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Acceptance of climate science can reach saturation

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 16:15

Enlarge / The glaciers are in on the conspiracy! (credit: NOAA)

The vast majority of scientists—by most measures, well over 90 percent—accept the evidence that humans are driving our current climate change. Among the public, however, that figure is much lower. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that the public doesn't understand just how strong the scientific consensus is. If people think scientists are divided on this issue, they could be more likely to feel that their own opinion is justified, even if it goes against the conclusions of the people with the most relevant expertise.

Researchers have now looked at how people in the US respond to being told about the scientific community's near unanimity on the topic. They found that the results vary geographically, with a stronger response in states that are more politically conservative. This roughly balances the lower acceptance in the states initially, meaning that all states more or less end up looking about the same.

Consensus messaging

The issue here is typically called "consensus messaging." The idea is that many members of the public don't fully realize just how unified scientific opinion—the consensus—currently is. If they did, members of the public might be more likely to accept scientists' conclusions and perhaps demand policies that address climate change. And there's room for a lot of improvement here, as only about 10 percent of the US public correctly recognizes that the scientific consensus on climate change is over 90 percent.

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First XDR typhoid is on the verge of being untreatable, spreading globally

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 15:59

Enlarge / A photomicrograph of Salmonella typhi bacteria using a Gram-stain technique. (credit: CDC)

A tenacious epidemic of extensively drug-resistant (XDR) typhoid in Pakistan is just one small genetic step away from becoming untreatable—and health experts expect it to spread worldwide.

“It’s a global concern at this point,” Dr. Eric Mintz, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The New York Times. “Everything suggests this strain will survive well and spread easily—and acquiring resistance to azithromycin is only a matter of time.” Azithromycin is currently the only antibiotic remaining that treats the infection.

Typhoid fever, caused by Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi bacteria, is endemic to Pakistan, parts of which suffer from poor infrastructure, crowded urban areas, and insufficient access to healthcare. The epidemic caused by the XDR strain—the first of its kind—has been unfolding there since November 2016. It has now affected at least 850 people in 14 districts, according to the latest figures from the National Institute of Health in Islamabad and first reported by the Times. Prior to this epidemic, there were only four known, unrelated cases of such heavily drug-resistant typhoid, occurring in Iraq, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.

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After a record-long vacancy, NASA likely to finally get a formal leader

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 22:35

Enlarge / Oklahoma GOP Congressman Jim Bridenstine is Trump's nominee to become NASA administrator. (credit: Space Foundation)

On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a space policy speech at a conference in Colorado. At the beginning of his talk, Pence singled out NASA's acting administrator Robert Lightfoot for a 30-year career at the space agency, and applauded his service.

Left unstated was the fact that, at 15 months, Lightfoot has had by far the longest tenure of any acting administrator at NASA. This is because the nomination of Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine has languished for months before the US Senate—NASA has not had a formal administrator since Charles Bolden left the agency on the day President Barack Obama left office.

The better part of a year has passed since the Trump administration nominated Bridenstine to fill the vacancy. In reality, with all Democrats likely to vote against him, the White House has not had enough votes in the narrowly divided Senate to confirm Bridenstine because Florida Republican Marco Rubio has opposed him, and Arizona Republican John McCain has been absent. But now, it appears that the White House has the votes, as multiple sources have told Ars that Rubio now supports Bridenstine's nomination. Reflective of this, on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture on the nomination, which could set up a vote on Thursday or Friday to confirm NASA's next administrator.

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It’s official: SpaceX will build its monster rocket in California

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 18:55

Enlarge / SpaceX will build the BFR rocket and the BFS spaceship (shown here on the Moon) near its California headquarters. (credit: SpaceX)

During his State of the City address on Monday, the mayor of Los Angeles made it official: SpaceX will build the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) at the Port of Los Angeles. "This vehicle holds the promise of taking humanity deeper into the cosmos than ever before," Eric Garcetti added on Twitter.

The mention of SpaceX during Garcetti's speech confirmed widespread speculation about SpaceX's 30-year lease of an 18-acre site at Berth 240 in the port. At this facility on the water, SpaceX plans to build a "state-of-the-art" industrial manufacturing facility near Long Beach, about 20 miles south of its headquarters.

“SpaceX has called the Port of Los Angeles home to our West Coast recovery operations since 2012, and we truly appreciate the City of Los Angeles’ continued partnership," Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, said in a statement. "As announced today by Mayor Garcetti, the Port will play an increasingly important role in our mission to help make humanity multi-planetary as SpaceX begins production development of BFR—our next generation rocket and spaceship system capable of carrying crew and cargo to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”

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Portugal is showing that ambitious renewable energy goals are within reach

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 13:43

Enlarge / Alto Rabagao dam. Tras os Montes, Portugal (credit: Getty Images)

Portugal's energy system operator had some interesting news to share once March had closed out. It seems that even as Portugal's monthly energy consumption increased 9.7 percent compared to March 2017, the country produced enough renewable energy (just over 4,800 Gwh) to exceed its energy demand (just over 4,600 Gwh).

This doesn't mean Portugal avoided fossil fuel use; these figures just compare the total gigawatts of renewable energy produced with the total gigawatts of energy demanded for the whole month. Sometimes, that demand didn't coincide with the time that the renewables were producing, so natural gas and coal plants had to be used. Still, according to the Portuguese Renewable Energy Association (APREN), the day with the least amount of renewable consumption (March 7) still had enough to meet 86 percent of Portugal's demand through renewable energy. On the other extreme, Portugal's renewable energy sector produced 143 percent of its demand on March 11. In fact, Portugal's electricity consumption was met fully by renewable energy for a 70-hour period beginning on March 9 and for a 69-hour period beginning on March 12.

Extra energy can be exported or used to pump water for Portugal's pumped storage, APREN's President of the Board, António Sá da Costa, told Ars via email. The Association confirmed that no water in the pumped storage facilities was turbined in March, so that water can be used to create more renewable energy in June or July, when hydroelectric power might run low.

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SpaceX to launch a small planet hunter for NASA on Monday

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 09:04

Enlarge / Jeff Volosin, TESS project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, holds a model of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. (credit: NASA)

The wildly successful Kepler Space Telescope was designed to observe faint stars, and monitor them for brief dips in brightness that would indicate the passage of an object—most commonly a planet. However, the Kepler telescope was only able to resolve stars only in one specific area of space, about 0.28 percent of the entire sky, so it spied few nearby exoplanets.

It is often the brighter stars that are of more interest to astronomers seeking to find exoplanets, because they are typically closer to the Sun, and therefore more readily observable with other instruments. Therefore the follow-up instrument to Kepler, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), has been designed to observe the entire sky, and optimized to find stars 30 to 100 times brighter than those Kepler could study.

After Kepler validated the search for exoplanets by finding thousands of them through careful measurements of periodically dimming stars, astronomers have confidence that TESS and its four cameras will be able to monitor the brightness of more than 200,000 stars during a two-year mission and find thousands of exoplanets. Of these, astronomers estimate that the telescope should find about 500 Earth-sized, and "Super Earth" planets, a fair number of which should be within the habitable zones of their parent stars.

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The billion-dollar question: How does the Clipper mission get to Europa?

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 08:30

Enlarge / The politics of getting to Europa are anything but straightforward. (credit: NASA)

LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE, Calif.—At one end of the conference room, four large window panes framed a view of the San Gabriel Mountains. Outside, ribbons of greenery snaked across the hills, a vestige of spring before the dry summer season descends upon Los Angeles.

Inside, deep in discussion, a dozen men and women sat around a long, oval-shaped wooden conference table. They were debating how best to send a daring mission, known as Europa Clipper, to Jupiter’s mysterious, icy moon Europa. Although hundreds of scientists and engineers were already planning and designing this spacecraft, the key decisions were being made in this room on the top floor of the administrative building at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

It will not be cheap or easy to reach Europa, which lies within the complicated gravitational tangle of Jupiter and its dozens of moons, 600 million kilometers from Earth. But the payoff, scientists feel, is potentially incalculable. Beneath Europa’s ice, perhaps just a few kilometers down in some areas, lies the most vast ocean known to humans. With abundant energy emanating from the moon’s interior into the ocean, scientists speculate life might exist—probably just microbes, but why not something krill-like, too?

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Perry seems in favor of emergency order to bail out coal, nuclear plants

Sun, 04/15/2018 - 10:00

Enlarge / US Energy Secretary Rick Perry in the East Room of the White House in 2018. (credit: Getty Images)

At a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Energy Secretary Rick Perry expressed his willingness to help coal and nuclear plants out with an emergency order similar to one requested by energy firm FirstEnergy earlier this month.

Two weeks ago, FirstEnergy asked the Department of Energy (DOE) to invoke Section 202(c), which allows the department to order certain US power plants to keep running during wartime or during a natural disaster. The energy firm then filed for bankruptcy a few days later.

There has been skepticism within the DOE that Section 202(c) should be used for any purpose other than a disaster. But at Thursday's hearing, Perry seemed to play up the dire state of the American grid throughout his comments in front of the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy, where he took questions from representatives about the Trump administration's budget request for 2019.

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We’ve found the cells norovirus targets—we just don’t know what they do

Sat, 04/14/2018 - 10:30

Enlarge / It's never a good day to be a lab mouse. (credit: Getty | Portland Press Herald )

Norovirus inflames the stomach and/or intestines and causes pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. It is super contagious and kills tens of thousands of people each year. But until now, we did not even know which cells it targets to create all this havoc. A recent study by a public-private consortium working in universities and Genetech has just discovered the elusive cell type (in mice): they're called tuft cells, and they reside in the ilium and colon.

Obviously, norovirus attacks intestinal epithelial cells, the specialized cells that line tubes within the body. But last year, the same group reported that noroviruses would infect only a rare subset of them and not most of their neighbors. But the researchers could not discern what made these select cells so special.

They knew that norovirus used a particular receptor to infect cells and that this receptor is both necessary and sufficient for infection. Oddly, the receptor is an immunoregulator thought to be expressed by blood-forming cells, specifically immune progenitor cells in the bone marrow. These could make their way to the intestines once they mature. But mice that got bone marrow transplants that lacked this receptor were still susceptible to norovirus infection, so that's clearly not the case.

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A different kind of regret: Trying White Castle’s new Impossible Slider

Fri, 04/13/2018 - 14:22

Eric Bangeman

White Castle is known for a lot of things, but serving delicious and nutritious food is not one of them. But when word made it to the Orbiting HQ that the oldest fast food chain in the United States was now dishing up Impossible Burgers, we decided we needed to investigate.

The White Castle-Impossible Burger partnership is an unlikely one, to be sure. The former is perhaps best known for being the last step in finalizing a massive hangover as well as the intended destination of a hungry duo seeking late-night sustenance. The latter is a plant-based burger that "bleeds," sears, and even purports to taste like a beef-based burger. Earlier this year, a few of my colleagues ventured out to a DC-area burger joint to taste-test the Impossible Burger. The reviews were mixed, with the highest praise coming from Tim Lee, who called it a "convincing imitation" of the real thing.

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A physical constant’s value shouldn’t depend on how you measure it

Fri, 04/13/2018 - 11:33

Enlarge / Some of the equipment (and a team member) that made this new work possible. (credit: Holger Müller lab)

Measurements in physics are funny things. You'd hope that attempts to quantify some of the fundamental properties of the Universe would follow a simple pattern: they'd start with large error bars, but, over time, measuring technology improves and the error bars shrink. Ideally, the value would then remain nicely within the previous error.

It almost never really works like that. In many cases, measurements cluster together for a while before a new set makes a leap to somewhere else, outside the error bounds. And, even as technology improves, some sets of error bars stubbornly refuse to overlap. A new paper out this week indicates that this is the case with the Fine Structure Constant, which describes the strength of the electromagnetic force. But instead of chalking it up to the vagaries of measurement, the researchers suggest that the difference could be real—and it tells us something about what physics might lie beyond the Standard Model.

Mighty fine

The Fine Structure Constant is a measure of electromagnetic force, and that force shows up in a large number of phenomena. This means there are plenty of ways to do measurements that tell us something about the value of the Fine Structure Constant. When it comes to high-precision measurements, researchers have come up with two different ways of doing it. The first relies on particle physics and direct measurements of the magnetic properties of the electron. The second has been to study how atoms interact with light.

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NASA may fly crew into deep space sooner, but there’s a price

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 20:19

Enlarge / Various configurations of the SLS rocket. (credit: NASA)

NASA will likely launch its first astronauts into deep space since the Apollo program on a less powerful version of its Space Launch System rocket than originally planned. Although it has not been officially announced, in recent weeks mission planners at the space agency have begun designing "Exploration Mission 2" to be launched on the Block 1 version of the SLS rocket, which has the capability to lift 70 tons to low Earth orbit.

On Thursday, during a Congressional hearing, the agency's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, confirmed that NASA is seriously considering launching humans to the Moon on the Block 1 SLS. "We'll change the mission profile if we fly humans and we use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), because we can't do what we could do if we have the Exploration Upper Stage," Lightfoot said.

The key difference between the original configuration of the SLS rocket—which NASA has spent more than $10 billion developing since 2011—and its successor is the upper stage that sits atop the booster. Under current plans, the weaker upper stage, known as the ICPS, was to fly only once—on the maiden flight of the SLS rocket in 2020. Then, NASA was to switch to a new, much more powerful second stage that would increase the SLS rocket's overall performance by about 50 percent.

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“Is curing patients a sustainable business model?” Goldman Sachs analysts ask

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 17:45

Enlarge / The Goldman Sachs bank logo is seen reflected on the screen of a mobile phone in this photo illustration on November 15, 2017. (credit: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

One-shot cures for diseases are not great for business—more specifically, they’re bad for longterm profits—Goldman Sachs analysts noted in an April 10 report for biotech clients, first reported by CNBC.

The investment banks’ report, titled “The Genome Revolution,” asks clients the touchy question: “Is curing patients a sustainable business model?” The answer is “no,” according to follow-up information provided.

Analyst Salveen Richter and colleagues laid it out:

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Kubrick and Clarke reunited as mountains on Pluto’s moon Charon

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 14:02

Enlarge / That's Kubrick Mons to you, sir! (credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

On Wednesday, the International Astronomical Union officially announced the names of features on Pluto's moon Charon. The features were revealed when the New Horizons probe shot past Pluto and its five moons, and the names were provided by the public. While astronomers working on the New Horizons data had been using the monikers provisionally, the IAU's announcement makes them formal designations that will be used in all scientific publications about Charon.

While four of Pluto's moons are so small that New Horizons captured them as pixellated blobs, Charon is quite different. And, while all moons and their planets orbit a common center of gravity, usually the size difference is large enough that the center of gravity resides inside the planet. The Pluto-Charon system is the big exception, as the size difference between the two is small enough that Pluto orbits a point that's located outside the dwarf planet's radius. That makes Charon one of the largest bodies among the icy worlds of the Kuiper Belt, and it's the second largest body we've gotten a detailed look at.

While Charon doesn't seem to be as dynamic as Pluto, it does have many notable features, including large peaks, deep canyons, and massive craters, as well as a dusting of material that has evaporated off Pluto. In 2015, the public was invited to give these names; the New Horizons team informally adopted a number of suggestions, and the IAU has made them official. The theme of the names centers around travel and exploration, often (but not always) with a connection to the underworld or the deeps.

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Polynesians may not have gone grocery shopping in South America

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 12:59

Enlarge / Sweet potatoes growing in a field. (credit: Robert Scotland)

Sweet potatoes are a staple food crop in most of the world today, but they're also a bit of an enigma. We don't know for sure how or when they evolved from their closest wild relatives or whether humans were involved. A new genetic study answers some of those burning questions about the sweet potato's past, and, in the process, it casts some doubt on a popular idea about pre-Columbian sea travel between the Americas and the islands of Polynesia.

Pre-Columbian cultural exchange?

A few tantalizing threads of evidence have emerged over the years to suggest that the people of the Polynesian Islands and the people of the Americas could have maintained at least sporadic contact with each other long before Europeans arrived in either place. None of that evidence has stood up to much scrutiny, though—except for one fact: sweet potatoes, a crop native to Central and South America, had already firmly taken root in the islands of Polynesia by the time Europeans arrived. It seemed logical that someone must have carried them across the Pacific.

But a new study says sweet potatoes actually reached the islands long before there were even people in the Americas—at least 111,500 years ago, and possibly even earlier.

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Inflammation is bad, including for those in the womb

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 10:42

Enlarge (credit: Getty | John Greim)

It is fairly common knowledge that the uterine environment affects fetal development; if you don’t believe that, you have clearly never tried to order a coffee or have a sip of wine in public while pregnant. It's enough to elicit dirty looks and even nasty reprimands from complete strangers.

But it's not just chemicals. Historical analyses indicate that waves of neurodevelopmental disorders occur after viral and bacterial pandemics. Studies in mice suggest that it is maternal inflammation, rather than a direct infection, that elicits these disorders; when pregnant mice are given proinflammatory molecules without any infectious agent, their pups exhibit altered behaviors. But the implications for human health haven't been clear.

Now, a team has some evidence of a direct connection between inflammation in humans and changes in their offspring.

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Rocket Lab is about to win the small satellite launch space race

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 10:27

Enlarge / In January, Rocket Lab reached orbit for the first time with the second launch of its Electron vehicle. (credit: Rocket Lab)

Life is pretty good for Rocket Lab and its founder Peter Beck right now. With two test flights of its Electron rocket completed in the last 10.5 months, the company says it will move into commercial operations later this month. The 14-day launch window for the "It's Business Time" mission, carrying two private payloads, opens on April 20.

In an interview, Beck said Rocket Lab hopes to fly eight missions in 2018 and reach a monthly launch cadence by the end of the year. The company's initial test flight in May 2017 failed to reach orbit, but a second flight in January of this year was almost entirely successful. Rocket Lab will become the first of a number of small-satellite launch companies to begin serving customers.

As a result of that January test flight, Beck said customers have responded. "Over the years, companies in this market have come and gone, and at some point in time, customers said, 'show me when it works,'" Beck said. "Now we have proof that it works. Since January, the sales team has just been going flat out. It’s fairly obvious when you have a pent-up market, and you have a solution, life becomes good."

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A crummy drop-down menu appeared to kill dozens of mothers in Texas

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 07:30

Enlarge / Mother with newborn. (credit: Getty | Tim Clayton)

In the US, the rate of women dying from pregnancy and childbirth is higher than in any other developed country—much, much higher. And we’re bucking the global trend of improving the situation. While the rest of the world largely saw its maternal mortality rates drop by more than a third between 2000 and 2015, the US was one of the few countries that seemed to experience increases in the rate of women dying from pregnancy-related causes.

The state of maternal health in the US is so grim that researchers can’t even get quality data on the deaths. In fact, the country has not published an official maternal mortality rate since 2007 due to the lack of accurate data from individual states. In 2016, a group of researchers didn’t mince words about the situation: “It is an international embarrassment that the United States, since 2007, has not been able to provide a national maternal mortality rate to international data repositories,” the researchers concluded in a study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Now, a new study in the same journal goes further to highlight just how bad the state of maternal health data is in the US. The study links a dramatic rise in maternal deaths in Texas to errors from a poorly designed drop-down menu in the state’s electronic death records system. While the discovery drags down the state’s stratospheric maternal mortality rate, the corrected numbers are still extremely high for a developed country. Moreover, having to make these types of corrections squanders precious resources, experts note.

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Three years of staring lets scientists capture a neutron star “glitch”

Wed, 04/11/2018 - 15:42

The Vela pulsar, as imaged by the Chandra X-ray telescope. (credit: NASA/CXC/University of Toronto/M. Durant, et al.)

Neutron stars are the most dense form of matter in our Universe (black holes cram more stuff into a smaller space, and it's not clear if that stuff is still "matter"). A neutron star is produced by the collapse of a stellar core, which crams a bit more mass than our Sun into a sphere about 20 kilometers across.

At this density, matter does strange things. Models based on theoretical considerations suggest that there's a distinct "crust" that sits atop a superfluid of subatomic particles, but it's not like we can visit one and confirm this. Now, researchers have done the next-best thing: they've arranged for a telescope to stare at a neutron star for three years, waiting for it to undergo a "glitch" in its normal behavior. The results give us one of our first direct tests of competing models for what's beneath the surface of a neutron star.

The glitch

While a neutron star is composed primarily of neutrons (duh!), there are also protons present in its interior. All the particles there form a superfluid, which can flow without any friction. The flow of these charged particles inside the star can create an intense magnetic field, one that can accelerate charged particles near the star and cause them to emit photons. The rapid rotation of the star means that these jets of charged particles sweep a large area of space with the photons they produce. On Earth, we see this as a flash of light appearing from the same source many times a second—a pulsar. The pulses of photons that give these stars their name arrive with such regularity that we've used them as an extremely precise test of relativity.

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Australian Energy Market Operator likes its new Tesla battery quite a bit

Wed, 04/11/2018 - 12:45

Enlarge / ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 29: Tesla Powerpack batteries during Tesla Powerpack Launch Event at Hornsdale Wind Farm on September 29, 2017 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

Last week, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released an initial report (PDF) on the performance of the 129MWh Hornsdale battery system that was installed by Tesla last November. It seems the market operator is pleased with the new battery, writing that the service provided by the battery system "is both rapid and precise, compared to the service typically provided by a conventional synchronous generation unit."

A conventional synchronous generation unit refers to a spinning generator, like a coal or a natural gas plant. If there's excess demand for electricity, sometimes these generators can increase their output if there's some headroom, or grid managers can bring so-called "peaker plants" online to help meet peak demand.

But often these units need a little bit of time to start spinning at the appropriate rate. Batteries, on the other hand, have the advantage that they can start putting power on the grid right away; no need to wait for ramping up. Tesla's installation in particular can rapidly discharge 100MW for about 75 minutes. It's also charged by the wind farm that's right next door.

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