Answering Europe’s Alternative Energy Challenge
By David Fambrough, Mouser Electronics
In Europe, Japan’s major nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Plant has heightened the debate over the place nuclear energy should play in the future energy mix, fueling the argument against it and forcing others to call for a reassessment. Global climate change and the need to reduce energy consumption are also adding to the call for smart megawatts power generation. Combined, these issues are spearheading the push into the development of safer, alternative energy solutions.
To gain a clearer picture of new technological developments shaping the future of alternative energy, we turned to Mouser Electronics, a leading global semiconductor and electronic components distributor that works with design engineers and buyers. Known for its rapid introduction of the latest products and most advanced technologies used for prototype development, the company is positioned as a foremost supplier inspiring a new generation of alternative energy solutions.
Solar: A Sunny Outlook
For an endless amount of clean energy, Europe and the rest of the world only need to look to the sun. The photovoltaic market appears to be very sunny, as innovation and lower technology costs continue to help light the way. It’s driven by strong improvements in panel efficiency, guaranteed feed-in tariffs (FiTs) in more and more countries, and the attraction of no noise or pollution during usage. Compared to other renewable energies, it has significant advantages. Solar energy is available almost everywhere; the installations are scalable (small systems for homes to large-scale plants); no supplies are required to keep it operating, plus there are no moving parts that significantly impact reliability.
Mark Burr-Lonnon, Vice President of Europe, further added, “Uncertain times in Europe are causing governments to rethink the future of their energy mix. All of which is creating new opportunities for a competitive, safe and reliable electricity source such as PV.”
The biggest market in Europe for solar cells today is Germany with Italy lagging not far behind. However, other countries are quick to follow with Spain also turning to the power of the sun. The Gemasolar Power Plant near Seville consists of 2,650 panels and is the world’s first solar power station that generates electricity at night. Perhaps a more encouraging sign is European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) recent study that shows PV competitiveness with grid electricity can be achieved in some markets as early as 2013, and elsewhere across the continent into different market segments by 2020. With between 131 and 196 GW of new PV systems forecasted by 2015, the future of the PV market in Europe remains bright.
One recent game-changing development seen at Mouser is the new solar micro inverter. A key player in advancing this technology has been STMicroelectronics, a company whose products and solutions are well positioned in the photovoltaic world. Instead of having one large inverter that handles all of the current conversion from the DC to AC, these new solar panels have a solar micro inverter that takes the DC current generated by the solar panel and converts it directly to AC current before leaving the panel. This has lead to a complete solution contained within the solar panel, resulting in greater conversion efficiency since power isn’t lost in having to travel over long wires. Additionally, this solution provides even greater, easier scalability. Expanding your solar power system is as simple as adding another solar panel.
Seeds for Energy Harvesting Are Planted
In the quest to find alternative energy sources, much of today’s conversation on renewable energy centers on energy harvesting. Simply stated, it’s the process by which ambient energy is captured and converted into electricity for small autonomous devices, such as nodes in sensor networks, making them self-sufficient.
Solar cells followed by electrodynamos are two of the most relatively mature energy harvesting technologies. However, many new technologies are now taking some market share. This includes thermoelectrics – the ability to generate power from heat. For example, BMW is working to turn heat waste from engines and exhaust into power for vehicles’ electrical systems. One of Mouser’s suppliers, Micropelt, is also in the process of converting waste heat into a sustainable, maintenance-free power supply for wireless sensor devices. A built-in chip thermogenerator takes a few degrees of temperature differential and harvests thermal energy to operate the wireless sensor node.
Another emerging area of development: Piezoelectric energy harvesters are generating attention due to their small form factor and high efficiency. The simplicity associated with piezoelectric micro-generators makes it very attractive for MEMS applications, including automotive, smart mobile devices, medical and other next-gen applications where engineers are designing a hands-off solution that last the lifetime of the application. In response, a number of Mouser’s key suppliers – Omron, Honeywell Sensing & Control, STMicroelectronics, Freescale Semiconductor and Avago Technologies – are smartly positioning themselves within this growing competitive landscape.
Russell Rasor, Mouser Vice President of Advanced Technology, elaborated by saying, “We’re seeing the energy harvesting trend continuing to gain momentum. With the cost of harvesting decreasing to where it’s a practical alternative to traditional power sources combined with the emergence of new technological advancements, the seeds for greater growth are firmly planted.”
Overall, IDTechEX reports in 2021, that harvesting energy through temperature differentials, vibration, RF and light will have near similar market share for industrial sensing applications with the total market expected to rise to over 2.9Bn Euros. However, solar will continue to dominate for consumer applications.
Making a Case Where Less is More
An energy stance that has been made for some time is to simply use less – conserve resources. However, today’s energy demands and quest for higher performance with increased capabilities and functionality are rising. What’s shaping up is a classic argument of less is more when faced with designing the next technological wonder or “it” item.
You don’t have to look far to discover the myriad of benefits for improving energy efficiency: lower electric usage, reduced load on utilities, decreased cost of ownership for electronics products, not to mention fewer spent batteries filling up landfills.
In response, the electronics industry in Europe has seen a movement towards components with lower power consumption. In particular, ultra-low power (ULP) continues to dominate engineering discussions. Important design characteristics at work are low power, real-time responsiveness/processing power, low thermal dissipation, small physical form factor/footprint, memory, low radiation/emission, ruggedness in design and other factors. All of this adds a major design challenge for engineers when it comes to the selection of processors, operating systems, etc., as demands for functionality increase with rising time-to-market pressures. As a result, manufacturers of microcontrollers (MCUs) are in a literal race when it comes to providing high performance at decreasing power consumption.
Traditionally, 8-bit or 16-bit devices have been used in the most energy-sensitive applications since they feature small cores, have relatively few gates and produce low levels of leakage current. However, today’s applications (like the emergence of smartphones, tablets, and portable medical devices to mention a few) demand far more processing capability than these cores can deliver.
“Semiconductor companies are engineering single, integrated chips comprising multiple cores,” shared Rasor. “Extensive clock-gating in the chip design is being incorporated to reduce power requirements, combined with smart use of power modes and well thought-out system design.”
From a systems architecture perspective, power efficiency is at the core. Active mode, standby (sleep) mode and wake-up power are being carefully analyzed to further reduce system power, with the trick to conserving power is to do nothing, or next to nothing. Manufacturers are engineering MCUs that draw nanoamperes of current in sleep mode. In fact, the newest microcontrollers can consume one quarter of the energy of previous 8-, 16- and 32-bit. MCUs. Prime examples found at Mouser: Microchip’s XLP families, NXP Semiconductors’ LPC1100L, TI’s MSP430 and Atmel’s PicoPower MCUs are among the stingiest available. In addition, relative newcomers including Energy Micro’s ARM Cortex M3-based Gecko MCUs continue to push the envelope in delivering ultra-low power.
More on Mouser
Mouser is a company that believes technology should transcend all boundaries. In keeping with this philosophy, Mouser has 19 locations globally with plans to expand even further.
Importantly, Mouser has offices strategically located across Europe, including Germany, the Czech Republic, France, U.K., Spain and Italy. Just recently, Mouser opened two more locations to better serve Northern Europe and Scandinavia with new offices added in the Netherlands and Sweden. This is in direct response to servicing the large European design community by providing personalized, local support. Other factors contributing to the company’s growth in Europe has been Mouser’s focus on providing best-in-class service, excellent product information, rapid delivery and exceptional order accuracy combined with having the world’s widest selection of the latest semiconductors and components supporting the design chain. All of which means engineers can design in the latest technologies into their prototypes – providing an edge in features, product lifecycle and quicker time to market.
The engine driving much of Mouser’s growth is www.mouser.com. It houses more than 2 million parts online from over 450 leading suppliers. The site is updated with new products every day and clearly identifies components Not Recommended For New Design (NRND) and End Of Life (EOL) components. The site also provides an industry-first interactive catalogue, data sheets, supplier-specific reference designs, application notes and countless other useful tools. Plus, the website an ever-growing number of application-centric Product Knowledge Centers and detailed product microsites to better focus design efforts. Furthermore, it supports 17 languages and 16 international currencies. All these capabilities have firmly placed Mouser as a top-rated distributor website for technical information, search and ease of use. Not to mention, Mouser remains one of the few distributors also committed to producing a European catalogue twice annually that features only the newest products – removing all obsolete and end-of-life products.
As a result, last year the company experienced revenues gains in Europe close to 200%. So far in 2011, Mouser has seen additional Q2 sales growth of 71% overall. Mouser also continues to build upon its reputation of being a top quality distributor among suppliers. Mouser has been honored by such preeminent suppliers such as Bourns, Elektra, TDK & EPCOS, Harwin and others for its focus on the newest products and overall performance excellence. In times of increasing financial pressures, Mouser and its parent company, TTI, Inc., remain strong behind the backing of Warren Buffet and his Berkshire Hathaway investment empire. All of which points to a greater level of confidence and reassurance for a growing number of European buyers and design engineers in quest of the newest products and technologies – proving that helping answer Europe’s alternative energy challenge is one of the things Mouser does best.