Renewable energy sector experienced bumper 2017, ONS stats reveal

February 1st, 2019 no comment

Turnover reached £44.5bn in 2017, figures suggest, compared to £41.7bn for 2016.

Green businesses ranging from offshore wind and renewable heat to electric cars and charging infrastructure employed the equivalent of 209,500 full-time employees in 2017 – the latest year for which figures are available.

Overall, companies working in energy efficiency, including lighting and other products, as well as energy saving, monitoring and control systems, accounted for half the green sector’s turnover and two-thirds of its jobs.

Offshore wind turnover increased by almost 36 per cent as the rollout of wind farms off the UK’s coasts continued.

In July 2018, the Government pledged £557m to double the UK’s offshore wind over the next decade as the cost of electricity supplied by the facilities falls to record lows. 

However, onshore wind saw a drop of 15 per cent and the solar power sector also saw a fall in turnover and the number of jobs, which is likely to be partly due to cuts in Government subsidies, the report said.

Exports of clean technology and products were up, from £3.8bn in 2016 to £5bn in 2017, with the increase largely due to growth in low-emission vehicles and offshore wind exports.

The UK’s low-carbon and renewable energy sector continues to account for around 1 per cent of total UK non-financial turnover and employment, the survey of businesses in the sector suggests.

Lawrence Slade, chief executive of industry body Energy UK, said: “With over half of the UK’s electricity now generated by low-carbon sources, these figures underline how the energy sector has been successful in driving decarbonisation and creating jobs, boosting economic growth and slashing emissions in the process.

“The UK has been a world leader in cutting emissions and decarbonising our economy. However, we must go further and faster if we are to meet our climate change targets and therefore we must be able to fully realise the benefits from lowest-cost renewables, including onshore wind and solar.”

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy said: “The UK has reduced emissions faster than any other G7 nation while growing our economy.

“Moving to a greener, cleaner economy is at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy and today’s figures show our clean energy sector is driving growth in local economies and creating hundreds of thousands of quality jobs to boost earning power.”

View from Washington: How do you solve a problem like Huawei?

January 29th, 2019 no comment

The US Department of Justice’s unsealed indictments against Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, its CFO Meng Wanzhou “and others” have provoked a range of reactions from western high technology.

On one side, there is satisfaction that the Trump administration is following through on its rhetoric about China’s lax – many would claim still larcenous – attitude to foreign intellectual property (IP).

The IP issue has been a Silicon Valley bugbear for decades. However, it appears to have been accentuated now by the allegation in one indictment that Huawei encouraged staff to steal from rivals and offered bonuses to those who did (page 19, paragraph 47 here).

Let’s set aside those long-standing concerns, because – alongside unquestionably serious allegations that also cover sanctions-busting – another issue lurks in the background: can the global 5G market mature outside China, as it needs to, without Huawei? It is the technology’s largest and arguably most advanced supplier.

Following the indictments, questions that have been asked ever since Washington began to ratchet up its attacks on the Chinese conglomerate have taken on greater urgency.

They reach beyond infrastructure. The Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication are seen as fundamental to returns on 5G investments. They justify the capital cost for a technology that, according to Deloitte, will not ramp among consumers much faster than 4G.

Many M2M applications will indeed operate over unlicensed, short-range wireless networks (Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Bluetooth etc) and pass data over wired broadband. 5G is nevertheless seen as a source of extra capacity (Cisco forecasts that M2M connections will account for almost 3ZB [zettabytes] of all Internet traffic by 2022) and as fundamental to applications in areas such as autonomous driving, e-medicine and agriculture because of speed, lower latency and, eventually, ubiquity.

Analysts reckon that Huawei today has a healthy technological lead over its main 5G infrastructure rivals, Nokia and Ericsson. It has invested $1.4bn (£1.1bn) in research and development during the last decade and participated widely in the standardisation process at the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP).

Similarly, the company’s willingness to compete aggressively on hardware prices is thought to have made some 5G proposals economically viable.

In that context, here are five of the key questions those who feel uneasy about the Washington-Huawei/China standoff are asking, but which have not got as much of an airing as the allegations surrounding IP and also spyware.

Like many such questions, they tend to suggest worst possible scenarios. Those are unlikely to come about in full. The aim instead is illustrate why uncertainty is spreading and why, in the words of Vodafone CEO Nick Reed, this crisis is being addressed at a “too simplistic level”.

  1. Could ‘No Huawei’ mean ‘No 5G’?

In global terms, no.

US carriers have already excluded Huawei. China will move ahead as originally planned. Most of Europe seems prepared with, for example, Vodafone ‘pushing pause’ on supplies from the company last week, while BT/EE has excluded Huawei from bidding on its core 5G network – both regardless of any specific instruction from Brexit-bedevilled Westminster.

In Australia, one putative carrier, the wired broadband operator TPG, has just abandoned plans to enter 5G because the Australian government has followed the US lead (and encouragement) in banning Huawei from infrastructure.

“In light of the government’s announcement in late August 2018, [the] upgrade path has now been blocked,” TPG said. “It does not make commercial sense to invest further shareholder funds.”

Will others reach the same conclusion and – far more likely than no 5G at all – could the rollout therefore be slower, geographically patchy and have fewer competitors than expected? Nobody knows, but TPG is a warning sign of that rising uncertainty.

  1. Could the rest of the 5G supply chain support ‘No Huawei’?

As at TPG, the lower cost of Huawei equipment featured in many 5G operators’ original business assumptions. If they find themselves forced to turn to (and can afford) other sources – as is already the case in Japan and New Zealand, as well as Australia and the US – will Huawei’s rivals be able to fill the gap anyway?

According to IHS Markit, global infrastructure market shares in 2017 had Huawei at 28 per cent, Ericsson at 27 per cent, Nokia at 23 per cent, ZTE at 13 per cent and Samsung at 3 per cent. These figures do not fully reflect Huawei’s overwhelming leadership in China. Moreover, Huawei’s numbers skew more heavily toward newer-generation technologies. A completely West-free Huawei would have to find a lot of 5G equipment from somewhere else.

Rollout projections for 5G in major international markets that spread between now and the end of 2020 might suggest there is time for rival vendors to scale, but you need to remember that cellular builds precede launches by months, sometimes years. These are literally national projects with extremely complex supply chains.

Switching suppliers might be possible, but schedules could become very tight and notably, in some cases, 5G will require a bigger build than 4G because of distance and object limitations on the signal if it has to be delivered at higher frequencies. Or they could be delayed?

  1. Could ‘No Huawei’ seriously shrink VC funding and ROI projections?

Could a slowed 5G rollout demand sacrifices to the most tyrannical force of the digital age: time-to-market? Such delays would apply to all players, but the immediate issue here is less about competition than investment.

How quickly have venture capitalists been expecting to see returns on their 5G-related bets and what might their response be if these look likely to arrive late? Will they become more risk-averse and/or slow down their funding programmes?

VCs generally avoid communications infrastructure and favour applications and other products that sit on it precisely because they get a faster ROI from the latter. Another important nuance, then, is that many of the companies preparing products that will exploit 5G are at or are moving towards second- and third-stage funding. The sums these startups want are getting bigger.

If one takes AI data analytics as an example, one trend there is seeing companies add silicon development to their initial focus on software and algorithms. They are taking on these NREs and accelerating their burn rates because their offerings are becoming more complex and stressing generic GPU-based AI platforms. ASIC is coming to mean “algorithm-specific” as well as “application-specific”. Kerching!

  1. How long to process Huawei’s own ‘No’?

The US Department of Justice has a history for inserting itself in technology markets late in the day – and having processes that take too long to deliver ‘justice’.

Remember the first browser war between Microsoft and Netscape? Netscape was forced to sell itself to AOL well before any legal anti-trust judgement was handed down. Its management had little option, even though its argument about the damage it suffered by the bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows was strong.

Anyone care to bet on how long the two Huawei indictments might take to go through court, adding all the while to market uncertainty? No? Thought not.

  1. Could ‘No Huawei’ in the West hand both the 5G and AI crowns to China?

This is probably the most nebulous but potentially the most significant question.

The ‘Made in China 2025’ plan has both AI and 5G at its core. Beijing has identified these as two areas where it can not only catch up with but leapfrog technological rivals in the West.

In 5G, China is reckoned to have helped define about 40 per cent of the standards at 3GPP with Huawei leading the effort. It was very much a bystander when earlier standards were set.

Then in AI, Chinese specialists received $4.5bn in investment between 2012 and 2017, and the sector is today estimated to be accounting for 60% of AI funding globally.

In that regard, a stuttering 5G rollout elsewhere might suit Beijing well. Huawei will continue to build out its ‘local’ network and the Chinese applications running on it will have a large market in which to mature before others can really start to scale.

Moreover – and irony of ironies – if Huawei is restricted from selling hardware to much of the rest of the world, China could accelerate its domestic 5G build not just to compensate, but also to inject money into its economy as a major slowdown threatens. See: rural broadband – quantitative easing – Obama – passim.

Of course, there is the caveat that if you don’t trust Huawei, having it in Western networks might also be a case of roasting your chickens for the fox. Nobody said any of these issues are easy to resolve or can be entirely resolved right now.

There is also that rather persistent and overarching factor: respecting the rule of law.

Still, there you have it. IP security is a huge issue, as is the controversy around spyware, though it’s hardly touched on here. As Nick Read said, this is an issue that, even taking those factors into account, is being addressed at a “too simplistic level”.

The next couple of days of trade talks in Washington between the teams of US President Donald Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He might brighten the mood and offer a few pointers. Maybe this is just the Donald being a blowhard again.

All you can say for sure, though, is that these known unknowns are at least good fodder for columnists. 

‘Rectenna’ breakthrough allows devices to be powered by Wi-Fi signal

January 29th, 2019 no comment

The discovery could pave the way for a future where devices do not need batteries to be powered or could charge wirelessly without placing them on a plate, which is how current wireless charging methods work.

The rectenna is just a few atoms thick and harvests the signal as AC, which then travels into the semiconductor and is converted into a DC voltage.

The device could be used to provide battery-less power for smartphones, laptops, medical devices and wearable technology, according to the team from the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (MIT).

Due to its flexibility, it could also be fabricated to cover large areas. This has major implications for the future of “electronic intelligence”, the team said.

Professor Tomas Palacios, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Microsystems Technology Laboratories Centre for Graphene Devices and 2D Systems, said: “What if we could develop electronic systems that we wrap around a bridge or cover an entire highway, or the walls of our office, and bring electronic intelligence to everything around us? How do you provide energy for those electronics?

“We have come up with a new way to power the electronics systems of the future – by harvesting Wi-Fi energy in a way that’s easily integrated in large areas – to bring intelligence to every object around us.”

In experiments, the rectenna generated about 40 microwatts of power when exposed to typical Wi-Fi signals of around 150 microwatts. This is more than enough to light up a simple mobile display or activate silicon chips.

Spanish co-author Professor Jesus Grajal, from the Technical University of Madrid, said a key application could be in the field of medical implants and ‘pills’ that stream health data after being swallowed by patients.

He added: “Ideally, you don’t want to use batteries to power these systems, because if they leak lithium, the patient could die.”

To create the rectenna, the team used a novel 2D material called molybdenum disulphide, which at three atoms thick is one of the world’s thinnest semiconductors.

All antennas produce electricity, but normally in very tiny amounts. In a portable radio, for instance, an amplifier boosts the signal to allow broadcasts to be heard. The amplifier needs a suitable power source, such as a battery.

The electricity obtained from radio waves comes in the form of a high-frequency alternating current (AC). In the new device, the semiconductor converts the AC signal into a more usable direct current.

The team is now planning more complex devices with improved efficiency.

Bug in Apple’s FaceTime let users eavesdrop on each other

January 29th, 2019 no comment

The flaw allows an iPhone user placing a call using FaceTime to hear audio from the recipient’s phone even if they have not yet picked up the call.

In certain situations the bug also broadcast both video and audio from the recipient’s phone prior to accepting the call.

Google’s rival service Duo actually includes a feature called “Knock Knock” that is similar in that it allows callers to see the other person before accepting the call, although users have the option to turn this on or off.

Apple’s system status website now lists FaceTime as having an ongoing issue, with a message attached confirming Group FaceTime is “temporarily unavailable”.

The bug is said to affect devices using versions of iOS 12.1 or later and was first reported by the website 9to5mac, which added that calls have to be made in a particular way in order to exploit the glitch.

It appears to involve the “add person” function of the FaceTime app, confusing it into activating the call recipient’s microphone even before the call is accepted.

“We’re aware of this issue and have identified a fix that will be released in a software update later this week,” an Apple spokesperson said.

The incident is embarrassing for the technology giant as it was discovered on Data Privacy Day in the United States, which Apple chief executive Tim Cook had tweeted about, calling for “vital privacy protections”.

Apple has also recently been highlighting its credentials as a company that protects user privacy, using a large billboard overlooking the CES technology trade show in Las Vegas last month to declare “what happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone”.

Rob Baillie, mobile expert at Comparemymobile.com said: “The news of this glitch is surely going to have serious repercussions for Apple.

“They have been working really hard to maintain their market share and fight back against consumers moving to flashier, arguably better-value competitors. Privacy is a hugely hot topic at the moment – we’ve seen thousands voting with their feet away from apps like Facebook, for losing their trust.

“With Mobile World Congress approaching and rumours rife about competitors throwing everything at their new models to attract users, this is a problem they really did not need to have.

“For any of the manufacturers looking to secure and keep consumer confidence, ensuring there is a continued focus on what should be absolute hygiene factors like security is essential, and there is a real risk of them getting lost in the mix while they chase the next big gimmick.” 

Earlier this month a cyber-security researcher cancelled a hacking conference presentation that would have explained how Apple’s facial recognition technology can be tricked, after his employer demanded that he withdraw from the event. 

Verizon backs down after dispute with schools communications service

January 28th, 2019 no comment

In the past few weeks, Verizon has been caught in a dispute with Remind: a company that offers mass communications services for schools and communities. The service allows teachers to send free and paid SMS messages to their students using a platform which enables bulk texting.

Verizon attracted criticism when it announced a new fee of 0.25 cents per message to the service, which the telecommunications giant said would be used to pay for spam-blocking services.

According to Remind, the introduction of the proposed fee would have increased Remind’s expenses for texting its Verizon users from several hundred thousand dollars per year to millions of dollars per year, making it impossible to continue supporting the free version of its service. Remind is used in more than half of US public schools, and sends approximately 1.6 billion SMS messages every year using the Verizon network.

Verizon later offered to reverse the fee for non-paying Remind users in K-12 education (standard primary and secondary education). The offer meant, however, that a fee would still be charged to preschool teachers, day-care centres, youth sports coaches, and other users, leading Remind to publicly demand that Verizon agree to roll back the fee for all and stop treating school-related notices as “spam”.

The fee was due to be introduced today, and would have resulted in Remind being forced to halt SMS notifications to its seven million Verizon customers.

Under pressure from the educational sector – including a social media campaign using the hashtag #ReverseTheFee – Vector has agreed not to charge the fee to Remind and similar companies. In a statement, Verizon said it was “committed to ensuring that a free messaging option remains available now and going forward.”

In a blog post on the company website, Remind CEO Brian Grey said: “I cannot tell you how much all of us at Remind have appreciated your calls, posts, and messages. Your voices have been heard.”

“I am thrilled to announce that, thanks entirely to you, we have heard from Verizon that they don’t have plans to change the fee structure applicable to Remind for SMS messaging. This mean we will no longer be forced to shut off text notifications for Verizon Wireless customers using Remind. There will be no service disruptions for Verizon Wireless customers.”

Grey thanked Verizon for its commitment to supporting “accessible communication” for all Remind users.

All German coal plants to be shut down by 2038

January 28th, 2019 no comment

The recommendation was made by a government-appointed ‘coal commission’ made up of 28 voting representatives from political parties, environmental groups, academia and industry. The commission has been working since last summer to agree on a timetable for phasing out the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

Following a final marathon 20 hours of discussions, the commission reached an agreed schedule in which coal will be entirely phased out by 2038 at the latest. Chair of the commission Ronald Pofalla described the agreement as an “historic accomplishment”.

The plan must now be implemented by the central government and its 16 regional states. Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to accept the recommendations.

The commission has proposed that an independent panel assesses how effectively the government is handling the transition with regards to prices, supply and jobs in 2023, 2026 and 2029. The country currently has 84 operational coal-fired plants, of which 24 will need to be closed within three years in order to comply with the commission’s proposals. Just eight coal-fired plants would remain by 2030, with the final plant closing by 2038 at the latest. Predictably, there has been some disagreement over the deadline, with the coal industry warning of “serious consequences” of the timeline while environmental groups have criticised the deadline as unambitious.

“Less CO2, more new jobs, a secure power supply and affordability: a strong signal,” Peter Altmaier, the minister for economic affairs and energy, commented on Twitter. Altmaier later confirmed in an appearance on ARD that the coalition government would be taking on the recommendations quickly.

He said that a “whole series of laws” would be necessary in order to support the transition, such as by securing new jobs, and that some funding had already been allocated to begin the transition in the 2019 budget. This is “one of the most challenging transformational processes in the last decades,” he said.

At least €40bn (£35bn) is expected to be paid out to the regions affected by the decision. Approximately 20,000 jobs in Germany are directly linked to the coal industry.

Eric Schweitzer, president of the German Chambers of Commerce, welcomed the phase-out but warned that it could drive electricity prices higher. However, Svenja Schulze, the environment minister, said that analysis completed by her ministry demonstrates that the changes would not lead to higher electricity prices.

Schulze said that regions heavily involved in coal production would remain important in the German energy market in the coming years, with investment in renewables, climate protection and new technologies.

Last year, renewables made up 41 per cent of Germany’s total energy mix, beating coal for the first time and making them collectively the leading source of electricity. Since the government announced a phase out of nuclear power in 2011, following the Fukushima disaster, it has promoted a gradual transition to renewables as the principle source of electricity.

All German coal plants to be shut down by 2038

January 28th, 2019 no comment

The recommendation was made by a government-appointed ‘coal commission’ made up of 28 voting representatives from political parties, environmental groups, academia and industry. The commission has been working since last summer to agree on a timetable for phasing out the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

Following a final marathon 20 hours of discussions, the commission reached an agreed schedule in which coal will be entirely phased out by 2038 at the latest. Chair of the commission Ronald Pofalla described the agreement as an “historic accomplishment”.

The plan must now be implemented by the central government and its 16 regional states. Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to accept the recommendations.

The commission has proposed that an independent panel assesses how effectively the government is handling the transition with regards to prices, supply and jobs in 2023, 2026 and 2029. The country currently has 84 operational coal-fired plants, of which 24 will need to be closed within three years in order to comply with the commission’s proposals. Just eight coal-fired plants would remain by 2030, with the final plant closing by 2038 at the latest. Predictably, there has been some disagreement over the deadline, with the coal industry warning of “serious consequences” of the timeline while environmental groups have criticised the deadline as unambitious.

“Less CO2, more new jobs, a secure power supply and affordability: a strong signal,” Peter Altmaier, the minister for economic affairs and energy, commented on Twitter. Altmaier later confirmed in an appearance on ARD that the coalition government would be taking on the recommendations quickly.

He said that a “whole series of laws” would be necessary in order to support the transition, such as by securing new jobs, and that some funding had already been allocated to begin the transition in the 2019 budget. This is “one of the most challenging transformational processes in the last decades,” he said.

At least €40bn (£35bn) is expected to be paid out to the regions affected by the decision. Approximately 20,000 jobs in Germany are directly linked to the coal industry.

Eric Schweitzer, president of the German Chambers of Commerce, welcomed the phase-out but warned that it could drive electricity prices higher. However, Svenja Schulze, the environment minister, said that analysis completed by her ministry demonstrates that the changes would not lead to higher electricity prices.

Schulze said that regions heavily involved in coal production would remain important in the German energy market in the coming years, with investment in renewables, climate protection and new technologies.

Last year, renewables made up 41 per cent of Germany’s total energy mix, beating coal for the first time and making them collectively the leading source of electricity. Since the government announced a phase out of nuclear power in 2011, following the Fukushima disaster, it has promoted a gradual transition to renewables as the principle source of electricity.

Australia’s soaring temperatures cause mass power outages

January 25th, 2019 no comment

Tens of thousands of Melbourne homes and businesses lost power as air-conditioners combating temperatures of 44C taxed the power supply.

The city on the south coast of Australia was expected to see its hottest day since 7 February 2009 – a day of catastrophic wildfires remembered as Black Saturday.

That day, the temperature soared to 46.4C, with wildfires killing 173 people and razing more than 2,000 homes in Victoria.

To shore up the grid, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) cut power to Alcoa Corp’s Portland aluminium smelter, the biggest consumer in the state of Victoria, for nearly two hours on Thursday evening and on Friday.

Several other businesses also agreed to wind down operations during the period of extraordinary demand.

Wholesale power prices in Victoria hit the market cap of A$14,500 (£7,877) per megawatt-hour (MWh) before midday on Friday, earlier than expected, and were forecast to remain there for the rest of the day, National Electricity Market data showed.

Audrey Zibelman, chief executive of AEMO, which manages the national electricity grid, said three heat-stressed coal-fired generators had failed in Victoria and a fourth was expected to shut down on Friday.

The grid began loading-sharing as temperatures climbed in the early afternoon, with 30,000 households and businesses at a time being switched off for as long as two hours so supply could keep up with demand, she said.

Transmission links from the states of Tasmania, New South Wales and South Australia were transferring power to Victoria at full capacity.

“With all of that, however, we found ourselves short…for up to the next two hours,” she said. “We may have to do more over the course of the afternoon, as the demand continues to increase.”

Essential services such as hospitals were quarantined.

The Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne invoked its extreme-heat policy on Thursday and closed the main stadium’s roof during a women’s semi-final.

Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Rob Sharpe said he would not be surprised if this month becomes Australia’s hottest January on record with heatwave conditions likely to persist.

In South Australia, where power capacity has been beefed up with diesel generators and gas-fired plants over the past two years following a state-wide blackout, 30,000 homes lost power on Thursday after transformers on local power lines overheated and switched off.

“After days of heat, we were in some uncharted territory yesterday with record heat and record load sustained well into the night,” said Paul Roberts, a spokesman for SA Power Networks, the South Australian local distribution network operator.

View from Brussels: Armenia – land of the rising sun

January 24th, 2019 no comment

In Armenia, gas pipes litter the urban landscape, evidence of the former Soviet country’s reliance on imported energy, particularly from Russia.

Flanked on both sides by closed borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey, how to keep Armenian lights on is a worry for the new government, especially with US-led pressure to cut trade with Iran across its southern border weighing heavy.

Those worries got a little more pronounced this month when Moscow announced that it would be raising the price at which it sells gas to Yerevan. Armenia’s politicians were adamant for months that a reduction in price was actually on the cards.

Last May, a botched attempt by the ruling regime to cement its hold over power was the last straw for Armenians, who went en masse to the streets and forced a change of government.

Analysts and political commentators have been wondering ever since whether the Kremlin was completely happy with the seismic changes going on in its old backyard. An increase in gas price for a country where about 30 per cent of people live in poverty is not a good sign.

Although Armenia’s landlocked position between hostile powers is the source of many of its woes, it could ultimately end up being its saving grace. Its trump card? The sun.

Even the previous government had massive plans for Armenia’s hugely promising solar power industry. One minister told this columnist before leaving office that he wanted people to stop thinking of Armenia “as a Christian country and to start thinking about it as a solar nation”.

Indeed, in 2018 the amount of solar power produced in Armenia increased by nearly 50 per cent, while a planned large-scale power plant was given the green light. Over the course of its estimated 20-year operating period, it could offset over a million tonnes of CO2.

The government also announced that its buildings would all start switching to solar power, while there are even plans afoot that would see every rooftop have at least one panel by 2030.

But what makes Armenia such a promised land for solar worshippers?

Part of the answer lies in its elevation and climate. Almost all of the country is above 650 metres, meaning the intensity of the sun’s rays are higher, and the number of cloud-free days help boost the number of kilowatts available.

Government figures show that Armenia’s solar power average is 60 per cent better than the European average.

Installation costs remain high, which act as a natural barrier in what is still a poor country, particularly by European standards.

That doesn’t mean there is not an appetite for a green revolution though. Big hydropower reserves already mean about a third of power comes from renewables.

Armenian energy experts believe that given the right investment and subsidy schemes, the country’s inhabitants could start to benefit from cheap heating and sustainable power. The new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, is in Davos this week to court business.

One could argue that Western Europe’s biggest problem with greening our economy is changing behaviour patterns. It is now accepted fact that we all need to eat less meat, drive less and take fewer flights in order to curb climate change. But very few of us take those steps.

In Armenia, decades of driving gas-powered cars already means that drivers are used to ‘recharging’ times and to plan journeys accordingly. Renewables advocates therefore believe that a switch to electric vehicles could be easy, if it goes hand-in-hand with green power.

But perhaps more significantly, an energy revolution in Armenia could help solve its long-standing conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is sandwiched between the two nations.

The Karabakh issue has crippled Armenia’s economy, while its eastern neighbour has grown wealthy on fossil fuel exports. Armenian politicians have long used the conflict as something around which to build political support.

Political cynics would say that dipping into the well of Karabakh sentiment is easier than trying to solve the deeply ingrained economic woes with which the Caucasus nation still grapples.

The inevitable financial benefits that sustainable energy brings could therefore break the cycle that the two countries find themselves locked in and, at the very least, help reopen negotiations.

Promising signs from both Pashinyan and long-term Azeri leader Ilham Aliyev suggest that there is now room for a thawing of ties.

There’s evidence of renewable energy’s power to do more than just help the climate and improve air quality, in Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

People often wonder how a small self-governing region, recognised only by other unrecognised states, can continue to exist basically in a state of war with Azerbaijan.

Well last summer, hydropower-rich Karabakh set a new record: it now generates all of its electricity from renewable energy and even exports to Armenia when needed.

Now that’s real power.

Lasers used to send targeted audio messages to individuals in crowded rooms

January 24th, 2019 no comment

The ability could be used to communicate with specific people in dangerous situations, such as an active shooter, when they do not have access to an audio receiving device.

The team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory report using two different laser-based methods to transmit various tones, music and recorded speech at a conversational volume.

“Our system can be used from some distance away to beam information directly to someone’s ear,” said research team leader Charles M Wynn. “It is the first system that uses lasers that are fully safe for the eyes and skin to localise an audible signal to a particular person in any setting.”

The new approaches are based on the photoacoustic effect, which occurs when a material forms sound waves after absorbing light. In this case, the researchers used water vapour in the air to absorb light and create sound.

“This can work even in relatively dry conditions because there is almost always a little water in the air, especially around people,” said Wynn. “We found that we don’t need a lot of water if we use a laser wavelength that is very strongly absorbed by water. This was key because the stronger absorption leads to more sound.”

One of the new sound transmission methods grew from a technique called dynamic photoacoustic spectroscopy (DPAS), which the researchers previously developed for chemical detection. In the earlier work, they discovered that scanning, or sweeping, a laser beam at the speed of sound could improve chemical detection.

“The speed of sound is a very special speed at which to work,” said Ryan M Sullenberger, first author of the paper. “In this new paper, we show that sweeping a laser beam at the speed of sound at a wavelength absorbed by water can be used as an efficient way to create sound.”

For the DPAS-related approach, the researchers change the length of the laser sweeps to encode different frequencies, or audible pitches, in the light.

One unique aspect of this laser-sweeping technique is that the signal can only be heard at a certain distance from the transmitter. This means that a message could be sent to an individual, rather than everyone who crosses the beam of light. It also opens the possibility of targeting a message to multiple individuals.

In the lab, the researchers showed that commercially available equipment could transmit sound to a person more than 2.5m away at 60 decibels using the laser- sweeping technique.

They believe that the system could be easily scaled up to longer distances. They also tested a traditional photoacoustic method that doesn’t require sweeping the laser and encodes the audio message by modulating the power of the laser beam.

“There are tradeoffs between the two techniques,” said Sullenberger. “The traditional photoacoustics method provides sound with higher fidelity, whereas the laser sweeping provides sound with louder audio.”

Next, the researchers plan to demonstrate the methods outdoors at longer ranges. “We hope that this will eventually become a commercial technology,” said Sullenberger. “There are a lot of exciting possibilities, and we want to develop the communication technology in ways that are useful.”

Last year MIT researchers proposed that lasers could be used to attract attention from alien lifeforms as far as 20,000 light years away.