I found this great image of the Milky Way taken in the volcanic landscape of Teide National Park in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain by the talented by Juan Carlos Casado. Here, I’ve adapted it into a cylindrical panorama. To the left of the big rock you’ll see the Teide volcano under a bright waxing moon. In addition to the prominent arch of the Milky Way, you’ll see many other constellations labeled.
It never occurs in large numbers, but for once, a prominent Republican is more correct about our energy future and climate than a prominent Democrat. In an article in The Atlantic, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks at length about the future of green energy and the economic promise it brings to his state and his nation. A few relevant quotes:
“We established the 25 million-acre Sierra Nevada Conservancy and preserved hundreds of thousands of additional acres up and down our state. But as I said three years ago in a speech at Yale University, if we can’t put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where we can put them. In other words, we need to worry less about a few dozen desert tortoises and more about the economic prosperity, security and health of our nation.”
“For most Americans, the biggest problem facing our nation right now is the economy and jobs. People are worried about the future. About whether their children will live in a nation that falls behind China and other rapidly growing economies. From my experience in California, it is absolutely clear that a green economy is the way to keep Americans competitive abroad while providing economic growth and jobs at home. Green jobs are the largest source of employment growth in California, with green tech jobs growing 10 times faster than other sectors over the last five years.“
“We need a firm policy that spells out our commitment to renewable energy and how to get there. We need policies like those in California that have made our state 40 percent more energy efficient than the rest of the nation. We need a strong policy to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, like California’s low carbon fuel standard and our law to limit greenhouse gas emissions.”
“We have about 100,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year from petroleum-related air pollution and 6.5 million annual hospital visits by people with respiratory illnesses caused by the same thing. These deaths are far greater in number than the combined deaths from car accidents, drunk drivers, gang wars, suicides or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
It’s nice to see Mr. Freeze taking a stand on global warming, even if he did capitulate to the skeptics by arguing, “Let’s face it, if we haven’t convinced the skeptics by now, we aren’t going to.”
On the other hand, Virginia Democrat, Sen. Jim Webb, issued a press release writing that we should loosen the EPA’s regulation of carbon. Here are some excerpts:
“Like Senator McConnell, I have expressed deep reservations about the consequences of unilateral regulation of greenhouse gases by the EPA. In my view, this will result in long and expensive regulatory processes that could lead to overly stringent and very costly controls on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.”
“I am not convinced that the Clean Air Act was ever intended to regulate – or to classify as a dangerous pollutant – something as basic and ubiquitous in our atmosphere as carbon dioxide.“
“We should…incentivize factory owners, manufacturers, and consumers to become more energy efficient, and fund research and development for technologies that will enable the safe and clean use of this country’s vast fossil fuel and other resources.”
The major disconnect in the Senator’s argument is the conflation of “clean use of this country’s vast fossil fuel…resources” and “something as basic and ubiquitous in our atmosphere as carbon dioxide.” Under present circumstances the two cannot coexist. This failure to connect these two critical points explains why he is so worried about “costly controls” now without considering the much greater long-term costs due to environmental degradation, climate change, and ceding the clean energy market to China and Germany.
As one final point, the Senator is wrong about his interpretation of the Clean Air Act. Nobody contends that the Act grants the EPA the ability to regulate pollutants. Contention emerges on whether carbon dioxide qualifies as a pollutant. To quote the Act itself:
“The Administrator shall periodically review the list established…,adding pollutants which present, or may present,…adverse environmental effects whether through ambient concentrations, bioaccumulation, deposition, or otherwise.”
Given that this establishes what may be defined as a pollutant, I believe it is clear that extreme amounts of carbon dioxide meets the required standard.
Last summer I visited Texas wine country, making a stop at Dry Comal Creek Winery midway between San Antonio and Austin, TX. Like most wineries, they provide enough free samples to erode one’s inhibitions for making unnecessary purchases. I succumbed, but smartly, buying a really cute pair of hand-blown rainbow polka-dotted wine glasses with three colored bands along the bottom of the stem. In appreciation of my presence the proprietors handed me a tiny slip of paper (13.5 by 11cm) containing the following two recipes which I now share. Feel free to substitute particular brands to taste:
David’s Sangria-Off Champion Recipe
1-12 oz can of frozen limeade concentrate
1-12ox can of orange juice concentrate
1 bottle Dry Comal Creek Foot Pressed Wine 2 liters of H.E.B. Grapefruit Soda (found at H.E.B.)
Mix together first 3 ingredients and place in freezer until slushy. Add 2 liters of grapefruit soda.
Franklin’s Cheap Sangria
1-6oz frozen concentrate limeade mixed with one can of water
1-6oz frozen concentrate orange juice mixed with one can of water
1 liter Hill Country Fair Grapefruit Soda, well chilled (found at H.E.B.) (or 1/3 of a 3 liter bottle)
1 bottle Dry Comal Creek Foot Pressed Red Wine (add another bottle of wine should you desire more wine taste)
Blend limeade and orange juice concentrate with water. Add Foot Pressed Red wine. Add chilled grapefruit soda and put in freezer until slushy, serve slushy. Garnish with orange and lemon slices.
In yesterday’s post, I referenced the view of IEEE’s Alan Rotz that state governments pose a greater roadblock to smart grid adoption than the federal government. While it may sometimes appear that progressive energy policy in Washington is occurring at a glacial pace, a new national directive toward clean and efficient energy means that some gains are being made. The Obama administration is investing $3.4 billion of federal money for smart grid technologies and even dedicated a speech in 2009 to celebrate the initiative.
Progress in state governments, however, has been uneven. The major problem cited by GE’s Mr. McDonald is the current state of CVR (Conservation Voltage Regulation), which deals with the voltage level that enters the home. Since the 1950’s, the standard has been that homes receive an average voltage around 120V with about 10V of leeway. Problems can occur if this voltage drops below a lower threshold, so to keep these at bay utilities have simply opted to increase the average voltage throughout the system.
However, this “safety” feature comes at a premium. Artificially high voltage levels can lower efficiency resulting in energy losses of 2-3%. A lower baseline is preferable but increases the risk that a perturbation could drive voltages below the minimum threshold. Voltage regulators downstream can boost losses by engaging in “voltage control”, but smart grid technologies are needed to know when and if these problems occur.
Complicating matters further, state governments have differing standards on energy efficiency. A handful of states have required utilities to save energy by lowering their voltage levels. The resulting lower demand costs utilities money, so states step in to financially compensate them for their losses. That there is no uniform standard between state governments makes regulatory and technical implementation considerably more difficult.
Ultimately, the federal government has begun to do its part. The United States Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) in 2007 put the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in charge of standardizing systems to ensure interoperability. In other words, all the houses on the block need to be on the same page if the smart grid is going to work effectively. Some state governments have made positive strides, but in Mr. Rotz’s estimation they have much further to go. Their relative sovereignty aside, cooperation among states would go a long way towards a smart result.
I asked former IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) President Alan Rotz, who recently retired from a 40 year career at PPL Electric Utilities, about his views on the future of energy and whether government should play a part. Mr. Rotz echoed the comments heard from many other experts: it’s a big problem and there’s no silver bullet. Only through a diversified portfolio of energy solutions can we “make the math work out” and deliver the required amount of power to the country. Disappointing as it is to those concerned about climate change, coal must play a part in the transition to sustainable energy. This makes research into carbon sequestration and carbon scrubbing incredibly important. He also sees some potential in biofuels provided land and waste management issues are addressed.
Mr. Rotz foresees two other important developments. First, he projects that the price of natural gas will continue to rise opening the market for alternatives. He noted anecdotally that his own daughter, whose heat was generated by natural gas, was paying approximately 70% more than owners of comparable homes heated by electricity. Second, he offered that as in France, nuclear energy would have to play a much larger role than it does now, though to do so, government reform is needed. He related that nuclear facilities are required to pay the federal government one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour generated to fund a seemingly doomed national nuclear waste depository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Politics has driven Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to fight the placement of radioactive waste in his home (and notably a swing) state, meaning not only have funds been reallocated to other purposes, but existing nuclear facilities must pay again to store the nuclear waste they do posses. Approximately $1 billion of fund money has been returned to utilities, but with no alternative nuclear storage plans on the table, examples like these highlight the need for a comprehensive federal energy policy.
Tomorrow, I will conclude this six-part series with Mr. Rotz’s take on the bigger problem in his eyes, state governments, and the issue of Conservation Voltage Regulation (CVR).
According to John McDonald, the Director of Technical Strategy & Policy Development at GE, there are six main smart grid solutions he would like to see employed:
1. Asset optimization
Protect what you’ve got. The electric grid is a vast, complicated system which currently does a poor job of relaying information back to the utility provider. The ability to asses the state of elements within the grid enables the system to run as smoothly as possible. One such example of asset optimization is dealing with transformers. The average lifetime of a transformer is 42 years, but when they die they go out kicking and screaming. A failing transformer will not only leak oil (requiring costly clean up) but it can explode, sending shrapnel through a substation and damaging other equipment. Having eyes and ears all along the network can head off problems like this before they start.
2. Smart meters & communication
Smart meters installed in homes, businesses and industry will be able to send and receive information from the electric provider. Consumers gain access to the cost of electricity and can program their appliances to be more economically efficient. These meters send usage information back to the grid and cede a certain level of control to the utility to keep the system free of rolling black outs and/or brown outs.
3. Demand optimization
A corollary to smart meters & communication, demand optimization is the ability for an electric utility to control how much power it releases into its distribution area. At times of peak usage, utilities may cycle certain appliances on and off to retain the fidelity of the system while causing minimal discomfort to its customers. As global climate change increases temperatures and prolongs grid-threatening heat waves, this type of cycling will become indispensable.
4. Transmission optimization
Important technical facets of transmission can lead to efficiency gains. One example is ensuring the relationship between voltage and current (i.e. the phase angle) becomes more accurate than it is today.
5. Distribution optimization
Handle supply variability (e.g. from renewable energy sources) by introducing technologies that can predict energy availability (i.e. wind speed and cloud cover forecasts) and store excess energy intelligently to be released at period of low energy production. Distribution may be optimized in other ways as well, such as introducing more sophisticated fault detection.
6. Workforce & engineering optimization
Regardless of how smart the grid becomes, utilities still need to send technicians into the field to respond to problems. Two-way communication between homes and utilities offers more sophisticated information about the nature (and existence) of problems before technicians arrive on the scene. This can lead to more timely responses with technicians carrying more appropriate equipment, less time will be spent on service calls, and fewer trucks will be on the road. Ultimately, the tangential costs of energy will decrease.
Tomorrow, I will continue my series of posts on the smart grid by relating a conversation I had with PPL Electric Utilities’ Alan Rotz on the topics of future sources of energy and key federal governance challenges to resolving our national energy crisis.
If you thought deeply about yesterday’s post you may have been left wondering, “What kind of changes need to be made in my house to establish two-way communication with my electric company? Certainly, there’s way they could know which outlet my air conditioner is plugged into.” There are a couple of resolutions to this issue.
The first is that in the future new appliances will come with smart grid technology built right into them. But if you’re like me, you probably don’t want to re-outfit your entire house at the drop of a dime. A second option, and one which is certainly more reasonable in the short term, is the less onerous installation of devices which plug into power outlets and communicate with the house itself through wireless technology. In the same way that your computer knows which internet network you’re connected to, a home control box would know which outlet each appliance is connected to. Communication of this variety can occur through a wireless standard known as ZigBee or possibly through low-cost Wi-Fi, provided it doesn’t become an energy hog itself.
This two-way communication isn’t all about granting power to the utilities, though. Your electric provider will also send information to your home about the cost of electricity at every point in time. If the price becomes too high, you can tell certain devices to modify their behavior. For example, suppose you throw a batch of wet clothes into the dryer. You can set the dryer to only introduce heat if the cost of electricity falls below a certain point. Otherwise, it can transition to tumble dry low or just fluff. For the budget conscious, this transfer of information provides a level of control non-existent through our current grid.
These benefits can be even more pronounced with heavy-duty items like electric cars. You might have occasionally heard the phrase “charge your car at night” since that’s when prices are lowest. But it’s not unreasonable to expect that owners might be willing to pay a higher premium to get the car charged sooner, provided the costs don’t climb too high. Shifting charging features on and off as a function of time can keep costs down and remove the need for owners to be constantly vigilant of the cost of electricity. GE estimates that these smart grid changes will be able to save consumers 15% to 20% on average on their electric bills even with very basic systems. These monetary savings clearly correlate with an overall increase in energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions.
Tomorrow I will introduce the 6 main smart grid solutions as seen through the eyes GE’s John McDonald.
Yesterday I introduced the concept of an intelligent, smart electricity grid and discussed how it handles transient sources of renewable energy like solar and wind. However, the benefits of a smart grid extend far beyond simply providing a smooth, consistent power supply. New smart grid features in homes, business, and industries can establish a communications link with utilities which offers a number of benefits.
Some might be surprised to learn that the vast majority of electricity providers have little idea what’s happening at the point of delivery (e.g. your house). For example, the only way your utility provider knows that you have a power outage is if you pick up the phone and call them. Conversely, should your city start using power en masse, perhaps by running air conditioners during a heat wave, the utilities have no way of communicating with homes and businesses to enact small changes that keep the system from overloading. Residents of Texas and California (as well as many developing nations) are certainly familiar with the rolling blackouts caused when providers reach a saturation point.
The smart grid’s solution to these deficiencies is two-way communication. New monitors installed in homes and businesses will be able to measure their power usage at any time and, through communication with the utility, provide the cost per kWh. If electricity generation at the power plant fails to keep pace with demand, blackouts and brown outs can be avoided with a carefully orchestrated, limited power cycling. This means, for instance, that during a hot summer day the utility may divide its service area into 4 zones. For 7.5 minutes out of every 30, the utility will power down specific appliances like air conditioners, water heaters, and pool pumps. Typically, this is too short a period of time to notice any significant temperature gradient. Then, after 7.5 minutes is up, the utility moves on to zone 2 and the cycle continues.
As the smart grid gently spreads out these power-downs, the overall system retains fidelity by conserving up to 25% of electricity during peak periods. Consumers could potentially save a quarter of their energy costs at times when it is most expensive and can usually do so with minimal change in comfort. Ultimately, though, consumers would retain the freedom to choose which devices are allowed to shut down and when. If you’re hosting a dinner party with your boss, for example, and a slightly warmer dining room just won’t do, you can always overload the controls.
Tomorrow, I will continue to describe how consumer-end smart grid technologies can save users money.
Wednesday night at Johns Hopkins University I attended a talk entitled “The ‘Smarter’ Grid: Concepts, Standards and Recent Developments.” Smart electrical grids are being designed to replace our current “dumb” grid with an infrastructure that is more efficient, more secure and more flexible in all phases, as put by John McDonald, the Director of Technical Strategy & Policy Development at GE, “from turbine to toaster”.
The turbine, or the source of energy, is evolving. Coal plants are ceding market share to wind and solar facilities. Generating renewable power from sources like these serves a great security benefit as geographically distributed wind turbines and solar cells are less prone to catastrophic disruptions like a natural disaster or terrorist attack. However, their energy generation is variable. When skies go dark or the wind dies down, the power stops. The electrical grid of 20 years ago never had to worry about these types of disruptions, but smart grids can do something called “load shifting” where energy is stored during periods of high production and released in times of low production to smooth out fluctuations.
The smart grid system is designed to do much more that that, though. At its heart is a philosophy of “intelligence.” The thought is that the more information our electricity infrastructure produces and the more control we give it to tweak inputs and outputs at all stages, the more effective the entire network will be. This intelligence is created through “enterprise data”, knowledge about the entire energy enterprise from accurate geographical maps of energy usage and bandwidth data to its relationship to an energy user’s personal computer.
Tomorrow, I will write about how the smart grid can be installed at the user-end and how this change can provide significant consumer savings.