Amid the sand dunes of the western Sahara, workers are putting the finishing touches on one of the world’s largest solar installations. There, as many as 7.2 million photovoltaic panels will make up Benban Solar Park—a renewable energy project so massive, it will be visible from space.
The 1.8-gigawatt installation is the first utility-scale PV plant in Egypt, a nation blessed with some of the best solar resources on the planet. The ambitious project is part of Egypt’s efforts to increase its generation capacity and incorporate more renewable sources into the mix.
“I think Benban Solar Park is the first real step to put Egypt on the solar production world map,” says Mohamed Orabi, a professor of power electronics at Aswan University.
New satellite sensor data, combined with info from the terrestrial U.S. National Lightning Detection Network, will help scientists identify the most dangerous lightning strikes
In the time it takes to read this sentence, lightning will strike somewhere in the world. In fact, lightning strikes are thought to occur between 50 and 100 times every second. Most of the time, lightning just puts on a pretty show. But sometimes, it kills people. And then there are the times when it ignites wildfires or damages electrical equipment.
With new tools, researchers can now distinguish the most damaging lightning strikes from the many millions of others that occur every year. All lightning is dangerous—but if we can tell which strikes are more likely to actually inflict harm, that information might help us react more quickly during a storm.
Already, the U.S. National Lightning Detection Network keeps a record of virtually all lightning that strikes the ground anywhere in the United States. That network is maintained by Helsinki-based Vaisala, which built it 30 years ago and sells the data to the National Weather Service and to utilities, airports, seaports, mines, and sporting arenas. Vaisala operates a global lightning detection network, as well.
But the company hasn’t been able to make one specific measurement that could provide clues as to how dangerous a given strike is likely to be—until now.
Dramatic cuts to the budget of the state’s only public university put its engineering programs in jeopardy
A thousand students enrolled in the University of Alaska’s engineering colleges in Fairbanks and Anchorage—the only engineering programs in the state—are probably wondering: What next? Administrators have few answers to offer as they confront Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy’s dramatic budget cuts to the state’s only public institution of higher education.
The future of Alaska’s engineering colleges is now in jeopardy along with the rest of the University of Alaska (UA) system. Dozens of engineering faculty, researchers, and staff could see their positions eliminated, and even tenured faculty members could lose their jobs. Students may not be able to finish their degrees in the programs or locations in which they started.
And thanks to the failure of another state budget measure called the reverse sweep, many engineering students have already lost merit-based scholarships promised to them through the Alaska Performance Scholarship program. Engineering students at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) have lost more than US $1 million in scholarships that were awarded but not funded.
“The situation is looking rather grim,” says Kenrick Mock, interim dean for UAA’s College of Engineering. The college offers degree programs in computer science, electrical engineering, computer systems engineering, and project management among others.
Mock, who is in the Computer Science and Engineering Department, says budget cuts could mean losing one or two faculty members from a departmental staff of six, which currently supports 250 computer science majors and 50 computer systems engineering majors.
College- and department-level impacts won’t be clear until the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents decides later this month how best to restructure the system in light of the cuts. In the meantime, students, faculty, and staff are left to try to make sense of recent events.
On 28 June, Gov. Dunleavy vetoed US $130 million in state funding for the University of Alaska system for the fiscal year that began on 1 July—a step he said was necessary to contend with the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit, inflicted in large part by sluggish oil prices. Those cuts came on top of a $5 million reduction proposed by Alaska’s legislature.
Overall, state funding for the University of Alaska has been reduced by $136 million [PDF], or 41 percent, for the fiscal year that began 1 July. That translates to a 17 percent reduction to the University of Alaska’s total operating budget. Citing reputational damage caused by these cuts, the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents expects tuition, grant funding, and charitable donations to also drop, adding to a total loss of more than $200 million [PDF] in funding for the current fiscal year.
The University of Alaska operates three separately-accredited campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau along with more than a dozen technical schools and other branches across the state.
Last week, some legislators scrambled to find 45 votes to override the governor’s veto. But Dunleavy made that task more difficult by calling for a special session in the city of Wasilla, far from the state’s capitol of Juneau, to discuss Alaska residents’ annual permanent fund dividend payments. That move effectively split the legislature, with those remaining in Juneau voting to override the veto (37-1), but failing to capture the required number of votes.
The University of Alaska is now widely expected to declare financial exigency [PDF], an emergency status that would allow administrators to take extreme measures to reduce costs by closing campuses, slashing salaries and programs, or laying off tenured faculty.
However, closing the university’s flagship Fairbanks campus would still not be enough to cover the shortfall. In response to budget cuts in previous years, the university has already suspended or discontinued more than 50 degree programs and certificates, including its MS in Engineering Management program.
On Monday, the UA Board of Regents said it would wait until 30 July to decide whether to declare financial exigency. In the meantime, some legislators in the House Finance Committee still hope to draft and pass on a new budget that would restore part or all of the university’s funding.
“I’m just trying to catch up and figure out what the heck is going on,” said William Schnabel, dean of the College of Engineering and Mines at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), when reached for comment on Tuesday.
A six-hour drive north from Anchorage, the UAF College of Engineering and Mines has 650 students, including 65 pursuing master and doctoral degrees. Forty-five tenured or tenure-track faculty work there, along with 10 research faculty and 32 staff.
Schnabel is doing his best to stay positive while grappling with the potential impact of the cuts. “We are absolutely going to be smaller in this college,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to do as many things. But the things we’re going to do are going to be excellent.”
For him, that will mean choosing which programs to invest in, and which to eliminate. “I don’t really plan that we’re going to take these budget cuts and spread them out evenly,” he says. “I think we’re going to drop programs, because I don’t want to keep all my programs and have everybody do it half-assed.”
“That will doom us,” he adds. “We have to be great at something in order to get students to Fairbanks.”
UAF engineering researchers are largely supported by grants and are therefore less likely to be cut than faculty who spend most of their time with students in classrooms. “The big danger with the research faculty is that they’ll just get fed up and leave,” Schnabel says.
Chris Hartman, who heads the computer science department at UAF, has fielded many questions from students about what the budget cuts means for their studies. “What I’m telling them is—I have no idea, but we will make sure that you have some path to graduation somehow,” he says.
Enrollment in many of UAF’s engineering programs has fallen in recent years (except computer science), which Schnabel says is a symptom of a statewide recession. Neither Schnabel nor Mock expect the engineering colleges to shut down completely, and other schools and programs could face worse fates, since there is strong industry support for engineering in Alaska.
Still, Schnabel worries that downsizing staff could cause the UAF college to lose ABET accreditation for those programs that remain, which he says would be “devastating” to the school and its students. “If you want to get an engineering license, you have to graduate form an ABET-accredited program,” he says. “And if you’re not accredited, you may as well not have a program.”
Of 44 technical staff members at Design Alaska, Miller estimates 65 percent are UA alums. Six UAF students are working at Design Alaska right now, and Miller says the firm hires UA grads for almost all of its entry-level positions.
“UA engineers understand working in Alaska, and being very cross-disciplined, self-reliant, and hands on,” Miller says. “We find Alaska-trained engineers ‘get it’ right away and perform well here.” He adds: “I have had countless people apply for jobs, and then look up Fairbanks, Alaska and say ‘no thanks’ to us.”
Computer science students who graduate from the Anchorage campus often become software developers, Mock says, and he estimates about 60 percent remain in the state. “In particular, the entrepreneurship community has been growing in Alaska and has already identified a shortage of programming talent as a gap, so the loss of our programs would have a definite impact on startups and the economy,” he says.
When students do leave the state to study engineering, they often never return, Schnabel adds. “Divesting in the engineering programs will send more good students away. So that’s a problem for the state,” he says.
Schnabel’s own son, Zeke, plans to start his freshman year of college at UAF’s College of Engineering and Mines this fall. He wants to study civil engineering. But given the university’s budget challenges, Schnabel says Zeke now thinks he may transfer and continue his studies out of state after his first year.
The first day of classes in Fairbanks is 26 August.
Säntis Tower in the Swiss Alps is struck by lightning more than 100 times a year
Atop a rocky peak in the Swiss Alps sits a telecommunications tower that gets struck by lightning more than 100 times a year, making it perhaps the world’s most frequently struck object. Taking note of the remarkable consistency with which lightning hits this 124-meter structure, researchers have adorned it with instruments for a front-row view of these violent electric discharges.
On Wednesday, a small team installed a new gadget near Säntis Tower in their years-long quest to better understand how lightning forms and why it behaves the way it does. About two kilometers from the tower, they set up a broadband interferometer that one member, Mark Stanley of New Mexico Tech, had built back in his lab near Jemez, New Mexico.
“You can’t really go to a company and find an instrument that’s built just for studying lightning,” says Bill Rison, Stanley’s collaborator who teaches electrical engineering at New Mexico Tech. “You have to build your own.”
The one Stanley built has three antennas with bandwidth from 20 to 80 megahertz (MHz) to record powerful electromagnetic pulses in the very high-frequency range that lightning is known to produce. The device also has a fourth antenna to measure sferics, which are low-frequency signals that result from the movement of charge that occurs with a strike or from storm activity within clouds. “Basically, lightning is a giant spark,” Rison explains. “Sparks give off radio waves and the interferometer detects the radio waves.”
To anyone who has witnessed a lightning strike, everything seems to happen all at once. But Stanley’s sensor captures several gigabytes of data about the many separate pulses that occur within each flash. Those data can be made into a video that replays, microsecond by microsecond, how “channels” of lightning form in the clouds.
By mapping lightning in this way, the Säntis team, which hired Stanley and Rison to haul their interferometer to Switzerland, hopes to better understand what prompts lightning’s “initiation”—that mysterious moment when it cracks into existence.
So far, measurements have raised more questions than they’ve answered. One sticking point is, in order for a thunderstorm to emit a lightning strike, the electric field within it must build to an intensity on the order of several megavolts per meter. But while researchers have sent balloons into thunderstorms, no one has measured a field beyond 200 kilovolts per meter, or one-tenth of the required value, says Farhad Rachidi of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), who co-leads the Säntis research team.
“The conditions required for lightning to be started within the clouds never seem to exist based on the measurements made in the clouds,” says Marcos Rubinstein, a telecommunications professor at Switzerland’s School of Business and Engineering Vaud and co-leader of the Säntis team with Rachidi. “This is a big, big question.”
In his own research at New Mexico Tech, Rison has laid some groundwork that could explain how small electric fields can produce such big sparks. In 2016, he and his colleagues published a paper in NatureCommunications that described experimental evidence showing that a process known as fast positive breakdown can create a series of streamers, or tiny sparks, and may arise from much stronger local electric fields that occur in small pockets within a storm.
If enough streamers occur in quick succession and within close vicinity to one another, they make more streamers, adding up to a streamer “avalanche” that turns into positive leaders, or mini-bolts that branch toward clouds or the ground.
“We haven’t hit any roadblocks yet to say, this is something that isn’t the process for the initiation of lightning,” Rison says. With his evidence in hand, theorists are now trying to explain exactly how and why these fast positive breakdowns occur in the first place.
Meanwhile, the Säntis team wants to adapt a mathematical technique called time-reversal, which was originally pioneered for acoustics, to better understand lightning’s initiation. With this method, they intend to use data gathered by the tower’s many instruments (which include a collection of six antennas called a lightning mapping array, two Rogowski coils to measure current, two B-Dot sensors to measure the current time-derivative, broadband electric and magnetic field sensors, and a high-speed camera) to reconstruct the total path of strikes soon after they happen, tracing the electromagnetic radiation all the way back to its original source.
As has been true of past lightning research, their findings may someday inform the design of airplanes or electric grids, and help protect people and equipment against lightning strikes and other sudden power surges. The Säntis team’s work has held particular relevance for wind farm operators. That’s because most strikes recorded at the tower are examples of upward lightning—which travels from ground-to-cloud instead of cloud-to-ground.
Upward lightning often originates from tall buildings and structures, which can actually create a lightning bolt that shoots skyward, and this process can damage wind turbines. In 2013, the team published one of the most extensive descriptions to date of this type of flash.
More recently, their work has raised questions about why industry safety certifications for aircraft are based on data about downward strikes, instead of upward ones, which commonly occur with aircraft and cause particular kinds of damage that look more like lightning damage reported by pilots and mechanics.
By the end of this year, the Säntis team expects to record its 1,000th lightning strike at the tower. And there’s one more elusive scientific matter with massive practical implications they hope to someday resolve. “If we understand how lightning is initiated, we could take a big step forward on one of the other questions we’ve been trying to solve for a long time, and that’s to be able to predict lightning before it happens,” says Rubinstein.
Preliminary reports suggest problems with several 500-kilovolt transmission lines disrupted the flow of electricity from two dams to Argentina’s grid
A preliminary company memo suggests that problems with at least two 500-kilovolt transmission lines were the proximate cause of nationwide blackouts in Argentina on Sunday 16 June. The lines connect a pair of hydroelectric dams to Argentina’s grid. Parts of Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay also experienced power outages, though the total number of people affected is not yet clear.
Government authorities have not yet determined what caused the disconnect and investigations are ongoing. Officials are expected to issue a more comprehensive report within 10 days.
In a statement on Sunday morning, the Secretariat of Energy attributed the blackouts, which began at 7:07 AM local time, to the “collapse of the Argentine Interconnection System (SADI).” The SADI is a high-voltage transmission network operated by Transener that transports electricity from generators, including power plants and dams, to distribution networks that serve tens of millions of customers.
According to a public statement by Edesur, one of Argentina’s largest electricity distributors, the failure occurred along a critical route of Argentina’s interconnection system that supplies the nation’s grid with power generated by the Yacyreta Dam in Paraguay and the Salto Grande Dam on the Uruguay River.
Putting a power-distribution station on the ocean floor could allow more raw materials to be processed down there
Slowly but surely, oil- and gas-drilling technology is migrating from floating platforms to the seafloor. Pumps moved down there decades ago. More recently, compressors (which boost pressure in a well to keep gas flowing) and separators (which isolate oil from water and silt) have relocated to the murky depths.
Putting this equipment closer to wells makes them more productive and energy efficient. Some oil and gas companies even aspire to build subsea factories that extract and process oil and natural gas directly on the seafloor. These factories would be safe from hazards such as icebergs and hurricanes. They would be controlled remotely, reducing labor costs. Eventually, some believe, offshore platforms could be phased out entirely.
However, all of this sunken gear requires electricity. Today, operators typically string power lines from power plants or diesel generators aboard nearby oil rigs to every piece of subsea equipment they install. That works for a few machines, but it’s impractical to string dozens of umbilicals, as they’re known, to the ocean floor.
Industry suppliers ABB and Siemens are now putting the finishing touches on competing versions of the world’s first subsea power-distribution stations. Once installed, these stations would connect via a single line to a “topside” (maritime parlance for above water) generator, wind turbine, or power plant, and redistribute electricity to underwater equipment. “Our technology is an enabling technology for the subsea factory,” says Bjørn Rasch, head of subsea power for Siemens.
Both projects have been in the works for more than five years. ABB will complete its final round of testing in June and expects to install its first subsea power system in 2020. Siemens tested its version in shallow water in Norway last November and is now talking with clients about putting its first unit in the field. “We’re getting close to where we’re actually deploying this technology in a real project,” Rasch says.
Siemens’s model, which the company calls its Subsea Power Grid, consists of a transformer, a medium-voltage switchgear, and a variable-speed drive. Its distribution voltage is around 30 kilovolts, while its variable-speed drive puts out 6.6 kV. The system can provide electricity to devices with power ratings between 1 and 15 megawatts. The umbilical that hooks it to a generation station also includes an embedded fiber-optic cable so operators can run everything from afar.
One of the hardest parts of building the station, Rasch says, was ensuring it could withstand the high water pressure of the seafloor. Instead of encasing all the equipment in a pressurized chamber, engineers flooded the electronics with a synthetic fluid called Midel. This biodegradable fluid inside the equipment maintains the same pressure as the seawater, which alleviates stress. The fluid also passively cools the device by transferring heat from equipment to the chilly seawater.
Chevron, Eni Norge, Equinor, and ExxonMobile have all worked with Siemens to get the company’s project this far. The next step for both ABB and Siemens will be to deliver the first model for installation at an active production site.
Brian Skeels, professor of subsea engineering at the University of Houston and director of emerging technology for the offshore design and consulting firm TechnipFMC, has seen many attempts to “marinize” technologies to work underwater. Dealing with heat is a common stumbling block. If water can’t flow freely around a device, the heat it generates prompts marine life to grow on the equipment, which shortens its life-span. And, Skeels cautions, “what may work in shallow water may not work at deeper depths.”
Both systems are expected to work at depths of up to 3,000 meters and operate for 30 years with minimal maintenance. At the end of their lives, the units can be removed from the seafloor.
A power-distribution center would be just one piece of any future subsea factory—a vision that has captivated the industry for more than a decade. Skeels says the future of subsea processing will depend largely on whether such projects can add more value to the industry than they drain in expense. Investment into subsea processing dried up when oil prices crashed in 2014. Looking ahead, Skeels thinks the technology holds the most potential for remote wells more than 160 kilometers from other facilities.
Hani Elshahawi, digitalization lead for deepwater technologies at Shell, says there are clear benefits to having power readily available on the seafloor. But he doesn’t think subsea factories will supplant all platform activities, or replace any of them in the near future. “It will require decades, in my view,” he says. “We foresee a more gradual and lengthy transition.”
To Rasch at Siemens, though, the industry’s vision of subsea factories does not seem as far out as it once did. “There are many technologies in many companies that are in place or close to being in place,” he says. “This can be realized in the close future, that’s for sure.”
This article appears in the June 2019 print issue as “ABB and Siemens Test Subsea Power Grids.”
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