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Geologist John Hartley at the entrance to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada. | Location: Yucca Mountain, Nevada, USA. May 14, 2002

Will Trump and Perry Revive Proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository?

Will Yucca Mountain rise again?

The answer may be more political than technical. And the topic of long-term nuclear waste storage is just one of dozens facing Energy Secretary-designate Rick Perry, should he be confirmed by the Senate. 

Yucca Mountain in Nevada was legally designated decades ago as the site for long-term storage of used nuclear fuel from domestic U.S. reactors.

Despite its desert location some 160 kilometers northwest of Las Vegas, the 400-meter-high dormant caldera volcano ranks as one of the most studied pieces of geology on earth. Technical and environmental studies basically conclude that the site is suitable to store used nuclear fuel for 1 million years.

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workers looking at solar panels

For U.S. Jobs Creation, Renewables Are a Better Bet Than Coal

For jobs creation, the new Trump administration would do well to take a fresh look at clean energy rather than focusing only on fossil fuels. The solar power sector employed twice as many workers in 2016 than power generation from coal, gas and oil combined, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report on employment in energy and energy efficiency.

The solar workforce was about 374,000-strong, making up around 43% of the total employees in the power generation field. Wind power employed 101,738 workers, an increase of 25%. Coal, gas and oil-fired generation together accounted for just over 187,000 jobs, or 22% of the workforce.

A majority of fossil fuel energy jobs are in mining and extraction rather than power generation, but these jobs are declining. Coal mining reached its peak employment in 2012, and now employs around 53,000. Oil and gas extraction jobs reached a peak in 2014 with 541,000 jobs, and in mid-2016 had 388,000 workers.

According to a report from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) solar jobs are growing at a rate 12 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy. Plus they are “generating more jobs per dollar invested–more than double the jobs created from investing in fossil fuels.” What’s more, many of these renewable energy and energy efficiency jobs are local, pay well, and can be found in any state, says Liz Delaney, a program director at EDF.

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What can a roadmap of Boston tell you about its potential to produce solar power?

City Solar Power Potential and Road Network Size Linked

Scientists could estimate a city's solar power potential by analyzing the size of its road network, a new study finds.

Inspired by studies on the relationships between blood vessel networks and a body's size and metabolic rates, study author Sara Najem, a physicist at Lebanon's National Center for Remote Sensing in Beirut, investigated what connections might exist between different elements of a city's infrastructure, such as its road network and its solar potential. "I am always seeking to draw analogies between living systems and cities," Najem says. Najem will detail her findings in the journal Physical Review E. 

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photograph of rooftop solar installation

Will Rooftop Solar Really Add to Utility Costs?

graphic link to the landing page for The Full Cost of Electricity

Regulations in most states obligate utilities to derive some of their electricity generating capacity from renewable sources. Unsurprisingly, the most widely available options—wind and solar—dominate. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that by 2050, solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation will contribute 16 percent of the world’s electricity, and 20 percent of that capacity will come from residential installations.

By offering local generation, residential or rooftop PV reduces the need for transmission facilities to move power from large generating stations to distribution substations. But the effect on the distribution grid is less straightforward. The conventional distribution grid is designed for neither two-way power flow nor large generation capacity. So the prevailing thought is that the grid will need a costly upgrade to accommodate the high PV penetration. Our study within the Full Cost of Electricity (FCe-) program aims to estimate the cost of maximizing residential PV capacity without any grid impacts. The bottom line? We found that even without hardware upgrades to the distribution circuits, such circuits can handle significant solar generation.

We looked at it three ways: Allowing the largest PV generation

  1. without making operational changes to the circuit or upgrading the infrastructure;
  2. with a few modest operational changes in the equipment already installed; and
  3. with additional infrastructure upgrades such as smart inverters and energy storage.

(Note that accommodating the first two capacities does not require any integration costs, beyond some minimal cost associated with the operational changes in the existing devices.)

Depending on a distribution circuit’s characteristics, the maximum PV capacities it can handle range from as low as 15.5 percent of the median value of the daytime peak load demand (2.6 megawatts in one particular circuit) to more than 100 percent (3.87 MW in another circuit). These results suggest that significant rooftop PV generation can be integrated in the grid with little or no additional cost to utilities and their customers and without causing any adverse grid impacts. In fact, our study shows that at such levels, impacts due to PV generation are either nonexistent or can be addressed by appropriate circuit operational changes.

In one example, an operational change was able to boost photovoltaic capacity from 15 percent to 47 percent. The PV hosting capacity of the circuit in that same example can be boosted from 47 percent to 80 percent if as many as one-third of the photovoltaic installations include smart inverter technologies.

Although adding energy storage would also increase hosting capacity, we find that the cost of energy storage systems would be significant, and so it is unjustifiable if the sole purpose is to increase PV penetration.

For details of which circuit characteristics affect photovoltaic capacity, as well as other calculations, read the complete white paper “Integrating Photovoltaic Generation” [PDF], part of the Full Cost of Electricity Study conducted by the University of Texas Austin Energy Institute. (IEEE Spectrum is posting blogs from the UT researchers and linking to the white papers as they are released.)

Suma Jothibasu is a graduate student and Surya Santoso directs the Laboratory for Advanced Studies in Electric Power and Integration of Renewable Energy Systems within the Department of Electrical Engineering, Cockrell School of Engineering, at the University of Texas Austin.

LCOE map produced by UT Austin

How Does Geography Figure Into the Full Cost of Electricity?

graphic link to the landing page for The Full Cost of Electricity

Not all power plants are the same. They certainly don’t cost the same to build or operate. But what if I told you that one number, dubbed the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE), puts it all into black and white for decision makers: This plant’s electricity is cheaper than that one’s, or it isn’t.

LCOE is the estimated amount of money that it takes for a particular power plant to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity over its expected lifetime and is typically expressed as cents per kilowatt-hour or dollars per megawatt-hour.

LCOE makes it easy to decide which plant to build if you’re a utility or a governing agency. Except that LCOE misses a few important location-based factors, such as fuel delivery costs, construction costs, capacity factors, utility rates, financing terms, and other geographically distinct items that contribute to the cost of a kilowatt-hour.

Despite these shortcomings, LCOE has become the de facto standard for cost comparisons among the general public, policymakers, analysts, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders. One number is readily understood, easily bandied about, and even more easily compared to any other number.

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Photograph of Edison bulbs

Calculating the Full Cost of Electricity—Know Your History

graphic link to the landing page for The Full Cost of Electricity

For decades, scale economies associated with large, centralized, electricity generation technologies encouraged vertical integration. It also drove down the cost of electricity, fostered universal access, and provided for reliable electric service delivered by a single utility in a given region. That practice gave us the now traditional, vertically integrated, electric utility model.

diagram of linear electricity flow from utility to consumer in traditional utility model
Illustration: UT Austin/IEEE Spectrum
This simple diagram depicts an example of the traditional one-way structure of the vertically integrated utility business model. Electricity flows one-way: from utility to consumer.

From its beginning, the U.S. electricity industry emerged as a function of technological advancements, economies of scale, effective financial and regulatory structures that fostered capital investment, and new electric-powered loads. Over the course of a century, there have been successive waves of change in generation, transmission, distribution, market design, and industry regulation. While we expect electricity to continue to be an essential public good, and large-scale, centrally generated electricity to continue to be essential, we also expect traditional utility business and regulatory models to experience enormous stress for three primary reasons.

First, consider the continued development of more cost-competitive and lower-emission centralized generation such as wind farms, utility-scale solar, and natural gas–fired combined-cycle power plants. Traditional thermal generation technologies such as coal and nuclear are being challenged by new generating technologies that are more efficient, flexible (ramping), and modular (scalable). These newer technologies also offer lower emissions, shorter development times (two years for a solar farm versus 10+ years for nuclear plant), and potentially little to no fuel costs (free wind and sun).

Add in advancements in distributed energy resources (DERs) such as photovoltaic (PV) generation and storage.

Last but not least, changes in load patterns from energy efficiency, demand response, and customer self-generation add stress to generating and delivery resources owned and operated by traditional utilities.

This last item—self-generation—is potentially the biggest threat, as it goes against both the traditional utility business model, as well as the competitive market structure as it exists today. The good news? There are are many new alternative combinations of markets, regulations, and technologies possible (illustrated below). The Full Cost of Electricity (FCe-) study coordinated by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin explores them in its myriad white papers. (IEEE Spectrum is posting blogs from the UT researchers and linking to the white papers as they are released.)

21st century electricity systems have the potential for multiple pathways for money and electricity flow back and forth between consumer and utility.
Illustration: UT Austin/IEEE Spectrum

The transition to a new electricity system structure can be complex. Like all transitions, it can introduce considerable uncertainty into an industry that has traditionally eschewed change, remained fairly stable, and clung to long-held incentives to be conservative so that it can meet its obligation to serve the public good.

These and other technological changes will continue to encourage the industry to adopt new technology and business models, spur policy makers to consider alternative regulatory and electricity market structures, and make electricity customers interested in pursuing self-generation that competes with traditional utilities in ways that may further destabilize the existing order.

The FCe-: History and Evolution of the U.S. Electricity Industry white paper [PDF] describes many of the most important, interrelated, and changing technoeconomic, finance, and policy factors that have affected the electric grid over the past century. If history is any guide, they will likely continue to influence the evolution of electric service and the grid this century.

David P. Tuttle is a research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute.

Huge grey pipe on supports winds its way between two parts of the Petra Nova carbon capture facility in Houston

New Projects Show Carbon Capture Is Not Dead

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has had a hard time finding love. The technology is easy to dismiss because of its expense. It’s too green for those on one extreme, too tied to fossil fuels for others, and largely misunderstood by those in the middle.

The demise of the U.S. project FutureGen and then German energy producer Vattenfall’s decision to shut down its CCS operations in 2014 was a low point for CCS. But a rash of new projects are proving the technology is surviving and—depending on the policies of the incoming Trump administration—it may even be headed for a turning point.

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Liu et al./Science Advances

Flame Retardant in Lithium-ion Batteries Could Quench Fires

A powerful flame retardant added to lithium-ion batteries that only gets released when the devices get too hot could help keep them from catching on fire, a new study finds.

When lithium-ion batteries overheat, they can burn through clothing, burst into flames and even explode. Such "thermal runaways" have led some engineers to explore the creation of lithium-ion batteries with their own fire alarms or chemical additives that can prevent short circuits.

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Illustration of lightbulb with dollar sign filament

Calculating the Full Cost of Electricity—From Power Plant to Wall Socket

graphic link to the landing page for The Full Cost of Electricity

The Full Cost of Electricity is an interdisciplinary initiative of the Energy Institute of the University of Texas to identify and quantify the full-system cost of electric power generation and delivery—from the power plant to the wall socket. Its purpose is to inform public policy discourse with comprehensive, rigorous, and impartial analysis.

The generation of electric power and the infrastructure that delivers it is in the midst of dramatic and rapid change. Since 2000, declining renewable energy costs, stringent emissions standards, competitive electricity markets, and a host of technological innovations—coupled with low-priced natural gas
post-2008—have combined to change the landscape of an industry that has remained static for decades. Heightened awareness of newfound options available to consumers has injected yet another element into the policy debate surrounding these transformative changes, moving it beyond utility boardrooms and legislative hearing rooms to everyday living rooms.

The Full Cost of Electricity (FCe-) study employs a holistic approach to thoroughly examine the key factors affecting the total direct and indirect costs of generating and delivering electricity. As an interdisciplinary project, the FCe- synthesizes the expert analysis and different perspectives of faculty across the University of Texas at Austin campus, from engineering, economics, law, and policy.

In addition to producing authoritative white papers that provide comprehensive assessment and analysis of various electric power system options, the study team developed online calculators that allow policymakers and other stakeholders, including the public, to estimate the cost implications of potential policy actions. A framework of the research initiative, and a list of research participants and project sponsors are also available on the Energy Institute website.

To introduce the FCe- study and associated white papers to our EnergyWise audience, IEEE Spectrum is posting blogs from the team from now through April as each white paper is released and hosting all of this material on a special FCe- project page. Interactive calculators and other tools developed as part of the study will be linked so that readers can do their own calculations and add to the discussion. We hope the debate is lively over the coming months. 

Carey W. King is the assistant director and a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute.

Disclaimer: All authors abide by the disclosure policies of the University of Texas at Austin. The University of Texas at Austin is committed to transparency and disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.  All UT investigators involved with this research have filed their required financial disclosure forms with the university. Through this process the university has determined that there are neither conflicts of interest nor the appearance of such conflicts.

WattTime feeds EV chargers real-time intel on a power grid's ever-shifting carbon footprint

WattTime, the Tool That Tells You When to Charge Your EV to Keep It Green

Gavin McCormick’s attendance at an EcoHack in San Francisco ultimately sidetracked his doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley, but for a clean cause: software initiated at the 2013 event has transformed the budding economist’s nascent research into a potent tool for squeezing the cleanest performance out of power grids. Real-time algorithms from WattTime, the Berkeley-based nonprofit that McCormick cofounded and runs, are telling electric vehicle owners when to charge to minimize their carbon footprints and predicting which renewable power projects will deliver the biggest CO2 emissions reductions. 

WattTime tracks swings in carbon dioxide emissions as a grid’s power supply mix shifts from minute to minute. Its intelligence, explains McCormick, comes from mining two datasets. The first is power market data. Algorithms trained on that data enable WattTime to predict what power plant will ramp up to meet new electrical demand at any moment in 106 markets across the United States. 

WattTime turns that ‘marginal’ power supply prediction into an estimate of ‘marginal’ carbon impact by plumbing an underused database from EPA’s Air Markets Program. That database contains hourly records of pollution and fuel consumption for every U.S. power plant. “It’s been around for about 40 years and no one was paying attention to it,” says McCormick.

The resulting estimate of CO2 per kilowatt-hour can be strikingly different from a grid’s average emissions intensity—the most commonly used metric for evaluating power consumption. A grid delivering 90 percent nuclear or renewable power, for example, will have very low average emissions. But WattTime can spot when such a grid is ramping up a carbon-spewing coal plant to meet additional demand, and thus has very high marginal intensity.

WattTime is partnering with manufacturers to empower consumers to make cleaner choices. For example, a line of EV chargers from San Carlos, Calif.–based Electric Motor Werks communicates with WattTime when a car is plugged into the charger and then schedules charging to deliver the greenest fill possible.

eMotorWerks claims its JuiceBox Green can cut CO2 emissions by up to 60 percent relative to conventional EV chargers. In fact, analysis by WattTime suggests that chargers designed to optimize for price, rather than emissions, can actually increase carbon emissions (see graph).

Canadian smart thermostat provider Energate, meanwhile, is looping in WattTime’s intelligence to time electric heating and air conditioning for minimum carbon emissions. A pilot of the devices is underway in Chicago. Two more partnerships are in place and “many others are kicking the tires” says McCormick, including energy storage system firm Advanced Microgrid Solutions.

These devices turn the tables on power supply, enabling consumers to essentially game the grid and help keep the highest carbon power sources from ramping up—or even from turning on in the first place. WattTime guarantees at least a 5 percent reduction in emissions. But McCormick says it can deliver up to a 100 percent reduction in some locations such as Hawaii, where curtailed solar power is often the marginal power supply.

WattTime’s next big play is targeting the installation of clean energy. Their algorithms can predict where deploying solar and wind farms to regions are likely to displace the dirtiest fossil fuelled power plants.

WattTime is already providing such advice to corporations investing in renewable power, via the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Boulder, Colo.–based energy think tank. However, McCormick says dramatically shifting investment trends will require an overhaul of carbon accounting schemes, which mostly certify carbon reductions based on grid averages. 

Within six months they hope to achieve a first breakthrough, gaining acceptance for marginal intensity accounting by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol—the leading global carbon accounting standard. McCormick says their petition is, like his nonprofit’s mission, about leveraging marginal emissions data to drive cleaner use of electricity, rather than advancing their proprietary system: “We want them to accept anyone with technology like ours.”


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