How the Smart Grid Helps Address Climate Change in California

Last week’s article on the California Energy Commission’s 2013 Integrated Energy Policy Report (IEPR) identified how climate changes impact energy needs and create new challenges for the state of California’s electricity, natural gas, and transportation fuel sectors.  Heat and precipitation are two of the major climate changes that have outsized impacts on the state’s energy sector.  That should influence the ongoing design and deployment of Smart Grid technologies and policies.  For one thing, harkening back to my ten Smart Grid and Smart City predictions for 2020, infrastructure like a grid or a community can’t be called smart if it lacks resiliency.  Climate changes will require that we create more resilient critical infrastructures – whether it is in the design and management of energy and water, or the policies that determine the quality of responsiveness by governmental agencies to meet their citizens’ needs in times of disruption.

How can the Smart Grid address these challenges and threats?  Here are five suggestions.

1) A Smart Grid delivers grid resiliency by putting more reliance on distributed generation (DG).  A comprehensive DG strategy locates generation assets close to demand.  This strategy also reduces reliance on vulnerable transmission lines that might fry in the next wild fire conflagration.  California already has a good start on DG with the rapid growth of rooftop solar.  Technology and financial innovations are in place to enable continued growth.  Policy innovations should look at defining clear benefits for utilities to encourage investments in generation sited at the distribution grid level and the technologies to manage diverse assets; and encourage partnerships with third parties that can assist in accelerating DG deployments.

2) Deploy applicable monitoring and telemetry technologies for leak detection to the aging water infrastructure, which is in dismaying disrepair and suspected to be leaking like a sieve.  The emphasis is on the word suspected – lacking reliable data or visibility into pipeline health means that everyone is offering educated guesses about the overall infrastructural integrity of our water systems.  This activity won’t create more water, but it will help the state and communities manage existing water supplies with intelligence that is lacking today.  Smart water management can deliver situational awareness about operations and create proactive rather than reactive policies and plans – similar to the benefits the Smart Grid delivers to the electricity infrastructure.  And let’s acknowledge that energy/water nexus.  When we save water, we save electricity.

3) Deploy water meters across the state, which contains a surprising number of communities that don’t have water meters.  Just like we’ve demonstrated with smart meters for electricity, simple awareness of water consumption can reduce usage.

4) Study the possibilities of instituting Time of Use rates for water that are tied to energy use.  Using water during times of peak electricity demand simply increases overall electricity needs.  Timing water consumption to off-peak times saves electricity.  5) Rationalize the varying municipal and county codes about water consumption, conservation, and gray water use.  A Sierra Club volunteer effort highlighted great disparities in permit fees for rooftop solar across Silicon Valley communities, resulting in state legislation that set limits on those fees, and created standards for fee computations.  State officials need to similarly understand the difficulties that our extremely fragmented water utility sector has in putting together programs that must accommodate multiple jurisdictions.  There’s plenty of process friction that could be reduced or eliminated through such rationalizations.

We can’t stop human-caused climate change, but we can mitigate its worst effects by continuing Smart Grid solution deployments in the electrical grid and applying these solutions in the water grid. We have no choice but to adapt to the impacts of climate change.  Smart Grid technologies and policies can certainly help accelerate economic and societal adaptations as well as support creative mitigation strategies.


Climate Change, California, and the Smart Grid

The California Energy Commission (CEC) publishes an Integrated Energy Policy Report (IEPR – pronounced eye-per) every two years, and the 2013 IEPR was just approved this past week.  This report serves many information purposes, such as assessing “major energy trends and issues facing the state’s electricity, natural gas, and transportation fuel sectors” and delivering policy recommendations that “ensure reliable, secure, and diverse energy supplies.”  There’s equal emphasis in the IEPR to conserve resources and protect the environment, but this two-part discussion focuses on the IEPR’s energy trends and issues, and how the Smart Grid can help resolve some of the serious challenges facing California.

Let’s look at two climate change impacts – temperature and precipitation.  From a temperature perspective, the IEPR anticipates that as the thermometer rises, so does the demand for electricity to run AC.  San Francisco Peninsula communities that never had a need for AC will install a couple million units to deal with summer temperatures formerly confined to the Central Valley.  PG&E and municipal utilities in Northern California will notice impacts in seasonal demand for electricity in both the duration of heat waves and peak apexes during the hottest times of day.  In the southern part of the state, the demand will also grow as AC units work harder to offset hotter days.

At the same time, increased temperatures decrease power plant efficiencies, whether the plant generates electricity from natural gas, solar thermal, nuclear, or geothermal.  Their cooling processes are also negatively impacted by heat waves.  Increased temperatures also impact transmission lines – reducing their efficiency and creating line sags that can trigger service disruptions.

Then there’s precipitation.  Governor Jerry Brown just announced a drought emergency for the state.  A significant portion of California’s water storage system relies on the Sierra Mountains snowpack, which is frighteningly low this winter.  This snowpack supplies most of the water sourced within the state, and hydropower derived from it supplies about 15% of the state’s homegrown electricity.  A hotter climate means snowfall becomes rainfall, and it is no longer freely stored as snow that obligingly melts as temperatures rise.  It may not be as reliably scheduled for generation of hydro power as snowfalls shift to rainfalls.

We may also receive less precipitation as a result of climate change – that’s a big unknown right now.  One thing is certain.  A hotter climate will require more water for agriculture – a $45 billion economy in California – to sustain crops.  And whether it is water for industrial, commercial, agricultural, or residential uses, what doesn’t fall from the skies will require electricity to pump it, transport it, desalinate it, or treat it.

California will be hotter and drier as a result of climate change.   That combination poses another serious threat to the state’s transmission lines infrastructure and a continued reliance on centralized generation.  Like many Western states, California has a fire season.  In the past, that fire season was confined to summer months.  In a drought situation, those fires can occur any time of year – as evidenced by fires that broke out this January.  Fires damage and destroy transmission lines, the brittle infrastructure that transports power within and between states.  Dense smoke from wildfires can also damage lines.  There are no plans to put sprinkler systems on transmission towers, so wildfire threats to this critical infrastructure cannot be resolved.

These scenarios are identified in a number of reports issued by California state agencies, including CAISO (California Independent System Operator) and the CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission).  There are some good actions underway to help address these issues – including a continuing emphasis on energy efficiency and demand response policies and programs.  But California will have to look beyond its existing energy policy and aggressively apply Smart Grid technologies and policies to water.  That discussion will continue next week.


The Smart Grid’s Role in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies

The dust is still settling on the recent United Nation’s Rio+20 environmental summit, and reactions range from disappointment at the lack of national governmental consensus to optimism at the range and success of local governmental and corporate actions.  None of this alters the fact that climate change is a slow-moving disaster that is going to change our economies and our lifestyles in our lifetimes.  The actions to address climate change vary for developed and developing economies.   For developed economies, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are the top priority.  For developing countries, elimination of energy poverty with green energy sources is the top priority.  Fortunately, Smart Grid technologies and policies can address both developed and developing world challenges.

Let’s first examine the impacts of climate change in one state, California, which is the ninth largest developed economy in the world.  The California Energy Commission (CEC) produces the annual Integrated Energy Policy Report to “develop energy policies that conserve resources, protect the environment, ensure energy reliability, enhance the state’s economy, and protect public health and safety.”   And climate change is a threat to every one of those objectives.  For instance, California’s Sierra Mountain snowpack delivers almost 10% of the state’s electricity  plus supplies the annual water needs for 65% of the residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural users.  As the climate warms up, we might get the same amount of precipitation, but it will not be in the convenient water storage format called snow.  It will be rain.  California lacks the catchment assets to store this, having been accustomed over the past 150 years to nature taking care of this for us.   A reduction in snow melt means a reduction in a steady flow of water and therefore impacts the predictable ability to create hydro electricity as well as provide water for human use.   And of course, any changes in water supply for residential to agricultural consumption also require a significant investment in energy to pump, move, and treat water.  Currently, 19% of the state’s electricity is consumed in water supply or treatment applications.   Re-configuring the system to move and treat water will probably require increased energy.  California has to find alternative and green sources of electricity production, and produce more electricity to accommodate these changes wrought by a transforming climate.

There are indirect impacts as well.  There will be an increase in the number of peak electricity days due to hot temperatures.  A recent UCLA study  revealed that for southern California, average temperatures will rise by 3 to 5 degrees.  California utilities already report that peaks are getting “peakier”, meaning the demand is increasing when temperatures rise, stressing existing grid facilities to supply power for all users in compressed time periods.  California utilities must find ways to intelligently manage their distribution grids to minimize these stressor conditions or see increased disruptions of supply to consumers.

Climate changes will cause California and other western states to experience the energy and water yin/yang relationship most acutely, but no state is immune.

So what can the Smart Grid do to address climate change?  The Smart Grid can’t stop climate change, but it does support mitigation and adaptation strategies that are being studied by the CEC and other California agencies as well as other states and nations.  For example, aggressive integration of clean renewable sources of electricity generation to replace fossil fuels that spew greenhouse gases (GHGs) will slow or mitigate the rate of climate change.  Many energy efficiency measures such as technology improvements that reduce electricity consumption in appliances and electronics have important cumulative effects to reduce overall loads on the grid.  Weatherization programs reduce the electricity requirements to heat and cool buildings.  And Smart Grid technologies and policies can also support adaptation measures – including solutions that create a new class of consumers called prosumers that can produce/consume both kilowatts and negawatts of electricity.    The most interesting mitigation and adaptation strategies that rely on Smart Grid technologies and solutions will be described in future articles.


Policy Decisions Make Things Happen for the Smart Grid

There are three types of people in the world, the saying goes. Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened.   When it comes to the Smart Grid, this observation applies to businesses and governmental entities too.  States like California are making things happen through innovative policies, exemplified in two decisions just enacted in this past week that will influence the state’s three investor-owned utilities’ Smart Grid plans.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) ruled in favor of an expanded definition and standard calculation to develop the number of residential and small commercial customers who can participate in net metering.  Net metering is a tariff that lets participants receive a credit on their bill for excess electricity generated by their solar equipment that is returned to the grid.  

What does this mean for California’s investor-owned utilities (IOUs)?  The amount of net metered solar that can be added to the grid more than doubles from 2.4 GW to 5.2 GW.  That in turn increases pressure on utilities to upgrade their distribution grids for bi-directional power flows, which is one of the primary characteristics of a Smart Grid.   This additional power from a clean but intermittent source of energy may spur increased utility focus and investment in solutions that help manage distributed energy resources (DER) and in DER assets like community-based energy storage.  

This decision also creates market opportunities for the companies that manufacture, sell, finance, install, monitor, and support solar assets on rooftops and DER technologies.  Innovations in business models and tools that reduce the costs of solar deployments will follow as new net metering participants seek the most cost-effective solutions.  There are some interesting businesses that are making things happen to wring cost out of business processes to benefit consumers.  The CPUC decision also has positive ramifications in terms of making things happen for local jobs, especially blue collar jobs in installation and maintenance.  

The California Energy Commission (CEC) just announced a ruling that enhances energy use regulations for residential and commercial buildings.  The rules go into effect in 2014 for new construction and major renovations, and are estimated to save the energy equivalent of 6 power plants or electricity for 1.7 million homes.  Important residential building changes require that new homes must include insulation on hot water pipes, windows that can filter out heat, and rooftops that are “solar-ready”.     

Commercial building regulations also address solar-ready roofs and heat-filtering windows, and include automated lighting controls to adjust to daylight conditions and reflective roof materials to create cool roofs.  Making buildings better energy consumers through technology or better construction materials is also an important part of the Smart Grid value chain. 

There are two existing state policies influencing these regulations and concomitantly, California’s Smart Grid plans.  The first is the Loading Order for state energy decisions, which prioritizes cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable generation as the first actions to meet growing electricity needs.  In other words, try something different than building another power plant.  The other state policy sets “Zero Net Energy” (ZNE) goals for residential and commercial buildings by 2020 and 2030 respectively. At these dates, new buildings must deliver all of their annual energy needs through energy efficiency and distributed generation from renewables. 

Just like the CPUC decision, the CEC action creates market opportunities, and emphasizes the importance of investment in Smart Grid-enabling technologies and practices that support DER in addition to making buildings smarter and stingier in energy use.  Utilities and businesses that want to make things happen in the Smart Grid should take note.  And regulators and utilities should consider enhanced education and communications outreach so that consumers can watch what happens (and become active Smart Grid participants) rather than wonder what happened.


Ben Franklin – America’s First Proponent of Energy Efficiency

Ben Franklin, the first American genius, achieved fame and notoriety for his electricity research, which included that famous kite-flying experiment.  But did you know that he first described the concept of treating energy efficiency as an energy resource?  He memorably stated “A penny saved is a penny earned,” back in the 1700s, but today he would be talking about negawatts and energy efficiency. 

The Smart Grid Dictionary defines energy efficiency as technologies, applications, and services that reduce the consumption of energy without impacting operations or behaviors.  It is that lack of change to behaviors or operations that sets energy efficiency (EE) apart from energy conservation.  EE produces negawatts – and treating it as that “penny earned” has been promoting welcome innovations in technologies and policies that financial and environmental benefits for consumers.

First, improved EE in products means lower total costs of ownership or TCOs for residential and business consumers.  The California Energy Commission recently adopted EE standards for battery chargers, which are vampire loads in just about every home and business.  Those chargers are often plugged in and drawing power even when they are not fulfilling their purpose of charging up a smart phone, mini-vac, or powered toothbrush.  In California alone, a cringe-worthy 5.3 gigawatthours of electricity is spent on chargers, mostly in the form of waste heat.  The standards, which take effect between 2013 – 2017, will require that manufacturers produce chargers that stop drawing power once the device battery is topped off.  That will lower consumers’ electricity bills and reduce the need to invest in additional generation capacity to support these vampire loads.  And that in turn helps keep electricity rates from rising.  California EE standards are reckoned to have saved its state residents over $36 billion since 1977.  That’s a lot of pennies earned.

Second, purposefully designing EE into products will reduce the amount of energy expended for any device’s operations – whether they are always tethered to the grid or reliant on battery power.  Researchers at the University of Michigan have a new technology called Energy-Minimizing Idle Listening that has reduced energy use in mobile devices by 44% in proof of concept testing.  By putting mobile devices into a “subconscious mode’, the device’s normal idle listening state consumes less energy, extending battery charges and reducing electricity consumption.   Another interesting technology trend first articulated by Jonathan Koomey of Stanford University and known as Koomey’s Law states that the amount of computing power per joule doubles every 1.6 years.  (A joule is a measure of energy, whereas a watt is a measure of the rate of energy consumption.)  Essentially, a fixed amount of computing power gets twice as energy efficient just under every two years, which has tremendous implications for our proliferation of electricity-guzzling data centers that support our growing use of cloud-based applications and digital storage.  IEEE’s local Silicon Valley Chapter of the Solid State Circuits Society is sponsoring a course about the fundamentals of low-power design, which portends opportunities for designers of computing devices, who have long understood the need to build in as much EE design as possible, to share their expertise with developers of consumer electronics.  These developments will ultimately reduce the costs of operation for many popular devices.

Third, thinking about energy efficiency as a penny earned enables policy-makers to support decoupling for electric utilities.  The Smart Grid Dictionary defines decoupling as a regulatory and market strategy that allows utilities to invest in and profit from efficiency-based capacity by assuring them a return that is equivalent to sales of electricity.  It means that utilities are not penalized for encouraging their customers to use less electricity.  Today, 30 states do not have pending or established decoupling policies in place for electricity and/or gas, and they should.  Consumers would like utilities to help them reduce their energy bills, but without decoupling, why would utilities negatively impact their revenues?  Understanding the full value of decoupling translates into political will to modify utility business models.  Why do regulators and legislators in these 30 states ignore the opportunities to save money for their citizens?     

Whether we’re looking at improving product designs or market mechanisms to encourage energy efficiency as that “penny earned”, the financial and environmental benefits for consumers are compelling.  Ben Franklin would approve.