Ancient Italian Town Now Has Wind at Its Back

With renewable power, Tocco da Casauria, in central Italy, produces more electricity than it uses,

making money off the surplus. Dave Yoder for The New York Times

New York Times International Feed, September 29, 2010, by Elisabeth Rosenthal  —  TOCCO DA CASAURIA, Italy — The towering white wind turbines that rise ramrod straight from gnarled ancient olive groves here speak to something extraordinary happening across Italy.

With renewable power, Tocco da Casauria, in central Italy, produces more electricity than it uses, making money off the surplus. Dave Yoder for The New York Times

Faced with sky-high electricity rates, small communities across a country known more for garbage than environmental citizenship are finding economic salvation in making renewable energy. More than 800 Italian communities now make more energy than they use because of the recent addition of renewable energy plants, according to a survey this year by the Italian environmental group Legambiente.

Renewable energy has been such a boon for Tocco that it makes money from electricity production and has no local taxes or fees for services like garbage removal.

A quintessential Italian town of 2,700 people in Italy’s poor mountainous center, with its well-maintained church and ruined castle, Tocco is in most ways stuck in yesteryear. Old men talking politics fill gritty bars, and old women wander through the market. The olive harvest is the most important event on the calendar.

Yet, from an energy perspective, Tocco is very much tomorrow. In addition to the town’s wind turbines, solar panels generate electricity at its ancient cemetery and sports complex, as well as at a growing number of private residences.

“Normally when you think about energy you think about big plants, but here what’s interesting is that local municipalities have been very active,” said Edoardo Zanchini, in charge of Legambiente’s energy division. “That this can happen in a place like Italy is really impressive.”

Italy is an unlikely backdrop for a renewable revolution. It has been repeatedly criticized by the European Union for failing to follow the bloc’s environmental directives. It is not on track to meet either its European Union-mandated emissions-reduction target or its commitment to get 17 percent of its total power from renewable sources by 2020, experts say.

Currently, only 7 percent of Italy’s power comes from renewable sources.

But the growth of small renewable projects in towns like Tocco — not only in Italy, but also in other countries — highlights the way that shifting energy economics are often more important than national planning in promoting alternative energy.

Tocco was motivated to become an early adapter because Italy already had among the highest electricity rates in Europe, and nearly three times the average in the United States, and it could not cope with the wild fluctuations in fossil fuel prices and supply that prevailed during the past decade.

At the same time, the costs of renewable energy have been falling rapidly. And as in much of Europe, the lure of alternative power here was sweetened by feed-in tariffs — government guarantees to buy renewable electricity at an attractive set price from any company, city or household that produces it.

In the United States, where electricity is cheap and government policy has favored setting minimum standards for the percentage of energy produced from renewable sources rather than direct economic incentives like Europe’s feed-in tariffs, stimulating alternative energy has been only mildly successful. But in countries where energy from fossil fuels is naturally expensive — or rendered so because of a carbon tax — and there is money to be made, renewable energy quickly starts to flow, even in unlikely places like Tocco.

With its four wind turbines (two completed in 2007 and two last year), Tocco is now essentially energy independent from a financial standpoint, generating 30 percent more electricity than it uses. Production of green electricity earned the town 170,000 euros, or more than $200,000, last year. The town is renovating the school for earthquake protection and has tripled the budget for street cleaners.

Kieran McNamara, Italy desk officer for the International Energy Agency, said that although small renewable energy projects were not enough to sustain an entire industrial economy like Italy’s, they were important.

“These small projects have their own intrinsic value and make a very, very positive contribution in countries where electricity prices are high,” Mr. McNamara said.

High electricity prices in Italy are a result of various forces, according to the International Energy Agency: Italy has almost no fossil fuels of its own, and until last year, it banned nuclear power plants; new plants will take a decade to build even if strong public opposition can be overcome. Although Italy has officially opened the former state electricity monopoly, Enel, to private competition, the country does not yet have a functioning market, the energy agency has found.

Large renewable projects are still rare in Italy compared with other European countries because Italian planning and permitting procedures are so complicated.

The type of renewable energy coming from small towns like Tocco depends on local resources. In the northern Alpine counties there is a heavy reliance on hydropower and the burning of agricultural waste. Italy’s scorching south tilts a bit more toward solar, although wind, too, is important there because it is by far the most cost-effective renewable technology, the energy agency said.

Tocco itself was primed for success. In a mountain valley that serves as a thoroughfare for passing winds, Tocco was chosen as the site for an early European Union demonstration project in wind power in 1989. It had two inefficient wind turbines installed that lasted about a decade and were not replaced, meeting at best 25 percent of the town’s electricity requirements. Residents called them “sacks of noise.”

But in recent years, with improved technology, silent turbines and a meager public purse, town officials took another look at wind.

“We knew what we were doing and where to put them,” said Riziero Zaccagnini, the town’s popular blue-jeans-clad mayor, who came back from studies in Rome to start agitating for new turbines and was elected in 2007.

As is common in both Europe and the United States, the new turbines are owned and operated under a contract with a private energy company. The company installed the turbines and sells electricity to the national grid. Tocco profits because the company leases the land on which the turbines stand and gives the town a cut of the profits it makes from selling electricity generated with local wind.

Though more electricity is produced than consumed in Tocco, its residents do not use the electricity it produces directly because relying entirely on local wind energy could leave the town vulnerable to blackouts during periods of calm.

Impressed with their new turbines, Tocco’s residents have lately turned to renewable resources to resolve other civic problems, like a financial scandal at the town’s ancient cemetery, a riot of pastel stucco tombs, festooned with flowers and photographs of departed elders. In the past decade, one management company went bankrupt and another absconded with residents’ upkeep fees.

An installation of solar panels now lights walkways, powers the office and generates an income of 1,500 euros a year, or $2,000, to pay for maintenance. The project has also created new types of work for local electricians.

A growing number of wealthier homeowners are paying these experts to install solar panels. The stucco home of Domenico Marini, a dental technician, has roof panels in addition to a koi pond and garden gnomes. His monthly electricity bills have dropped to $0 from as much as $700.

Tocco has won awards from international environmental groups for its efforts in renewable energy. But, said Mayor Zaccagnini, that is not really a strong motivation:

“We’ve gotten lots of kudos from outside, but people here care more that we now have money to fill potholes.”

Herb Swanson for The New York Times

A so-called passive house built by Habitat for Humanity comes together in Charlotte, Vt.


The New York Times, September 29, 2010, by Tom Zeller Jr  —   The nation’s building stock plays a bigger role in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions than many Americans might realize — accounting for as much as 40 percent of primary energy use, 70 percent of electricity consumption and nearly 40 percent of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Why? Well, one reason, according to Laura Briggs, a professor of architecture, interior design and lighting at Parsons the New School for Design, is that for most of the 20th century, the architecture and design world has remained quite separate from engineering.

“The main hurdle to seeing more energy-efficient building is a lack of knowledge,” she said in an interview last summer. “We’ve done a really bad job as educators in linking building sciences with architectural aesthetics.”

Zero Energy Design The Home Energy Rating System, or HERS Index, is a scoring system that can be used to compare the efficiency of various building standards. Energy Star and other green buildng standards may not go far enough

In other words, while American architects are well schooled in matters of design, they often receive little training in the physics of how a structure breathes, how it consumes energy and how best to elevate its overall efficiency.

This is changing, of course, as evidenced by the budding forest of “green” building standards and certifications on the market, from the United States Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes point system to what is arguably the most recognizable label for many Americans: the federal government’s own Energy Star program.

Indeed, more than 1 million Energy Star qualified homes, which consume at least 15 percent less energy than conventional construction, have now been built in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, which jointly administer the program.

That might sound good, but advocates of more aggressive building protocols like the passive house standard, which aims for homes that use up to 80 percent less energy overall than conventional construction, say the lack of ambitious targets may actually be hindering the effort to address pressing problems like global warming.

“If everybody keeps building to the Energy Star standard, just meeting that, we’re not going to solve our global problems, and our buildings are not going to be ultimately reducing our impact on the environment,” said Peter Schneider, a project manager with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, a nonprofit charged with administering the state’s efficiency programs. Mr. Schneider was on hand to administer the preliminary blower-door test on the Landau house, the passive house that I profiled on Sunday.

“What we need to be doing,” Mr. Schneider said, “is what passive-house is doing.”

The New York Times, September 29, 2010, by Tom Zeller Jr, NORWICH, Vt.   —  When completed, the Landau residence now under construction in Norwich, Vt., will be one of about a dozen buildings certified as “passive houses” in the United States. Their strict building standard sets limits on total energy consumption and peak heating and cooling demand. A heat exchanger circulates fresh air throughout the house and reuses warmth from the inside air. The result is a house that typically uses 90 percent less energy for heating than a conventional house.

When Barbara Landau, an environmental and land-use lawyer in suburban Boston, was shopping for insurance on the energy-efficient home she and her husband were building in the woods just outside of town here, she was routinely asked what sort of furnace the home would have.

“None,” she replied.

Several insurers declined coverage.

“They just didn’t understand what we were trying to do,” Mrs. Landau recalls. “They said the pipes would freeze.”

They won’t. A so-called passive home like the one the Landaus are now building is so purposefully designed and built — from its orientation toward the sun and superthick insulation to its algorithmic design and virtually unbroken air envelope — that it requires minimal heating, even in chilly New England. Contrary to some naysayers’ concerns, the Landaus’ timber-frame home will be neither stuffy nor, at 2,000 square feet, oppressively small.

It has been a good deal more expensive to build, however, than the average home. That might partly explain why the passive-building standard is only now getting off the ground in the United States — despite years of data suggesting that America’s drafty building methods account for as much as 40 percent of its primary energy use, 70 percent of its electricity consumption and nearly 40 percent of its carbon-dioxide emissions.

Proponents of the standard, who note that passive homes often use up to 90 percent less heating and cooling energy than similar homes built to local code, say the Landaus embody the willingness of more homeowners to embrace passive building in the United States. Even Habitat for Humanity, the affordable-housing philanthropy, is now experimenting with the standard.

Yet the market remains minuscule, and the materials and expertise needed to build passive homes are often hard to find. While some 25,000 certified passive structures — from schools and commercial buildings to homes and apartment houses — have already been built in Europe, there are just 13 in the United States, with a few dozen more in the pipeline.

“Even though the passive house standard is tried and true, and is used all throughout Europe — we know it works, we know there’s some simplicity to it,” says Mrs. Landau, “here in the United States, we were reinventing the wheel.”

STEVEN LANDAU, a partner at a factory design firm in Burlington, Mass., was already an efficiency geek before the words “passive house” entered his vernacular. He’d long ago outfitted the family’s current home near Boston with a full complement of efficient gizmos and upgrades, including a high-efficiency German boiler and solar collection tubes designed to pull daylight into dark corners and hallways.

Arrays of futuristic-looking LED tubes illuminate the Landaus’ current basement, and a wattage meter keeps tabs on how much juice the home is consuming at any given time.

Mr. Landau was also well acquainted with the growing number of “green” building certifications and rating systems in the United States, including popular ones like the federal government’s Energy Star for Homes program and the LEED rating system, for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, from the United States Green Building Council.

The goals of these various systems vary widely. Some, like LEED, award points for a variety of environmentally friendly features, like using sustainable construction materials, in addition to energy efficiency. Others, like Energy Star, focus squarely on energy use.

But the most common green building standards, Mr. Landau said, fell short of his ambitions — which included avoiding any on-site use of fossil fuels. “I remember reading a book about someone in England in the 1980s who built a superinsulated house that was only heated by the body heat of the occupants and maybe a tea kettle,” Mr. Landau recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t we build our houses that way?’ ”

Energy Star and LEED aim for efficiency improvements of at least 15 percent over conventional construction — and both programs can earn a variety of tax credits and other incentives. The passive-home standard, perhaps because it’s unfamiliar to many officials who create efficiency stimulus programs, is eligible for few direct government subsidies, despite the fact that homes using it can be up to 80 percent more energy-efficient, over all, than standard new houses and consume just 10 percent of the heating and cooling energy.

Add photovoltaic solar panels or other energy harvesting systems, and passive homes can quickly become zero-energy-use homes — or even power generators that can feed electricity back to the grid, according to Katrin Klingenberg, the director of the Passive House Institute-U.S. in Urbana, Ill.

Of course, quantifying the overall energy efficiency of any building is a somewhat imprecise affair. A family living in a well-insulated, highly-efficient home, for example, might keep the lights on all day and the thermostat at 85 degrees in the winter. The occupants of a drafty New England farmhouse, meanwhile, might be energy misers by habit, favoring blankets and sweaters over dialing up the heat.

And while many people are interested in passive homes for their cold-weather benefits, researchers in both Europe and the United States are looking into more applications for warmer climates, using a different balance of insulation, window technology and air control to achieve similar efficiencies.

Ms. Klingenberg echoes many building science experts when she calls for more rigorous standards for energy-efficiency benchmarks, particularly if there is to be any hope of tackling the environmental and climate problems related to the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.

“We have to stop using halfway measures,” she says. “Each new building that we don’t go all the way with now is putting us deeper in the hole.”

Ms. Klingenberg was a co-founder of the institute in 2008, intending it as a domestic outlet for the design philosophy espoused for the last 14 years by the passive-house movement’s official sanctioning body, the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany.

To date, Passive House Institute-U.S. has educated about 160 builders, architects and engineers in the standard through a series of training programs and a final certification exam. By year-end, the number is expected to be 300, and Ms. Klingenberg said the institute was having difficulty meeting demand for its courses.

But this sort of building comes at a premium, particularly in the United States, where the fledgling movement is trying to ramp up from scratch and has to rely on products supplied by a market that is geared toward less rigorous programs.

Ms. Klingenberg, an architect trained in Germany, estimated that in Europe the additional cost for a passive house, versus a more conventional home, is now below 5 percent. Her institute puts the comparable premium in the United States at a minimum of 10 percent; other estimates put the added cost at over 15 percent — though the exact amount will vary across projects.

WHERE possible, passive construction maximizes window and facade exposures toward the southern sun. Thick walls and abundant insulation are also cornerstones of the process.

Walls in a typical American home might be about six inches thick and insulated with fiberglass batting. The walls of the Landaus’ new home are nearly three times as thick — a citadel of insulation and tape-sealed construction intended to keep the cold at bay and to prevent costly heat from slithering out through cracks, holes and other imperfections common to conventional construction.

And more than a foot of rigid foam insulation sits between the earth and the concrete slab forming the Landaus’ basement.

Fresh air is continuously pulled into the house, and stale air pushed out through a sophisticated mechanical ventilation system that can serve double-duty as a heat saver: some of the thermal energy being carried by the exhaust air is transferred to the intake air, minimizing heat loss.

As for preventing pipes from freezing, the Landaus will rely on two heat sources — a wood-burning stove on the main floor and electric radiant floors in the bathrooms. When the house is occupied, the wood-burning stove is capable of heating the whole house. When no one is home, the electric radiant floors can maintain a minimum temperature throughout the house to avoid plumbing disasters. To heat water, the family will depend on solar thermal collectors on the roof.

All projects like the Landaus’ home are governed by the institute’s Passive House Planning Package, a bit of modeling software that keeps the building process — almost always marked by unexpected questions and detours — closely tied to a strict baseline for overall energy use and air infiltration.

If a homeowner wants to add a small window on the north side, for example, it’s no problem. But to meet the standard, a consultant must add the window’s anticipated size, positioning, efficiency value and other data into the computer model — essentially an expansive spreadsheet that logs nearly all the home’s components.

The program then merges that new information into the wider database of the home’s myriad known components, and if it spits out a number that exceeds the standard’s efficiency baseline, something else will have to change: remove a window somewhere else, say, or add more insulation, until that number comes back down.

These strict standards separate the passive-house school from the 1970s fad for passive solar houses, whose efficiency could vary widely.

“With passive house there’s no detail in the design that’s too small to overlook or forget about,” says Jordan Goldman, an engineer at ZeroEnergy Design, the architectural firm the Landaus hired to help them design their house. “If you’ve got a framing member that’s in direct contact with the exterior and the interior, it’s not good enough to say, ‘Well, it’s only a very small area, let’s forget about it.’ You actually have to calculate the heat loss that’s traveling through there because there’s no insulation at that one small point in the wall.”

In Europe, this design-and-construction balancing act has an established manufacturing base to feed it; in the United States, not so much.

“If we were in Europe, most of the materials and equipment would be off-the-shelf and readily available from local suppliers,” says Tedd Benson, owner of Bensonwood Homes, a high-efficiency timber frame builder based in Walpole, N.H., that is constructing the Landau house. “And they would have already been vetted and certified by the Passivhaus Institut, with their performance specifications already linked into the passive-house software.

“Here, we have to invent the systems and try to find the materials, products and equipment that will help us meet the passive-house standards.”

This hurdle translated into a lot of back-and-forth among the Landaus, their builder and their architects, all of whom were eager newcomers to the process of bringing a passive house from the drawing board to certification.

The Landaus wanted, for example, to orient the home with a direct view of a small pond on their property. ZeroEnergy had to discourage them, because that would have taken the orientation several clicks off of due south, reducing the solar energy gain through the windows that would be hard to compensate for elsewhere.

The family also originally wanted a masonry hearth. “They told us, don’t even think about it,” Mr. Landau said, because fireplaces are inefficient. When they inquired about adding the wood-burning stove as a substitute, the designers at ZeroEnergy worried that this would still compromise efficiency because of the holes in the shell needed to feed air to and release smoke from the unit. The family pushed, however, and the team figured out a way to include the stove and still maintain the requisite energy metrics by adding more insulation elsewhere.

Appliances matter, too. A typical American dryer, vented to the outside, normally won’t do, because it represents a huge compromise of the air envelope every time it runs. The solution is a pricier condensing dryer that pulls moisture from the clothing and feeds it to a drain. The passive model also favors induction stoves that make more efficient use of energy when cooking food.

Other aspects of the Landau house have proved tougher and more time-consuming. The windows — triple-paned affairs designed to let in thermal energy from the sun and prevent it from radiating back out through the glass — caused months of delay, not least because the very best windows of this sort are hard to find in the United States.

“We theoretically could have used North American windows,” notes Mr. Benson, “but they aren’t specifically passive-house certified, and they aren’t as robust and well made in any event.”

Peter Schneider, a senior project manager at the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, a nonprofit organization charged with enacting the state’s efficiency programs, says the supply problem for the passive-building industry is changing quickly. By way of example, he points to Habitat for Humanity’s passive project, now under way in Charlotte, Vt., outside Burlington.

“Everything you need to build a passive house can be found in the United States,” he says, while conceding that it still comes at a greater upfront cost.

For her part, Ms. Klingenberg points out that homeowners can begin earning back those added costs immediately — in the form of reduced, or even eliminated, heating and cooling bills. “Taking a longer view would drive a lot more money and investment toward standards like passive house,” she says.

ALTHOUGH the final price tag on the Landau home is yet to be determined, Mr. Landau’s back-of-the-napkin estimate in June was $200,000 for site work like installing the foundation and a septic system, digging a well and bringing power to the site. Another $200,000 would go to Bensonwood for the shell, and roughly $40,000 to ZeroEnergy Design for its design and consulting services.

The balance — an additional $110,000 for interior components like bathrooms, finishes and appliances — would bring the total to $550,000, although Mr. Landau recently suggested that his own exacting standards might drive up the costs quite a bit more.

“When making decisions about energy use and payback, we considered that we will be living in the house for many years — perhaps 30 to 40 years,” says Mr. Landau. “Energy will be less available and cost more in the future, so we put the extra cost into energy efficiency and durability.”

During the summer, Mrs. Landau said that official passive-house certification — which will come only after post-construction tests to be conducted in the next few weeks — mattered little. “Many times along the way, we thought ‘Why are we trying to meet this standard to be certified as a passive house?’ ” she says. “And we talked about it a lot and I think we came to the conclusion that we don’t really care about the certification.”

“What we really were interested in,” she says, “was making sure that when we built this house that it would work the way we wanted it to work.”

On a chilly morning late last month, Mr. Landau looked on as a crew of muscled carpenters crawled across the bare, particle-board flooring and walked along the exposed wall studs of the nearly finished house. The men passed their hands over doorjambs and window frames as if casting a spell — or delivering a blessing.

Their goal was to find and plug as many air leaks as possible before the interior drywall went up. A giant fan blew outward through the back door, depressurizing the shell so that any breach in the tightly sealed envelope — even a pinhole’s worth — would reveal itself as a tiny wind against the palm.

Mr. Landau hovered eagerly over a device, attached to the fan, that was measuring the rate of air movement. The numbers fluttering across the digital readout suggested that they were right on target for official passive-house certification.

“It’s taken a long time to get here,” he said.

A wind farm at Barão de São João, south of Lisbon.

Photo: Rupert Eden for The New York Times (via The New York Times), by Alex Aylett  —  For the past 5 years Portugal has been pushing a dramatic shift to renewable energy. Compared to the standard “20% renewables by 2020” targets that are often brought out at press conferences, its accomplishments are impressive: By the end of the year nearly 45% of its electricity will come from renewable sources. That’s up from 17% five years ago.

Elizabeth Rosenthal has written an excellent front page feature in the New York Times on how they managed it.

If you think of it as a recipe, there are three key ingredients of Portugal’s success:

  • 1 part opening up of the energy sector to market forces (including the privatization of energy utilities)
  • 1 part technological modernization (in particular the creation of a smart-grid able to handle diverse sources of renewable energy), and
  • 2 parts savvy country-wide energy policy (including guaranteed rates for renewables, and the EU Carbon Trading System).

But like any recipe you also need a chef, in this case Prime Minister José Sócrates who came in on a landslide victory in 2005 and pushed through energy reform.

The current system is a mixture of wind, solar, hydro, small scale decentralized renewables on people’s homes (see my last post), and some power still coming from natural gas generators. The Times gives a nice snapshot of the type of “plate-spinning” necessary to keep this kind of system running. (Not mind you, that a traditional energy grid is simple to run either.)

The financial costs seem to have been relatively minor. The state has not used taxes or debt to fund this transition. The costs are born by the private power producers and come out in the rates paid by consumers. Over the past 5 years, electricity costs have gone up 15%. That’s not insignificant, but utilities are asking for similar increases here in North America, without providing any where near the kind of innovation taking place in Portugal. All the same, voters have been unhappy about rate increases and it seems that this is at least partially responsible for Sócrates narrow victory in 2009.

I’ve posted short excerpts below, but the full piece is well worth reading.

“You cannot imagine the pressure we suffered that first year,” said Manuel Pinho, Portugal’s minister of economy and innovation from 2005 until last year, who largely masterminded the transition, adding, “Politicians must take tough decisions.”

Still, aggressive national policies to accelerate renewable energy use are succeeding in Portugal and some other countries, according to a recent report by IHS Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass., a leading energy consulting firm. By 2025, the report projected, Ireland, Denmark and Britain will also get 40 percent or more of their electricity from renewable sources; if power from large-scale hydroelectric dams, an older type of renewable energy, is included, countries like Canada and Brazil join the list.

If the United States is to catch up to countries like Portugal, energy experts say, it must overcome obstacles like a fragmented, outdated energy grid poorly suited to renewable energy; a historic reliance on plentiful and cheap supplies of fossil fuels, especially coal; powerful oil and coal industries that often oppose incentives for renewable development; and energy policy that is heavily influenced by individual states.

The relative costs of an energy transition would inevitably be higher in the United States than in Portugal. But as the expense of renewable power drops, an increasing number of countries see such a shift as worthwhile, said Alex Klein, research director, clean and renewable power generation, at IHS.

“The cost gap will close in the next decade, but what you get right away is an energy supply that is domestically controlled and safer,” Mr. Klein said.
This post originally appeared on Alex’s personal blog OpenAlex.

Here is the article from the NYTimes…………………..


Portugal Gives Itself a Clean-Energy Makeover

The New York Times, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, LISBON — Five years ago, the leaders of this sun-scorched, wind-swept nation made a bet: To reduce Portugal’s dependence on imported fossil fuels, they embarked on an array of ambitious renewable energy projects — primarily harnessing the country’s wind and hydropower, but also its sunlight and ocean waves.

Today, Lisbon’s trendy bars, Porto’s factories and the Algarve’s glamorous resorts are powered substantially by clean energy. Nearly 45 percent of the electricity in Portugal’s grid will come from renewable sources this year, up from 17 percent just five years ago.

Land-based wind power — this year deemed “potentially competitive” with fossil fuels by the International Energy Agency in Paris — has expanded sevenfold in that time. And Portugal expects in 2011 to become the first country to inaugurate a national network of charging stations for electric cars.

“I’ve seen all the smiles — you know: It’s a good dream. It can’t compete. It’s too expensive,” said Prime Minister José Sócrates, recalling the way Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, mockingly offered to build him an electric Ferrari. Mr. Sócrates added, “The experience of Portugal shows that it is possible to make these changes in a very short time.”

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has renewed questions about the risks and unpredictable costs of America’s unremitting dependence on fossil fuels. President Obama has seized on the opportunity to promote his goal of having 20 to 25 percent of America’s electricity produced from renewable sources by 2025.

While Portugal’s experience shows that rapid progress is achievable, it also highlights the price of such a transition. Portuguese households have long paid about twice what Americans pay for electricity, and prices have risen 15 percent in the last five years, probably partly because of the renewable energy program, the International Energy Agency says.

Although a 2009 report by the agency called Portugal’s renewable energy transition a “remarkable success,” it added, “It is not fully clear that their costs, both financial and economic, as well as their impact on final consumer energy prices, are well understood and appreciated.”

Indeed, complaints about rising electricity rates are a mainstay of pensioners’ gossip here. Mr. Sócrates, who after a landslide victory in 2005 pushed through the major elements of the energy makeover over the objections of the country’s fossil fuel industry, survived last year’s election only as the leader of a weak coalition.

“You cannot imagine the pressure we suffered that first year,” said Manuel Pinho, Portugal’s minister of economy and innovation from 2005 until last year, who largely masterminded the transition, adding, “Politicians must take tough decisions.”

Still, aggressive national policies to accelerate renewable energy use are succeeding in Portugal and some other countries, according to a recent report by IHS Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass., a leading energy consulting firm. By 2025, the report projected, Ireland, Denmark and Britain will also get 40 percent or more of their electricity from renewable sources; if power from large-scale hydroelectric dams, an older type of renewable energy, is included, countries like Canada and Brazil join the list.

The United States, which last year generated less than 5 percent of its power from newer forms of renewable energy, will lag behind at 16 percent (or just over 20 percent, including hydroelectric power), according to IHS.

To force Portugal’s energy transition, Mr. Sócrates’s government restructured and privatized former state energy utilities to create a grid better suited to renewable power sources. To lure private companies into Portugal’s new market, the government gave them contracts locking in a stable price for 15 years — a subsidy that varied by technology and was initially high but decreased with each new contract round.

Compared with the United States, European countries have powerful incentives to pursue renewable energy. Many, like Portugal, have little fossil fuel of their own, and the European Union’s emissions trading system discourages fossil fuel use by requiring industry to essentially pay for excessive carbon dioxide emissions.

Portugal was well poised to be a guinea pig because it has large untapped resources of wind and river power, the two most cost-effective renewable sources. Government officials say the energy transformation required no increase in taxes or public debt, precisely because the new sources of electricity, which require no fuel and produce no emissions, replaced electricity previously produced by buying and burning imported natural gas, coal and oil. By 2014 the renewable energy program will allow Portugal to fully close at least two conventional power plants and reduce the operation of others.

“So far the program has placed no stress on the national budget” and has not created government debt, said Shinji Fujino, head of the International Energy Agency’s country study division.

If the United States is to catch up to countries like Portugal, energy experts say, it must overcome obstacles like a fragmented, outdated energy grid poorly suited to renewable energy; a historic reliance on plentiful and cheap supplies of fossil fuels, especially coal; powerful oil and coal industries that often oppose incentives for renewable development; and energy policy that is heavily influenced by individual states.

The relative costs of an energy transition would inevitably be higher in the United States than in Portugal. But as the expense of renewable power drops, an increasing number of countries see such a shift as worthwhile, said Alex Klein, research director, clean and renewable power generation, at IHS.

“The cost gap will close in the next decade, but what you get right away is an energy supply that is domestically controlled and safer,” Mr. Klein said.

Necessity Drives Change

Portugal’s venture was driven by necessity. With a rising standard of living and no fossil fuel of its own, the cost of energy imports — principally oil and gas — doubled in the last decade, accounting for 50 percent of the country’s trade deficit, and was highly volatile. The oil went to fuel cars, the gas mainly to electricity. Unlike the United States, Portugal never depended heavily on coal for electricity generation because close and reliable sources of natural gas were available in North Africa, and Europe’s carbon trading system could make coal costly.

Portugal is now on track to reach its goal of using domestically produced renewable energy, including large-scale hydropower, for 60 percent of its electricity and 31 percent of its total energy needs by 2020. (Total energy needs include purposes other than generating electricity, like heating homes and powering cars.)

In making the shift, Portugal has overcome longstanding concerns about reliability and high cost. The lights go on in Lisbon even when the wind dies down at the vast two-year-old Alto Minho wind farm. The country’s electricity production costs and consumer electricity rates — including the premium prices paid for power from renewable sources — are about average for Europe, but still higher than those in China or the United States, countries that rely on cheap coal.

Portugal says it has kept costs down by focusing heavily on the cheapest forms of renewable energy — wind and hydropower — and ratcheting down the premium prices it pays to lure companies to build new plants.

While the government estimates that the total investment in revamping Portugal’s energy structure will be about 16.3 billion euros, or $22 billion, that cost is borne by the private companies that operate the grid and the renewable plants and is reflected in consumers’ electricity rates. The companies’ payback comes from the 15 years of guaranteed wholesale electricity rates promised by the government. Once the new infrastructure is completed, Mr. Pinho said, the system will cost about 1.7 billion euros ($2.3 billion) a year less to run than it formerly did, primarily by avoiding natural gas imports.

A smaller savings will come from carbon credits Portugal can sell under the European Union’s carbon trading system: countries and industries that produce fewer emissions than allotted can sell permits to those that exceed their limits.

Mr. Fujino of the International Energy Agency said Portugal’s calculations might be optimistic. But he noted that the country’s transition had also created a valuable new industry: Last year, for the first time, it became a net power exporter, sending a small amount of electricity to Spain. Tens of thousands of Portuguese work in the field. Energias de Portugal, the country’s largest energy company, owns wind farms in Iowa and Texas, through its American subsidiary, Horizon Wind Energy.

Redesigning the System

A nationwide supply of renewable power requires a grid that can move electricity from windy, sunny places to the cities.

But a decade ago in Portugal, as in many places in the United States today, power companies owned not only power generating plants, but also transmission lines. Those companies have little incentive to welcome new sources of renewable energy, which compete with their investment in fossil fuels. So in 2000, Portugal’s first step was to separate making electricity from transporting it, through a mandatory purchase by the government of all transmission lines for electricity and gas at what were deemed fair market prices.

Those lines were then used to create the skeleton of what since 2007 has been a regulated and publicly traded company that operates the national electricity and natural gas networks.

Next, the government auctioned off contracts to private companies to build and operate wind and hydropower plants. Bidders were granted rights based on the government-guaranteed price they would accept for the energy they produced, as well as on their willingness to invest in Portugal’s renewable economy, including jobs and other venture capital funds. Some of the winners were foreign companies. In the latest round of bidding, the price guaranteed for wind energy was in the range of the price paid for electricity generated by natural gas.

Such a drastic reorganization might be extremely difficult in the United States, where power companies have strong political sway and states decide whether to promote renewable energy. Colorado recently legislated that 30 percent of its energy must come from renewable sources by 2020, but neighboring Utah has only weak voluntary goals. Coal states, like Kentucky and West Virginia, have relatively few policies to encourage alternative energies.

In Portugal, said Mr. Pinho, the former economy minister, who will join Columbia University’s faculty, “the prime minister had an absolute majority.”

“He was very strong, and everyone knew we would not step back,” Mr. Pinho said.

A Flexible Network

Running a country using electricity derived from nature’s highly unpredictable forces requires new technology and the juggling skills of a plate spinner. A wind farm that produces 200 megawatts one hour may produce only 5 megawatts a few hours later; the sun shines intermittently in many places; hydropower is plentiful in the rainy winter, but may be limited in summer.

Portugal’s national energy transmission company, Redes Energéticas Nacionais or R.E.N., uses sophisticated modeling to predict weather, especially wind patterns, and computer programs to calculate energy from the various renewable-energy plants. Since the country’s energy transition, the network has doubled the number of dispatchers who route energy to where it is needed.

“You need a lot of new skills. It’s a real-time operation, and there are far more decisions to be made — every hour, every second,” said Victor Baptista, director general of R.E.N. “The objective is to keep the system alive and avoid blackouts.”

Like some American states, Portugal has for decades generated electricity from hydropower plants on its raging rivers. But new programs combine wind and water: Wind-driven turbines pump water uphill at night, the most blustery period; then the water flows downhill by day, generating electricity, when consumer demand is highest.

Denmark, another country that relies heavily on wind power, frequently imports electricity from its energy-rich neighbor Norway when the wind dies down; by comparison, Portugal’s grid is relatively isolated, although R.E.N. has greatly increased its connection with Spain to allow for energy sharing.

Portugal’s distribution system is also now a two-way street. Instead of just delivering electricity, it draws electricity from even the smallest generators, like rooftop solar panels. The government aggressively encourages such contributions by setting a premium price for those who buy rooftop-generated solar electricity. “To make this kind of system work, you have to make a lot of different kinds of deals at the same time,” said Carlos Zorrinho, the secretary of state for energy and innovation.

To ensure a stable power base when the forces of nature shut down, the system needs to maintain a base of fossil fuel that can be fired up at will. Although Portugal’s traditional power plants now operate many fewer hours than before, the country is also building some highly efficient natural gas plants.

To accommodate all this, Portugal needed new transmission lines from remote windy regions to urban centers. Portugal began modernizing its grid a decade ago. Accommodating a greater share of renewable power cost an additional 480 million euros, or about $637 million, an expense folded into electricity rates, according to R.E.N.

Last year, President Obama offered billions of dollars in grants to modernize the grid in the United States, but it is not clear that such a piecemeal effort will be adequate for renewable power. Widely diverse permitting procedures in different states and the fact that many private companies control local fragments of the grid make it hard to move power over long distances, for example, from windy Iowa to users in Atlanta. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States’ grid a “D+,” commenting that it is “in urgent need of modernization.”

“A real smart national grid would radically change our technology profile,” said John Juech, vice president for policy analysis at Garten Rothkopf, a Washington consulting firm that focuses on energy. “But it will be very costly, and the political will may not be there.”

A 2009 report commissioned by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change estimated that the United States would have to spend $3 billion to $4 billion a year for the next two decades to create a grid that could accommodate deriving 20 percent of electricity from wind power by 2030 — a 40 percent to 50 percent increase over current spending.

The Drawbacks

Energy experts consider Portugal’s experiment a success. But there have been losers. Many environmentalists object to the government plans to double the amount of wind energy, saying lights and noise from turbines will interfere with birds’ behavior. Conservation groups worry that new dams will destroy Portugal’s cork-oak habitats.

Local companies complain that the government allowed large multinationals to displace them.

Until it became the site of the largest wind farm south of Lisbon, Barão de São João was a sleepy village on the blustery Alentejo Coast, home to farmers who tilled its roller coaster hills and holiday homeowners drawn to cheap land and idyllic views. Renewable energy has brought conflict.

“I know it’s good for the country because it’s clean energy and it’s good for the landowners who got money, but it hasn’t brought me any good,” said José Cristino, 48, a burly farmer harvesting grain with a wind turbine’s thrap-thrap-thrap in the background. “I look at these things day and night.” He said 90 percent of the town’s population had been opposed.

In Portugal, as in the United States, politicians have sold green energy programs to communities with promises of job creation. Locally, the effect has often proved limited. For example, more than five years ago, the isolated city of Moura became the site of Portugal’s largest solar plant because it “gets the most sun of anywhere in Europe and has lots of useless space,” said José Maria Prazeres Pós-de-Mina, the mayor.

But while 400 people built the Moura plant, only 20 to 25 work there now, since gathering sunlight requires little human labor. Unemployment remains at 15 percent, the mayor said — though researchers, engineers and foreign delegations frequently visit the town’s new solar research center.

Indeed, Portugal’s engineers and companies are now global players. Portugal’s EDP Renováveis, first listed on stock exchanges in 2008, is the third largest company in the world in wind-generated electricity output. This year, its Portuguese chief executive, Ana Maria Fernandes, signed contracts to sell electricity from its wind farm in Iowa to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“Broadly, Europe has had great success in this area,” said Mr. Juech, the analyst at Garten Rothkopf. “But that is the result of huge government support and intervention, and that raises questions about what happens when you have an economic crisis or political change; will these technologies still be sustainable?” 

Net connected: The Roku XDS, above, is one of the company’s new devices for streaming video over the internet. Credit: Roku

A new player offers high definition for a low price


MIT Technology Review, September 27, 2010, by Erica Naone  —  In what’s shaping up to be the next big entertainment-meets-technology battleground, consumers are being presented with ever more ways to connect their television sets to the Internet.

This week, Roku, a company based in Saratoga, California, launched a new lineup of video players designed to stream high-definition content from Internet destinations such as Netflix, Amazon, and Pandora. The cost will be $60 for a basic player and $100 for one that offers a variety of ways to connect to other devices. Both are equipped for high-definition playback.

Roku was one of the first companies to stream Internet content to televisions; it released its first video player in May 2008. Since then, the market for Internet-connected set-top boxes for televisions has become much more crowded. Competition is intense because, along with free shows and clips, the Internet can be used to deliver premium, cable-like content. An Internet-connected set-top box can also be used to deliver ads that are closely tailored to viewing habits. “People are zeroing in on the same answer from multiple directions,” says David Krall, Roku’s president.

Many electronics companies sell televisions that can connect directly to the Internet, and last month Apple announced a new version of its set-top device, Apple TV, that will be considerably cheaper ($99 instead of $229) and sleeker, and will let viewers rent episodes of popular TV shows for 99 cents each. Boxee, a startup based in New York, is taking preorders for the new version of its Internet streaming device, which offers a wealth of free Internet content and a slick user interface. Even Google has decided it wants a slice of the television business, announcing a set-top box and service that is expected to launch later this year.

Roku has about 700,000 users–far fewer than the number of Apple iTunes users out there–but the company hopes to attract users by offering lower-cost hardware and high performance.

Roku president Krall believes that users will eventually be able to access any sort of content on any device. He also foresees “the end of linear programming,” when users no longer think about what time a show is broadcast, since they’ll always be able to get it on demand. Users may also become less interested in owning or recording shows and movies, since they’ll be able to stream them easily to any device. But for this to happen, several technical and legal problems will have to be overcome.

Networks have historically been reluctant to provide the most sought-after TV shows and movies to Internet-connected set-top boxes. They are worried that allowing consumers to watch content for free or pay low prices for individual shows will reduce other revenues. This sort of licensing problem is why the Internet TV site Hulu has attempted to block Boxee from pulling its content onto users’ television screens. Roku only delivers content that’s already been licensed for all screens, such as Netflix’s streaming video.

Content producers also license shows separately for different platforms–television, PC, and mobile devices. And streaming content from the Internet presents technical difficulties. For example, a user who wants to go back a few seconds to catch a missed line of dialogue often faces a frustrating delay as the content is fetched and buffered anew. Roku’s new products include an Instant Replay feature that stores content for a brief period in order to make the experience smoother.

Like some of the other companies in the field, Roku also offers an application programming interface that allows anyone to create applications for its players. In Roku’s case, this includes applications that are essentially channels dedicated to specific topics, which allows communities to build up around sometimes unexpected offerings. For example, Krall says, a user-created channel that broadcasts in the Telugu language, which is spoken in parts of India, has proven popular among the company’s customers. Krall hopes that opportunities for independent developers will be another factor that draws users to Internet-connected television.

Many companies see an Internet connection as key to the future of television. Last week, Samsung launched a new website with an app store for its Internet-connected televisions. Kris Narayanan, vice president of digital marketing for Samsung North America, says the company has been pursuing a “connective experience” whereby the Internet is used to allow sharing of content between different devices.

Sanjay Reddy, CEO of a company called LiveMatrix that tracks live Web-streamed events and a former executive at Gemstar-TV Guide, a company that licensed interactive program guides, says consumers will end up using their home entertainment systems to consume a mixture of content. They’ll want traditional programming, content from the Internet, and some nonvideo Internet content too. But products will need smooth interfaces and compelling apps to make users feel they’re getting the content they want, he adds.

“What is the user going to choose in terms of the way they keep track of this or interact with it or discover this content?” Reddy says. “That’s really what the battle is. It’s thinking about what’s the ‘start’ page, because that’s how people decide where to go.”

Reddy believes that Internet-connected TV solutions haven’t taken off so far because of the limited memory of set-top boxes. This is now changing, he says, because more data can be stored in the cloud rather than on the devices themselves. However, Reddy says, “it’s going to take time” before it’s commonplace for users to pull in content from the Internet.,, September 27, 2010, by Marilynn Marchione, BOSTON — Cancer patients, brace yourselves. Many new drug treatments cost nearly $100,000 a year, sparking fresh debate about how much a few months more of life is worth.

The latest is Provenge, a first-of-a-kind therapy approved in April. It costs $93,000 and adds four months’ survival, on average, for men with incurable prostate tumors. Bob Svensson is honest about why he got it: insurance paid.

“I would not spend that money,” because the benefit doesn’t seem worth it, says Svensson, 80, a former corporate finance officer from Bedford, Mass.

His supplemental Medicare plan is paying while the government decides whether basic Medicare will cover Provenge and for whom. The tab for taxpayers could be huge – prostate is the most common cancer in American men. Most of those who have it will be eligible for Medicare, and Provenge will be an option for many late-stage cases. A meeting to consider Medicare coverage is set for Nov. 17.

“I don’t know how they’re going to deal with that kind of issue,” said Svensson, who was treated at the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in suburban Boston. “I feel very lucky.”

For the last decade, new cancer-fighting drugs have been topping $5,000 a month. Only a few of these keep cancer in remission so long that they are, in effect, cures. For most people, the drugs may buy a few months or years. Insurers usually pay if Medicare pays. But some people have lifetime caps and more people are uninsured because of job layoffs in the recession. The nation’s new health care law eliminates these lifetime limits for plans that were issued or renewed on Sept. 23 or later.

Celgene Corp.‘s Revlimid pill for multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, can run as much as $10,000 a month; so can Genentech‘s Avastin for certain cancers. Now Dendreon Corp. ‘s Provenge rockets price into a new orbit.

Unlike drugs that people can try for a month or two and keep using only if they keep responding, Provenge is an all-or-nothing $93,000 gamble. It’s a one-time treatment to train the immune system to fight prostate tumors, the first so-called “cancer vaccine.”

It’s also in short supply, forcing the first rationing of a cancer drug since Taxol and Taxotere were approved 15 years ago. At the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, doctors plan a modified lottery to decide which of its 150 or so eligible patients will be among the two a month it can treat with Provenge. An insurance pre-check is part of the process to ensure they financially qualify for treatment.

“I’m fearful that this will become a drug for people with more resources and less available for people with less resources,” said M.D. Anderson’s prostate cancer research chief, Dr. Christopher Logothetis.

For other patients on other drugs, money already is affecting care:

_Job losses have led some people to stop taking Gleevec, a $4,500-a-month drug by Novartis AG that keeps certain leukemias and stomach cancers in remission. Three such cases were recently described in the New England Journal of Medicine, and all those patients suffered relapses.

_Retirements are being delayed to preserve insurance coverage of cancer drugs. Holly Reid, 58, an accountant in Novato, Calif., hoped to retire early until she tried cutting back on Gleevec and her cancer recurred. “I’m convinced now I have to take this drug for the rest of my life” and will have to work until eligible for Medicare, she said.

_Lifetime caps on insurance benefits are hitting many patients, and laws are being pushed in dozens of states to get wider coverage of cancer drugs. In Quincy, Mass., 30-year-old grad student Thea Showstack testified for one such law after pharmacists said her first cancer prescription exceeded her student insurance limit. “They said ‘OK, that will be $1,900,'” she said. “I was absolutely panicked.” The federal health care law forbids such caps on plans issued or renewed Sept. 23 or later.

_Tens of thousands of people are seeking help from drug companies and charities that provide free medicines or cover copays for low-income patients. Genentech’s aid to patients has risen in each of the last three years and the company says nearly 85 percent of Americans earn less than $100,000, making them potentially eligible for help if no other programs like Medicaid will pay.

_Doctors and insurers increasingly are doing the cruel math that many cancer patients want to avoid, and questioning how much small improvements in survival are worth. A recent editorial in a medical journal asked whether the extra 11 weeks that Genentech’s Herceptin buys for stomach cancer patients justified the $21,500 cost.

Doctors also have questioned the value of Genentech’s Tarceva for pancreatic cancer. The $4,000-a-month drug won approval by boosting median survival by a mere 12 days. Here’s how to think about this cost: People who added Tarceva to standard chemotherapy lived nearly 6 1/2 months, versus 6 months for those on chemo alone. So the Tarceva folks spent more than $24,000 to get those extra 12 days.

When is a drug considered cost-effective?

The most widely quoted figure is $50,000 for a year of life, “though it has been that for decades – never really adjusted – and not written in stone,” said Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a Yale University expert on health care costs.

Many cancer drugs are way over that mark. Estimates of the cost of a year of life gained for lung cancer patients on Erbitux range from $300,000 to as much as $800,000, said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the American Cancer Society’s deputy chief medical officer.

Higher costs seem to be more accepted for cancer treatment than for other illnesses, but there’s no rule on how much is too much, he said.

Insurers usually are the ones to decide, and they typically pay if Medicare pays. Medicare usually pays if the federal Food and Drug Administration has approved the use.

“Insurance sort of isolates you from the cost of health care,” and if people lose coverage, they often discover they can’t afford their medicines, said Dr. Alan Venook, a cancer specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. He wrote in the New England Journal in August about three of his patients who stopped taking or cut back on Gleevec because of economic hardship.

Two of the three now are getting the drug from its maker, Novartis AG, which like most pharmaceutical companies has a program for low-income patients. About 5,000 patients got help for Gleevec last year, said Novartis spokesman Geoffrey Cook.

“We have seen a steady increase in requests over the past few years” as the economy worsened, he said.

Showstack, whose leukemia was diagnosed last year, gets Gleevec from Novartis. The dose she’s on now would cost $50,000 a year.

“I’m not actually sure that I know anyone who could afford it,” she said.

Gleevec’s cost is easier to justify, many say, because it keeps people alive indefinitely – a virtual cure. About 2,300 Americans died each year of Showstack’s form of leukemia before Gleevec came on the market; only 470 did last year.

“I don’t think we quibble with a drug that buys people magical quality of life for years,” Venook said.

It’s unclear whether Provenge will ever do that – it needs to be tested in men with earlier stages of prostate cancer, doctors say. So far, it has only been tried and approved for men with incurable disease who have stopped responding to hormone therapy. On average, it gave them four months more, though for some it extended survival by a year or more.

Until it shows wider promise, enthusiasm will be tepid, said Dr. Elizabeth Plimack a prostate specialist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

“I’ve not had any patient ask for it,” she said. “They ask about it. Based on the information, they think the cost is tremendous, and they think the benefit is very small.”

Logothetis, at M.D. Anderson, said Provenge and other experimental cancer vaccines in development need “a national investment” to sort out their potential, starting with Medicare coverage.

“It’s no longer a fringe science. This is working,” he said. “We need to get it in the door so we can evolve it.”

Personal Exoskeletons for Paraplegics

Assisted Steps: A patient with paralysis stands with the aid of the Berkeley exoskeleton. The exoskeleton moves the patient’s hips and knees to imitate a natural walk.   Credit: University of California, Berkeley

A mobile device helps patients with spinal cord injuries walk.

MIT Technology Review, September 27, 2010, by Kristina Grifantini  —  Exoskeletons–wearable, motorized machines that can assist a person’s movements–have largely been confined to movies or military use, but recent advances might soon bring the devices to the homes of people with paralysis.

So far, exoskeletons have been used to augment the strength of soldiers or to help hospitalized stroke patients relearn how to walk. Now researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have demonstrated an exoskeleton that is portable and lets paraplegics walk in a relatively natural gait with minimal training. That could be an improvement for people with spinal-cord injuries who spend a lot of time in wheelchairs, which can cause sores or bone deterioration.

Existing medical exoskeletons for patients who have lost function in their lower extremities have either not been equipped with power sources or have been designed for tethered use in rehabilitation facilities, to correct and condition a patient’s gait.

In contrast, the Berkeley exoskeleton combines “the freedom of not being tethered with a natural gait,” says Katherine Strausser, PhD candidate and one of the lead researchers of the Berkeley project. Last week at the 2010 ASME Dynamic System and Control Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Strausser presented experimental results from four paraplegics who used the exoskeleton.

Other mobile exoskeletons–like those developed by companies such as Rex Bionics or Cyberdene–don’t try to emulate a natural gait, Strausser says. Because walking is a dynamic motion that is essentially falling forward, Strausser says, many designs opt for a shuffle instead of a natural gait, because “it’s safer and a lot easier.” However, emulating a natural gait mimics the efficiency of natural walking and doesn’t strain the hips, Strausser says.

The Berkeley device, which houses a computer and battery pack, straps onto a user’s back like a backpack and can run six to eight hours on one charge. Pumps drive hydraulic fluid to move the hip and knees at the same time, so that the hip swings through a step as one knee bends. The device plans walking trajectories based on data (about limb angles, knee flexing, and toe clearance) gathered from people’s natural gaits. Pressure sensors in each heel and foot make sure both feet aren’t leaving the ground at the same time.

The Berkeley program was successful. The four paraplegics described in Strausser’s talk, three of whom had been in wheelchairs for years, were able to walk with the device after only two hours of training. “It’s very easy to walk in,” says Strausser. “It moves your leg exactly like you would in your normal gait.” To begin a step, the exoskeleton requires a user to press a button on a remote control; the team is working on a more intuitive interface.

When designing the medical exoskeleton–which uses parts from two military exoskeletons–the team needed controllers and a design that takes into account the user’s lack of strength. While military exoskeletons work with a soldier’s motion to add strength, medical exoskeletons do the opposite, fighting against incorrect gaits or performing the gait, explains Strausser. “The biggest problem is holding a person into the ‘exo’ safely and securely,” she says. After field testing at the University of Virginia’s Clinical Motion Analysis and Motor Performance Laboratory last year, the group developed a proprietary design that keeps users from sliding out of the exoskeleton and distributes the weight of the 80-pound machine. The group plans to make the device lighter and to make a low-cost version that patients can use in their homes. (The research group is affiliated with a company, Berkeley Bionics, that plans to begin selling a form of the technology.)

“Overall I think it’s a very good device,” says Panagiotis Artemiadis, an MIT researcher who heard Strausser’s talk. He is developing an exoskeleton called the MIT-SkyWalker that helps stroke patients practice walking on a machine that resembles a treadmill. He says he can picture the Berkeley device being used by patients in their homes, particularly if the researchers reduce the weight.

Other mobile exoskeletons to help paralyzed people are just starting to come to market. German company Argo Medical Technologies is releasing its first product, a 100,000-euro exoskeleton intended for use in rehab centers, in October. The company plans to release a home version soon after for about half the price. Unlike the Berkeley exoskeleton, this one, dubbed ReWalk, takes the user a few weeks to learn. “It’s like getting a driver’s license,” says John Frijters, vice president of business development for Argo. ReWalk is customizable, able to tailor the sensitivity of the sensors, step length, and stride depending on how the user feels. It weighs about 45 pounds and runs eight to 10 hours on a charge, according to Frijters.

While ReWalk doesn’t yet have data to share on the advantages of using exoskeletons, “dozens” of patients have tested ReWalk, and “they all enjoy the benefit of being active,” says Frijters. “They have the opportunity to get up from the wheelchair and walk again. It’s very emotional.”

Mind control: PhD student Michele Tavella operates a wheelchair that uses “shared control” to navigate. Brain signals are translated into simple commands like “forward” or “left”; the chair then steers itself around any obstacles.
Credit: EPFL

Artificial intelligence improves a wheelchair system that could give paralyzed people greater mobility. A robotic wheelchair combines brain control with artificial intelligence to make it easier for people to maneuver it using only their thoughts. The approach, known as “shared control,” could help paralyzed people gain new mobility by turning crude brain signals into more complicated commands

MIT Technology Review, September 27, 2010, by Duncan Graham-Rowe  —   The wheelchair, developed by researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, features software that can take a simple command like “go left” and assess the immediate area to figure out how to follow the command without hitting anything. The software can also understand when the driver wants to navigate to a particular object, like a table.

Several technologies allow patients to control computers, prosthetics, and other devices using signals captured from nerves, muscles, or the brain. Electroencephalography (EEG) has emerged as a promising way for paralyzed patients to control computers or wheelchairs. A user needs to wear a skullcap and undergo training for a few hours a day over about five days. Patients control the chair simply by imagining they are moving a part of the body. Thinking of moving the left hand tells the chair to turn left, for example. Commands can also be triggered by specific mental tasks, such as arithmetic.

But EEG has limited accuracy and can only detect a few different commands. Maintaining these mental exercises when trying to maneuver a wheelchair around a cluttered environment can also be very tiring, says, José del Millán, director of noninvasive brain-machine interfaces at the Federal Institute of Technology, who led the project. “People cannot sustain that level of mental control for long periods of time,” he says. The concentration required also creates noisier signals that can be more difficult for a computer to interpret.

Shared control addresses this problem because patients don’t need to continuously instruct the wheelchair to move forward; they need to think the command only once, and the software takes care of the rest. “The wheelchair can take on the low-level details, so it’s more natural,” says Millán.

The wheelchair is equipped with two webcams to help it detect obstacles and avoid them. If drivers want to approach an object rather than navigate around it, they can give an override command. The chair will then stop just short of the object.

In Millán’s prototype, 16 electrodes monitor the user’s brain activity. So far it hasn’t been tested on any paralyzed patients.

Damien Coyle, a researcher in the Brain-Computer Interfacing and Assistive Technology group at the University of Ulster, says EEG signals can be slow and tricky to work with. Because of this, he says, many researchers are looking at ways to use shared control, and Millán’s project is a good example of it being put into practice. “The more shared control you have, the better the brain-computer interface, and the faster the person can get from one place to another,” Coyle says.

Millán’s team is developing object recognition capabilities to make the chair smart enough to automatically “dock” with a table or desk to ensure the chair is close enough and not skewed at an angle.

Freedom to move: The Fluidhand (above) uses lightweight miniature hydraulics to enable the wearer to move each finger individually.
Credit: The Research Center, Karlsrühe/Forschungszentrum

A lightweight prosthetic hand uses hydraulics to achieve more natural finger movement



MIT Technology Review, by Kate Baggott  —  A lightweight hydraulic hand with individually powered fingers could change the lives of amputees, say researchers in Germany. The Fluidhand, according to its developers, is lighter, behaves more naturally, and has greater flexibility than artificial hands that use motorized fingers.

The Fluidhand prototype, developed by a team led by Stefan Schulz at the Research Center in Karlsrühe, in partnership with the Orthopedic University Hospital, in Heidelberg, Germany, has flexible drives located in each of its finger joints, enabling the wearer to move each finger independently. Lightweight miniature hydraulics are connected to elastic chambers that can flex the joints of the fingers. As sensors on the fingers and palm close around objects, nerves in the amputation stump pick up muscular sensations so that the amputee can use a weaker or stronger grip. The prosthetic provides five different strengths of grip.

“It is so intuitive that learning to use the device only takes about 15 minutes,” says Schulz.

Last September, 18-year-old Sören Wolf, who was born with only one hand, became the first person to use the Fluidhand. According to German press reports, Wolf was able to type on a keyboard with both of his hands for the first time in his life, and he told reporters that, when he’s wearing the Fluidhand, he doesn’t feel handicapped anymore.

International interest in the Fluidhand peaked late last month, when it was announced that the Orthopedic University Hospital is testing the device in comparison with the i-LIMB Hand. Wolf is the first amputee to use both prosthetics.

Produced by the Scottish company Touch Bionics, i-LIMB was the first prosthetic hand that enabled the movement of individual fingers. The prosthetic, released last summer, uses a different technical principle than the Fluidhand. With i-LIMB, movement is enabled by five small, battery-powered motors that are embedded in each finger. Schulz believes that the hydraulic system has some advantages over the motorized fingers. “In contrast to the movement with electric motors and transmissions, the Fluidhand remains soft and flexible,” he says. “Articles can therefore be seized more reliably, and the hand feels more natural.”

Both devices are significant improvements over conventional hand prostheses that only enable the wearer to pinch the thumb and forefinger to create a grip.

“There are many hand movements that require individual digit movements,” says Hugh Herr, director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab. “The development of individual finger movements in a prosthetic is a remarkable step forward.”

One patient is currently wearing the Fluidhand to complete daily tasks, and a second is about to be fitted for the device. Some 250 people, including soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq, already use i-LIMB.

Stuart Mead, CEO of Touch Bionics, points out that the comparative study in Heidelberg is not a competitive one. “Many people have many different devices for different activities, and what works for one patient may not work for another,” he says.

Comparative studies of this nature do have value for determining how well the device can meet amputees’ needs. “They are probably testing each device’s strength, power, and versatility,” says Herr. “The prosthetics have to be able to pick up something very lightweight and fragile, like a piece of china, as well as something large and heavy.”

Soon, people requiring a prosthetic hand with movable digits will have more options. “The German-Austrian company OttoBock will probably present a new hand with movable fingers in 2009,” says Schulz.

Experts expect this rapid development in the field of prosthetic technologies to continue into the near future.

“I believe that there is a big push into wearable exoskeletons because the mechatronic technology has matured, becoming more cost effective, miniaturized, and powerful,” says Thomas Sugar of Arizona State University, who works in robotic prosthetics. “Batteries and motors are smaller and more powerful. Microprocessors have been very fast and cheap. Lastly, I do think there has been a big push by NIH [National Institutes of Health] and the DOD [Department of Defense] into medical robots for stroke therapy, powered exoskeletons, and powered prosthetics.”

The Biomechatronics Group’s Herr agrees. “Typically, when you plot prosthetic innovations against time, you see a spike in innovation after every war, and that is certainly true today,” he says. “In addition, we’re also seeing a number of disciplines such as robotics, mechanical engineering, and biomechatronics mature to the point [where] we can merge to create truly remarkable systems.”

There is still room for those remarkable innovations in prosthetic development.

“We find ourselves, as an industry, working to manage people’s expectations,” says Touch Bionics’ Mead. “A prosthetic doesn’t function like a real hand. We’re still only able to replicate 5 to 10 percent of what a real hand can do.”

Walking the walk: A quasi-passive MIT exoskeleton bears most of an 80-pound payload without needing any motors.   
Credit: Samuel Au

Researchers have developed a motorless exoskeleton that can carry 80 pounds


MIT Technology Review, by Duncan Graham-Rowe  —  Researchers at MIT have developed a leg exoskeleton capable of carrying an 80-pound load without the use of motors. According to its developers, the prototype can support 80 percent of this weight while using less than one-thousandth of a percent of the power used by its motorized equivalents.

The aim of developing leg exoskeletons is to make it easier for people to carry heavy loads, says Hugh Herr, director of the Biomechatronics Group at MIT and leader of the research. By designing mechanical structures that transfer much of the load directly to the ground, rather than via the walker’s legs, it should be possible to enable soldiers and firefighters to carry heavier loads while reducing the risk of injury and the amount of metabolic effort they expend in doing so.

To date, most exoskeleton research has focused on using motors to carry the load. Not only is this expensive, requiring large power supplies and frequent refueling, but it also tends to be noisy, which can be a problem for military applications. Conor Walsh, a graduate student at MIT who also worked on the exoskeleton, says that the system “is much quieter than the powered exoskeletons” and only slightly noisier than normal human walking.

Working with Ken Endo, also an MIT graduate student, Herr and Walsh have taken a quasi-passive approach. Their mechanical system is specially designed to follow the movement of the wearer’s legs and mimic some of the energy-storage strategies that legs exploit to reduce muscle work.

When we walk, the muscle power required to swing our legs is minimal because of the pendulum-like exchange of gravitational potential energy and the kinetic energy of our limbs. Our muscles also provide a degree of elastic energy storage to help joints flex, which again reduces the amount of overall energy that walking requires.

The MIT exoskeleton works using similar principles. The payload worn on the user’s back is attached to two leglike mechanical structures that run parallel to the user’s legs. These structures have elastic energy-storage devices at the ankle and hip, and a damping device at the knee joint.

In simple terms, the springlike joints take advantage of the user’s motion and payload to store energy. For example, as the heel of one foot makes contact with the ground, the continued forward motion of the body will cause springs in that hip and ankle to be compressed. These springs help propel the leg forward at the next stride.

A variable damper in the knee joint lets the leg swing freely as it moves forward. Then, as the heel strikes the ground, the damping is increased to prevent the knee from buckling under the weight of the payload.

The exoskeleton is not entirely passive. A small amount of energy is required to control the dampers’ variability. (The dampers contain a fluid with tiny magnetic particles. When electricity is applied to the fluid, these particles change its viscosity.) But it is very efficient compared with other such systems. “Our exoskeleton only consumes two watts of electrical power during walking,” says Herr. This is nothing compared with the 3,000 watts consumed by a motorized exoskeleton.

But there is a catch. Tests of the exoskeleton revealed that although it lightens the load for the user, that person consumes 10 percent more oxygen than if he or she had simply carried the load without mechanical assistance. This higher metabolic rate is attributed to the fact that the device interferes with the natural gait of the walker. “Walking with the exoskeleton takes more energy than walking without,” says Michael Goldfarb, director of the Center for Intelligent Mechatronics at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, TN.

Even so, it is a good effort, says Goldfarb. “I’m not aware of any exoskeleton–active or passive–that has been shown to effectively decrease metabolic energy expenditure,” he says. And even if more energy is burned, the exoskeleton still reduces the stress on the wearer’s back and legs.

The MIT group believes that by carefully selecting and angling the springs, it can reduce the amount of energy that a person needs to walk with the exoskeleton.

It would probably take about two years to commercialize this technology, says Herr. “But we have no plans at this time to move forward with commercialization,” he says.

Goldfarb still believes that there are hurdles to overcome. There are great advantages to using variable dampers and springs, not least that they are much lighter and less power hungry than motors and actuators, he says. But a device that requires less effort and is capable of covering a broad range of terrains, such as uneven surfaces and stairs, must have not just variable dampers but also springs of variable stiffness. This is a taller order, Goldfarb says.

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