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Tech Lightning Rounds: Solar energy and sustainable energy in space

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By Elisabeth Kindig


Episode 8 of Tech Lightning Rounds discusses the advances being made in renewable energy sources. Beth Kindig goes directly to the source of expertise in solar energy and sustainable energy in space with interviews from NASA, Stanford’s Departments of Energy Business Innovations and on data interoperability with Intertrust’s modulus. Interviews are held in “lightning round” format, which are rapid interviews with tech experts for immediate depth on each topic.

Global climate change has had observable effects on the environment, including melting glaciers, shrinking rivers and lakes, and has caused cycles that are atypical for plants, such as trees flowering sooner. The loss of sea ice, rising sea levels and longer, more intense heat waves are “likely to be significant and to increase over time,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC, which includes more than 1,300 scientists around the world, forecasts a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.

For good reason, Solar energy has come a long way. As Stephen Comello points out in the podcast episode, the prices of solar systems have been coming down quarter over quarter, for about 10 years. The cost to produce one kilowatt of solar electricity is competitive with wind, and is the cheapest form of electricity available when looking at utility scale systems installed in locations that receive full sun. More specifically, the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) has come down 300-400% in the last five years.

We also speak with Lee Mason of NASA about the ultimate energy challenge; sustaining life on the Moon and Mars. Mason talks about the Kilopower project, which is an effort to develop preliminary concepts and technologies that can be used for an affordable fission nuclear power system to enable long-term stays on planetary surfaces. The nuclear power source helps the astronaut crews survive 14 days of darkness and help to power mining resources, such as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) plants. ISRU is the practice of collecting, processing and storing astronomical objects, and helps to reduce the cost of space exploration.

The promise for renewable energy is dependent on the prices remaining competitive. As Rainer Sternfield of Intertrust points out in the third interview, renewable energy requires data interoperability to achieve long-term value when compared to traditional energy sources. For instance, wind farm operators may buy wind turbines from three different manufacturers and will need to share data across these systems without exposing intellectual property. Data interoperability enables reneweable energy companies to be more efficient and remain competitive while reducing the risk of exposing sensitive data.

Don’t miss this 360-degree view on renewable energy with renowned experts in solar and space.


00:56 BK: In the previous episode of Tech Lightning Rounds, we spoke with some of the world’s largest oil and electric companies, about the advances being made with the use of data and decentralization. In this episode, we will look at renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, and we will even go so far as to look at how we can bring energy to the Moon and to Mars for sustainable human presence. My first interview is with Lee Mason from NASA, who discusses the logistics of returning to the Moon and landing on Mars.

01:26 Lee Mason: By 2024, we would be landing the next man and the first woman on the surface of the Moon and our plan is to not just stop there, but continue on and establish a sustainable presence on the Moon.

01:40 BK: I also speak with Stephen Comello, the director of Energy Business Innovations at Stanford about the progress we have seen in solar energy and the logistics around future energy storage.

01:50 Stephen Comello: When people started putting solar on their roof, then utilities needed to think about, “What am I actually offering here? Now I have to compete against people producing their own electricity.”

02:02 BK: We also speak with Rainer Sternfeld of Intertrust’s Modulus who breaks down why data interoperability is essential for renewable energy companies to compete for market share.

02:13 Rainer Sternfeld: For example, in some countries where you have really volatile energy prices, maybe you’ll sell some of the electrons back into the grid.

02:22 BK: NASA is an agency that has accomplished incredible feats through space exploration. The agency is also a thought leader on climate and renewable energy resources. I speak with Lee Mason who has been a NASA engineer for over 30 years, and is currently the Deputy Chief Engineer of Space Technology’s Mission Directorate, about the projects NASA is working on to create sustainable energy for life on the Moon and Mars. How have power technologies for space missions changed over the course of your career?

02:54 LM: That’s a great question. As I said, I’ve been working at NASA for over 30 years. I can remember some of my very first activities developing megawatt scale nuclear power plants on the Moon and Mars, and we’ve gotten a little more conservative, I guess, in terms of our mission plans. And we’ve done that because of constraints on our budget and the limitations that we are forced to work within. But the good news is, we’ve defined these missions that can still be very successful that don’t require megawatts of power. And so, I’ve seen, over my 30 years, a gradual decline in the amount of power needed to do our missions and so the technologies have changed accordingly, but we still have very aggressive approaches for doing these missions and expanding beyond low Earth orbit.

03:55 BK: What is the Kilopower project?

03:57 LM: The Kilopower project was conceived back in about 2010, in which the agency was looking for concepts to produce between 1 and 10 kilowatts for deep space missions. And we really didn’t have an option in that power class and so we were looking to see how small a space reactor we could design and develop and therein, we derived this new design, this Kilopower design, and a few years later, we were given a project to advance the technology and then design, build and test a 1-kilowatt system, which we completed out in the Nevada desert in 2018.

04:37 BK: Can you explain what an affordable fission nuclear power system is?

04:42 LM: Affordability is a relative term, of course. Developing nuclear power plants is an expensive endeavor and developing space systems is an expensive endeavor, of course. By affordable, we mean developing a technology in this Kilopower system that can leverage existing hardware, existing facilities, and take advantage of those to get to a relatively low development cost. And so in our three-year project to design, build and test a 1 kilowatt fission reactor, we were able to do that for less than $20 million. That is a lot of money but compared to some of the investments that NASA has made in the past in this technology, it’s a fairly small number. And so we’re very proud of the fact that we were able to achieve so much for so little.

05:37 BK: Lee and I talk about when we will see sustainable life on the Moon and what will be needed to survive 14 days of darkness. When will humans live on the Moon or live on Mars? What does the future look like?

05:52 LM: The future seems to be changing at a very rapid pace. Only a few months ago, NASA was planning missions to the Moon, in which we would start with small robotic landers in the early 2020s, and eventually, hopefully, land humans there around 2028. Well, we’ve gotten some new direction from our president and vice president, requesting us to accelerate that, so now we’re looking at lunar missions with humans as early as 2024. And so, all our plans have been kind of accelerated to reach that goal. Hopefully, by 2024, we would be landing the next man and the first woman on the surface of the Moon and our plan is to not just stop there, but continue on and establish a sustainable presence on the Moon that where we could go back to these locations and take advantage of lunar resources to bootstrap our presence in space and hopefully get to Mars. And so the goal for sustainable presence is 2028.

06:58 BK: And the Kilopower project enables that then or…

07:01 LM: Well, the Kilopower project would certainly help to sustain a human presence on the surface to the Moon. On the Moon, you have these periods of 14 days of darkness, followed by 14 days of sunlight, and so the sunlight period is great for solar power systems, but in order to survive through these 14 days of darkness, you really need a nuclear power source, and so fuel power would be a very important element of that mission to allow the crew to survive and also to power things like In-Situ Resource Utilization plants that would help us to mine the resources there on the Moon, take advantage of them, and make things like oxygen to breathe and fuel to power our spacecraft.

07:50 BK: Is there anything that you would like to add?

07:53 LM: I really appreciate the opportunity to speak to you. I think NASA is in a position now to do some really wonderful things on the Moon that will allow us to position ourselves for Mars and beyond. And we have a strong plan in place and we have a mandate now from the administrator to move forward on that. And projects like Kilopower are gonna be a key part of it. There’s lots of other interesting technologies: Cryogenic propulsion systems and In-Situ Resource Utilization plants and other advanced power technologies, including fuel cells and advanced solar rays. We’re gonna need to develop a lot of new technologies but once they’re in hand, I think that they will afford us an opportunity to really expand our presence beyond low earth orbit and do these missions that are so important to mankind.

08:49 BK: My next interview is with Steve Comello, who leads the energy business innovation focus area at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Steve puts into context how far solar has come, and how it competes from an operational standpoint. Where are we with solar PV power, especially as it relates to system prices?

09:09 SC: Sure, and happy to answer this question. Solar is really hot. The prices of solar systems have been coming down quarter over quarter, for about 10 years now. And from system prices perspective, that’s one way to look at it, but I like to recast it in a different way to measure that, and that would be the levelized cost of electricity. Essentially, how much does it cost to produce one kilowatt hour of electricity? And in that perspective, the solar has really, really come down so much so that next to wind in certain parts of the country, it is the cheapest form of electricity out there. Now, what we’re talking about is essentially, really large scale systems, because when you think about solar, there’s three dimensions or there’s three scales to it. There’s the really big solar plants that are out in the desert, there’s the larger systems that you see on top of a Costco or a Walmart, and then you have the smallest systems which are rooftop. And right now, we’re looking at this utility scale, the largest ones out in the desert, those that LCOE has come down, probably, on a scale of 3 to 4X in the last five years, and especially in really sunny places like Arizona, and California, it is the cheapest form of electricity.

10:36 BK: Going back to that levelized cost of electricity, that metric, how does it measure the competitiveness of solar PV? Can you kinda go over that one more time?

10:46 SC: Yeah, yeah, so the LCOE, basically what it does, it’s one bundle metric and it takes into account all the capital cost to actually build the system, and then all the operational costs that go into running the system, running the power plant. And so you can look at something like solar that has… It’s relatively pretty expensive to build right up front, but it’s super cheap to operate because there’s no fuel. And if you contrast that, say, to a coal power plant, they’re not really building that many, but contrast that, that relatively, it’s pretty cheap to build, but to actually operate the thing, all the water, all the coal the other fuel you need to ingest and combust to actually produce power, the LCOE basically levelizes all of that. You have one clean metric, no matter what the operational cost is and the timing of that, and no matter how capital intensive either of the projects are.

11:48 BK: Steve goes on to talk about energy storage from a cost perspective, plus the challenges around industrial solar. And he puts into context, what solar did to disrupt traditional power companies. Energy storage is obviously key to solar, what has been done in the last few years to increase the energy storage capacity or capabilities?

12:07 SC: Yeah, I would think about energy storage on two scales. One, let’s call it small, and one, call it large, and I’ll define those. On the small scale is probably what most people think about when they see a Tesla Powerwall. This is something that you can store a little bit of power in your basement and then you can use it at some other point. Now, what is the value of storage, say, at your home? Well, when it comes to solar, what you’d wanna do is you’re only producing power with your solar panel during the day. And is there an opportunity to capture some of that and actually store it and use it at night? That is a really compelling proposition, from a cost perspective, if you’re, say, in Hawaii or in Germany, because essentially you have a lot of solar during the day, and prices are such that that arbitrage really makes a lot of sense. Now, in a place like California, we have something called net energy metering and essentially, what that means is the grid does all the storage for you, that you capture or you produce all this electricity on your rooftop, from your solar panel, and anything that you don’t use, you just export to the grid. Now, what you export the grid is basically sold back at the same price that you would have otherwise bought it. There’s no reason why you would ever buy storage there.

13:45 SC: However, California, being what it is, actually has a lot of incentive programs and despite certain policies that work against storage being deployed, it actually makes a lot of sense, at least, from a cost perspective, to install storage. And once you get storage into your home, then there’s other benefits that you can acquire. That means that you’ll never get a blackout or you’ll be able to, in the future, sell services to the grid, depending on how policies and regulations work out. That’s at the small scale. At the large scale, that’s where a lot of work needs to get done. Let’s stick with California, we have so much solar that if you actually look at average demand during the day for the state, there’s this big dip in the middle of the day on what’s known as Net Demand, and this is because there’s so much solar being produced in the middle of the day that you almost don’t know what to do with it.

14:52 SC: And what happens is when the sun starts going down, there’s this big demand spike and you have all these other natural gas type generators that have to come on and meet that demand cause essentially, solar is coming down, you have all this demand that’s still there and you need all these facilities to ramp up. And that’s expensive, number one, and number two, carbon intensive. If you had really big storage facilities, you would be able to capture that sun in the middle of the day and deploy it later in the day and basically flatten out that curve. That doesn’t sound too good for natural gas peaker plants, but what it does is it helps de-carbonize the grid and it also takes advantage of power that you would otherwise not use most effectively.

15:43 BK: We had spoken earlier and you stated that distributed solar had kicked off the energy transition. What do you mean by that?

15:54 SC: Essentially, when it comes to distributed solar and distributed generation, my contention is that was one of the first times where traditional utilities had to think about competition. At least in the US, utilities have their service territories and they would produce electricity, a customer would receive it, customer would receive a bill, and that was the transaction. When people started putting solar on their roof, then utilities needed to think about, “What am I actually offering here? Now I have to compete against people producing their own electricity.” And then essentially, with distributed generation because of induced competition in the utility space, it was the first time that utilities really needed to think about their revenue and business models and how they would actually compete against essentially, a product that was undercutting their business.

17:01 BK: My final guest is Rainer Sternfeld, who works on the data platform at Intertrust. He discusses how important it is for energy companies to share data securely in order to achieve progress in renewables. Can you tell us one of the bigger success stories within wind farms or weather forecasting or even energy grids that came from your data sets?

17:23 RS: One of the problems that the wind farm operators had beyond just pure operations was, how do you make it more efficient, and generally, efficiency comes from advanced analytics. And very often what happens is that companies engage with third parties that would provide an algorithm, either to detect whether a certain part will be failing, and therefore, scheduling maintenance, which is known as preventive maintenance, or insuring the wind farm against lower production and some sort of extreme weather events and things like that. And so, when you engage with third parties, you inherently expose your intellectual property, which is your data, to third parties and those third parties, as well, they expose their algorithms, which is their IP, to you, as the operator.

18:23 RS: And so by combining Intertrust and Planet OS, we enable these new relationships where both parties work with each other, they provide their intellectual property, but don’t really feel threatened that their intellectual property might be compromised in some way. It’s a really trusted way to work and that allows even competitors to work with each other because sometimes, they need to work with each other but there needs to be a way to work with one another and that Intertrust provides that opportunity. And Planet OS in this picture just plays the role of providing access to weather and climate data in a very easy programmatic fashion.

19:05 BK: When you talked about the Intertrust Platform, you talked about interoperability. For anyone who may not be aware, can you break that down? What does that mean exactly?

19:13 RS: Yeah, interoperability is a term that gets thrown around quite a lot and in our world, it means really, two things. It can have two meanings: One is interoperability across different data types and formats, so that’s a very technical facet of the interoperability world. And it’s come a long way in the past 10 years, it’s not only Intertrust that has invested heavily in this, but in general, the world is coming to a place where you are able to work with very different types of data in the same environment, whether that’s weather stations or satellite data or sensor data from devices in your home and things like that. That’s the technical side. The other side is more based on standards and the way companies work.

20:08 RS: Staying on the subject of wind farms, if, for instance, you would buy a wind turbines from three different manufacturers, you would very often, find yourself, in working with three different isolated data silos, because they would use their own proprietary formats, there might be some encoding involved and that’s historically been more technical, but it’s becoming also sort of a protection by the manufacturers who want to protect their business in the future. And so what you need in that case, is interoperability across different manufacturers and doing that in a way that doesn’t threaten anyone’s business is quite complicated. And one way to do that is, to set common, kind of rails, that people understand how data gets into a system and how data gets out of a system.

21:07 BK: Rainer and I also talk about practical ways data can assist in solar feasibility, and how volatile energy prices can be mitigated by owning your own energy source. You also help renewable energy companies use data. How has data helped renewable energy companies become more competitive? Could you describe what you’ve seen since 2010, for instance, as far as the cost of energy sources?

21:29 RS: Yeah, as everybody in the energy space knows, the levelized cost of energy and in renewables has been on a decreasing trend, which is a good thing. The cost of energy should be as low as possible, but at the same time, what’s happening is, it also is decreasing margins. The margins are getting slimmer and slimmer, therefore, companies have to figure out ways how to stay competitive in a market which is in a race to the bottom, let’s say, this way, in terms of prices. And the one way to do that is to figure out value-add services. And so there is a major restructuring happening in the energy domain and that includes also renewable energy.

22:18 BK: Can you give us an overview in energy grids, they haven’t been disrupted for a long time. What does your data do to help energy grids perform better? Do you have any vision for innovation?

22:29 RS: People who own electric cars, they have certain patterns: They go to buy groceries, they go to the movies, they commute to work, so they have certain places where they want to park, and in an electric car world, parking means charging. They can actually use an app to request a charging location and then, by crowd sourcing these inputs, a municipality and the grid operator can decide where they actually should install new chargers. That’s a very good way to engage in a process where rights are managed, but at the same time, shortening the time from a request to actual installation of a charger multi-fold. That’s a success story.

23:16 RS: Another successful use case within the same [23:19] case study is that, when people are planning to install solar panels on their rooftops, what they can do is they can assess the feasibility of solar panels on their specific household. You may have big trees in front of you, the architecture of your house may not be most optimal with respect to the sun, and of course, the location, the geographic location, whether you’re more up north or more south, that will obviously, influence or impact the solar radiation your rooftop may have. Having that kind of a solar feasibility application run on top of the Intertrust Platform, which manages all their rights, but also brings in all these different datasets that allows you to assess that rooftop immediately, is not an easy thing to do if all the data is privately owned and needs to be managed.

24:24 RS: But with Intertrust, it’s relatively easy to do. You have all the permissions in place and everybody feels comfortable and confident that their data is not getting compromised, but at the same time, these services are really offered and everybody has a transparent view of what the result might be like and then you can engage in a business transaction, whether it’s leasing new solar panels, or getting offers and things like that, or even home insurance, for that matter. Or for example, in some countries, where you have really volatile energy prices, maybe you’ll sell some of the electrons back into the grid. You may have a situation where you can decide when do you want to actually sell your electrons to the grid and when do you wanna store them in your battery in your home.

25:18 BK: Thank you for listening to Tech Lighting Rounds. Please support the production of this podcast by subscribing in iTunes and leaving a review.

25:26 S1: This episode was brought to you by Intertrust Technologies, helping you build data-driven businesses. Go to for more information.


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