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Smartening the Smart Grid

This year's annual New York press briefing by the Edison Electric Institute, the organization representing investor-owned utilities, naturally was devoted to the smart grid, the hot topic of the day. Most notable, actually, was the absence of anything really new to report, which confirmed expectations that the smart grid will begin to prove itself next year at the earliest--or not.

This was not the first EEI briefing devoted to smart grid prospects. Last year's briefing was devoted almost entirely to the smart meter avalanche, and a year or two before that much was made of Xcel Energy's SmartGridCity experiment in Boulder, Colorado. I reminded EEI president Thomas Kuhn of the Boulder briefing and pointed out that the experiment appears now to have been a failure. Kuhn did not dispute that and said it appears the problem in Boulder was that the target population was just too affluent: Despite the known green-mindedness of Boulderites, a major factor in Xcel's selecting the small city for its smart grid test run, it seems most of them do not care all that much about the modest monetary savings they stand to make from paying attention to electricity usage signals.

That message, not good news for the smart grid, strongly suggests that its success will depend heavily on the quality of customer communications. "Utilities now really need for customers to listen," says Christy Murfitt, senior manager for solutions marketing with Nuance Communications. How do you get ratepayers to pay attention? The main thing is to stress green mindedness and potential monetary savings, says Christy, but appeals to community values and making advantages as tangible as possible--not to mention, where possible, offering rebates--also help.

Nuance, with major utility customers across the United States and Canada, has been showing its clients how to use billing alerts to start educating their customers about peak versus off-peak rates, the major factors causing their bills to go up or down, and how they can best use their major appliances to minimize costs. Though real-time interactive communications based on hour-to-hour rates changes are only starting to be developed, says Christy, payment schemes can be arranged where customers are warned it their usage exceeds pre-agreed-upon thresholds.

Globally, smart grid investments are expected to be about $90 billion this year, according to a recent report. Infrastructure investments, including communications, represent the overwhelming bulk of that, and customer-side investments, mainly smart meters, only about 20 percent. But the customer-oriented expenditures are a fast-growing share and will be critical to whether the smart grid is seen as a success or failure, comments David Cappello, the main author of the SBI report.

However far electricity restructuring, deregulation, and privatization go, electric power will always be seen in the last analysis as a public service. The public has been led to believe that the smart grid will produce monetary savings and carbon cuts, and so, if those gains do not materialize fast enough, many states no doubt will step in and pass laws insisting that utilities produce tangible results.

Supply-Side Climate Policy

With last week's surrender of the White House and Democratic leadership on efforts to enact a cap-and-trade carbon bill, it follows that the entire U.S. effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be on the energy supply side. Though proponents of a carbon tax (as an alternative to cap-and-trade) are hoping for a second chance, that's almost certainly an idle hope--or threat, depending on how you look at it: There's no sign the president or the leadership have the imagination, boldness, and commitment to sell the country on pricing carbon, in whatever form; and nobody expects the president and Democratic leadership to emerge stronger from this fall's midterm congressional elections. (The opposite is the norm is midterms, which almost always favor challengers over incumbents.)

So, if they can't sell cap-and-trade or carbon taxation now, they won't be able to sell it next year or the year after that either. The game is up.

That means that the climate policy we'll have is pretty much the climate policy we've got: A hodgepodge of subsidies and incentives fashioned to stimulate nuclear, renewables, and the smart grid. Instead of putting a uniform price on carbon, so that  electricity customers and their utilities opt to get less of their electricity from coal and more from the most cost-effective lower-carbon alternative (whether natural gas, wind or nuclear), and drivers buy more fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel cars, we're ending up with just the approach Republicans in particular have always said they hated. That is, we're throwing a lot of money at miscellaneous technologies, hoping that at least some of them take off.

A demand-side policy produces sure results: Statistically, we know if we set carbon prices at certain levels, so as to have specific effects on electricity and fossil fuel prices, that predictable greenhouse gas emissions will follow. A demand-side policy tuned to get U.S. emissions back to their 1990 level by 2020, the Obama administration's stated objective, will do just that.

If a melange of supply-side policies somehow produces the equivalent reduction, it will be by dumb luck.

So let's evaluate the odds of the United States' getting lucky and achieving its 2020 goals, in general qualitative terms. The automotive sector can be left out of account, as people are not going to buy electric or hybrid vehicles in large numbers until prices come down radically, and there's no saying just when that might occur, no matter how much is done to subsidize battery manufacturing and charging infrastructure.

Turning to the all-important electricity sector, how much will new nuclear contribute to reducing carbon emissions in this decade? Nothing. Given that ground has yet to be broken for the first new plant to be initiated in a generation, and given that it takes close to ten years to bring a nuclear power plant project to conclusion, we can safely say that there will be no net increase in U.S. nuclear generation by 2020.

How much will solar contribute? Next to nothing. Contrary to the absurd spin in a recent Tech Review, solar electricity is still far from commercial viability. It's destined to remain a niche player as far ahead as one can look.

In terms of significant zero-carbon power sources that can displace fossil-fueled generation, that leaves only wind. It is sure to account for a growing share of the electricity mix and contribute to lower emissions, as fossil generation is taken out of service. But wind growth rates are highly uneven, O&M costs have been mounting, and the best sites may be getting used up. To remedy what it sees as a boom-bust cycle, the industry is pressing for a national renewable energy standard--another awkward supply-side measure (one that produces predictable results by administrative fiat, to be sure, but at completely unpredictable costs).

That leaves the smart grid, a topic so sweeping and complex it deserves and will receive separate treatment. Suffice it to say for now that we won't know for a few years, at the earliest, whether the concept is actually producing hoped-for reductions in energy  use and emissions.

To sum up, if the United States somehow meets its 2020 greenhouse gas production target, it will not be by deliberate design but because of forces largely beyond control of the U.S. government: Specifically, a grassroots anti-coal rebellion that has made it impossible, for all practical purposes, to build a new coal-fired plant in the United States; and shalegas developments, which imply that there may be enough to gas to replace coal very rapidly and on a very large scale.

Huge Wind Farms Coming to Mojave Desert

On the east coast, any mention of a "decade-long battle over a large wind farm" points immediately to Cape Wind and the contentious beginnings of the country's offshore wind energy industry. In California, though, the phrase brings to mind another project in perhaps an equally unlikely spot, the Alta Wind Energy Center in the Mojave Desert foothills.

According to the LA Times, project developer Terra-Gen will break ground today on the project in the Tehachapi Pass in Kern County, after nearly 10 years of permitting, bankrupted companies and concerns over noise and the usual NIMBY-related issues. Alta Wind Energy Center, or AWEC, will consist of a number of sub-projects, but if all are eventually completed it could generate as much as 3,000 megawatts of power. Even just the initial five projects, with 720 MW, could be enough to provide electricity to 200,000 homes.

With hundreds of turbines soon to be spinning in the Mojave, the desert is rapidly becoming the epicenter of renewable energy in the United States. Some areas of the Mojave receive more than twice as much solar radiation as elsewhere in the country, and there are already hundreds of megawatts of installed solar capacity. Some of the biggest proposed solar plants are also sited in the area, like the 300-MW Ivanpah Solar plant. The Mojave Solar Park, when completed in 2011, will become the world's largest solar installation at 553 MW.

As always, placement of large renewable power generating stations in the middle of the desert brings up questions of storage and transmission. Many of the projects, though, are being built near existing transmission infrastructure, and their near-term completion dates suggest the region is already well-equipped to bring the power to customers.

(Image via Alta Wind Energy Center)

All Quiet on the Climate Front

"History does not forgive us our national mistakes [just] because they are explicable in terms of our domestic politics."

So said the famous diplomat and diplomatic historian George F. Kennan. I quoted him in a book about climate science and climate policy five years ago, and his verdict  seems to me more apt than ever before.

We can account for the decision last week of the Democratic leadership to give up on passing a serious climate bill, but it really isn't very interesting (McCain's defection from the cap-and-trade camp, then Lindsay Graham's; the stubborn resistance of coal-state Democrats; a decline in public concern about climate; etc etc). But in the end there's no escaping the conclusion that President Obama simply failed to put his money where his mouth was supposed to be. That is, he did not forcefully explain to the American people why strong action on climate is a moral and practical imperative; and he did not twist the arms he needed to twist to accomplish what he claimed he wanted to accomplish--namely, to restore the United States to a position of real leadership on climate.

Arianna Huffington, whose hugely successful Huff Post has become the go-to place for environmental leaders, conjured Lyndon Johnson's leadership on the voting rights act, easily the most important piece of U.S. legislation since the New Deal. It's no excuse to complain that you don't have the votes, Huffington told an interviewer: Remember, she said, "what Lyndon Johnson told Martin Luther King in March 1965 when they met about the Voting Rights Act, and Martin Luther King went out and the Selma March happened, and suddenly a few months later when had the votes." If Obama doesn't have the votes, he needs to let people know what has to happen for him to get them.

Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, takes essentially the same line in today's New York Times. "Despite climate change being the greatest challenge of our time, with millions of people facing inundation, starvation and conflicts over scarce resources, the White House directed advocates not to discuss it. At a meeting in April 2009 led by Carol Browner, the White House coordinator of energy and climate policy, administration message mavens told climate bill advocates that, given the polling, they should avoid talking about climate change and focus on green jobs and energy independence.

"Had Lyndon Johnson likewise relied on polling, he would have told the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to talk only about the expanded industry and jobs that Southerners would realize after passage of a federal civil rights act. I could imagine Dr. King’s response."

The global ramifications of the U.S. abdication are enormous. Serious action on climate was deferred at Copenhagen last December because it was generally felt no consensus would be possible until the United States had enacted a strong carbon-reduction bill. That's because, for the last ten years, the other advanced industrial countries have taken serious action to reduce their global greenhouse gas emissions, while the U.S. government has done nothing. Will the advanced industrial countries now recognize that there is no serious prospect of U.S. action, and draw consequences this fall at Cancun?

What matters is whether U.S. political cowardice turns out to be contagious, or whether it's resisted and contained.

GE Challenges Coulomb in EV Charging

General Electric has joined the fray to provide charging stations for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, challenging Coulomb's ChargePoint network, which is deploying electricity pumps in nine U.S. metropolitan areas with support from the stimulus bill. Like the ChargePoint, GE's WattStation is smartly fashioned--in its case by Yves Behar, an internationally known industrial designer based in San Francisco.

Though Coulomb obviously got off the blocks first, GE claims that it station provides faster charges. I await  enlightenment from GE--or readers--as to how that can be the case, as other sources have told me that charging speed is limited by the characteristics of car batteries, not the charging station.

GE says the WattStation is one of 90 ecomagination projects announced since that initiative was launched five years ago. The company is cooperating with Nissan on technologies needed for a "reliable, dynamic, smart-charging infrastructure," and it has put up $200 million to reward innovators coming up with useful ideas for the next-generation grid.

Solar Windows: New Ultra-Thin Cells Generate Power From Artificial Light

Look at any of the glimmering, glass-only skyscrapers in a metropolis near you. Next, imagine that all those windows were coated with invisible solar cells, generating electricity. Even the ones facing north. That's a lot of electricity.

One company is close to releasing a prototype of such a solar window that improves on existing versions with its ability to draw power from artificial sources of light. New Energy Technologies, based in Maryland, has managed to create arrays of solar cells that are only one-tenth of a micrometer thick; each individual cell is smaller across than a grain rice, and they're gathered in groups of 20 that are coated onto the glass to create a see-through solar window.

They are far from the first to create a transparent solar surface. In recent tests, though, the company reports that their cells - an "organic" cell made from what they call "hydrogen-carbon based materials" - outperformed other solar materials in artificial lighting conditions, including a 10-fold greater output power density than thin-film amorphous-silicon, another possibility for ultra-thin solar generation.

"One of the biggest issues with today’s solar products is their dependency on direct sunlight, which our cells have demonstrated the potential capacity to overcome," said Meetesh V. Patel, the president and CEO of New Energy Technologies, in a press release.

Of course, the cost of such windows may prove to be prohibitive, at least in the near term. A call to the company to ask about those costs has yet to be returned.

Image via Alvesgaspar/Wikimedia Commons

Summer Reading (Environment Edition)

The slightly leftish New York Review of Books may not be the typical Spectrum reader's second choice in technical literature, but two recent articles are worth consulting if you're trying to keep up with the basics of the climate debate. One, by the British economist Nicholas Stern, author of the big British study assessing the long-term costs of global warming and the benefits of curbing it, is aptly titled, "Climate: What You Need to Know." Reviewing the most recent book by the influential environmental writer Bill McKibbon, Stern takes him to task for being unduly pessimistic about the prospects for constructive policy. But this doesn't mean that Stern's view of our situation is sanguine: "The issue for policy is how to manage risk, taking account of strong scientific evidence that the risks are potentially very large. These are not small probabilities of something nasty, but large probabilities of something catastrophic," writes Stern.

Stern's magnum review of climate change economics has been criticized on methodological grounds, and I too have misgivings about its use of discounting. But Stern has an impressive command of climate science basics, and for this reason, it's worth paying attention to what he thinks we need to know. To have a 50 percent chance of keeping additional warming at no more than 2 degrees celsius in this century, Stern notes that we have to reduce global emissions by more than half from today's level by 2050. If countries do their very best to keep their Copenhagen pledges, Stern says we have a chance of making the 2050 target, though cuts will be more costly and difficult after 2020 than before.

What needed is sobering indeed: The world's per capita emissions of carbon dioxide, 7 tons today, must be reduced to 4 tons by 2030 and 2 tons by 2050.

The other recent article in the New York Review, "The Message from the Glaciers," is about the fate of the Tibetan plateau, sometimes called "the third pole" because of its giant ice rivers. The author, Orville Schell, also is no climatologist. But as a prominent Asia expert, Schell does care about what's happening to the Himalayan glaciers, and he knows the context. Though his article does not take account of the very latest scientific findings, it will be useful to anybody who wants to put those findings in perspective.

This week's Sunday New York Times carried a review of The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth, by Eric Pooley, a top editor at Bloomberg Business Week who also has worked at Fortune and Time in senior positions. Though described by the reviewer as somewhat ponderous going, the book evidently raises some thorny questions about deals environmental leaders like Fred Krupp have entered into with corporate executives. The whole subject of how the leading environmental groups have worked with Big Business and Big Politics deserves much more critical scrutiny. One wishes that Stephen Schneider had addressed it in his Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate. Though Stanford climatologist Schneider has been a key player for decades, the index to his book does not contain names like Krupp, the hugely influential CEO of the Environmental Defense Fund. Nor do organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth--or even National Geographic, the publisher of his book--appear.

Speaking of environmental politics and the political establishment, the current edition of The Highlands Voice, the monthly newspaper of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, carries an appraisal by the conservancy's president of the late West Virginia senator, Robert C. Byrd. What's interesting is the complexity of the conservancy's relationship with the senator, and the complexity of Byrd's attitudes toward the environment, development, and especially of course the local coal industry. Byrd was an altogether complicated and fascinating man: A member of the Ku Klux Klan as a young man, a battler for racial and social justice for the remainder of his life; a country fidddler who could keep up with Appalachia's best; by all accounts the Hill's leading expert on congressional procedure for many decades. He was the senior-most member of Congress, and easily one of Congress's most influential members.

Conservancy president Hugh Rogers reports that Byrd generally considered it his job to bring home the bacon for his consituents--that is, he generally favored development, including initially mountaintop strip mining. But after Judge Haden's landmark decision in 1999 seeking to block further mountaintop removal (Bragg v. Robertson), Byrd retreated from that position. He said that the practice had "a diminishing constituency in Washington" and that most members of Congress, like most Americans, opposed it. Under the circumstances, he said, West Virginians risked shouting themselves out of productive dialogue with the EPA and Congress if they persisted single-mindedly in mountain strip mining.

POSTSCRIPT: As this posts, I have only just now have learned of Stephen Schneider's untimely death, yesterday. Lest the preceding remarks be interpreted as critical, I regret it and apologize if any offense is taken. I am all the sorrier that there will be not future opportunity to discuss with him the climate wars and Big Environmentalism.

Summer Reading (Energy Edition)

You won't be staying on top of energy and green tech if you just read that rag IEEE Spectrum, even if it is the preferred magazine of engineers in telecommunications, computing, software, electronics, and power.

This month Technology Review, MIT's glorified alumni magazine, has an excellent article about Suntech and its founder and CEO, Zhengrong Shi, otherwise known as China's sun king. You know the general story in outline: How China's low-cost and aggressive solar manufacturers have pretty much seized the world market, taking advantage of ultra-generous subsidies in Spain and Germany that were intended to favor domestic manufacturers. But even so you may find arresting some of the numbers Tech Reviews trots out.

China's photovoltaic production capacity in 2001 was 2 MW; today it is 4 GW--two thousand times larger. Suntech's capacity went from 10 MW in 2002 to 1 GW now. 

Three years ago, U.S. solar manufacturers were suppling 43 percent of the PV panels qualifying for California rebates, China just 2 percent. Today China's supplying 42 percent of them, Americans 15 percent.

If you want to know in more detail just how the Çhinese have done that, Tech Review's profile of Sun King Shi is well worth reading. But skip the solar commentary on p. 14, with the ridiculous spin it puts on PV costs. The author argues that solar is now nearing grid parity because generating costs are merely twice as high as wholesale electricity and wind costs, under optimal solar conditions. Merely?

This month's Scientific American has a feature--really a two page infographic--titled "the dirty truth about plug-in hybrids." The article usefully focuses attention on the fact that hybrid and electric cars will be climate-friendly only to the extent the electricity they draw from the grid is generated by low-carbon means. Relying on a Department of Energy study, it charts, by U.S. region,  how much of the additional electricity for hybrids and EVs would likely come from fossil fuels versus zero-carbon sources like hydro, wind, and nuclear.

But how reliable is that DOE study? SciAm doesn't cast a critical eye on it, or even explain its methodology and assumptions. On the face of it, some of the results look weird and dubious, to say the least. The magazine's chart has two thirds of the electricity New York would supply to hybrids coming from oil. But who burns oil to make electricity? Oil-generated power represents a trivial fraction of the U.S. supply mix. The chart has 100 percent of Texas's additional electricity coming from natural gas. But Texas is the state that's been building out wind the most aggressively (hence the Pickens plan). None of that power for Texas's electric cars is going to come from wind?

And what about long-term electricity demand in general? What assumptions are DOE and SciAm making about the price the Federal government is going to put on carbon, and how that will affect power prices?

As long as you're mulling those issues and leafing through Scientific American, you might want to also consult its take on unconventional natural gas and water. Mostly it retreads what IEEE Spectrum and Tech Review published earlier this year, but Mark Fishetti does has some interesting additional detail about just how contaminants can get into groundwater from bore holes. Even better, go to the Worldwatch website and download Beneath the Surface, A Survey of Environmental Risks from Shale Gas Development. The report, a joint effort by Mark Zoback of Stanford University, Bradford Copithorne of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Worldwatch's Saya Kitasei, finds that the likelihood of contaminants from deep shale boreholes getting into the groundwater layers much closer to the surface is extremely small. But it also concludes that faulty borehole construction can lead to gas leakage into surface water. Stricter regulation and more honest discussion of environmental risks will be essential if shalegas is to live up to its full potential, say the authors.

In the July Scientific American, take a look too at Jane Braxton Littlle's article about how wastewater is being recycled in California to produce geothermal electricity. It's a nice description and analysis of how recycling municipal waste water neatly solved two problems, a shortage of aquifer water at a major geothermal site misnamed The Geysers, and a need for cheaper wastewater treatment. Just one issue here: Both in a box and in the text the article says the innovation neatly solves three problems, though only two are clearly spelled out.

Nothing of course will shake Scientific American's reputation  as the world's leading science magazine for the general educated reader. But you'd think they could look at their sources a littlle more critically, and count to three in a fashion that the general educated reader can follow.

What the ARPA-E Is Up To: $93 Million for Energy Research

In a third round of Recovery Act funding awards, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, announced that $93 million will be awarded to 43 different projects around the country. According to a press release, the projects "focus on accelerating innovation in green technology while increasing America's competitiveness in grid scale energy storage, power electronics and building efficiency." Energy Secretary Steven Chu made the announcement on Monday.

ARPA-E is modeled after DARPA, the military's geeked out wing that develops things like stealth technology for fighter planes. One of the interesting sides of ARPA-E is that it encourages researchers to take shots at things that might be a bit out there. According to their mission statement: "To focus on creative “out-of-the-box” transformational energy research that industry by itself cannot or will not support due to its high risk but where success would provide dramatic benefits for the nation."

You can read about all the projects here [PDF], but here are a couple of newly funded projects that might fit that category of high risk and high reward:

  • ABB Inc. along with SuperPower Inc. and Brookhaven National Laboratory received $4.2 million to try and build an advanced superconducting magnetic energy storage device. In short, this involves storing energy from the grid in the magnetic field of a coiled wire, and could theoretically have "near-zero" loss of energy. The aim is to bring a fringe technology toward the mainstream of power storage, making it "cost-competitive for delivering megawatt hours of stored electricity."
  • The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the University of Southern California will try and improve the technology involved with iron-air batteries. Iron-air batteries are attractive because of the super cheap nature of their materials, but have to-date suffered from poor efficiency and life cycle. In this project, $1.46 million will go toward improving on those issues and creating a proof-of-concept battery that could eventually be commercialized for cheap but effective energy storage.
  • Another category of project involves improved building efficiency, and Architectural Applications and partners will use $458,265 to try and develop a novel air conditioning system. If successful, recycled exhausted air will be used to partially cool and dehumidify incoming fresh air. "This design promises a performance increase of 25-40 percent compared to conventional air conditioning systems."

First Coulomb Electricity Pump Installed in New York

At a Manhattan parking lot owned by Edison Properties--no relation to ConEd, by the way--Mayor Bloomberg and HUD Secretary Donovan unveiled today the first Coulomb Technologies charging station. Part of a $37 million program to deploy electricity pumps in 9 U.S. metropolitan areas, with $15 million coming from the Obama administration's stimulus bill, the station is the first of 100 to be deployed in the next months in the city's 5 boroughs. Quoting former mayor Ed Koch, who called New York the city where the future comes to audition, Bloomberg said he wanted the city to be ready by early next year when the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf hit the market.

The ChargePoint network of charging stations, conceived and built by Coulomb Technologies, is being deployed in cooperation with Chevrolet (because of the Volt) , Ford (with its forthcoming Focus and Transit Connect EVs), and Daimler, which is introducing an electric Smartcar. Housing Secretary Donovan, a former member of Bloomberg's city government, emphasized that the administration's support is part of a broad strategy of future job creation. He said that the next day, on July 15, Obama would be cutting the ribbon at a new car battery manufacturing plant in Holland, Michigan.

When Obama took office, said Donovan, there were no factories in the United States mass-producing batteries for EVs; now there will be nine.

Bloomberg, who calls himself a political independent, voiced appreciation and support for the Obama program but volunteered that the number of new jobs resulting from ChargePoint installation will be small in the short run. Pointing out that climate benefits from electric vehicles are highly dependent on the carbon intensity of power generation, I asked how much of New York’s electricity comes from zero-carbon sources; Bloomberg deferred to his sustainability chief, who said New York gets about 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and hydropower plants. While that's less than I would have guessed--which shows that you shouldn't just guess when you're calculating your personal carbon emissions--it does suggest that curbing air pollution is a better argument than carbon mitigation for promoting electric vehicles.

Passenger cars and light trucks account for about 15 percent of New York City's carbon emissions, and so it's easy to see that if 2.5 percent of them were replaced by electrics in the next few years, as a study deems possible, the impact on greenhouse gas emissions would be negligible. Even if all the internal-combustion cars are eventually replaced by electrics, the global climate benefit would be modest, whereas the reduction in street-level pollution would be dramatic.


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