A fortnightly agglomeration of science, technology, tea strainers, and good news. Not necessarily in that order.

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The Crunch # 53

Y'all mothafu©kas need some batteries. Plus, roadsters and disco balls in space, secret Bitcoin codes in paintings, and good news on air pollution, cancer and democracy. 

Tony Stark is having a good week. He launched the world’s biggest, most technologically advanced phallic symbol into space, recovered two of its rockets in a synchronised sci-fi special, and fired an electric car and a mannequin astronaut into a millenia long heliocentric orbit between Earth and Mars. 
For most, it was a triumph of human ingenuity and a moment of pure, surreal delight (although of course there was plenty of hand wringing from the usual suspects about space junk and hubris). Either way, it seems clear that when humanity eventually becomes an interplanetary species, that ruby red roadster and its handy note for aliens “Made on Earth by humans” is going to feature in quite a few history lessons. 

That’s not what this newsletter is about. 

It’s about something else that everyone’s favourite space cowboy recently pulled off that in the medium term at least, may prove to be just as significant for the human race. You’ve probably seen this already, but there are a few extra details you may not know about. 

The story begins in March last year, when Mr Stark bet Australian digital wunderkind Mike Cannon-Brookes that he could build the world’s largest grid storage battery in Australia within 100 days, or he would supply it for free. The bet happened on Twitter (you know, the same communications platform that's supposed to start World War 3). Critics said building something that big would take years.

It took 60 days. It's the biggest, most badass battery on the planet, and in the short time it's been turned on it's been making everyone in the Australian energy industry lose their minds. 

Two weeks after it was plugged in, one of the largest coal power plants in the country suddenly went offline, losing the equivalent of 170,000 homes worth of power. In the blink of an eye, enough electricity to supply 30,000 homes surged into the grid from the Tesla battery, buying valuable time for other sources to come to the rescue. It was 100% clean, generated from an adjoining wind farm, and its availability prevented a cascading grid failure that could have left hundreds of thousands of customers without power.

It's often easy to take technology for granted. Perhaps you're looking at those numbers and going 'meh.' So let's just pause for a minute here to take stock.

When we say the Tesla battery responded in the blink of an eye, we're being literal. It responded in 0.14 seconds, which is about twice as fast a human blink. It was so quick that the local grid operator didn't have the right units to measure the response time. They're used to traditional emergency generators that take 15 minutes to get fired up. And to give you an idea of how much power surged into the grid, here's what roughly 30,000 homes look like in Melbourne's inner north. Imagine being able to flick a switch that sends clean energy surging into every single coffee shop, hipster boutique and yoga studio below?
that's a lot of coffee grinders putting demands on the grid...
The battery's next trick came last month, when the ancient dinosaurs that run the Australian energy market asked power generators to supply them with extra energy to help maintain the grid's frequency. Usually the big gas generators, despite having way more capacity than required, charge prices that are up to ten times higher because they know they've got everyone over a barrel. Unfortunately for them this time the Tesla battery was there, bidding into the market to ensure that the prices stayed reasonable.

Rather than jumping up to the usual prices of $14,000/MW, the battery and the adjoining wind farm kept them at around $270/MW. This saved several million dollars in charges in a single day, which would have been passed on to other power generators and ultimately, consumers. By providing just that service the battery is on track to pay itself back in a single year. 

That's the beauty of technological disruption. You're not just creating new and better things, you're shaking up old, inefficient and corrupt systems of human control.

Critics of battery farms say they can't handle all the chores of a stable grid. That's true. But it's also kind of irrelevant. The batteries aren't there as a power generation resource. They're there to store a few hours of power, smooth out the curves, regulate flows and drive down costs. They provide a super quick, flexible, much-needed injection of reliability and resiliency into our electricity networks. They're the missing link in large scale grids that will eventually mix counter-cyclical surges of solar and wind. 

This is what large chunks of our 21st century energy systems are going to look like. Clean energy power plants, with giant battery farms attached. The largest thermal solar + storage facility in the southern hemisphere, with 3.5 million panels and 1.1 million batteries, is being built near Adelaide. A Norwegian energy group is installing the world's first offshore wind-farm battery system off the coast of Scotland. We're seeing a new generation of battery gigafactories being built in Europe and China. And the storage options are starting to get seriously cheap. The costs are falling faster than even the most optimistic projections.

In January 2018 it was the turn of American energy analysts to lose their minds when a utility company in Colorado revealed 'shockingly low bids' from developers. With storage technology costs included, the average price for wind was 2.1 cents per kilowatt hour, lower than the operating cost of all coal plants currently in Colorado. For solar plus storage, the average price was 3.6 cents per kilowatt hour, lower than three quarters of operating coal capacity. These are the lowest ever clean energy + storage bids in the United States, and most likely anywhere in the world. 

These figures matter because they're real world prices. Usually, when we make renewable energy forecasts for the next five years, we rely on projections. These prices from Colorado were different. The developers weren't guessing. They were promising only what they knew they could deliver, with real money on the line.

That's why it's fun being an energy geek! As our favourite analyst David Roberts says, "let’s face it: in most areas of life, when you look past the hype at the real numbers, it’s depressing. Renewable energy is one area where that typical dynamic is diverted. The closer you look, the better the news gets.

A lot of those battery costs are being driven down by the electric vehicles explosion. The lithium-ion batteries that power the big Tesla system are the same ones that are in its cars. In the last eight years, the price of those has fallen by 79%. They still need to come down by another 50% before electric vehicles will be cost competitive, but that's happening quickly now that the other car companies are in on the game. General Motors for example, says that by reducing the amount of expensive cobalt and adding nickel, its battery costs will drop by 45% over the next three years. In China a company called CATL is planning a $1.3 billion lithium-ion battery factory with enough capacity to surpass Tesla. 

We've got better technology coming too. In some parts of the battery industry, the focus has moved from using liquid electrolytes to solid state batteries, which provide safer and more powerful energy storage. Toyota says it’s working to commercialise the technology in the early 2020s, and British car company Dyson says it will invest $1.3 billion to build an electric car using solid state batteries within three years, also outpacing Tesla. In Massachusetts a startup has developed a lithium metal battery that has double the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries, and is now selling them commercially for use in drones. 

In large scale storage, the most exciting development is what's known as vanadium flow batteries, which looks like a much more promising technology than lithium-ion. Vanadium flow batteries are nonflammable, compact, have a lifetime of 15,000 cycles, discharge all of their stored energy and do not degrade for more than 20 years. In other words, they're safer, more scalable, longer lasting and and they cost less than half their equivalents in lithium-ion. In China more than 30 projects with vanadium flow batteries have been deployed, including one that's twice the size of the Tesla battery here in Australia. 

The Tesla battery in other words, is just the first in a whole new wave of storage resources. The future of grid scale battery storage is a lot closer than we previously imagined, and its potential impact is a lot greater than almost anyone has anticipated. 

For us though, the Tesla battery is more than just a market signal. It's also a reminder to stop, and take a little time to marvel at what we can do. We're tool making apes that turned left somewhere between the mountains and the savannah and accidentally invented gods and money and nuclear weapons. It doesn't take long for our tools to go from being amazing innovations, to just the way things are. Two years ago we watched for the first time as a rocket launched itself into orbit and then landed on a floating drone ship at sea. Today, that's just normal practice. Yesterday 100,000 spectators lined up to watch two rockets performing aerial ballet. Tomorrow we'll think that's normal, and go back to complaining about our politicians. 

Technology goes from the astonishing to the banal in a very short space of time. We don't think twice about picking up a phone and making a video call to our families halfway cross the planet. We climb into planes that soar above the clouds as a matter of routine. We take it for granted that we can build huge turbines to harness the power of the wind, trap that energy in a giant box of chemicals, and send enough of it to power 30,000 homes surging into the grid in less time than it takes us to blink.

These things aren't normal. They're amazing.

Try remember that the next time you turn on the lights. 

Good news you probably didn't hear about

Around 94% of net new electricity capacity in the United States came from renewables last year, and the country lowered its total emissions by 1%. C'mon Australia. Electrek

In 2017, for the first time, the EU generated more clean energy than coal (five years ago coal generated twice as much as renewables). C'mon Australia. Carbon Brief

China brought 12.89 million people out of poverty in 2017, dropping the rate to 3.1%. About 70 million rural people have climbed out of poverty since 2012. Channel News Asia

Despite rising air pollution, respiratory disease death rates in China have fallen by 70% since 1990. The reason? Rising incomes, cleaner cooking fuels, better healthcare. Twitter

India has announced plans to create the world's largest government-funded healthcare programme, covering more than 100 million of the country's poor. BBC

A massive new study on three quarters of all the cancer cases around the world from 2000 to 2014 has shown that survival rates are increasing in most countries. Jamaica Observer

A new Pew report says democracy is more widespread than ever. Six in ten of the world's countries are now democratic - a post war record. Someone should write a book about it. 

Meanwhile, science

In the northern outback of Australia, on the oldest exposed landscape on Earth, scientists have just discovered new fossils that suggest water formed on our planet 500 million years earlier than thought, totally upending our theories about the origin of life. Quanta

A Chinese air taxi company has conducted over 1,000 test flights with human passengers, carrying loads of 230kg, reaching heights of 300m and speeds of 130 km/h. The Verge

German engineers have developed a new electric propulsion technology for nanorobots that allows them to move a hundred thousand times faster than previous techniques. TUM

In a first of its kind project, scientists in China have grown new ears for five children with ear defects using a combination of 3D printing and cultured cells. CNN

Cancer researchers at Stanford have made a major breakthrough with the development of a tiny injection into a single tumor that eliminates cancer all over the body. Medical Xpress

Japanese geneticists are now allowed to put human stem cells into animal eggs, and transplant those embryos into pig uteruses to create human organs. Japan Times

It's getting pretty retro up there right now, as Elon's roadster and Starman are joined by a giant disco ball secretly launched into orbit by a New Zealand space startup. Guardian

The information superhighway is still awesome

Krista Tippett's podcast, On Being, has made us think more deeply about what it means to be human in the 21st century than anything else on the internet today. Easily one of our most loved sources of ideas, and inspiration. If you're looking for somewhere to start, try Rebecca Solnit, on the nature of hope, or the 2016 interview with poet David Whyte

Dave Addey's twin obsession with typography and science fiction creates some pretty spectacular results. His post on 2001: A Space Odyssey is so good. Geek Factor: 8/10

In the US, there is one single scientist amongst 535 members of Congress. In China, 8 out of 9 top government officials are scientists or engineers. #worldpoliticsinanutshell

Soft skills are crucial in the 21st century workplace, and just as hard to learn as any other kind of expertise. Required reading for anyone in a leadership position. NewCoShift

A zoologist left a 4 star review on Amazon for a tea strainer, which they had been using to sift ants. Other scientists found it, shared it and started a Twitter trend, and it's amazing.

Regular readers know we're sceptics of "self-driving trucks will destroy all the jobs" stories. Evidence actually suggests autonomous trucks are likely to increase jobs. The Atlantic

After three years, someone has finally solved ‘The Legend of Satoshi Nakamoto’ a secret code hidden in a painting that gave access to an online wallet with $50,000 of Bitcoin.

Put your money where your mouth is

There are 200 subscribers to this newsletter who pay us for each edition (you know who you are, thank you!). 

We're taking the US$1,400 that we earned from them last month, and giving it all to the Travelling Telescope project. They're a wife-husband team that travels around Kenya showing thousands of schoolchildren their first views of the stars and planets. Thanks to the generosity of our readers, 1,500 children will get to look through a telescope for the first time. 

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Much love,

Gus and Tane
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