Archive for category Energy

Maker Faire 2012

Come visit us at Maker Faire!

I just got the confirmation email that I’ve been accepted to have a booth at this year’s Maker Faire.  The booth is called A Sense of Things, as it was last year, and is numbered 7443.   I hope to visit with all my sensor friends on Saturday and Sunday, May 19th, 20th.

I’ll be showing our latest development on a low cost wireless sensor network designed for the “everyman” or “everywoman” who wants to track things in and around their homes.  Please stop by for a visit.

To sign up for the maker Faire:  http://makerfaire.com/be-a-maker.csp

 

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The new Nest Learning Thermostat – $250

A friend sent me a link to this article  about the new Nest Thermostat and I got very excited; went to the site to put in my order… rrrrP!  (that’s the sound of me hitting the brakes)

$250?  Why does cool have to cost so much?

I have been building my own home wireless sensor network for the last 2 years. Temperature, light, hall effect, gas detection, FSRs, the Tweet-a-watt, etc. using XBee modules and a wifi gateway that uses an open source OS (OpenWRT) and Python scripts to send data to web services (like Pachube.com, ThingSpeak, Open.Sen.se).  I’ve been studying home energy automation for a couple of years now and I’m beginning to understand the various aspects of what it takes to put together components to collect and communicate meaningful, actionable information.

The Nest Learning Thermostat has some cool features.  It learns… and that’s fantastic.  As I understand it, you can set the thermostat up or down at different times and it will remember what you set and build a schedule that repeats your preferences. That’s very cool. It has a motion detector to sense the presence of people in the house and turns the system down/off. That’s cool, too. But there are some serious issues that I see over and over in this field.

First off this device costs too much. It should be priced at somewhere below $50 for the thermostat. That would put it at a price point to get it into the homes of many more people. The more consumers use it, the more we can reduce our dependence, as a nation, on foreign sources of energy. That’s a national, heck, a global goal, right?

Next, I don’t see any way to help consumers understand meaningful and detailed results of the savings they create by using the thermostat. They might see an overall drop in their gas or electric bill, but how much can be attributed to the thermostat as opposed to the incandescent bulbs they replaced with CFLs, or by the shading of a porch, or by being more diligent in turning off the entertainment system (including the STB) and vampire loads.

Also, the designers have created a thermostat in a very traditional form. IOW, they’re not “thinking different”. The learning aspect is interesting, but I’d rather just go to my android app, or the web site and just start with a default profile for my region, house size, etc, and adjust to taste. Otherwise, I’ll not look at it again unless there is an exception to the rules, like going on a long weekend vacation.

Similarly, the designers are stuck with the concept that we need a thermostat on the wall and that we would ever want to get up off the couch and go look at it. Why spend the effort in a device that shouldn’t even require a UI. IOW, the phone app or web page should be the preferred UI.

A “think different” approach might have a temperature sensor and a motion detector in each room and these very cheap components can inform the HVAC controls how to adjust for optimum comfort vs cost. The display and controls don’t need to be on a wall in the hallway… That’s as old as the the round Honeywell thermostats people were referencing in the comments on the Wired Magazine article.

I also believe that the display devices that you get with most home automation system, perhaps in the style of elaborate refrigerator magnets with displays, are destined, too soon, for garage sales and Goodwill stores. Let’s extend the devices that we already have for control surfaces, like tablets, smart phones, game consoles. For those who don’t have smart phones in their homes, how about something like a cheap android phone form (w/o the phone functions), music players, remote controls, wifi tether devices; any devices that can support apps.

I believe profit is deserved by all who work but how much is enough? If you look at Chris Anderson’s approach describing how to make a profit on your products (), you would sell at 2.3 times the cost of parts; and that’s a good profit margin. If I did my math right, it looks like the BOM costs about $108.

I suppose they might be adding in some of the costs of running a free web service that stores all the data so clients can see the ongoing history of their thermostat settings correlated to the temperature of their house and the local weather.

Lastly, my impression is that the design isn’t finished. Design doesn’t stop until you’ve optimized the functionality, the design, and the cost. In this era of programmable microcontrollers, arduino shields, MEMS sensors, surface mount components, standard protocols, inexpensive cloud based web services, the Internet of Things… we need to delight consumers by making the products attractive, pervasive, and affiordable…  for everybody.

http://nest.com

http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2011/10/nest_thermostat

http://blog.ponoko.com/2010/11/16/ten-rules-for-maker-businesses-by-wireds-chris-anderson/

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Physical dashboard devices – Eh!

According to this article by Katie Fehrenbacher at Gigaom, the developers of home energy management systems have figured it out that there’s no future in dedicated dashboard devices when you have a marketplace full of iPhones, Android phones, iPads and other tablet devices.

The dedicated dashboard devices would be able to display various conditions of your home energy system, your local weather, etc., and to control devices in the home.   But now that we have Android phones and iPads, these new devices can access the web and use either native web pages or specialized apps.

It’s a no brainer.   Have a web based system as the default UI and provide specialized apps for hand held controls.

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Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP)

It will be interesting to watch the progress on artificial photosynthesis.

“The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), to be led by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), will bring together leading researchers in an ambitious effort aimed at simulating nature’s photosynthetic apparatus for practical energy production. The goal of the Hub is to develop an integrated solar energy-to-chemical fuel conversion system and move this system from the bench-top discovery phase to a scale where it can be commercialized.”

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Tendril's Hybrid-HAN

Tendril has a post on their blog that talks about an emerging style of energy monitoring connectivity that they are calling a Hybrid-HAN (home area network).  It envisions a dual network, one that utilizes a the Utility’s smart meter and a second provided b y the consumer; a wifi router, for example.  They figure this is a good thing because it will unburden the smart meter from the growing list of sensors and controls that will become more popular as consumers learn to understand the benefits of monitoring their home environment.

The consumer side of the system uses something called the ZigBee Smart Energy Profile.  Not sure about the Smart Energy Profile but Zigbee is a well known low power wireless protocol that I’ve been experimenting with for a low power, inexpensive monitoring system.  Each Zigbee (aka xBee) module can transmit or receive signals that cover most residential buildings and costs about $20.

Interestingly the image shows the data from the consumers gateway (basically a specialized router) being fed back to the utility company but I’m not sure that’s the way it will play out.

In the future, data locality will not be so crucial.  There are always concerns about this or that silo of data that stands alone and unaccessible from external sites.  But as we grow to understand the benefits of shared data, any system will be able to aggregate date from any other system (with proper authentication of course).

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Wireless Sensor Networks

This is going to be a base post (I’ll make it sticky) to hold the outline of tutorials related to various aspect of wireless sensor networks.  From the sensors and radios, to a gateway,  to web services, data logging and eventually, charting and analysis.  Look at this overview of Wireless Sensor Networks on Wikipedia.

Our interest is in developing a wireless sensor network platform that is inexpensive and simple to use.  There is a sweet spot between super high tech and older outdated technology where we believe there exists a meaningful set of technologies that will fit our goals.

XBee, Wifi, Sensors

XBee, Wifi, Sensors

What we’ve discovered is that we can use radios, like the xBee radios from Digi, with up to 4 sensors hooked up to each one, as our remote sensor boards.  We have also discovered that we can transform a wifi router into a tiny, low powered computer running an embedded, open source, operating system called OpenWRT.  Many wifi routers have a serial port available on the main pcb inside the device to which we can hook up a coordinating xBee radio; the counterpart to the ones on each sensor board.  Then we install a scripting language, Python, into the Linux operating system.  Finally, we install python scripts which can be used to collect the data being transmitted from the sensor boards and send that data to web services like Cosm (formerly Pachube), ThingSpeak, Open.sen.se, Paraimpu, etc.

So we have wireless sensor boards sending sensor data to a radio wired into the serial  port of a wifi router.  The wifi router has been re-flashed with an open source embedded Linux operating system, OpenWRT, and to that we’ve added Python as an easy to use scripting language.  We have then added various scripts to bundle the incoming data and send it to the internet for further processing, charting, and so forth.

It is an inexpensive, flexible, easy to use, wireless sensor network platform.

In this ongoing quest to learn more about sensor networks I’ll add links to the Resources Page.

Tutorials:

Here’s a list of notes we’ll be updating with information about how to build you’re own wireless sensor network.

  • WSN: Sensors: this is where is all begins.  The sensor responds to some environmental events and generates a voltage or a digital signal.  I’ll be going over a few sensor types that I’ve built; Tweet-a-watt, Temperature, Gas (example of indoor air quality), and a Force Sensitive Resistor (FSR) as an example of Elder Care.
  • Radio: XBee – Radios allow us to create the wireless part of sensor networks.  The XBee radio is very accessible to beginners even if configuration is a bit challenging.  I’ll describe the various aspects of XBee radios that I’ve used.
  • Gateway: Wifi Router – in the original design for the Tweet-a-watt the output from the sensor’s transmitter sent data to an XBee receiver hooked into a PC (via FTDI-USB).  The approach I describe uses a low powered (about 4 watts) Asus wi-fi router in place of a PC.  I’ll describe using OpenWRT as a replacement OS and adding a USB memory stick to extend the storage memory of the device.  I’ll also show how I added python with web service calls in order to send data to the internet.
  • Client facing site: a site for users to register their gateway devices and manage the sensors associated with each.  Also the place to look at the charts and subsequent analysis for the sensor data.  This is an MVC web application written in C# and ASP.NET using Visual Studio 2010 Express and SQL Server 2008 Express.

Next: WSN: Sensors

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Earth Hour

Today was Earth Hour day where people from all over the world call for action on climate changing policies by turning out as many lights as possible for at least one hour of the evening.  Check out their video:

Visit their site: http://www.myearthhour.org/

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Bloom Box

Bloom Energy's "Energy Server"

Bloom Energy's "Energy Server"

I’m not sure I’m convinced that the Bloom Box, featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes last week, is a reasonable answer to our power issues, but is sounds interesting.  And, after 8 years in development and $400m in VC funding and some actual systems in place at Google and Wal-Mart (customers), it seems there’s no looking back for the Bloom Energy’s Bloom Box.

What is the Bloom Box.  It is essentially a fuel cell that uses natural gas and special low cost components.  The fuel cell itself looks like an 8″ stack of CDs but the power unit, the Bloombox or Energy Server, is about the size of 2 refrigerators; and costs about $700,000-$800,000.  Each!  The installation at Google’s campus looked like they had about 20-30 units.  That’s a good start against the $400m investment.

Of course the outrageous price might be likened to the $10,000 PCs that are now many times more powerful and cost on the order of $500.  So what costs hundreds of thousands of dollars now might be a few thousand dollars in, oh, perhaps 20 years?

The promise of a Bloombox is that someday we can have our own Bloombox next to the AC unit on the side of our house and be completely free of the grid; except…  we will still need natural gas to power the fuel cell.

Call me cynical, but for now I’m a bit skeptical.  We will still need to pay for natural gas (the old fuel), we still need to pay for a bloombox (whenever it comes down to being affordable by people like me), and because of the VC investment, they’re sure to have all the patents locked down.  It’s unlikely therefore that we can go buy a knock-off “Boombox”.

I think it’s interesting that they’re calling the box a “Power Server”.  Great marketing.

Here’s a flash presentation from Bloom Energy’s site about how the fuel cell works:
http://bloomenergy.com/products/solid-oxide-fuel-cell-animation/

Good Review: blog.mapawatt.com/2010/02/21/bloom-box-an-unveiling-of-the-fuel-cell-future/

Another view: cleantechblog.com/2010/02/saving-cleantech-bloom-town-silicon.html

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The Fuel of Life, ATP?

Perhaps research on how ATP, is broken down in cells might lead to a new energy source.

Researchers determine how ATP, molecule bearing ‘the fuel of life,’ is broken down in cells

March 1, 2010

Researchers at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center have figured out how ATP is broken down in cells, providing for the first time a clear picture of the key reaction that allows cells in all living things to function and flourish.

http://www.physorg.com/news186584297.html

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Who owns your thermostat?

Once the smart meters have replaced your old analog power meters the next step is access to the appliances in your house allowing your power provider to control when you use those appliances.

Interesting to think about….

Here’s an interesting post on Home Energy:
http://www.homeenergy.org/blog.php?id=30&blog_title=Who_controls_your_thermostat?

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