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It's a Big Grid, and Somebody Has to Furnish It

Nearly fifteen years ago, shortly after joining IEEE Spectrum magazine to cover power and energy, I attended a briefing sponsored by Schweitzer Engineering, the pioneer in substation automation. At that time Schweitzer was not yet a household word, and the digital revolution was in its infancy as far as electrical transmission and distribution systems were concerned. So it made eminent sense for Schweitzer to bring people together to show how  every device in an electrical substation could now be replaced by state-of-the-art microprocessor-based equipment. Yet when I turned to my neighbors, two relatively young engineers from New York's Con Edison, one remarked: "The electro-mechanical switches and relays that we installed in the 1920s are still working flawlessly. Why would we replace them?"

What a difference 4.5 billion dollars make. That's the amount of money the U.S. stimulus bill allocates for direct smart-grid grant-making, to support endeavors such as replacing electromechanical relays with microprocessor-based equipment. The U.S. Department of Energy reportedly has received 570 applications from utilities and energy companies for grants totaling $14.6 billion, about triple the available funds. The way DOE winnows those grants will have a big impact on the direction grid enhancement takes, and so energy officials will have to sharpen their thinking about just what the smart grid means.

The process has been taking utility mangers outside their comfort zone as well. To be sure, many or most energy companies had internal wish lists for long-term grid improvements, but to be eligible for Federal  money, they have to convince DOE that projects are "shovel-ready" and yet not something they would have done anyway, absent public funding. "It's a sweet spot that's hard to hit," commented Marc Rosson of the Snohomish County Public Utility District in Everett, Washington, speaking recently at a press panel convened by SAP, the German database and software company.

The whole business of writing applications—"essays, not multiple choice!"—was entirely new to many utilities. So it's been a risky business not only for the DOE officials but for the energy companies themselves, observed Wayne R. Longcore, director of enterprise archicture and standards with Consumers Energy, in Jackson, Mich.  Companies seeking funds have had to be careful what they wish for, because once they get money and commit themselves to procurement strategies, they'll be stuck with what they've acquired for 20 or more years.

So what are they wishing for?

Let's just focus for a moment on the consumer's premise. In the smart grid experiment being conducted by xCel Energy and partners in Boulder, Colo., participants log onto the Internet to get a display showing how their home is using energy, hour to hour. It's nice display, but how many people are going to want to go to the trouble, ideally more than once per day, to check the details of their electricity consumption?

The Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, which serves 85,000 meters in the southeastern area of Texas between Austin and Houston, has a different idea. It has contracted with Control4, a maker of home-area network control and monitoring devices, to provide a compact and semi-portable device that somewhat resembles an iPhone, as Bluebonnet's representative Elizabeth Kana put it in the SAP panel.

Britain's Energy Saving Trust, according to a recent BBC report, has concluded that such user-friendly devices will be crucial to any smart meter rollout. The British government has decreed that all the country's homes are to be equipped with smart meters by 2020, but the energy trust takes the position that the meters will only lead to modified consumer behavior if they are coupled with stand-alone home monitors. The British government agrees in principle, but it remains to be seen whether purchase of such monitors will be subsidized.

Speaking at SAP's grid-week conference in Washington, a representative of Accenture said that one thing they've learned in smart grid experiments, including a collaboration with xCel, is that "you have to make it easy for the consumer," and "you have to have incentives." Xcel hopes with its SmartGridCity to persuade regulators to provide incentives in the form of things like real-time pricing, but is it making things easy enough for the consumer?

Another somewhat disappointing aspect of the demonstration program in Boulder has been the absence of smart appliances. Yet Whirlpool announced in March that by 2015 all its home appliances will be able to talk to the grid, and General Electric soon followed with a similar announcement, notes Consumers Energy's Wayne.

The news that ten residences under construction in Abu Dubai will be equipped with smart appliances capable of chatting with the grid inspired a worried colleague to imagine this conversation:

Grid: Energy prices up.

Refrigerator: OK, raising internal temperature.

Me: Low on ice and expecting guests for dinner. Uh, does this mean I have to go to the store?

Getting communications right will be essential to the smart grid at all levels, from interactive appliances to the highest level of system monitoring and control. So it's no wonder that the really big shots--companies like Intel, IBM, Microsoft, and Cisco—all are getting into the game. Cisco's Chambers was recently quoted as saying that his smart-grid development team has "almost an unlimited budget."

North American High-Speed Train Opportunities

Bombardier Sifang, the Chinese joint venture of the big Canadian maker of high speed trains and commercial aircraft, reportedly will supply 80 of its Zefiro very high speed trains to China's Ministry of Railways. The trains will have a top speed of 380 kilometers per hour, and their development and sale positions Bombardier to challenge the world market leaders in high speed train technology, Alstom and Siemens. Alstom has marketed its famous TGV in Korea and Spain, while Siemens has sold versions of its Velaro--based on the ICE3 super-express trains used in Germany--in China and Spain.

In December, the Siemens Sapsan ("peregrine") will start service on the Moscow-St. Petersburg line in Russia. A similar Siemens train is a candidate for a high-speed corridor that could link San Francisco and Los Angeles. That would be a first for true high speed train technology in the United States, as the Acela train used in the Northeast corridor--a derivative of the TVG--has not performed at full capacity because of trackbed problems. Both Siemens and Alstom have been positioning themselves--and no doubt Bombardier is now getting into line as well--to compete for work on 11 proposed high-speed corridors in the United States.

The U.S. stimulus bill provides $13 billion in funding to develop high-speed train programs over five years.

German Solar Subsidies Are Questioned

Frank Asbeck, CEO of Solarworld AG, one of the Germany's top makers of photovoltaics, is suggesting that the country sharply reduce its generous solar subsidies. His proposition is controversial and does not appear to be widely supported among the country's other leading PV manufacturers. But it could have some resonance with Angela Merkel's conservative government, which consolidated its position notably in last week's national election. One immediate effect of that victory is likely to be reconsideration and possibly even the repeal of Germany's nuclear energy phase-out plan--Merkel has long advocated an "exit from the nuclear exit." Another could be a reduction in solar subsidies which free marketeers dislike almost by definition, and which appear now to be helping Chinese PV makers more than German.

Before the election, Germany's parliament decided to shave solar subsidies by 8-10 percent over the next three years. Asbeck has suggested cuts of about 15 percent, to be coupled with stricter quality and environmental requirements for photovoltaics exported to Germany.


BYD Owner Is China's Richest Man

Wang Chuanfu, owner of BYD, has gone from being China's 103-richest man to being first, according to a report this week in the Financial Times. BYD, besides being a major world supplier of lithium ion batteries, has got into hybrid-electric car manufacturing in a big way, and has announced its intention of becoming China's and then the world's largest car maker. The company got a big boost a year ago when Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway took a 10 percent stake in the company. (The value of that stake has gone in the meantime from $230 million to $1.7 billion, making it one of Buffett's more successful recent investments.)

The second richest person on the China list is a woman whose family owns the country's leading paper recycling and packing company, prompting comments on the prominence of green technology enterprises among the leading Chinese enterprises. However, the owners of two top solar companies--LDK Solar and Suntech--dropped out of the top ten:  


France Unveils Ambitious EV Charging Plan

The French ecology minister, flanked by the CEOs of Renault and Peugeot Citroen, announced plans this week to build the infrastructure needed to support up to 2 million electric and hybrid cars by 2020. A million battery charging points are to be deployed by 2015, in parking lots, private homes, and roadside stations; from 2012 on, all new apartment buildings with parking lots will be required to include charging stations. Some of the 1.5  billion euros allocated to the plan also will go to support R&D on batteries and advanced cars.

The plan, coming hard on the heels of President Sarkozy's carbon tax, is expected to unleash in France a "battle of the electric cars" among the nation's major manufacturers.


Iran Nuclear Fallout

About this time six years ago, I happened to find myself in the back of a Washington D.C. taxicab with Robert Einhorn, who had been in charge of nuclear non-proliferation efforts in the Clinton administration. I fished an IAEA report out of my briefcase documenting twenty years of secret Nonproliferation Treaty violations by Iran. Why, I asked Einhorn, had Iran concealed so much activity from the International Atomic Energy Agency, considering that all the activity would have been legal if Iran had just openly declared it?

"Because it's a nuclear weapons program," Einhorn said (with an air of talking to somebody who might be mentally retarded). It was as if he was echoing the famous Clinton campaign mantra, "It's the economy, stupid."

That conversation prompted me to make a trip to Vienna to visit the IEAE and write an investigative feature about Iran's program. One point made in that article: the U.S. government, having flubbed badly on alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, might now err in the opposite direction on Iran. 

Though the Obama administration is taking a very tough line on the secret Iranian facility, there are some signs our concerns may have been valid as far as the U.S. intelligence community is concerned. For several years U.S. intelligence has taken the position that Iran terminated efforts to develop a nuclear warhead design, and has not resumed them. But according to a report this week in The New York Times, Israeli intelligence believes that Iran has resumed with weapon design efforts, and German intelligence believes the Iranians never stopped such work in the first place.

France's foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, a human rights activist whose roots are in the French left, has accused the IEAE of concealing evidence of an Iranian weapons design effort.

A number of years ago, the neoconservative political scientist Robert Kagan wrote a widely noted book in which he postulated that Europeans are from Venus, Americans from Mars. But on the question of Iranian nuclear weaponization, it would appear that Europeans are more from Mars, Americans more from Venus.

German Election A Likely Reprieve for Nuclear

Germany's election this weekend could save nuclear energy's neck, at least in Europe, thanks to the decisive re-election of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Union. It may not be enough to secure the nuclear industry's troubled renaissance, as poster-child projects bog down in delays and cost overruns. But Merkel could keep Germany's reactors operating for another 15 years or so beyond the 2022 deadline set under her predecessor and erstwhile coalition partners, the Social Democrats.

"German poll gives mandate to delay nuclear phaseout" is the clarity with which Reuters presented the election's energy implications in an article yesterday. That is surprising, given the extensive coverage given by German media to a supposed upwelling of antinuclear sentiment in the weeks leading up to the election.

The revival of concerns over nuclear energy's safety were sparked by allegations of government misconduct in the planning for a controversial permanent storage site for high-level waste. Outgoing environment minister Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, leaked documents suggesting that Merkel's predecessors had tried to cover up the potential that radioactivity from the site, a former salt mine, could leak into groundwater. Germany newsweekly Der Spiegel warned that the "damaging revelations" had "rekindled political debate about atomic energy in Germany" and might cost Merkel the election.

Apparently they were wrong, for Merkel beat the Social Democrats so decisively that she can now government without them. Many Germans seem to accept the conclusion of our feature on "Germany's Green Energy Gap": even this world leader in renewable energy is not installing wind power and solar energy fast enough to replace the 25% of its electricity supplied by nuclear reactors.

Nor will the German public support unfettered installation of new coal-fired power plants. Just this month a German court ordered energy giant E.on to halt construction of a 1.1 gigawatt coal-fired power plant in Datteln, in which it has already invested €600 million ($880 million).

As the Times of London notes in an editorial today entitled "Merkel Unleashed", there seems to be no way around keeping the nukes going: "Unless the life of some of the nuclear plants is prolonged, the country will become yet more dependent on Russian gas and energy imports."

China and India Give Ground on Climate

This week, the International Energy Agency delivered the startling news that China’s greenhouse gases declined sharply this year and that the country "will be at the forefront of combatting climate change by 2020 if it meets government targets," as the Financial Times put it in a pre-release report about a forthcoming IEA study. The IEA found that emissions are down generally, largely as a result of the global recession, but also because of policies in several key regions: the European Union's effort to cut emissions 20 percent by 2020, tightening U.S. standards for automotive fuel efficiency, and Chinese energy efficiency programs.

IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol said that if China achieves its 2020 efficiency targets, "it will be the country that has achieved the largest emissions reductions."

The sharp drop in global greenhouse gas emissions, yet to be definitively quantified, is itself a positive development, in that it will make it easier to negotiate further reductions in emissions at the upcoming Copenhagen climate conference. In meetings here in New York City this week, there was evidence the gap between the advanced industrial countries and the rapidly industrializing countries might be narrowing. A speech by Chinese President Hu Jintao at the United Nations was generally hailed for its positive tone, even though he declined to make any specific numerical commitments. Even more significant (if much less widely reported) was a signal from India indicating it might be ready to set numerical targets for its greenhouse gas emissions, having always said previously it would not accept such targets.

To judge from reporting experience on the ground in India and  China, concern about climate change is higher in those countries than one might suppose. Ten years ago, developing a special report for IEEE Spectrum magazine about the "dilemma of coal-fired power" in the two countries, this blogger found a surprisingly high level of awareness and concern among government officials in Beijing. Partly that reflected a closely related concern about the health effects of coal plant pollution: hundreds of thousands of Chinese die from exposure to the pollution each year, making this a public health crisis. And that's by no means the only and possibly not even the most serious aspect of emissions and climate change. Five years later, reporting at article for Spectrum about a big dam on the Yellow River, I was surprised to discover that the river was drying up--the result of a long drought in the Tibetan highlands, probably aggravated by global warming. 

China and India are both highly agricultural countries with billions of mouths to feed. The medium-term effects of climate change in both countries could be devastating.

Constructive Ideas for Copenhagen Conference

This week, with world leaders meeting in New York, and with just three months to go until the global climate conference in Copenhagen, Columbia University hosted a series of speeches and panel discussions on climate. In a kind of keynote, Kofi Annan had the following to say:

"As we approach Copenhagen, there appears to be an emerging consensus that global emissions be cut 50 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. But that's not enough. Industrialized nations need to find innovative ways to reduce emissions dramatically, within the range of 25-40 percent by 2020.…The big emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Mexico…must lower emissions relative to a 'business as usual' scenario."

Here's why this is significant and useful. As countries prepare to meet in Copenhagen to draft a follow-on agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, there is wide concern the conference could fail--and that failure, like that of tariff and reparations conferences in the 1920s, could be catastrophic for the whole world. Failure is feared mainly because of U.S. insistence that the fast developing countries must agree to emissions reductions, which they are absolutely unwilling to do, and because of wide unhappiness about the United States.

Countries like China and India are convinced they cannot afford to constrain economic growth in the near term, and that it's unreasonable for countries that use energy and emit carbon much more recklessly to make such demands on them. As for the United States, though it is talking a pretty good game when it comes to the long run, it has been pretty slippery about what it actually will do in the next decade.

So, as a compromise between  those seemingly unbridgeable differences, Kofi Annan proposes that the advanced industrial countries undertake sharper reductions in the decade immediately to come, and that the fast developing countries undertake to reduce emissions relative to what they would have been if business were to proceed as usual.

That leaves open the question of when countries like China will be in a position to actually reduce absolute levels of emissions, as Denmark's Minister of Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard observed in a panel. Hedegaard, who will chair the Copenhagen meeting, makes a tough, no-nonsense impression; a recent newspaper profile of her says her objective in Copenhagen will be to make the price too high for any country that tries to block an emerging consensus. Hedegaard said yesterday that she will be looking to hear from China in December in what year exactly the country’s carbon emissions will peak.

Energy Efficiency Is Best Policy

OK. it's special pleasing by an organization that has a stake in the outcome. But still, the results of the ACEEE study released yesterday are plausible and important to always bear in mind, as the United States contemplates how to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and cut carbon emissions. Generally the cheapest way to do that, says ACEEE, is to improve the efficiency with which energy is used throughout the economy rather than increase the amount of energy delivered. In the electricity sector, it says, the cost of acquiring an added widget of efficiency has held fairly steady during the last five years  at about 2.5  cents per kilowatt-hour, while costs for new coal- or nuclear-generated electricity have gone up, along with virtually all other generating costs.

Generally, claims ACEEE, new generation will cost three or four times as much as improved  conservation.

If you want to know precisely how ACEEE arrives at those figures don't ask me. Read the report.


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