How many apps does it take to recharge a vehicle? Apparently, one is not enough. Several companies offering mobile apps to drivers — to help them find a place to charge up or refuel in an environmentally sustainable way — made product and milestone announcements around Earth Day. Here’s the run down.
ECOtality (NASDAQ: ECTY) — a San Francisco company that’s building electric vehicle (EV) technology and infrastructure in the U.S. and China— unveiled its Blink Network mobile app (screenshot, above) to help users find and reserve a nearby, available charging station at the Electric Drive Transportation Association conference in Washington D.C. Reservation and status-update features made ECOtality’s app distinct from other charger-finders for about a minute.
On Monday, however, Coulomb Technologies announced an upgrade to the ChargePoint app, including similar functionality. ECOtality’s app will be available for English-language users of iOS and Android devices in the next few weeks via BlinkNetwork.com, while Coulomb’s ChargePoint app is available now.
Both companies map the charging stations within the networks that they install, own and operate on behalf of their customers. Both companies supply stations and software to: companies with large vehicle fleets; employers that want to offer EV charging at work; retail store and garage owners; homeowners; and municipalities or utilities.
Several other web and mobile charging station finders, however, map any and all charging stations — which could make more sense for cross-country drivers. One such app is provided by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Alternative Fueling Station Locator. The app uses Google Maps technology to show the location of publicly accessible EV charging stations, clean vehicle equipment suppliers, and biodiesel, hydrogen and other alternative fueling stations.
The open source site CarStations.com, which is expected to spin out a mobile product this year, includes user-contributed data a la Wikipedia to show charging and clean fuel stations.
A newer entrant, the PlugShare app by Xatori (images, below) maps publicly accessible charging stations, along with volunteer homes or businesses that are willing to share their outlets with EV and hybrid-plugin drivers.
PlugShare today claimed that its users comprise the “largest consumer electric vehicle charging network” in the United States. According to company reports, about 1,500 outlets have been shared under the PlugShare collaborative consumption model to-date, across 48 states in the U.S. The app has 13,000 some users so far.
Xatori chief executive, Armen Petrosian, said that PlugShare is functioning as a kind of social network, and discussed features the company plans to add to it:
We are seeing two main types of communication occurring in the [PlugShare] network. One type of communication occurs between members who have shared outlets 10 to 100 miles apart…and are making a request to charge when one member is away from home. Users who are 5 miles apart or less— [sometimes want] to chat with a like-minded individual. I’ve experienced this first-hand as several members in my neighborhood have contacted me just to say hello, see if I have an EV, etc.
There are a number of features that we hope to add [to PlugShare] but a couple stand out right now. One is a reputation system so users can rate charging locations (private and public) and add comments. The second is a way to add or edit public charging station information, so that it can be kept up-to-date by the community.
Xatori has not yet determined how the open data and volunteer-inspiring app will generate revenue. The company is focused on building a large user base, first.
Meanwhile, Coulomb’s ChargePoint app helps the company generate fees from mobile payments— fifty cents per transaction, plus 7.5% of whatever the station-owner adds as a transactional fee for drivers.
A veteran engineer and advocate for clean vehicles, Kristen Helsel, vice president of EV Solutions at Aerovironment, believes that apps of the greatest use to electric vehicle drivers, and the industry, should present data about charging stations agnostically. Aerovironment’s own EV charger technology is sold on a “white label” basis, and is included in a number of other brands’ stations and networks. Helsel explained her position further:
“At Aerovironment, we work to enable all of the mapping services to have the most up to date information about where we install public charging stations. We don’t expect customers just to rely on us. What’s really important is that the information is available, and that drivers experience confidence when they want to access EV infrastructure.
It will be just as important in the future to make data available about all renewables; where are the chargers that are powered by wind or solar, where are the biofuel stations? The networks can go up, and can be limited. But we have to have open architecture in terms of the data.”
Richard Lowenthal, founder and chief technology officer of Coulomb Technologies noted:
“Home grown apps are great. They don’t offer features, and real-time data like we can. We offer [back-end] support with billing and asset management that tells you which stations are working and not, lets our customers [who purchase Coulomb's charging stations] set pricing and more. We have phone support for drivers; if someone is having trouble charging, they don’t go into the store, or to the receptionist, they call our 1-800 number.
As long as we need to offer our own app to show off all of the benefits and features of our network, we will add to and offer it as a standalone. We do have an open API and offer data to everyone who wants it, PlugShare, TomTom, NREL or anyone. We are not trying to stifle any of them, in fact it’s quite the opposite.”
ECOTality’s president and chief executive officer, Jonathan R. Read, believes there is value in providing an app that’s brand-specific, as well. In an interview with TechCrunch he said:
“I take my hat off to the community service providers, I really do. There’s sort of a brotherhood in the industry. I think that for this EV movement and charge infrastructure to succeed, though, it has to be commercially viable. We cannot rely on good will and trust, or government completely.
We need to make sure that EVs and charge infrastructure can stand alone, make money, be profitable so [clean energy] can proliferate with or without subsidies and volunteers.
I think the task of building EV infrastructure in the U.S. will be somewhat like the early stages of the cell phone business. We look to create the largest network, and provide the greatest depth of service through our apps. We’ve built the Blink Network app to be a part of an overall system that will eventually include not just the ability to make reservations, but also to make payments, use home energy management programs and devices on the go, experience connectivity and access a network of hundreds of thousands of charging stations.”
ECOtality — with the help of a recovery act grant from the DOE — is set to install approximately 5,700 commercial charging stations in the U.S. by the end of this year.
Developers of large-scale, solar power plants Brightsource Energy Inc. closed another $168 million investment, the company announced today — this time from Google corporate. The funds will go towards the completion of the humongous, Ivanpah solar power tower plant in the Mojave Desert now under construction (image, right).
Three years ago, Google.org invested $10 million, and took an equity stake in BrightSource. This deal hailed from Google’s Green Business Operations team, however, and the funds are to be applied towards the completion of the Ivanpah project (not Brightsource’s overall business) a Google spokesman confirmed.
Google’s director of Green Business Operations, Rick Needham, wrote more about the company’s reasons for investing in this project in an official, company blog post today. He expressed hope, there, that moving a solar project of this magnitude forward in California would reduce the cost of clean energy from renewable sources for Google, and the market overall. (Google still buys most of its power from the grid.)
According to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) is expected to be operational for 25 years after completion around 2013, and is expected to generate 392 gross megawatts of solar energy.
Brightsource attained power purchase agreements with major utilities, including Southern California Edison which helped it secure financing for Ivanpah.
Conservation and Native American groups have recently filed lawsuits against Brightsource, expressing concern over the company’s environmental impact to the Mojave, especially endangered tortoises and delicate habitat there.
At least Google’s not — or are they — investing in nuclear. Brightsource’s website notes that Ivanpah, when completed, is expected to almost double the amount of solar thermal electricity produced in the U.S. today.
What’s the News: This week, scientists say that they’ve passed a chemistry milestone by creating the world’s first practical photosynthesis device. The playing-card-sized photosynthetic gadget creates uses sunlight to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used to produce energy, and is reputedly 10 times more efficient than a natural leaf. Researchers say they expect it to revolutionize power storage, especially in remote areas that don’t currently have electricity. “A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades,” says lead researcher Daniel Nocera, who’s presenting this research at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society this week.
How the Heck:
- The artificial leaf uses nickel and cobalt as catalysts to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen by facilitating oxygen-oxygen bonding.
- Oxygen and hydrogen molecules are then sent to a fuel cell that can produce electricity. If the device is placed in a one-gallon bucket of water in bright sunlight, it can reportedly produce enough electricity to power a house in a developing nation.
What’s the Context:
- The very first artificial leaf was created by John Turner of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, over a decade ago. The device lasted for only one day and was made of expensive metals, making it impractical.
- This new artificial leaf uses nickel and cobalt, which are relatively cheap, and has so far operated continuously for at least 45 hours, making it the first practical artificial leaf.
- In 2008, Nocera announced a way of splitting water using cobalt and platinum, a breakthrough at the time. Now, by using nickel instead of the more expensive platinum, he’s made the entire process economically feasible, in addition to combining everything into a working prototype.
- Nocera has appeared in Discover before, including his National Science Foundation briefing on energy storage.
- Many more labs are also working on artificial photosynthesis.
- 80beats has covered other green energies, from wind turbines to natural gas.
- Scientists are working to increase the device’s efficiency still higher.
- Tata Group, an Indian conglomerate, plans on creating a power plant based on this research within the next year and a half.
Reference: Daniel Nocera et al. 241st National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. March 27-31, 2011 Anaheim, California, USA
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Daniel Schwen
ReneSola (NYSE: SOL) a major manufacturer of solar products based in Jiashan, China announced this week that its new silicon-based wafer, dubbed the Virtus, boosts multicrystalline solar cell efficiency to 17.5 percent.
The company plans to sell the Virtus Wafer to manufacturers of multicrystalline solar cells. Its earlier customers in this segment have included: Suntech Power, JA Solar, and ARISE Technologies. JC Solar, a wholly owned subsidiary of ReneSola which makes multicrystalline solar cells and modules, will both test and use the Virtus in its products, of course.
Why is ReneSola shouting their un-verified wafer claims to the rooftops? Is this really a huge breakthrough?
Companies like SunPower in San Jose, California or SunGrid in Australia have been producing monocrystalline solar cells for years that are even more efficient than 17.5 percent. However, monocrystalline cells and panels have tended to be more expensive than polycrystalline varieties due to more complicated manufacturing requirements.
ReneSola’s Virtus Wafer could help bring the cheaper-to-make variety of solar tech — multicrystalline solar cells and panels — to be about as efficient as monocrystalline varieties, without being as costly to manufacture. (Making solar power more affordable, eventually to the point where solar is at parity or better versus coal and oil, remains a holy grail within the sector.)
ReneSolar plans to embark on pilot production of their Virtus Wafer in early 2011, according to a company press statement. Thus far, the wafer has been tested in solar cells made by some of the company’s clients, and in their own labs. However, it has not been tested by the U.S.-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a verifier of cell efficiency claims, nor by an NREL equivalent in another country.
The wafer still has yet to be tested in use within solar panels in any lab. Those initial tests of panels incorporating this wafer are under way, a company spokesperson confirmed.
ReneSola’s competition in the quest to build better wafer — one that improves the efficiency of solar photovoltaics, but is not more expensive to manufacture — range from the venture-backed Boston startup, 1366 Technologies to a fellow, major solar manufacturer in China, LDK Solar.
necro81 writes “The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory has announced that it has developed a new method for air conditioning that reduces energy use by 50-90%. The DEVap system (Desiccant-Enhanced eVaporative air conditioner) cools air using evaporative cooling, which is not new, but combines the process with a liquid dessicant for pulling the water vapor out of the cooled air stream. The liquid dessicant, a very strong aqueous solution of lithium chloride or sodium chloride, is separated from the air stream by a permeable hydrophobic membrane. Heat is later used to evaporate water vapor back out — heat that can come from a variety of sources such as solar or natural gas. The dessicants are, compared to typical refrigerants like HCFCs, relatively benign on the environment.”