Farming is a tough business. If you don’t think so, try growing your own food for a year and see how that goes. Over the past several decades, farmers have begun to use ever larger quantities of fertilizers and pesticides — both often derived from petroleum stocks — to boost the amount of crops they can grow, but those products have a downside. Once the get washed into nearby ponds and streams, they pollute the water, which then travels down stream to larger and larger lakes until it reaches the ocean.
Yet crop yields are declining as changes in the Earth’s climate brings drought and/or higher temperatures to the places where most staple crops are grown. To compensate, farmers add even more fertilizers and pesticides to their fields, squeezing their profit margins even further. Now a UK startup called the Small Robot Company is about to change how farming is done. SRC uses two autonomous electric platforms — Tom and Dick — powered by Tesla batteries to gather detailed data about every field, including precisely where weeds are located. Both are controlled by Wilma, an online platform that analyzes the data collected and recommends ways to maximize yields at the individual plant level. [Why Wilma is not called Harry is a mystery.]
Ben Scott-Robinson, CEO of the Small Robot Company, tells The Guardian, “There have been times over the last four years when we thought this day would never actually happen. It turns out that building robots that work in fields to any level of reliability or accuracy is tough.” He says his robots are part of a fourth industrial revolution that uses technology to focus on accuracy, efficiency, and sustainability. “The way farming needs to be done is changing. It isn’t just about producing large quantities of food, it’s also about caring for what happens in the field.”
Tom Plays The Field
The first robot is Tom, a 4-wheeled device that can scan up to 20 hectares (50 acres) of farmland a day, creating up to 6 terabytes of data in the process. That data includes information about each individual plant. It also plots the location of weeds that threaten the harvest. Tom lives in a dedicated shed where it plugs itself in to recharge and transfer its data to Wilma. It is available for commercial use now, with the finishing touches of its AI guidance system about to be added.
Wilma — The Brains Of The Operation
The data collected by Tom is transmitted to Wilma, an AI platform that recognizes which weeds are in the field, analyzes the health of each individual plant, and creates an integrated farm management plan for the farmer. “You can look at the data as it comes in from the field to make decisions which will take into account agronomy, soil science, and market conditions.” SRC says.
Dick — A Weed Zapping Thug
Then there is Dick, the weed assassin which takes instructions from Wilma and sets out to find harmful weeds. Then it zaps them with 8,000 volts of electricity that boils them from the inside out. Not all weeds are harmful. Speedwell is enjoyed by bees and clover fixes nitrogen in the soil. “Neither is a threat to crop growth, so we leave them alone,” Scott-Robinson says.
The part that does the actual zapping was developed by RootWave, which is still fine tuning the technology so that Dick uses just enough power to kill the targeted weed in order to extend battery life. Work is also underway that will enabling the robot to weed as it moves by maintaining a ground connection to the Earth. Another project is taking on a moving target — slugs — by squirting deadly worms on them. [What happens to the worms afterward is not discussed.] It’s the best of all worlds, the company says — increasing yields while greatly reducing the use of harmful chemicals such as glyphosate.
Developed With The Help Of Farmers
Tom, Dick, and Wilma were developed in cooperation with several local farmers. Tom Jewers, who has a 390 hectare (960 acre) farm in Suffolk, tells The Guardian, “We are under constant pressure to use less pesticide but if we can’t do that we need something else. This is as big [a change] as tractors were to horses.”
The new technology is still rather expensive, although Scott-Robinson expects prices to fall once it gains a wider acceptance among farmers. Still, farmers are spending big bucks on pesticides. Craig Livingstone, the farm manager for the Lockerley estate, is concerned about blackgrass, the biggest threat to wheat, the UK’s top crop. “It’s costing the industry a fortune and resistance to herbicides is the number one problem,” he says. “The robot offers us a real chance to stop using artificial inputs.” Tom can analyze six different wavelengths of light to positively identify the troublesome weed so Dick can come along later and blast it. “That is a huge step forward,” he says.
It is possible that government incentives and policy initiatives could help offset some of the high costs of the technologies, just as EV incentives help convince drivers to buy an electric car. After all, there are non-monetary rewards to not polluting the Earth with harmful chemicals that become less and less effective over time.
What We Know About Tesla’s “Bobcat Project”
The Austin Business Journal has shared the news of Tesla’s latest project in Austin. It is nicknamed the “Bobcat Project,” but there are not a lot of details out yet. The article (which is paywalled) noted that there is a new site plan with an additional facility nearby.
KXAN added a bit more detail in its report, noting that Tesla’s “Bobcat Project” pointed to another industrial building rising off Harold Green road near Giga Texas. The video below also shares some clues.
Tesmanian reports that construction work on the new facility has already begun and shared drone footage provided by Terafactory Texas on YouTube (video above) of the construction site. The footage shows that the land preparation is already happening — east of the factory building. For now, part of the site has a cover prepared for the start of construction while another part still has a pond. Tesmanian pointed out that it’s worth considering that this section was prepared for the construction of a road and not a building and plans to monitor the progress of the construction.
The original story from the Austin Business Journal stated that Tesla’s Colorado River Project LLC already purchased more than 2,500 acres outside of Austin. Andy Linseisen, assistant director of Austin’s Development Services Department, told ABJ that Tesla has been conducting restoration work since last year. This was to limit its mining operations on the land.
We don’t know much right now, but hopefully soon more details will come to light as to what Tesla has planned for “Project Bobcat.”
Tesla Cybertruck On Display In Manhattan
The Manhattan Tesla store has a special vehicle in its showroom this weekend — the Tesla Cybertruck. Elon Musk confirmed that Tesla’s hottest new EV will be there until Sunday. The showroom is located in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, NY. The Cybertruck’s appearance is in connection to Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s appearance on Saturday Night Live on Saturday.
Cybertruck prototype in New York this weekend
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 8, 2021
Cybertruck at the Manhattan Tesla store today pic.twitter.com/enKuTKlDkj
— Sawyer Merritt 📈🚀 (@SawyerMerritt) May 8, 2021
When Owen Sparks asked Elon how long the Cybertruck would be in New York, Elon replied that it would be there until Sunday. I actually have a Cybertruck on preorder and am excited about more sightings. Recently, Elon showcased the Cybertruck at Giga Texas.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 7, 2021
Images of the vehicle’s visit to Giga Texas were shared by members of the Tesla community on Reddit — the r/TeslaMotors subreddit. Photos and videos showed that workers at Giga Texas were in awe of the beast. I think that’s what I’ll name mine, “The Beast.”
More Tweets & Photos of the Cybertruck in New York
— Tesla Owners Club New York State (@TOCNYS) May 7, 2021
The Cybertruck – the most revolutionary truck ever is now able to see in the New York area! Take a look for yourself by going to the Meatpacking-860 Washington Tesla store which is at 860 Washington St. New York, NY 10014! It closes today at 8 PM and reopens tomorrow at 11 AM! pic.twitter.com/8sUrOnGqdE
— BabyTesla (@BabyTesla3) May 7, 2021
— Jens Marklund (@jensdotwork) May 7, 2021
Cybertruck has hit the streets of New York City! I wonder if it will make an appearance on SNL tomorrow 🤔 pic.twitter.com/EQKKpJVEAw
— Owen Sparks 🌎 (@OwenSparks_) May 8, 2021
SPOTTED IT!!!!! pic.twitter.com/HEPnRRdIJJ
— Jeff 💙✌️ (@JeffTutorials) May 8, 2021
Featured photo by Tesla Owners Club Of New York, used with permission.
Tesla Director Of Energy On Transition To Renewables: “It’s Happening Quickly”
Mark Twidell, Director of Energy at Tesla, was recently in Adelaide, Australia, where he spoke at a Southstart entrepreneur’s conference, reported Financial Review. Originally, Tesla’s chairwoman, Robyn Denholm, was scheduled to speak at this event, but she was ill, so Twidell stepped in. Here’s to wishing Tesla’s chair a speedy recovery.
Twidell spoke about the electric vehicle industry’s demand for lithium as well as the demand from the energy industry. He noted that the use of large storage batteries was sharply increasing.
“Australia has the raw materials in abundance like no other nation on Earth,” said Twidell. He also said around 40 large storage batteries on an industrial scale were in the planning stage around Australia, which had a big opportunity in front of it exporting “climate solutions.”
“Let’s actually increase the benefits to Australia,” he said, adding that the lithium-ion battery value chain is forecast to be $400 billion by 2030. He also pointed out that the economics of renewable energy is currently driving its take-up on top of the environmental benefits. “It’s the economics at the end of the day which transitions us to where we are going,” he said.“The environmental benefits make sense, but economics will see us through.”
The article gives a short background on Twidell. He headed the team that set up Tesla’s big battery at Hornsdale near Jamestown. This battery in mid-north South Australia was built in fewer than 100 days back in 2017, and at the time, it was the world’s largest battery storage project. It was constructed in a partnership between Tesla and the French group Neoen.
Twidell also emphasized just how fast the renewables transition is happening. He noted that the transition to renewables is speeding up and that it’s pointless to try to argue otherwise. “It’s a huge economic opportunity. It’s silly to fight to say the transition isn’t happening. It’s happening quickly,” he said.
How Quickly Is This Transition Happening?
I’m going to dive into a couple of examples that reflect on this last point.
Coal is being replaced with renewables in the U.S.
Energy News Network reported just a few hours ago that solar and wind’s competitiveness over coal is accelerating. Around four-fifths of U.S. coal plants are either scheduled to close by 2025 or cost more to operate than solar and wind power would. This is backed up by a new research analysis from Energy Innovation: Policy & Technology.
One of the key trends mentioned is that out of the 235 plants in the U.S. coal fleet, 183 are “uneconomic or already retiring.” That is 80% of the plants in service in 2018. To paraphrase, the total share of all the U.S. coal plant capacity from 2018 will no longer be competitive beyond the next few years. Coal is dying and being replaced by renewables.
The reason coal plants are becoming noncompetitive is due to the levelized cost for new solar or wind falling quicker than planned. In 2020, the capacity factor for existing coal plants fell to 40%. That is down from 2017’s percentage of 53%. This means plants are being used less often. And less use means less profit — or no profit. You can read more about that here.
Renewables are a threat to LNG projects in the Philippines
The Manila Standard reported that the growth of renewable energy in the Philippines could leave liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects worth $14 billion stranded. That’s a lot of money left to be stranded. Sam Reynolds, an energy finance analyst for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) was interviewed in the article.
“As renewables prices continue to drop and global LNG markets tighten to increase fuel costs, LNG-related investments will become increasingly uncompetitive in the Philippines market, especially as smaller electricity consumers become eligible to choose their retail suppliers.”
Reynolds also noted in his report that the rapidly declining cost for renewables demonstrated that long-term pricing shifted in favor of renewable energy growth. “As policies in the Philippines accelerate the transition to clean energy, natural gas-fired power plants reliant on volatile imported fuel prices will realize fewer opportunities for long-term guaranteed returns,” he said.
He also pointed out that there’s a rapid buildout of LNG import infrastructure and this is due to the anticipated depletion of the Malampaya deepwater development–the nation’s only domestic source of natural gas. High gross domestic product growth is expected over the next decade. Exporting countries and industry players pushed the narrative that natural gas represents a viable transition fuel from coal to renewables, he pointed out. He estimated that the total value of the proposed LNG import infrastructure — which includes power plants, ports, regasification facilities, and pipelines — is around $13.6 billion. All of these are at risk of being stranded due to the rapidly changing legal and commercial landscape.
The Transition Is Happening Fast
Renewable energy has been the fastest-growing energy source in the United States — increasing 100% from 2000 to 2018, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Solar generation, including distributed solar, is projected to climb from 11% of total U.S. renewable generation in 2017 to 48% by 2050. This will make solar energy the fastest-growing electricity source.
The report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions noted that renewables made up 26.2% of global electricity generation in 2018. This is projected to rise to 45% by 2040 and that increase is most likely to come from solar, wind, and hydropower. You can read more of that here.
How FERC Transmission Reform Can End the Delay of a Cleaner Future
Transmission is to electricity what roads and highways are to cars and trucks.
Some local roads (or driveways) are built by private interests to access new real estate development, while most every major highway, bridge or mountain tunnel is built by a regional public agency. The way we plan and pay for our electric transmission follows this logic, until you look at how assumptions about future traffic are dramatically different for the new users, imposing crushing cost burdens on new renewable energy development. The transmission assumptions used for new supplies need to be re-examined so we have a realistic basis for the requirements placed on new supplies that will be competing with existing energy supplies.
Monopolies built this system
The electric utility industry was organized and dominated by monopolies for most of the past 100 years. With state regulators’ consent and approval, these monopolies built for their own needs and interests with little regard for connections to neighboring states or utilities. The logic of a monopoly does not support improving the access to new, competing supplies that a neighboring region might develop and export. All that is starting to change.
I’m going to assume you are familiar with a stack of past writings from UCS (on Order 1000, uncompetitive coal, cheaper renewables, energy storage) and others of course, about utilities and competition so I can shed light on transmission expansion, an issue soon to be gripping the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. You might take this on its surface as a debate over who benefits and who pays. But there are structural biases that need to be understood before we can use those supposedly simple rules about costs and benefits.
The highway system has its history and flaws. Planners had neither crystal balls nor an intention to minimize impacts to some communities while creating new opportunities to others.
Today, in the effort to provide reasonable rates for electricity, we can do better. Our approach for transmission planners looking at transmission expansion uses straight-out separate rules applied to transmission that increases competition as compared with transmission that supports the reliability status quo and the (presumed) modestly growing demand for electricity.
One problem with this distinction, as we will see next in the example from Mississippi, is that the real world conditions don’t fit so nicely into these separate buckets. Another is the rules applied to new energy generation assume things that just aren’t realistic.
The muddy waters of the Mississippi Hub
First, the problem of defining reliability as separate from economics. Like a highway jam, when transmission can’t handle the flow, there are problems. During February’s Storm Uri, freezing weather to the South Central U.S. transmission limits became a critical problem. Just east of the ERCOT grid in Texas, the Midcontinent ISO (MISO) system showed supply shortages and price imbalances due to transmission constraints.
In the images below from noon and the evening of February 16, these show up first as an economic problem. As the problem persisted, imports were limited and this became a reliability problem, MISO control room ordered rolling blackouts. The stress on the ties between MISO areas with supplies to share and others can be seen in the price differences preceding the order to cut off customers. Mississippi ties were too small to help Louisiana and East Texas. Energy prices normally in the $20-$50 range spanned from negative $35 to over $1000 across the under-sized east-west path and were 10 times higher in MISO South than in the rest of MISO. See two snapshots from Feb 16, 2021.
Planning for more supply?
The unfortunate illustration from this winter is just an example. Generally, grid investment works to prevent such a situation with two responses: build more generation or build more transmission. (There are more options that are not in FERC or regional transmission organization aka “RTO” authority.) How these two choices are evaluated by the FERC-approved transmission planning practices makes a difference.
Transmission planning for reliability uses narrowly-defined inputs (load growth and predicted violations of reliability) without consideration of future changes in the energy supply. The “regional transmission expansion plan” is a centralized effort by a designated Transmission Planner, usually the RTO or the largest transmission owner in the area. Broadly, folks would agree these planning efforts are conservative. (See Ari Peskoe’s new paper for a fuller opinion.)
Modest load growth projections and weather assumptions based on past records shape the transmission plans. With little new transmission expansion, adding more supply from new generation is very difficult.
The dense center of this debate
There is a specific and separate modeling process for adding new generation. At the center of this different process is a unique view of the future. New generation is addressed through the FERC-defined Large Generator Interconnection Process (LGIP). This process presumes that when there are generators queued up, trying to get added to the energy mix, the second one in line must be studied as if the first new power plant in the queue will be built. So if the one ahead in line takes up some room on the grid, there is less room available for any that come after it. While that may not sound controversial, consider where we are today.
This conceptual frame was established less than 20 years ago to enable competing new supply proponents to understand their rights. Now, in the renewables-rich Midwest states, the MISO has seen over 600 requests to connect wind, solar and battery generation between 2016 and 2020.
In the MISO South region the active solar requests in MISO queue total 1,330 MW in Mississippi; 5,690 MW in Louisiana; 2,660 MW in Arkansas. These, plus the small portion of Texas in MISO, means there is 10,000 MW of solar in the MISO queue in this study area.
Proposed new renewable energy power plants, counted in the billions of dollars and tens of thousands of megawatts, are included in the study of each new proposal. All other regions are also suffering a clogged queue. This congested queue process is not reflected in the regional transmission expansion plan, because that process includes none of these proposed new plants.
The LGIP transmission planning for the proposed new generation, which might compete against the existing generation, presumes 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 megawatts of new renewables have been added to the system in the next couple of years. The rest of the electric power system has not been built — in fact is not even modeled — to absorb that added amount. These renewable generators in the queue are faced with an extreme scenario and their studies come back with proportionately extreme results. In the LGIP process that is the admissions process for new competitors, the transmission planning process requires unaffordable costs for distant improvements to the transmission system.
This discussion could continue into the over simplification of “beneficiary pays” and the rights that are not actually secured, but let’s start by building a common understanding. When the transmission planners sit down and describe the future, we should not have two sets of assumptions as divergent as described here, used for planning the same system. Neither the assumption that no change is coming to the generation fleet, nor that every proposed plant will be built, is expected to be true. If a more reasonable, shared set of assumptions can be found, it may be that the work ahead on transmission planning for both reliability and generator interconnection can be improved.
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