How Nanotechnologies will Disrupt the Electrical Grid

Is it just me, or is the pace of technology innovation speeding up for you too? Acceleration is certainly evident in nanotechnology R&D. Back in December 2014 I wrote two blogs that updated my 2020 predictions first published in January 2014. Nanotechnology discoveries are now occurring on almost a weekly basis. Universities have been a hotbed of scientific discoveries in material sciences. Consider the recent news that graphene, a particularly interesting nanomaterial and photons. A photon is a unit of electromagnetic radiation that has energy but not an electrical charge. To the naked human eye, photons are sunshine. Research in Switzerland revealed that graphene can take one photon and make multiple electrons. This is what today’s solar panels do – convert photons into electrons. But graphene has a multiplier effect, with the potential to boost existing best case conversion rates from 32% to 60%.

While this announcement addresses research results, commercialization won’t be far behind, and we’ll soon be reading about new solar panels that leverage graphene materials to increase harvestability of solar potential. Other research advances focused on making solar harvesting materials more flexible.   What do these research announcements mean? Here are three key points. Solar panels, like microprocessors, will shrink in size and increase in power. Second, areas that have marginal value for solar generation will get a second look as panels improve in their productivity and their flexibility to be adhered to non-traditional surfaces. Third, distributed energy resource (DER) momentum grows as a result as more rooftops, landscapes, and other building surfaces harvest solar energy and proliferate in distribution grids.Gr

Other nano research is concluding that a little stress can be a good thing for silicon crystals known as quantum dots. Around the time of the 1973 energy crisis, the popular saying was “small is beautiful”. In at least some research labs around the world, the new saying could be “small and stressed is beautiful”. One commercial application possibility focuses again on improving the energy harvestability of solar panels made from silicon. However, there’s also interest in how these nanocrystal reactions can increase the charge/discharge cycles of batteries, improve computer displays, and decrease power consumption.

Are investors paying attention? Graphene has been dubbed the “wonder material”, and big players like IBM and Samsung have been allocating money and resources into it.  China has filed more patents involving graphene than any other country. One of the first commercial applications of graphene research is a light bulb that improves on the energy efficiency of LED bulb technologies. Once these new bulbs are available later this year, investors who have been hanging back will be looking for other commercialization opportunities.

From a Smart Grid perspective, graphene has exciting application potential in energy harvesting, energy storage, and even energy consumption, specifically reductions in waste heat. It’s a rapidly innovating area of materials science research that will be the foundation for disruptive technologies integrated into the electric grid. The dual impacts of these disruptors will be to increase the amount of electricity generated by DER assets and reduce electricity consumption as devices become more energy efficient. The speed at which R&D in graphene and other nanomaterials is advancing to commercialization may blast past my predictions of overall progress by 2020.

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Will California’s Energy Policy Become the World’s Energy Policy?

California recently was ranked by the World Bank as number eight in world economies, ahead of Russia and Italy and just behind Brazil. Jerry Brown, re-elected as governor, delivered an inaugural address that included an energy policy in the form of three energy objectives for 2030. Given this state’s ability to make markets through its imposing economic and innovation strengths, here are my projections about what this energy policy will mean for California, electric utilities, Smart Grid vendors, and the world.

Energy objective 1: Increase electricity from renewable sources to 50%.

The state was well on its way to achieving the 2020 objective of integrating a 33% mix of renewables into its electricity sources. This new goal puts increased emphasis on energy storage to firm up even more intermittent renewables, so the state market will markedly expand for both utility-scale and distributed renewable generation and storage solutions. Distributed generation, particularly in the form of rooftop solar, will also be required to meet this objective. California utilities will seek regulatory approval to rent customer rooftops and operate solar generation assets on an aggregated scale, as long as these assets count towards their expected renewable investments. Vendors with distributed grid operations management solutions have a bright future in the state.

Energy objective 2: Reduce petroleum use in transportation by 50%. Don’t bank on a focus on technologies that improve miles per gallon in internal combustion engines. California’s strong support for carbon cap and trade markets and climate change initiatives put the emphasis on clean alternative fuels. Hydrogen technologies and fuel cell cars could be part of this strategy. However, the regulated electric utilities have a new leverage point to build EV programs and create new opportunities to explore transactive energy scenarios that firm intermittent renewables. PG&E recently announced a pilot program with BMW.   Municipalities will also look at greenhouse gas reduction goals through systemic transportation transformations. Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) initiatives and municipal utilities will adopt EVs for their flexibility in smart charging.

Energy objective 3: Double the efficiency of existing buildings and make heating fuels cleaner. California enacts new building energy efficiency standards every three years that typically apply to new buildings. It’s noteworthy that this energy objective highlighted existing building stock. Building energy efficiency retrofits have multiple benefits – local jobs in communities, and accrued savings from reduced energy bills for residential and business consumers. Since California is one of eleven states that decoupled both electricity and natural gas, regulated utilities won’t see negative impacts on their bottom lines. Expect innovations in programs that encourage energy efficiency retrofits for multi-family and rental properties and more PACE-like programs that focus on energy efficiency rather than generation. With regards, to cleaner heating fuels, most California homes use natural gas, which emits those bad greenhouse gases. However, look for most policy and investment activity in commercial buildings, which can benefit from combined heat and power (CHP) and even more energy-efficient combined cycle heat and power (CCHP) technologies to heat building spaces. The solutions here are much more mature than they are for residential, although this 2030 objective offers significant impetus to future Department of Energy Funding Opportunity Announcements.

The leader of the eighth largest world economy said, “How we achieve these goals and at what pace will take great thought and imagination mixed with pragmatic caution. It will require enormous innovation, research and investment. And we will need active collaboration at every stage with our scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, businesses and officials at all levels.” The good news is that California has all the ingredients to make it happen, and what happens in California does not stay there.

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The Final Five Smart Grid Predictions – A Progress Report

I made ten predictions in January 2014 about Smart Grid and Smart City trends and changes that will occur between 2014 and 2020. Here is an update on the final five predictions. The first five were reviewed last week. You can review the full predictions here and here, and judge for yourself the quality of my crystal ball.

6.  Debates about the future of the social compact for electricity services and the socialization of electricity costs continue. The Reforming Energy Vision initiative includes the objective to “enable and facilitate” new business models for utilities, customers, and energy service companies. This is just the first state activity that will generate significant discussion about how to equitably balance distribution grid investments that accommodate and integrate more distributed energy resources (DER). Since it will take time to implement and then measure results from new business models, this debate is sure to continue for the next decade.

7.  EVs advance to 10% of the US car market. The current electric vehicle (EV) penetration in 2013 was just a bit over .5%. The falling costs of gasoline are putting additional pressure on EV manufacturers to reduce prices of zero emission vehicles to increase consumer adoption. However, utilities are now taking a more active role, as Edison Electric Institute members will start investing up to $50 million annually in EV service trucks and charging stations for consumers. The Department of Defense (DoD) is conducting pilots for vehicle to grid or V2G applications. Their first smart charging demonstration are exploring V2G performance, and they will also examine re-purposing used EV batteries for fixed energy storage.

8.  Resiliency measures also become part of the definition of a smart building. There are a number of federal, state, and non-governmental initiatives that address resiliency, and some critical infrastructure definitions include selected buildings. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is developing standards guidance for community disaster resilience, but this is focused on building materials and codes. Microgrids, DER and Zero Net energy codes and technologies can bridge the gap in existing resiliency initiatives for buildings. Microgrids are already in production as resources to maintain power to critical infrastructure during emergencies – one of the goals of the Borrego Springs microgrid.

9.  Nanotechnologies help propel solar harvesting efficiencies past the 50% mark, and by 2020 research scientists are aiming for 75% harvest efficiencies. The number of patents filed for innovations in nanotechnology using graphene have tripled in the past 10 years. The research pipeline contains single molecule thick sheets of graphene and molybdenum that can potentially provide 1000 times more power per weight unit of material than current commercially available solar cells. The fabrication of flexible solar panels is on the horizon, which can be wrapped around curved or uneven surfaces or reduced in scale, expand the possibilities for where solar can be deployed.

10.  There’s sufficient electricity production from renewable energy sources that we no longer talk about “renewables.” American grid-connected wind turbines have a combined capacity of 60,000 MW, projected to double by 2020. Solar is enjoying explosive growth. Energy storage solutions will “firm up” the intermittency of wind and solar and thus eliminate the last objections to reliance on renewables. It will just be a cheap and clean source of electricity without the price volatility of fossil fuels.

These final five predictions are well on their way to realization too, although the prediction about nanotechnology advances is admittedly a stretch goal. You’ll note that energy storage has a significant influence on the advancement of some of these predictions.  We’ll keep tracking these predictions and bring you periodic updates.

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Energy Storage – Bright Future, But Challenges Ahead

The Energy Storage North America (ESNA) conference in San Jose, CA last week can be summed up in one word – optimism. The sanguine outlooks on market opportunities and trends were unanimous. Several vendors can’t manufacture their equipment fast enough to meet demand.

California is making the market for energy storage. The ninth largest economy in the world recognized energy storage systems as important technologies in electricity value chains with the passage of AB2514. The CPUC decision 13-10-040 set the regulatory expectations about utility-interconnected and behind the meter energy storage. States like California view energy storage as a critical tool to firm up intermittent forms of renewable generation. State policies in the Northeast USA encourage energy storage systems to deliver resiliency for grids and critical infrastructure. Of course, a credible argument could be proffered that Tesla is making a market for energy storage with its gigafactory in Nevada. The company plans to build 50 GWh in annual battery storage starting in 2017.   These combined influences are driving the growth of new storage technologies, services and financing mechanisms.

The comparisons to solar trajectory trends are well-known. Energy storage technologies are expected to rapidly decrease in price in response to increased economies of scale and expertise. Deployment numbers forecast fast growth – particularly in behind the meter solutions that focus on reducing electricity costs due to high demand charges.

But the energy storage ecosystem has to overcome two challenges that could have negative impacts on adoption rates. First, energy storage technologies are diverse. There are chemical and non-chemical categories of storage. There are many subcategories based on different elements such as lithium, zinc, sodium, or iron; and non-chemical storage ranges from pumped hydro to compressed air to flywheels. There is significant variety in number of charges, stability in different environmental conditions, and form factors. You can select an energy storage solution to ensure that your mission-critical devices or operations are not disrupted by power outages – a resiliency function. Storage can help maintain stable grid operations, a reliability function. Storage can reduce electricity use at peak time periods or avoid those demand charges mentioned above – a cost-savings function. The market places very different values on the potential uses for energy storage by function. There’s a lot of confusion that needs to be addressed with education to ensure buyers are making sound decisions that meet and exceed their expectations.

The second challenge is that early stage energy storage technologies and services are usually proprietary and customized engineering solutions. Deployments may include features that aren’t supported on a commercial scale, or may not exist in the future. All of these qualities increase the balance of system costs that go beyond the storage equipment purchases. There is no equivalent to a USB standard for physical connections of different energy storage solutions to the grid. The Byzantine variety of permitting processes and fees is a problem that bedevils the solar industry too, but it’s a brand new learning curve for the energy storage system integrators and installers. In essence, there’s too much complexity in the entire design, development and deployment process for energy storage systems, and it’s an area that’s ripe for innovation.

The good news is that vendors are working collaboratively to solve some of these problems. There’s a new industry initiative called the Modular Energy Storage Architecture (MESA) standard initiative that can help promote more of a plug and play environment. It would be interesting to see similar collaborative efforts between utilities to standardize on interconnection processes. Likewise, the irrationalities of municipal permitting processes should be replaced with national standards – just as we use the NEC (National Electrical Code) to define the safe design and installation of electrical systems in a uniform way across the USA.

The energy storage ecosystem has to rapidly mature, or suffer self-inflicted pain evident in inflexible, non-scalable, and proprietary solutions slowed down with non-standard processes. These challenges could reduce overall investment paybacks for grid scale and behind the meter deployments. Industry optimism must be tempered with pragmatism to create the right technology and policy frameworks that enable continued success to this important segment of Smart Grid solutions.

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How Smart Grid Policies Create Employment Opportunities

Most Smart Grid discussions about human impacts address the demographic trends in utility workforces or the influences that Smart Grid technologies and applications have on people in residential and commercial settings. While both are very worthy topics, the subject of job creation doesn’t get the same attention. And that’s a puzzle, given today’s economy. The Smart Grid’s technology, policy, and financial disruptors have happy consequences for the labor market through increased and sustainable local employment opportunities.

Jobs can be defined as direct, indirect, and induced. Direct jobs are the positions created to perform a specific function. Indirect jobs are created in supply chains and the businesses that support those direct jobs. Induced jobs are created based on the savings generated from the results of the direct and indirect jobs.

For instance, one of the most important Smart Grid trends is the growth of distributed energy resources (DER). One important DER asset class is renewable energy such as found in solar generation solutions. The state of California has more than 47,000 people working in this sector – about one third of the nation’s total solar employment. Many of these jobs are focused on installation and maintenance of solar systems – “boots on the ground” or direct jobs that every region of the USA should encourage.

What led to solar generating energy and jobs? It’s not just the natural climate of abundant sunshine in the state. The state renewable portfolio standard of 33% that Governor Jerry Brown stated was a “floor, not a ceiling requirement”; the million solar roofs program, and other regulatory and legislative actions created the business climate, which enabled companies to put certainty to former risks, and led to the establishment or growth of scores of businesses and new direct, indirect, and induced jobs.

Other DER asset classes include energy storage, energy efficiency retrofits, and demand response programs. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) mandated in 2013 that its regulated utilities must incorporate 1.325 GW of energy storage into their grids by 2020, the largest amount of storage in the world today. Energy storage and renewable generation assets go together like peanut butter and jelly – good on their own, but even better together. Like recent solar cost trends, upfront energy storage costs are expected to decrease as deployments increase and benefit from economies of scale. New market entrants with innovations in technologies, processes, and services will bend the cost curves downwards even more. These trends mean more direct jobs for skilled technicians and a labor force that remains in place to respond to maintenance and upgrade requests. Greentech Media estimates that the energy storage market will quadruple every four years, and one of the reasons is California policy, which essentially made a market for energy storage solutions at the transmission, distribution, and behind the meter (consumer and prosumer) points.

Energy efficiency is another promising homegrown employment area. Spurred by the oil embargo and economic shocks of the early 1970s, California has gradually introduced energy efficiency (EE) standards for white goods like refrigerators, electronics like TVs, and commercial and residential buildings themselves. The building standards are updated every three years. Similar policies have been adopted worldwide since then. The latest round of EE building standards will create locally-situated jobs as building owners retrofit structures or deploy the appropriate energy efficiency measures in their new construction. This American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy (ACEEE) paper outlines the economic impacts of EE projects in both employment and cost savings. The cost savings benefits of energy efficiency measures are sometimes overlooked too. As less money is needed to pay for energy expenditures, more capital is available to invest in business growth.

There are two centers in California designed to support job training on EE technologies and services. The newest center is a collaboration between the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). These organizations understand the connection between smart energy policies and sustainable employment. California has often led the way in smart energy policy, although the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy has prompted some eastern states to promulgate innovative energy policies that build and enhance grid and community resiliency. Where these pioneers lead – will other states follow? They would be wise to enact similar energy policies to benefit their regional economies through job creation and reductions in energy costs for citizens and businesses.

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