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One of the utility poles that snapped during storms in Arlington, Virginia, this week. Photo by Marianne Lavelle

Wireless Power Can’t Yet Replace Utility Poles, But Could Offer More Options for Electronic Charging

On the heels of the violent storm system that felled enough overhead wires to disrupt electricity for 4.3 million utility customers on the U.S. East Coast,  new research suggests that the technology for transmitting power without connection to the vulnerable electric grid may be closer at hand than most people think.

“Wireless power” will be making a significant contribution to the energy scene by the end of the decade, says a new report by Pike Research. Short-distance, small-scale, cable-free electricity transmission—for mobile devices, some types of industrial equipment, and electric cars—will be not only more resilient than conventional plug-in charging, but can provide environmental advantages as well, the consultancy says.

This doesn’t mean that wireless power technology has advanced to the point where it can replace the utility poles that snapped like so many twigs in the “derecho,” or straight-line thunderstorm system that assaulted 10 states and the District of Columbia Friday night.  Richard Martin, editorial director for Pike, a market research group that focuses on smart energy solutions,  says we are still decades away from long-distance, large-scale wireless electricity transmission. But he says the technology is quickly developing for mobile devices to draw power needs from an infrastructure of wireless power (WP) locations in coffee shops, airport lounges, offices, and homes.

Another important ramification: Experimental systems are also being tested in South Korea for the charging of electric vehicles (EVs) wirelessly. Electric-powered buses can top off their electric charges by stopping on a pad. So instead of burning fuel while idling at a 60-second stop, the bus can be drawing electric power. If wireless charging takes off, it will greatly accelerate EV adoption, according to Pike’s assessment of the market, says Martin.

Although wireless charging technology isn’t inherently environmentally friendly (you can transmit coal-fired power as well as solar power without cables), it can help in efforts to reduce carbon emissions because of its potential to enable EVs (which are more efficient than internal combustion even if the electricity comes from fossil fuels). Also, there are secondary environmental benefits; the reduction in cords, adapters, and wall outlets alone will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and landfill waste, the Pike Report says.

There are a number of wireless charging technologies;  Martin says one to watch is magnetic resonance coupling, which was pioneered by researchers at Intel and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  (The MIT spinoff company is called WyTricity.) The technology involves setting up a magnetic field that is actually able to transmit energy between two poles from a transmitting device to a receiving device. Where previous technologies only allowed transmission over distances of inches, magnetic resonance coupling would allow transmission at long enough distances that it opens the door to many new applications. “You could have a room system where you can charge multiple devices while sitting in an easy chair,” Martin says.  Wireless power stations can be deployed, and will proliferate in public spaces, just as wifi has done, he says.  “Having to find a power outlet at an airport is going to be obsolete,” he says.

Martin says the potential of wireless power has been best summed up by Vint Cerf, the computer scientist seen as one of the fathers of the Internet, who is honorary chairman of the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE.) PMA is working on wireless power, dedicated to the idea that it may be possible to do for electricity what the Internet has done for information.

And although wireless alone won’t help, in the short term, to give consumers complete freedom from the risk of the kind of power outages that swept the East Coast this week, Martin says it could offer greater options, especially when considered along with distributed power generation, energy storage and microgrids. With these technologies, a self-contained neighborhood could, with the help of a large solar array and batteries, give communities an option other than diesel generators when the power goes out.

“It’s not a huge leap to see this going to the next level, where people say let’s get our [home owners’ association] together, and figure out what we are going to do with solar panels and a wireless charging station,” he said. “Think about how with the Internet, people have figured out innovative ways to connect through community-based locations, coffee shops, etcetera. I think we’ll be thinking about access to power the same way. It’s not going to be plugging into an outlet in the wall anymore.”