-effective technology now, it would take hundreds if not thousands of years to happen politically.

I agree the particle accelerator is pretty cool, of course transporting power around the globe is not as easy as stringing a wire, for every mile of wire you lose power due to the resistance of the wire. This is the problem of 'power transmission'. This is the same reason you can't build nuclear power plants in the middle of a desert 500 miles from anywhere and ship the power out sadly.

That being said, at .40/watt you can cover a lot of rooftops economically and that means that you cut the top off the 'peak' usage for a city or town. Cutting that peak off is a huge win because often power companies have fossil fuel plants (called 'peaker plants') which they bring online only during peak power requirements.

The cool thing about having the buildings support the power load is you get a benefit of not transporting it very far (few losses due to power line resistance). And yes, even on the most overcast day solar panels generate power. The ones on my roof in California can generate nearly 50% of their best days on overcast days. That does not hold though for panels covered in snow so there is some requirement to keep them clean.

We can build power plants in the middle of the desert and ship power out. The technology exists; we just haven't done it yet. Transmission losses are not a concern for superconducting cables (though maintaining the cryostat jacket is). Such cables are currently being proven before being used in larger grid connections.




Forget supercondictivity, what about HVDC [1]?

HVDC can be as efficient as 97%, compared with the US average of 93%. That 4% "inefficiency tax" would likely pay for long-haul HVDC connectors (as outlined in one of Obama's 2008 energy proposals) within years.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-voltage_direct_current#Adv...

New Zealand has had a 600V HVDC link from the South Island to the North Island for quite some years - most of the power is generated by the hydro lakes in the south, then delivered via a 610km link to a substation in the north, where it is fed into the normal high-voltage transmission grid.


So it is a proven technology to have this as a long distance link (been in operation since 1965) and it is capable of bi-directional power transfer as well.

I'm curious where you get the "600V" number from -- is that 600 volts? According to the Wikipedia page you linked the system uses "+270kV and −350kV", which is in the range I would expect. Maybe you meant 620kV, the difference between +270kV and -350kV?

My apologies, that must've been some confusion in my mind... it was a 600MW HVDC link... although it is higher now, and works are underway to bring it up to somewhere near 1.4GW.

HVDC definitely makes sense for connecting islands together. The cable goes underwater, and in water, the capacitance of the cable is much increased by the greater dielectric constant of the water, which makes AC transmission less efficient.

You know I've never heard of HVDC until I read this. So was Edison right all along?

Not really. The AC transformer was the most efficient way to adapt voltages until very recently. The IGBT and GTO thyristors are the technology that makes something like HVDC affordable today, and they are very modern developments.

Mercury-arc rectifiers (the technology replaced with IGBTs and GTOs) were very large and expensive, and also less efficient (even more so before the 1930s or so) so HVDC only made sense for submarine cables (which have huge capacitive losses). With IGBTs and GTO thyristors it start to become feasible to e.g. do an HVDC line across a continent.

As an example the HVDC inter-island was built using mercury-arc valves (it included a submarine leg), but they have since benn replaced with solid-state devices.

HVDC is also a good to tie two separate grids together; since they will be on different time-bases you can't just directly AC couple them.

No. AC is still far more useful in many key scenarios [1]. However, for long-distance power transmission, lots of money could be saved (and jobs created in doing so) by switching from AC to HVDC.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-voltage_direct_current#Dis... (note: some of these are due to AC parts having economies of scale and decades of efficiencies and process that HVDC may not be able to tap into without widescale implementation)

The real problem is that a nuclear power plant needs a staff of several hundred people. They can't travel 500 miles every day to work to the middle of a desert. Even if they wanted to relocate there, they would have to build a little town to serve these people and their families, and now we are back to the original problem.

Other problems with building nuclear plants (or any other type of plant that requires large steam turbines) in the desert include:

* Difficulty cooling. If you build next to an ocean or river, you can just use some of that water to provide the cold end of the temperature differential that you're using to generate power. Deserts are trickier, and more expensive.

* Transportation. If you build next to navigable waterways, you can ship really big components on barges. In deserts, you can ship some things by rail.

But hey, at least it's politically convenient to stick scary power plants in deserts.

Some of the GenIV designs don't require water cooling.

They all require some kind of cooling. Fundamentally, a nuclear reactor sets up one end of a temperature differential that you can use to do work:


Water just happens to be a particularly convenient coolant.

I'm aware of that, but water isn't the only convenient coolant. Molten salt, sodium, molten lead, and helium are other options.

Water has some disadvantages. It's a good neutron moderator, but with its low boiling point you have to keep it under a lot of pressure (160 atmospheres for most light-water reactors). That means you need very strong, thick steel, and a huge oversize containment dome, since if a pipe breaks, the steam will flash into 1000 times as much volume. Then some of it will split, and you'll be at risk of a hydrogen explosion, which is what we all saw at Fukushima.

Molten salt, on the other hand, works at atmospheric pressure, and if something leaks it just drips out and cools into rock.

Sodium has a disadvantage in being reactive with oxygen and water, but it also works at atmospheric pressure. The integral fast reactor design uses a big pool of sodium, which provides so much thermal inertia that Argonne was able to switch off the cooling system entirely, and the reactor just quietly shut down.

Either design works at higher temperatures than LWRs, giving better thermodynamic efficiency.

I think he meant a solar plant in the middle of the desert, not a nuclear plant. Solar plants don't need staffs that large.

The technology exists; we just haven't done it yet.

Actually, we have, albeit with varying degrees of success: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_plants_in_the_Mojav... http://articles.latimes.com/print/2012/mar/04/local/la-me-so...

Wow, those are pretty cool. Hate to be around when they lost cooling (dropping out of superconductivity would be a pretty energetic event :-). But its good news on that front.

If you've ever seen the insulator jacket in an underground HVDC cable it is huge.

Most of these systems both carry power and sit in a pool of coolant so they rarely experience such an 'energetic event'. AKA, if they lose power they don't need to keep things cool AND it usually takes a few hours for things to warm up anyway.

Not a superconducting cable, but this is a great read:


Thank you for the link - this was a great read =)

No superconductors needed, DC power conversion is the key. There is a large project on the way in Europe/Northern Afria called Desertec.


Forget about superconductivity.

How about flywheels?

Flywheels are for energy storage, not transmission.

Heh. Never underestimate the power of a station wagon full of flywheels hurtling down the highway?

Steering a car full of gyroscopes in fast moving traffic? Sign me up!

That's really cool, I'd never heard of these. I imagine the flywheels are horizontal so that the bus can turn without trying to change their angular momentum, but I wonder if there's any effect on banked curves or going up hills.

just let them roll to their destination!

I think he means install them for each house, store the non-peak surplus energy, and then use it during peak times.

Most of the power loss is related to using AC instead of DC.

Citation needed?

Somehow for hydro electric damns it works perfectly fine to send 2.73 GW 500+ miles. Look at the WAC Bennett damn in Northern BC which supplies power to Washington, Oregon and California, or Churchill Falls which supplies 5.7 GW of power to Quebec and New York.

Perhaps you haven't seen the Nelson River project.

There's an obvious opportunity that most people miss - put energy-intensive manufacturing processes in sundrenched places. Industrial energy consumption is about 30% of total use in the US, representing a greater share than either transport or domestic use. Aluminium smelting requires massive amounts of electricity, so we're already locating smelters near to hydroelectric dams to take advantage of cheap electricity.

There are hundreds of other processes with huge energy inputs that are currently satisfied by cheap fossil fuels, but could well be met by equatorial solar facilities. Considering how quickly manufacturing transitioned to China, it seems entirely plausible that we could move most high-energy, low-labour processes to equatorial regions within a couple of decades.

Transportation of electricity around the globe is not neccessary. Electricity usage is considerably lower during nighttime. Thus solar and wind fit in with our natural rhythm quite nicely. And it is also produced near the place there it is being consumed. Another plus.

But still the author is right, we need ways to store electricity and we will also need a much more flexible grid than the one we have today.

The neo liberal FDP here in Germany is trying to kill off the solar market by drastically reducing the fee you get for feeding solar electricity into the system. But we already have net parity, therefore it is feasible to put up a photovoltaic system on your house, when you size it carefully and consume much of the energy by yourself. It simply reduces your utility bill. If this new technology really halves the price of modules, people for sure will continue installing new systems. Yay!

Germany's solar stimulus is highly questionable. Sure, it gets solar panels installed on a large scale, but government forced diffusion of an innovation is a questionable idea. Pumping money in a relatively narrow market and creating an artificial demand situation leads to a lot of side effects, i.e. Germany's quasi-stimulation of the Asian component manufacturing market.

Compared to pumping money into pointless wars I think pumping money into subsidized solar panels is an excellent use of money. Sure there are many other ways to spend that money, and some of them may even be better.

But this is definitely long term thinking on their part. Already Germany is the current world leader when it comes to renewables as a percentage of total generating power.

As the price of power goes up this 'stupid' strategy starts to look smarter by the day.

Germany also shut down sth like 60% of their nuclear power plants in response to Fukushima hysteria, even thought in central Europe there are no tsunami, nor big earthquakes.

Then, January/February this year cold snap happened, and they had to buy power from neighborns that still have regular obsolete power plants, because they couldn't provide enough energy for themselves. Green energy means you hope for good weather or neighborns to have enough electricity.

Germany is now protesting Poland new nuclear power plant, when Poland is trying to change its dependence on fossil fuels (sth lik 96%, I don't remember exactly).

This isn't smart. This is hysteria-motivated energy policy.

Sorry, but you are not correct. During the very cold days this winter it was very sunny. Because of this, Photovoltaic could compensate. It went through the local media, that even though most of the nukuhlar powerplants were shut down, we could still export (!) electricity to our neighours. For exmple to France, where they are heating a lot with electricity and had a shortage because of the cold.


Thanks. I remember reading it the way I've posted aboove, but now I can't find that article, and I've found corrections all over the web: http://enenews.com/scandal-germany-not-restarting-nuclear-re...

EDIT: one source http://rt.com/news/germany-reactors-cold-weather-927/

I agree. And when people talk about the money required for solar being so much more than the money required for carbon based fuels they don't take into the costs of controlling the resources in the middle east, the costs to take care of the people with lung problems, the cost of cleaning up the gulf coast and all the problems related to that (not to mention the costs of similar problems worldwide, such as in Nigeria). I'm sure there are similar external costs to solar but I highly doubt they're nearly as much.

The problem is that these costs actually add to the GDP, which makes them look like a good thing, because they "make the economy grow".

The reduction of the solar subsidy is right. It is not killing the solar market at all, but your new solar-panels on the roof of your house won't give returns as nice as 10% anymore. Also those returns are paid by every electricity consumer in the country which at the current rate isn't fair at all.

Also the adaption of solar panels on homes went far faster, then most people expected. The grids in single-family home neighborhoods simply are not designed to handle much power being fed into the system at this point. The problem is that at daytime, when the sun shines there is not much power needed in residential neighborhoods, since everyone is at work. This is why self-consumption is the desired use-case for solar-energy on family homes. That's why I think there is a market for home-control right there. -> "Start washing machine WHEN solar energy > X"

IMO, as long as the tax is inline with the actual external costs it of other forms of energy generation it's not a bad thing. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality) It's basically renaming a sin tax as a green subsidy but there is value in having that tax even if it's revenue is mostly wasted.

I agree in principle with the idea that carbon-based energy has a ton of negative externalities (megatons, in fact...), so there should exist a relative subsidy between it and green.

The issue is that creates even distortion between the energy sector as a whole and the rest of the economy, since fossil fuels are already subsidized (through not pricing in the negative externality) and we're adding a separate subsidy to green energy.

So we're distorting the market to favor creating green energy over reduced consumption of energy. When what's really needed is simply an effective tax on carbon, and then let people decide the most efficient way to respond.

I think they are taxing existing energy sources to pay for the subsidy so on net people using electricity pay the actual cost for green power and other sources based on the actual mix of energy sources used in production. It only the producers who notice the cost difference this tax / subsidy creates.

> Thus solar and wind fit in with our natural rhythm quite nicely.

It's not that nice, because power output from wind/solar plants is random (depends on things like cloud cover or wind strength) and it causes problems in power grid, where power demand must meet the supply exactly, or bad things will happen.

"Without Hot Air"[1] covers this, and other renewable-related issues quite nicely and with real data. I recommend it, it's a good read. It has some good ideas on how to solve power supply/demand problems.

On TED2012 there was a talk about a new kind of batteries designed to solve those kind of problems in the power grid; the video from the talk is not yet up, though (but I think it should be soon, at [2]).

[1] - http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/

[2] - http://www.ted.com/talks?lang=en&event=2012&duration...

power output from wind/solar plants is random (depends on things like cloud cover ...) and it causes problems in power grid, where power demand must meet the supply exactly

The biggest power cost for us in warmer climates is cooling. When the sun is out, we need lots of power; when it's not, not so much. Solar power sufficient to run A/C from rooftop panels costing less than grid electricity would be wonderful, lining up perfectly with the inconsistencies of available sunlight.

I would start with better home design and energy efficiency enhancing improvements before throwing a Carnot-limited solution at the problem.

Last summer I ran an experiment. We live in a two story house in California. We usually see low temperatures at night (sub 70deg F) and highs in the range of 105+ degF during the day. At night I opened all of the windows downstairs and used a small industrial fan (about 2000CFM) to pump cold outside air into the house. In the morning I'd shut down the fan and close all windows.

I could get the lower part of the house down to below 70F on most days during the summer. Cold enough to have to wear a sweater. Even with the outside temperature hitting highs above 105+ the thermal mass of the house succeeded in maintaining a very comfortable inside temperature (max around 77F). We did not use the air conditioner at all last summer, saving tons of money. The fan costs pennies a day to run.

This summer I am looking at what efficiency improvements I can make to this arrangement. I'm itching to throw a micro-controller at it, but I want to learn a little more before I take that path. There's a lot to do in the roof. Think about it, you have this huge solar heat collector --the roof-- reaching ridiculous temperatures during the day and radiating that right into the house. Sure, there's attic insulation, but that's a ton of energy to deal with.

I'm thinking that some forced ventilation of the attic with a small fan might just do wonders.

That only works in desert type environments (i.e. little to no cloud cover) where the temperature goes up and down each day.

Where I live if it gets hot it says hot, day and night. And most of the country is the same.

Although, obviously, incremental improvements are great even if only some people can use them.

You might be able to use the thermal stability you have underground to help cool the house. Granted, this is more expensive, but probably far less costly in the long run. The basic idea is to bury a heat exchanger (coils of tubing) deep underground and circulate a fluid to move heat from hot to cold.

You can use this two ways: You can use it to try to cool the house directly by embedding tubing in the floor/walls or some other approach. Or, you could use it to improve the efficiency of an air conditioning unit by providing supplemental cooling of the A/C unit heat exchanger coils.

>I'm thinking that some forced ventilation of the attic with a small fan might just do wonders.

Radiative barriers should also be on your list. It's essentially just mylar stapled to the rafters.

Especially if one would switch to heat pumps, which can do both heating and cooling, providing/removing 3 to 5 times more heat than electricity they use up to do so. Amazing technology, by the way :).

Most air conditioners are heat pumps configured to work in one direction, using outside air as a temperature sink.

(I realize that this is at least borderline pedantry)

Oh, I interpreted A/C as Active Current; my mistake. Thanks for pointing that out.

(I, for one, don't mind pedantry :))

When solar and wind power input is not meeting demand that seems like a good time to spin up the spare fossil fuel generators, at least as a transitional sort of thing. Maybe in the near future excess wind / solar power can be stored as chemical fuel, and burned during peak usage.

An 80% / 90 % cut in fossil fuel usage or higher would be a huge thing though!

Whilst on a small scale they are very random, there are some good studies (sadly I don't have the references with me) that show that over large areas, they actually become quite predictable - so this is less of an issue than people think if you have enough coverage

I meant that it is nice in the coarse pattern. And yes, as said, we need ways to store energy and a flexible grid.

Store electricity like this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turlough_Hill - pump the water uphill during daylight and let it flow down when needed.

Germany has a plan to use Norway as a huge energy store, adding pumping capacity to the hydroelectric plants.

Really? I would be very interested in reading more about this. Got any sources? (Preferably in English or Norwegian ;) )

There is a presentation here http://norwegen.ahk.de/fileadmin/ahk_norwegen/Dokumente/Pres... And an article here about building the necessary cabling http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/08/27/us-norway-seacable...

To be fair, one could equally frame what they're doing as removing the subsidy to people who put photovoltaic systems on their roof. Arguably that same money would have been better invested in research of improved solar technology such as this.

And privately designed/built/owned particle accelerators? It's definitely a new era.

I actually worked at a startup from about 2007-2009 that was designing particle accelerators for another company pursuing what appears to be the exact same technology (possibly some of the same people).


No idea what came of the project. Very high current ion accelerators in the +1 MeV range is quite the trick without a huge budget. Our company was full of people from Los Alamos. We were actually focusing on a different application that needed higher output.

There is a quite sizeable commercial accelerator market for medical, industrial imaging, and radiation sterilization use (and of course various "homeland security uses".

> And privately designed/built/owned particle accelerators? It's definitely a new era.

It's not that new.


>Of course this would require very peaceful nations on each continent, so even if we had the cost-effective technology now, it would take hundreds if not thousands of years to happen politically.

I don't see politics as being the primary challenge; the US has allies in almost every time zone that could fairly easily facilitate this. I imagine the greater challenge would come from trying to get all that electricity across oceans. Copper wires thick enough to carry a substantial amount of electricity seem like they would be too think to actually lay, and then you have parasitic losses to contend with should they manage to find a way to do it.

>>What if one day the other side of the globe getting sunlight powered the grid for the other half? Of course this would require very peaceful nations on each continent, so even if we had the cost-effective technology now, it would take hundreds if not thousands of years to happen politically.<<

Why? Look at the world today. Russia supplies energy to Western Europe, Saudi Arabia provides energy to the US, Australia provides coal to China. None of them have much love for each other, it's just mutual self-interest.

I don't think privately designed/built/owned particle accelerators are that uncommon actually; hospitals have been using cyclotrons for cancer therapy treatments for at least a few years (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclotron#Usage), and I'm fairly certain these are built and sold by medical equipment manufactures like Advanced Cyclotron.

No denying it's still amazing though...

> And privately designed/built/owned particle accelerators? It's definitely a new era.

Well, you could build a push-pull Van de Graaff generator, hook it up to a discharge tube, hook the tube to a high vacuum pump, and there ya go, linear accelerator in the 1 MeV range. Totally doable in a garage.

There are people who built a cyclotron at home. You'll need to wind a huge coil, but it's doable.

> And privately designed/built/owned particle accelerators? It's definitely a new era.


I guess it's just a question of power!

> Of course this would require very peaceful nations on each continent

Or maybe it would create peaceful nations on each continent. You may say I'm a dreamer.... :)

We're already buying energy from nations that aren't very peaceful, so the political issues may be solveable. I think, though, that transmitting energy halfway around the world would present engineering problems: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission

Buying oil from nations we don't like is acceptable because everyone wants to own their own car, it's very selfish motivation and massively profitable for the middlemen.

Trading cheap electric power with little profit requires governments to make forward thinking, progressive decisions because no business will bother unless they could make millions from their effort.

Also, I often ponder what will happen one day when power is cheap and easily available - you'd want to hope it means less war but I fear it means the opposite. The war machine will LOVE cheap power and then attacking power feeds or cutting off the other side of the globe as an act of war or terrorism will be too easy of a target. So we'd need peace first which is unlikely to happen given most governments.

The technology is very similar to what SOItech is doing for Silicon on insulator wafers: http://www.soitec.com/en/technologies/smart-cut/

Transmitting the power around the planet isn't a given. You'd need super conductors to limit power loss.

Line losses decrease as voltage increases. Also, using DC instead of AC can further decrease losses.

Hydrogen fuel cells powered up by cheap solar panels will be our future power source. No need to transmit electricity across the globe.

Applications are open for YC Summer 2018

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact