Archive for March, 2015

AB1234

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

Kuranda. November 15th, 2012. The day after the eclipse.
Here, in Kuranda, as we wait for the cable car that’ll bring Dirk and me back down from this scenic mountain town I suddenly spot a face I recognize from photos. Glen Schneider is casually munching his ice cream, queueing for the cable car. As I hear him out on his plans to go to Sao Tome for the 2013 eclipse, the topic shifts to 2014. For the first time I hear about a renewed cooperation with Air Events and plans to organize a flight to intercept the 2014 eclipse. That vey instant I decide that’s the flight I will be on. The experience I had aboard flight QF2901 from Melbourne to Melbourne, intercepting the solar eclipse over Antarctica, combined with the positive stories heard about Air Events, and especially their 2008 eclipse flight, plus the simple fact Dusseldorf is so close to where I live that it’s safe consider it home turf. All things considered, it became a no brainer.

March 19th, 2015. The trip to Dusseldorf indeed proved an easy commute. Especially when taking into account in the last few years the eclipse brought me to all corners of the world. A convenient two hour drive brought Erica and me to the outskirts of Dusseldorf, where we had pre-booked a parking spot at Parkvogel’s garage. Upon arrival, the guy checking us in kindly asks our inbound flight number, so that he can arrange pickup at the airport. When I tell him our flight number, he responds in disbelief: “Es gibt kein Flug AB1234.”Luckily the printout of the pdf booklet provided by TravelQuest is within easy reach in the trunk. Not much later we were all set, and on our way by shuttlebus to the airport – from where a short walk is all it takes to enter the hotel and check in. Well before noon.

Since there’s time to kill and a city to explore, we ask the woman working the lobby how to get to the city center. It proves just as easy and convienient as the rest of the trip has been this far; the train station is located in the basement of the building housing the hotel. A handful of stops out, we exit the train and enter the epicenter of Dusseldorf. A vibrant and friendly city worthy of a stroll, just to admire the architecture. Though the area round the boulevard bordering the river Rhine prove a tourist trap, tough competition in these many bar streets does enable us to have a tasty and nutricious lunch on a budget.

On our way back to the railway station, suddenly Erica holds her pace and told me she feels the urge to visit a genuine German beer brewery.
Oddly enough, the Schumacher brewery turns out to be right round the corner. A small crowd of people in front of the building clearly indicates there’s something going on. As it turns out; three days per year, each third Thursday in March, September and November, this brewery sells and serves their rare Latzenbier, specially brewed for these occasions.

Despite the bustle, it proves remarkably easy to enter. At the gate, we’re provided with a wristband that grants access, and from there an alley leads to a square where music is played and lemonade glasses filled with dark beer are served, along with Currywusrt.

There’s something special about casually sipping beer in a crowdy courtyard, while, from the adjacent building, you see a plume of smoke rise from an old fashioned brick smokestack. It’s almost a pity that we can’t stay for long, but we do have a better place to go; this evening, the eve of the eclipse, there’ll be a mandatory briefing at the hotel we have to attend.

As we make our way toward the exit, it becomes obvious getting in with so much ease was a matter of pure luck or great timing. A line of people is now waiting to enter. We hand in our paper wristbands, allowing two thirsty people to enter the alley and join the fun we leave behind.

Back at the hotel, we receive our briefing, some paperwork and a wallet containing a nametag and commemorative pin. Aside from information on the things we will have to watch for during the flight, we also receive more information regarding the flight itself, and the way Isavia, Icelandic air travel control, will cater with the huge number of sightseeing flights in their airspace. Sadly, our flight was moved to a lower altitude and slightly different flight path than previously planned – underscoring they put lots of effort in keeping the skies safe, while enabling lots of people aboard a multitude of flights to have a great view of the eclipse. Though it does feel like a sacrifice that the duration of the eclipse will be shortened by these interventions, it’s soothing to know precautions are taken to ensure we’ll return to Dusseldorf safely.

Post briefing, there’s the opportunity to socially mingle over snacks and softdrinks. We’ve just been informed, though, that the checkin counter will only be open between 05:00 and 06:00 tomorrow morning, which is a good reason to not spend too much time out. To find some peace of mind, before going to sleep, we first walk through the airport to find where we need to go to, tomorrow, to check in. The counters mentioned during the briefing are remarkably close by and easy to find, not much more than a few steps from the sliding door where we enter the airport. Finding a quick bite that can double as dinner proves to be more challenging. All the outlets at the airport are closing down for the night. Luckily we can still eat at the hotel, so there’s no need to go to bed hungry.

Despite the intention to be in the dining room at 05:00 sharp, grab a quick bite and then check in, it proves difficult to rise this time of day. By the time we get to the dining room most people have already left. Though there’s still time, it does make me slightly nervous and less able to enjoy my breakfast and early morning coffee. As we walk to the airport, Kelly Beatty greats us at the door. Erica askes “Are we last?” Kelly confirms. “Yes, you are.” Though the counter will stay open for another half hour or so, everyone has already checked in. A great example of Punktlichkeit.
At the gate, we’re joined by some people booked on AB1000, the other eclipse flight out of Dusseldorf. Dan Fischer philosophically utters what’d happen with the ecipse chasing community if the roof over our heads would collapse. After yesterday’s briefing, hearing about the many flights that’ll have to share a relatively small patch of airspace, I try to refrain from fatalistic thoughts.

A cup of coffee and an hour or so later, the boarding call for our flight sounds. Minutes later, everyone’s on board and ready for departure. Well ahead of schedule. Even airborn things run smoothly. A PA announcement informs us that circumstances are favorable. It appears air traffic control has been prioritizing this flight, and even allowed us to climb to a higher than normal altitude. There’s hope we’ll be allowed to keep flyin this high, but, in Icelandic airspace, Isavia directs us to the lower altitude mentioned during yesterday’s briefing.
Over the Faroer, we are unable to spot any islands. All we see are clouds. Though I do wish the people on the ground all the best, to me, this underscores it was a wise decision to book a flight rather than a ground based tour.
The eclipse run starts, and excitement grows. People have been setting up tripods or improvised camera stands, and so have I. My setup consists of little more than two tiny cameras, one with eclipse filter and one without, fit to the window with little more than camera mounts with suction cups, and here and there some duct tape. Basic, straightforward and minimalistic. It is remarkable how cool the flight crew is about all this, because everyone everywhere is fitting all kinds of makeshift objects and devices to chairs, walls and armrests. In addition to clamps and suction cups, there’s duct tape everywhere. This plane, D-ABMV, is scheduled to make more flights later today. I feel sorry for the people who’ll have to ensure the walls and armrests don’t feel sticky.

It’s impossible to see the ocean from up here; all we see beneath us are clouds. This makes a beautiful backdrop for the slowly approaching lunar shadow, though. It is as if a dramatically hovering dark blot of ink creeps and crawls closer. I am surprised by how slow it appears the move. During ground based observations, this shadow just hits you like a wall of darkness, rolling in mercilessly. In preparation for the eclipse, the lights on board are dimmed. Even the lights that indicate it’s illegal to smoke get switched off. This surprises me, as they stayed on during the 2003 eclipse flight over Antarctica.
The eclipse itself is enjoyed the way it should be. Rather than wasting time peeking through a viewfinder, I simply let both cameras record without bothering what the outcome may or may not be, and as good as possible, we try to share the window and give each other the opportunity to gaze at this beautifully eclipsed sun. Whether totality lasts seconds or minutes, it always appears to consist of nothing but an instant. It’s so overwhelming it’s virtually impossible to keep track of time and place. Luckily, such things can be outsourced to machines – simply by timing the event afterward, based on video footage.

After totality, the plane makes a right turn – we’re heading back toward Germany. A number of people share their post-eclipse rituals with us. Short speeches are given, songs are sung, the eclipse flag paraded through the aisle. There’s a feeling of joy and relief. We’ve seen it. The flight crew provides all passengers with a small bottle of Champagne we eagerly uncork.

It is generally considered not done to wear, or even buy, a T-shirt commemorating an eclipse that didn’t happen yet. Concert-goers know that you are not supposed to wear a shirt of the band you’re about to see when going to a concert. The same unwritten rule applies to eclipse viewing. Some people will even claim it brings bad luck. Whether it’s actual superstition or just a tradition, I treat it with the respect it deserves by wearing the very same shirt I wore during the 2012 and 2013 eclipse as well; Micheal Zeiler’s shirt listing all eclipses from 2012-2045. My post-eclipse ritual involves marking my location on the map on the front of this shirt and ticking the corresponding box on the backside using a waterproof marker.

Both cameras are still recording. Eventually, they’ll run out of memory or power. The eclipse may be over, but they might still register some interesting visuals or announcements on the way back. After touchdown the improvised camera mount will be dismantled. First, it’s time to rest on our laurels and enjoy the peaceful afterglow.

Eventually, we return to Dusseldorf, where the plane taxies to a remote location. This allows us to take a group photo with the plane itself in the background. Another eclipse is history. My twelfth.

Back at the hotel the first thing people mention to us is that the power stayed on. I am pleased to hear that. Since I operate power plants for a living, I am well aware how delicate and tender the power grid is, and that balancing supply and demand is more than just a job. It’s an art. Especially in a country like Germany, where solar power provides more than half of the country’s demand for electricity on a sunny day, but significantly less once clouds roll in. The dimming effect the passing penumbra has on the inflow of solar power to the grid is comparable, but much stronger than a passing cloud here and there – it occurs throughout an entire continent in a relatively short period of time. Knowing how well today’s challenges were coped with does give me an ego boost, despite the fact I spent my day up in the air rather than in a control room.

In the lobby of the hotel, we get the opportunity to meet up with Michael Smith and his wife, who were aboard the Eclipse-Reisen flight AB1000. Over a Weizenbier their short trip through Germany, today’s and previous solar eclipses and life in general are discussed. Then, we head to the dining room where we dined yesterday and had breakfast this morning for the post-eclipse buffet.

March 21st, 2015. We return, yet again, to the same dining room. Much more at ease than yesterday. Coffee, and omelette and today’s newspaper. What a great way to start a new day.
Once done packing, we head to the counter to check out of the hotel and call the parking garage, informing them we’re ready to be picked up by their shuttle bus. We bid farewell to Kelly and Cheryl Beatty, and recommend them to drop by at microbrewery De Drie Ringen in Amersfoort on their way home. A name that proves hard to pronounce.
The same driver who brought us from the parking garage to the airport is also the one taking us back. Just as friendly and cheerful as she was two days ago. She mentions that the local circumstances in Dusseldorf have not been favorable to observe the partial – though she did manage to see a beautiful crescent through a thin haze of clouds, followed by a bright, blinding light though what eclipse chasers would refer to as a ‘lucky hole.’
Once back at the parking garage, we swt sail to our next destination. Brussels. For some reason my satnav fails to get a GPS fix, so I have to rely on intuition, carrier pigeon instinct, roadsigns and the part of the map I memorized – and, yes! This did bring us to the hotel in Vilvoorde we reserved for tonight. Conveniently located right next to the train station. Like in Dusseldorf, the heart of the city is only a few stops out. The city walk is rather brief. We stop at Beer Project Brussels; a new microbrewery launching their new IPA named Baby Lone. The most interesting thing about this beer is that the source material is old bread, sourced from a number of bakeries. There are platters on the table filled with sliced bread made from beer made from bread.
Toting around a 12-pack of their beers, we undertake a short city walk that includes Manneken Pis and a waffle.

March 22nd, 2015. After checkout, I drive Erica to Zaventem airport, from where she returns to the US. I decide to act like a tourist for the remainder of the day. Cruising around Brussels, stopping at the Lion of Waterloo and eventually spending some time at what apparently is the second best pub in the world; In De Verzekering Tegen de Grote Dorst. Only open on Sunday morning or by appointment. Known for serving the local specialty, known as Geuze. A kind of beer so sour it makes you cringe. In interesting place catering for interesting people. Here, I speak to musicians and thir kid. They mention their work used to bring them to The Netherlands frequently. The man even claims to have flanked Neerlands Hoop occasionally in the seventies.
Later, they make room for a really nice couple running an AirBnB nearby, taking their American tennant out for a casual drink before lunch. They know a lot about the Pajottenland and the valley of the Zenne river, where Geuze and Lambic thrive. My attention is drawn to a bus tour through the region, scheduled for May 3rd. Although it looks tempting, I decide it’s better to just report for work, that day, saving some money for next year’s trip to Indonesia.

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The effect of the March 20th eclipse on the European power supply

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Friday, a total solar eclipse will be visible from the Faroe Islands and Svalbard. Weather permitting, this will be an extraordinary and spectaculary miraculous sight well worth the trip north.

Throughout Europe, the moon will partially cover the sun. Whoever looks up to the sun at the right time, through proper filters, will see the sun’s apparent shape change from a disc into a
croissant. As this happens, the moon casts a shadow over Europe, dimming the light of the sun. Shadows become blurry and the color of the sky darkens toward a darker kind of blue, like an eerily awkward twilight.

Over the past couple of weeks, many news outlets covered the story that this event could cause the European power grid to become unstable. The Express even fotoshopped a gloomy image of a thick annular solar eclipse into a night shot of the Elizabeth Tower in a story they dramatically titled BLACKOUT warning: Biggest solar eclipse since 1999 could lead to power cuts across Europe. This article should be taken with more than just a single grain of salt, since it starts by falsely claiming “the UK is plummeted into darkness by a total eclipse of the sun” – which it is not. It won’t get darker than it does each and every evening. Also, the risks of power outages in the UK are negligible. The installed capacity of solar panels in the UK is too low to cause a major unbalance in the UK’s power supply. Same can de said about the imports and exports through the interconnectors to continental Europe. And since both Interconnexion France Angleterre and BritNed are direct current connections, disturbances in the grid frequency of the continantal European grid won’t drag the UK’s grid down with it.

Theoretically, though, these disturbances could occur in continental Europe this friday. In the enitire European power grid, all three phases oscillate on a beautiful, perfectly maintained frequency of 50 Hertz. This is the grid’s heartbeat, and the gentle humming you can hear in the vicinity of a high voltage transformer.
All power plants connected to this grid will carefully measure and respond to it and do their utmost to cancel out any disturbances. If the frequency drops below 50 Hz, it means more power is consumed than generated, so powerplants will fire up. If the frequency rises above this 50 Hz, it means that supply exceeds demand, so powerplants will produce less to, again, balance supply and demand.

An ever increasing part of the central European energy supply is generated using renewable resources. The greatest powerhouse in this, is Germany; both the Energiewende and the Atomausstieg greatly decreased the amount nuclear power yet boosted the amount of solar and wind power in the energy mix – with trusted coal and lignite powered plants to provide grid stability by maintaining the 50 Hz grid frequency. Machines that were once engineered to continuously run baseload are retrofitted to run part load, from where they can fire up or down, whenever needed. On days with changable weather, balancing is a very dynamic process, since changes in wind velocity or cloud cover immediately and drastically affect the inflow of renewable energy.
That is what is bound to happen during friday’s solar eclipse, too. In the time the lunar shadow sweeps across Europe, the input of all solar panels will decrease. Just as they would at dusk. Then, though, once the Earth comes out of the lunar shadow again, the amount of solar energy produced will increase at an incredibly steep ramp. This effect does not compare to what happens every morning when the sun rises, since the sun had already risen – and is close to noon. When the production of solar energy peaks. It is this ramp that makes the tabloids speculate it could cause a cascade effect, leading up to a total blackout like the one the northeast of the USA experienced little over a decade ago. After all, the fossil fueled powerplants hooked to the grid will have to compensate for all the excess electricity suddenly produced by décreasing their own production. In a controlled fashion, of course. After all, the beautiful 50 Hz grid frequency has to be maintained at all cost, and if it fluctuates too much, or rises or drops too steep, it could cause a load rejection of either a powerplant, an interconnector between countries, or a solar inverter or all of the above.

Fortunately, the utility providers are well aware of all this and have taken appropriate measures to cope with it. This keeps everyone happy; the tabloids can publish their scaremongering horror stories, while the rest keeps enjoying continuous supply of electricity – and the most fortunate ones will a hauntingly beautiful solar eclipse.

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Blackout

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

Aanstaande vrijdag is het zover; dan schuift de maan voorzichtig voor de zon, en is er in Europa een zonsverduistering zichtbaar. Bij onbewolkte hemel is het een prachtig gezicht om, goed voorbereid, te kijken wat er gebeurt terwijl meer dan 80% van het zonoppervlak zich verschuilt achter de maan. Het is nog veel mooier ergens te gaan kijken waar de zon voor 100% achter de maan verdwijnt, maar wie dat wil zien zal op moeten staat uit z’n luie stoel. De zonsverduistering van aanstaande vrijdag is alleen volledig op een paar eilandjes in de buurt van de poolcirkel. Ten overvloede; daar is het koud. Zo koud dat de lokale auoriteiten er waarschuwen goed op te passen voor ijsberen.

Tegelijkertijd is er wat paniek. Vooral de Engelse tabloids hebben pagina’s volgekalkt met bangmakende artikelen over het desastreuze effekt dat deze zonsverduistering zal hebben op de elektriciteitsvoorziening in Europa. Niet alleen de de zon, maar ook alle lampen zullen zwart licht gaan geven, als je deze tabloids mag geloven.

Wat is er aan de hand? Een steeds groeiend deel van de Europese elekticiteit wordt opgewekt met zonnepanelen. Die gaan elke ochtend braaf leveren aan het net, en stoppen daar na zonsondergang weer mee. Het moge duidelijk zijn dat zonnepanelen minder vermogen leveren als de zon minder hard schijnt; bij bewolkt weer, regen, maar dus ook bij een zonsverduistering. Dat geeft niet, want er zijn meer dan genoeg conventionele elektriciteitscentrales beschikbaar om een tekort of een overschot weg te kunnen regelen. Hierdoor kun je ook bij windstil weer en na zonsondergang nog gewoon de wasmachine of de TV aanzetten, en valt in de zomer de airco niet meteen uit als er een regenbuitje overtrekt. Bovendien gebeurt het eigenlijk nooit dat het overal tegelijk regent, dus wat je hier te weinig hebt, kun je wel ergens anders vandaan halen.

Doordat alle elektriciteisnetwerken van continentaal Europa met elkaar verbonden zijn, krijg je echt een oersterk net. In plaats van kleine vijvertjes waarin elk plonsje een golfbeweging veroorzaakt die tijdenlang naijlt, vormen alle netwerken samen een grote zee, waarin diezelfde golf snel uitdempt. Als het hard waait in Denemarken, en er daardoor veel meer windenergie wordt geproduceerd dan het hele land verbruikt, regelen elektriciteitscentrales in heel Europa terug, zodat vraag en aanbod weer met elkaar in balans zijn. Op diezelfde manier wordt ook het effekt van een zonnige of juist regenachtige dag weggeregeld.

Het vervelende waar we aanstaande vrijdag mee te maken krijgen, echter, is het volgende; meer dan de helft van alle in Europa opgestelde zonnepanelen staan in Duitsland en Italië. De penumbra passeert deze landen ongeveer tegelijkertijd. Voor het mensenoog is dit amper waarneembaar, maar voor zonnepanelen wel. Meer dan de helf van alle zonnepanelen in heel Europa gaan dus bijna gelijktijdig minder leveren. De ENTSO-E heeft een heel lezenswaardig rapport geschreven over dit onderwerp, en volgens hun berekeningen zal in de tijd dat de schaduw van de maan over Europa trekt, de produktie van zonneenergie dalen met 400 megawatt per minuut – en dat een half uur lang! Zoals altijd wordt deze daling opgevangen met centrales die op fossiele brandstoffen worden gestookt. Dat is dagelijkse kost voor de elektriciteitsproducenten, maar het tempo waarin het deze keer gebeurt is dat niet. Er zijn tientallen, zoniet honderden, elektriciteitscentrales nodig die in dat halve uur van deellast naar vollast op moeten regelen – en ze zullen allemaal flink gas moeten geven om het tempo bij te kunnen houden. Daarna, echter, volgt de volgende uitdaging; de zon komt weer achter de maan vandaan, en terwijl de schaduw van de maan verdwijnt, gaan de Europese zonnepanelen weer leveren, in een tempo waar je haast duizelig van wordt. Volgens het hiervoor genoemde rapport van de gezamenlijke Europese netbeheerders gaat het om 700 megawatt per minuut. Allemaal vermogen dat zonet met veel pijn en moeite bijgeschakeld is, moet nu weer weg. Al die centrales die zonet volop gas hebben moeten geven, moeten nu vól op de rem gaan staan om te zorgen dat vraag en aanbod met elkaar in balans blijven. Gaat dit te snel of te langzaam, dan heeft dat gevolgen voor de lichtnetfrequentie in Europa. Deze moet ten koste van alles 50 Hz blijven, maar zal stijgen als er meer elektriciteit wordt opgewekt dan dat er wordt verbruikt, of dalen als er juist te veel wordt verbruikt en te weinig geproduceerd. Iedereen die wel eens een klein generatortje op benzine heeft gebruikt, en daar ineens een koffiezetapparaat op aansluit die kent dat. Gebeurt dit te heftig, dan zou een elektriciteitscentrale uit kunnen vallen. Zonnepanelen doen hetzelfde; zodra de omvormers een verstoring in de lichtnetfrequentie waarnemen, ontkoppelen ze van het elektriciteitsnet. Dat hoort zo; er is altijd iets bijzonders aan de hand als de lichtnetfrequentie níét precies 50 hertz is, en door uit te schakelen wordt vervolgschade voorkomen.
Dit kán echter ook een kettingreaktie veroorzaken of versterken, zoals in 2003 gebeurde in het noordoosten van de Verenigde Staten. Gelukkig zijn de Europese elektriciteitsproducenten goed voorbereid op wat er vrijdag gaat gebeuren. Ik weet zeker dat mijn koelkast het vrijdag gewoon blijft doen.

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How to observe the partial eclipse on 20 March 2015 by Dr Lucie Green

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

In 2009 zag ik de langste totale zonsverduistering van deze eeuw vanaf een grote boot op de Stille Oceaan. Aan boord van deze boot, de Costa Classica, werden gelukkig ook boeiende lezingen gegeven. Onder andere door Lucie Green.
Zij heeft een erg leerzame video online gezet met informatie over het veilig bekijken van de zonsverduistering op 20 maart 2015.

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