The Advent of Artificial Intelligence: Ask Stephen Hawking about it.

A receptionist robot performs during a demonstration for the media at the new hotel, aptly called Henn na Hotel or Weird Hotel, in Sasebo, southwestern Japan, Wednesday, July 15, 2015. From the receptionist that does the check-in and check-out to the porter that’s a stand-on-wheels taking luggage up to the room, the hotel, that is run as part of Huis Ten Bosch amusement park, is “manned” almost totally by robots to save labor costs. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

A receptionist robot performs during a demonstration for the media at the new hotel, aptly called Henn na Hotel or Weird Hotel, in Sasebo, southwestern Japan, Wednesday, July 15, 2015. From the receptionist that does the check-in and check-out to the porter that’s a stand-on-wheels taking luggage up to the room, the hotel, that is run as part of Huis Ten Bosch amusement park, is “manned” almost totally by robots to save labor costs. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is set to do his first AMA (Ask Me Anything) forum on Reddit today, from Monday July 27 at 8AM Eastern Time through Tuesday, August 4. He plans to discuss his concerns that artificial intelligence could one day outsmart mankind if we are not careful.

You can find the details about it in the article linked below.

http://www.cnet.com/news/stephen-hawking-to-answer-your-questions-via-his-first-reddit-ama/

With driverless car possibly becoming a reality within our lifetime, the exponential rate of innovation have made us rethink what we can and can’t achieve. The topic of sentient AI is ever pervasive in the media with numerous illustrations across all mediums. The question that is on everyone’s mind is, can we seriously hope to create a “friendly AI”?

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX has likened the development of AI to “summoning of the devil.” I suppose it is the sign of the times indicative of how far we have come and how close we actually are to Artificial Intelligence having an impact on our daily lives.

The notion of artificial intelligence in relation to human civilization is not a new phenomenon. It has existed as early as 1920s when Czech science fiction writer Karel Čapek coined the term “robot” in his play R.U.R. Few decades later, the three laws of robotics was developed by famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in his 1942 short story “Runaround”.

The 3 laws being:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Although these laws have its roots in science fiction, they have gained some traction in genuine AI research. The popular culture is abundant with depictions of artificial intelligence both benevolent and malevolent coexisting with humans. And as we near this monumental paradigm shift, the hard question we must ask ourselves is, can we trust artificial being that may well evolve and deem us obsolete?

In any case, the best thing we can do is educate ourselves so we can ask better questions. Below is an infographic that will hopefully will shed some light on what is at stake.

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Clean Energy Revolution Is Ahead of Schedule

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The most important piece of news on the energy front isn’t the plunge in oil prices, but the progress that is being made in battery technology. A new study in Nature Climate Change, by Bjorn Nykvist and Mans Nilsson of the Stockholm Environment Institute, shows that electric vehicle batteries have been getting cheaper much faster than expected. From 2007 to 2011, average battery costs for battery-powered electric vehicles fell by about 14 percent a year. For the leading electric vehicle makers, Tesla and Nissan, costs fell by 8 percent a year. This astounding decline puts battery costs right around the level that the International Energy Agency predicted they would reach in 2020. We are six years ahead of the curve. It’s a bit hard to read, but here is the graph from the paper:

battery efficiency

This puts the electric vehicle industry at a very interesting inflection point. Back in 2011, McKinsey & Co. made a chart showing which kind of vehicle would be the most economical at various prices for gasoline and batteries:

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Looking at this graph, we can see the incredible progress made just since 2011. Battery prices per kilowatt-hour have fallen from about $550 when the graph was made to about $450 now. For Tesla and Nissan, the gray rectangle (which represents current prices) is even farther to the left, to about the $300 range, where the economics really starts to change and battery-powered vehicles become feasible.

But in the past year, the price of gasoline has fallen as well, and is now in the $2.50 range even in expensive markets. A glut of oil, and a possible thaw in U.S.-Iran relations, have moved the gray rectangle down into the dark blue area where internal combustion engines reign supreme.

Still, if battery prices keep falling, the gray rectangle will keep moving to the left. The Swedish researchers believe that Tesla’s new factories will be able to achieve the 30 percent cost reduction the company promises, simply from economies of scale and incremental improvements in the manufacturing process. That, combined with a rebound in gas prices to the $3 range, would be enough to make battery-powered vehicles an economic alternative to internal combustion vehicles in most regions.

But this isn’t the only piece of good energy news. Investment in renewable energy is powering ahead.

The United Nations Environment Programme recently released a report showing that global investment in renewable energy, which had dipped a bit between 2011 and 2013, rebounded in 2014 to a near all-time high of $270 billion. But the report also notes that since renewable costs — especially solar costs — are falling so fast, the amount of renewable energy capacity added in 2014 was easily an all-time high. China, the U.S. and Japan are leading the way in renewable investment. Renewables went from 8.5 percent to 9.1 percent of global electricity generation just in 2014.

That’s still fairly slow in an absolute sense. Adding 0.6 percentage point a year to the renewable share would mean the point where renewables take half of the electricity market wouldn’t come until after 2080. But as solar costs fall, we can expect that shift to accelerate. In particular, forecasts are for solar to become the cheapest source of energy — at least when the sun is shining — in many parts of the world in the 2020s.

Each of these trends — cheaper batteries and cheaper solar electricity — is good on its own, and on the margin will help to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, with all the geopolitical drawbacks and climate harm they entail. But together, the two cost trends will add up to nothing less than a revolution in the way humankind interacts with the planet and powers civilization.

You see, the two trends reinforce each other. Cheaper batteries mean that cars can switch from gasoline to the electrical grid. But currently, much of the grid is powered by coal. With cheap solar replacing coal at a rapid clip, that will be less and less of an issue. As for solar, its main drawback is intermittency. But with battery costs dropping, innovative manufacturers such as Tesla will be able to make cheap batteries for home electricity use, allowing solar power to run your house 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

So instead of thinking of solar and batteries as two independent things, we should think of them as one single unified technology package. Solar-plus-batteries is set to begin a dramatic transformation of human civilization. The transformation has already begun, but will really pick up steam during the next decade. That is great news, because cheap energy powers our economy, and because clean energy will help stop climate change.

Of course, skeptics and opponents of the renewable revolution continue to downplay these remarkable developments. The takeoff of solar-plus-batteries has only begun to ramp up the exponential curve, and market shares are still small. But it has begun, and it doesn’t look like we’re going back.

Citation: Smith, N. (2015, April 8). Clean Energy Revolution Is Ahead of Schedule. Retrieved April 8, 2015, from http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-04-08/clean-energy-revolution-is-way-ahead-of-schedule

Solar Panels Floating on Water Will Power Japan’s Homes

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Nowadays, bodies of water aren’t necessarily something to build around—they’re something to build on. They sport not just landfills and man-made beaches but also, in a nascent global trend, massive solar power plants.

Clean energy companies are turning to lakes, wetlands, ponds, and canals as building grounds for sunlight-slurping photovoltaic panels. So far, floating solar structures have been announced in, among other countries, the United Kingdom, Australia, India, and Italy.

The biggest floating plant, in terms of output, will soon be placed atop the reservoir of Japan’s Yamakura Dam in Chiba prefecture, just east of Tokyo. When completed in March 2016, it will cover 180,000 square meters, hold 50,000 photovoltaic solar panels, and power nearly 5,000 households. It will also offset nearly 8,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. (Since the EPA estimates a typical car releases 4.7 tons of CO2 annually, that’s about 1,700 cars’ worth of emissions.)

The Yamakura Dam project is a collaboration by Kyocera (a Kyoto-headquartered electronics manufacturer), Ciel et Terre (a French company that designs, finances, and operates photovoltaic installations), and Century Tokyo Leasing Corporation.

So, why build solar panels on water instead of just building them on land? Placing the panels on a lake or reservoir frees up surrounding land for agricultural use, conservation, or other development. With these benefits, though, come challenges.

Solar Enters New Territory

“Overall, this is a very interesting idea. If successful, it will bring a huge impact,” says Yang Yang, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles who specializes in photovoltaic solar panels. “However, I do have concerns of its safety against storms and other natural disasters, not to mention corrosion.”

Unlike a solar installation on the ground or mounted on a rooftop, floating solar energy plants present relatively new difficulties. For one thing, everything needs to be waterproofed, including the panels and wiring. Plus, a giant, artificial contraption can’t just be dropped into a local water supply without certain precautions, such as adherence to regulations on water quality—a relevant concern, particularly if the structure starts to weather away.

“That is one reason we chose Ciel et Terre’s floating platforms, which are 100 percent recyclable and made of high-density polyethylene that can withstand ultraviolet rays and corrosion,” says Ichiro Ikeda, general manager of Kyocera’s solar energy marketing division.

Another obstacle? Japan’s omnipresent threat of natural disasters. In addition to typhoons, the country is a global hot spot for earthquakes, landslides, and tidal waves.

The planned floating solar array for Japan would sit atop the Yamakura Dam, east of Tokyo.

The planned floating solar array for Japan would sit atop the Yamakura Dam, east of Tokyo.

To make sure the platforms could withstand the whims of Mother Nature, Ciel et Terre’s research and development team brought in the big guns: a wind tunnel at Onera, the French aerospace lab. The company’s patented Hydrelio system—those polyethylene “frames” that cradle the solar panels—was subjected to very high wind conditions that matched hurricane speeds. The system resisted winds of up to 118 miles per hour.

Why Japan Could Be the Perfect Spot

Given its weather, why build floating solar panels in the storm-filled, Ring of Fire-hugging Land of the Rising Sun? The reason: Many nations could benefit from floating solar power. And Japan is their poster child.

The largely mountainous archipelago of Japan suffers from a lack of usable land, meaning there’s less room for anything to be built, let alone a large-scale solar plant. However, the nation is rich in reservoirs, since it has a sprawling rice industry to irrigate, so more solar energy companies in Japan are favoring liquid over land for construction sites. Suddenly, inaccessible terrain becomes accessible.

Kyocera’s Ikeda says available land in Japan is especially hard to come by these days, as the number of ground-based solar plants in the country has skyrocketed in the past few years.

But, he added, “the country has many reservoirs for agricultural and flood-control purposes. There is great potential in carrying out solar power generation on these water surfaces.”

In Japan’s case, Ciel et Terre says that the region’s frequent seismic fits aren’t cause for concern, either. In fact, they illustrate another benefit that floating solar panels have over their terrestrial counterparts, the company says.

“Earthquakes have no impacts on the floating photovoltaic system, which has no foundation and an adequate anchoring system that ensures its stability,” says Eva Pauly, international business manager at Ciel et Terre. “That’s a big advantage in a country like Japan.”

Solar’s Potential Ecological Impact

Floating solar panel manufacturers hope their creations replace more controversial energy sources.

“Japan needs new, independent, renewable energy sources after the Fukushima disaster,” says Pauly. “The country needs more independent sources of electricity after shutting down the nuclear power and relying heavily on imported liquid gas.”

This up-and-coming aquatic alternative impacts organisms living in the water, though. The structure stymies sunlight penetration, slowly making the water cooler and darker. This can halt algae growth, for example, which Ciel et Terre project manager Lise Mesnager says “could be either positive or negative.” If there’s too much algae in the water, the shadow-casting floating panels might be beneficial; if the water harbors endangered species, they could harm them.

“It is really important for the operator to have a good idea of what kind of species can be found in the water body,” Mesnager says.

Since companies must follow local environmental rules, these solar plants are usually in the center of the water, away from banks rich with flora and fauna. Plus, companies might prefer building in man-made reservoirs instead of natural ones, as the chances of harming the area’s biodiversity are smaller.

Could the Future Include Salt Water?

More than three-quarters of our planet is ocean, which might present alternative energy companies a blank canvas on which to dot more buoyant energy farms. But moving floating panels to the open sea is still in the future. Kyocera’s Ikeda says it would bring up a whole new realm of issues, from waves to changing water levels, which could lead to damage and disrupted operations.

Ciel et Terre is experimenting with salt water-friendly systems in Thailand, but ocean-based plants might be impractical, as offshore installations are costly, and it’s more logical to produce electricity closer to where it’ll be used.

For now, companies are aiming to build floating energy sources that conserve limited space, are cheaper than solar panels on terra firma, and are, above all, efficient. Ciel et Terre says that since its frames keep Kyocera’s solar panels cool, the floating plant could generate up to 20 percent more energy than a typical ground system does.

The Yamakura Dam project might be the world’s biggest floating solar plant, but it wasn’t the first-and it almost certainly won’t be the last.

Citation: Lufkin, B. (2015, January 15). Solar Panels Floating on Water Will Power Japan’s Homes. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2015/01/150116-floating-solar-power-japan-yamakura/

Lower Austria’s New Year Resolution: 100 Percent of Electricity from Renewable Energy by 2015

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Lower Austria Minister for Energy Dr. Stephan Pernkopf stated that “We want to achieve this goal together.”

This year, the province of Lower Austria wants to become powered  by 100% renewables, that is, by water, wind, biomass and solar power.

“Power saving is important because every kilowatt hour saved must not be generated. The more people support the energy movement in Lower Austria, the faster we will reach our goal, ” said Lower Austria Minister for Energy Dr. Stephan Pernkopf.

Dr. Herbert Greisberger, Managing Director of Energy and Environment Agency Northeast, adds, “Even small resolutions have big impacts, even if it is simply avoiding standby power, using less television, or exchanging a light bulb for LEDs.”

Thousands of Lower Austrian citizens are already active, and not just in the electricity sector. Many have upgraded the energy efficiency of their homes, are using solar thermal energy for heating water, and have installed solar PV or biomass systems for space heating. Citizens can visit the Power Saving Family website to learn how to generate energy efficiently, to see samples of projects in their own region, and to see in real time the amount of power being generated in Lower Austria by various renewable sources at www.energiebewegung.at/.  Whoever resolves today to save power today wins twice tomorrow. Citizens who support the goal by saving energy have a chance to win various incentives, such as high efficiency LED lights. Details (in German) are at : www.energiebewegung.at/stromsparvorsatz2015/.

Citation: Maier, J. (2014, December 30). 100 Percent of Electricity from Renewable Energy. Retrieved from http://www.noe.gv.at/Presse/Pressedienst/Pressearchiv/115027_Energie-.html

Africa’s Largest Solar Farm is Fully Operational

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The Jasper solar farm, located near Kimberley in South Africa, is now the continent’s largest solar power project. Construction was completed in October, and it is now fully operational. With a rated capacity of 96 megawatts, Jasper will produce about 180,000 megawatt-hours of clean energy annually for South African residents, enough to power up to 80,000 homes.

What makes this even better is that Japser won’t stay the biggest solar project for long. In the same area, in South-Africa, near the 75-megawatt Lesedi project that came online last May, a 100-megawatt concentrated solar thermal power (CSP) project called Redstone is also under construction.

Look at that scale. The Jasper Project generated about 1 million man-hours of paid work during construction, peaking at over 800 on-site construction jobs.

South Africa has a goal of having 18 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030, so projects like this are definitely steps in the right direction. If there’s one thing that South Africa has lots of, it’s sunlight!

45% of the total project value was spent on “local content” to help increase the positive economic impact on the area.

The project was developed by a consortium consisting of Solar Reserve, the Kensani Group (an experienced empowerment investment player in South Africa), and Intikon Energy (a South African developer of renewable energy projects).

Financing came from local and international sources, including Google and the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), Intikon Energy, Kensani Capital Investments, the PEACE Humansrus Community Trust, and Solar Reserve with Rand Merchant Bank.

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Citation: Richard, M. (2014, December 17). Africa’s largest solar farm (325,480 PV modules) is now fully operational! Retrieved December 20, 2014, from http://www.solarreserve.com/what-we-do/pv-development/jasper/

5 Key Stats Reveal Latin America’s Breakthrough Year in Solar

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Did you know that Latin America is the fastest-growing regional market in the history of the solar industry? Or that the region is home to the largest merchant solar plant in the entire world? Do you know which companies and financiers are leading that growth?

Latin America has been the bright spot of 2014, breaking several global PV records and setting a few regional ones of its own. This post draws on the most comprehensive research available from GTM Research’s Latin America PV Playbook to provide you with a data-packed guide to putting Latin America’s solar growth in context.

LATIN AMERICA IS THE FASTEST-GROWING MARKET FOR SOLAR PV IN HISTORY

The Latin American solar market is growing faster than any other regional market in history. Here are a few ways to put that in perspective.

eu_vs_latam_growth_2007-2014Latin America is growing more than twice as fast as the European market did in the 2007-2011 boom. In other words, the time that most folks in the solar industry associate with rapid downstream expansion pales in comparison to the growth we are seeing in Latin America today. Keep in mind that those European markets were subsidized, and Latin America is not.

There are a number of ways to put Latin America’s growth rates in context. The chart below shows rates since the market began in that region, the first three years of growth, and the last three years to the present day.

pv_growth_by_regionLooking across all regions, and taking their growth up to today, Latin America has grown at 1.8 times the regional average — and 1.5 times faster than the second-fastest-growing market. Adjusting for the start year to look at how the market grew in its first three years, Latin America rate of growth has been twice as fast as the regional average and 2.5 times faster than the second-ranked market. Latin America has also been the fastest-growing market over the last three years, despite the massive growth in the Asia-Pacific region led by China and Japan.

But what about volume? Of course, real volume matters too. While Latin America is still small in volumetric terms, compared to Europe, Asia-Pacific, and North America, it is notable that at 988 megawatts, it has installed more volume in its first three years than any other regional market has in the past. The second-best market in this regard was Asia Pacific, which installed 613 megawatts in its first three years.

regional_pv_volumeCHILE DOMINATES THE LATIN AMERICAN SOLAR LANDSCAPE

With a record-setting 2014, Chile has surpassed both Peru and Mexico as the regional leader in PV installations. The volume of installations in Chile is eclipsing the total cumulative market for the region in previous years. In 2012, only 51 megawatts of on-grid PV capacity was on-line. In the first quarter of this year, Chile installed 150 megawatts. This is consistent with a trend seen in the top three markets Chile, Mexico, and Brazil which are responsible for 50 percent of all cumulative market growth through 2014. But even among the three, Chile currently rules supreme, installing 40 percent of the region’s volume in 2014. In 2015, Chile is expected to be Latin America’s first market to install 1 gigawatt in a single year.

CHILE IS HOME TO THE LARGEST MERCHANT SOLAR PLANT IN THE WORLD

In fact, Chile is home to two of the largest merchant solar plants. The 50-megawatt Maria Elena project from Sun Edison was the first large-scale solar plant to rely on the merchant spot market for its revenue. It held the distinction of the largest merchant solar plant in the world until a few weeks ago when SunPower’s Salvador Project, clocking in at 70 megawatts, stole the title. The region is able to sustain merchant solar plants due to a combination of high spot prices in parts of the grid and having the highest insolation rates in the entire world. That these plants were able to be developed without subsidies and be cost-competitive against every other resource on the market is a huge testament to how far solar has come in the region and where it is going.

THE OVERSEAS PRIVATE INVESTMENT CORPORATION IS THE BIGGEST SOLAR INVESTOR IN CHILE

OPIC is the region’s largest debt investor, with more than $650 million invested in five solar projects, representing 432 megawatts in Chile. The organization is beating the nearest competitor three times over the International Finance Corporation with $190 million in four projects in Chile, representing 318 megawatts. The International Finance Corporation can also lay claim to financing the 40-megawatt Aura project in Mexico, adding more to its regional portfolio. The Inter-American Development Bank, currently ranking third, has been very active and could surpass both IFC and OPIC in 2015.

SUNEDISON IS THE REGION’S TOP DEVELOPER

Last, but certainly not least, is the company that is leading the way on the massive growth in the region. Sun Edison is the top-ranked developer in Latin America, based on a combination of megawatts installed and late-stage pipeline. With 155 megawatts operational and another 163 megawatts on the way, Sun Edison is well ahead of the competition for 2014. Several companies will challenge it for the top ranking in 2015, including First Solar with its 141-megawatt plant in Chile and Enel Green Power with 169 megawatts in its late-stage pipeline not to mention some very savvy competitive positioning by Enel in markets like Peru and Panama.

Citation: James, A. (2014). 5 Key Stats Reveal Latin America’s Breakthrough Year in Solar. Green Tech Media. Retrieved December 16, 2014, from http://www.greentechmedia.com/research/report/latin-america-pv-playbookk