A Critical Issue – Water Resiliency

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. It took a drought of epic proportions to force the Australian nation to radically reform its water policies and practices. California is now in the fourth year of its own serious drought, with growing negative impacts to economies, communities, and ecosystems. While there’s great value in California adopting similar actions that Australia took to manage a dwindling resource, there are great challenges as well.

For starters, California’s water laws are irrational. Senior and junior water claims are based on the timing of gold rush era prospectors nailing pieces of paper to trees adjacent to water sources. Some industry experts estimate that it would take 30 years of full time work just to sort out the claims and hierarchies on water sources before an overhaul could be started. That would be a daunting task here and in other western states governed by similar claim precedents. But it gets worse. California’s water consumers are also irrational. In California, 90% of the state’s water is dedicated to agricultural use. Much of that agriculture is focused on water-intensive crops like cotton and alfalfa. If you’re wondering why a desert climate is producing crops that are better suited to regions with significantly predictable precipitation, you’re not alone.

At that December water conference, California officials seemed most interested in the physical improvements that could be mandated in building codes (such as rain catchments) but deflected questions on how legislation could change California water laws to encourage conservation and agriculture models more suited to desert climates.

There’s an additional complication. California’s primary source of water is winter precipitation that is conveniently stored in the form of snow. It’s very difficult to measure exactly how much snow falls in any given season and accurately predict how much of that snow will melt into useable water in the ensuing summer. Snow water equivalent describes the amount of water contained in snow pack. As you can intuit, dry snow contains less water than wet snow, and sometimes the differences can be as extreme as thirty inches of dry snow for one inch of water versus five inches of wet snow yielding one inch of water.

California’s snowpack, or lack of it, is not just an important source of drinking water. It is also a source of electricity generation in the state. A shrinking snowpack impacts the hydropower that can be generated. It’s a uniquely Californian take on that energy/water nexus, and it’s not a sustainable strategy. There’s a real lack of resiliency in the current water infrastructure that also impacts energy.

There are more available solutions to address hydropower reductions than potable water reductions. The electricity infrastructure is more amenable to optimization through ongoing applications of innovative technologies, policies, and financial capital.   More distributed generation plus energy storage can replace some hydropower reductions. But as far as water infrastructure goes, these systems are much more inflexible and much less optimized than their electric grid counterparts. It’s just the early days for deployment of Smart Grid technologies into water infrastructure in California and much of the rest of the USA.   But more than that, we’ll need smart water policies and innovations in financing the necessary water infrastructure upgrades to address critical resiliency concerns.


Drought and Energy – An Interesting Water/Energy Nexus

The water/energy nexus and the ramifications of this closely intertwined relationship, particularly with energy generation, needs to gain awareness beyond policy wonks in the western states of the USA. These previous blogs about California’s water issues and the water/energy nexus provide good background about climate change impacts to water and energy.

If we look at water as a supply chain, it is easy to spot the similarities to the traditional electricity supply chain, which consists of generation, transmission, distribution, and consumption. The water supply chain is comprised of water sources (similar to generation), transport (similar to transmission), treatment (similar to distribution) and consumption.  The Smart Grid is transforming the electricity supply chain into a value chain in which consumers can also become electricity producers or prosumers.  The Smart Grid will also play many vital roles in the connections between energy and water.

There are serious problems at every stage of the water supply chain starting with sources.  Water sources can be grouped in three categories:  1) precipitation in the form of rain or snow; 2) groundwater sources such as rivers, streams, and underground aquifers (all rely on precipitation for resupply); and 3) conversion of briny and brackish water into water suitable for plant or animal (including human) consumption.

The current news focus in California has been on possible delay of once through cooling rules to address the unexpected closure of a nuclear power plant in southern California due to safety concerns.  Once through cooling is a technique that uses water drawn from older coastal and bayside power plants in the electricity generation process.  It is extremely destructive to marine environments.   Seawater intake – up to 16 billion gallons per day – is expelled at high temperatures.  Both intake and outflow are harmful to the aquatic life, which confronts many other challenges caused by climate change, environmental pollution, and overfishing.    New power plants are designed to use air instead of water, eliminating this environmental peril, and many older plants in California are in the process of retooling or retirement.

Northern California, which includes the San Francisco Bay Area, has different power concerns that are caused by climate change and the current drought, which is labeled extreme to exceptional for most of the area.  The California Energy Commission (CEC) notes that between 8 to 17%

of in?state generation comes from hydropower.  Approximately 75% of this in-state hydropower is produced by 150 high elevation hydroelectric plants situated in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.  The supply reservoirs for these plants typically contain less than a year’s storage capacity.  Most rely on snowpack for water storage.

Snowpack is perfect time-release water storage when it is available.  However, every climate change model forecasts that most of the west will receive less precipitation in the coming decades.  That precipitation that does occur is increasingly likely to be rainfall instead of snow.  We are facing a future in which these hydro plants have lost their predictability for use.  If a hydropower plant operator releases water now to generate electricity, there’s no certainty that there will be sufficient annual precipitation to resupply that reservoir for future generation, or that it will be conveniently time-released in melting snowpack.

Demand response (DR) is a tactic that utilities use to reduce peak electricity use.  In California, most utilities have summer peaks that correspond to very hot weather and the need for electricity to power air conditioning across a region.  These utilities have DR programs that induce residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural customers to voluntarily cut back their consumption during the hottest days.  We can all connect the dots to realize that there will be a greater need for DR programs and participants as all regions of the USA will experience higher temperatures due to climate change.  But when you connect these dots, you also realize that regions and utilities that are reliant on hydropower will have to leverage more demand response (DR) to conserve water in hydropower plants that are at risk of limited resupply – particularly if that resupply comes from snowpack.

Demand response for water conservation – it’s one aspect of the water/energy nexus that has received little attention, but it will certainly play a larger role in western states that rely on hydropower in the future.   Electricity prosumers, producing predictable negawatts to offset peak demand, will play a critical role in this particular intertwining of water and energy.  As important as DR will be, its only part of the energy supply solution as overall temperature rises are predicted from climate change.  Western states will have to rely on more distributed generation from other clean, renewable energy sources to compensate for losses from hydropower as its predictability of supply and timing are disrupted by climate change.  Smart Grid technologies can certainly help integrate renewables and other distributed energy resources as a creative response to conserve water and manage the intricacies of the water/energy nexus.


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.


Innovative Solutions Target the Energy/Water Nexus

My Thanksgiving list put contemporary entrepreneurs at the top.  Their efforts are paying off in the improvements in renewable energy harvesting technologies, increasing the range of cost-effective energy storage technologies, and addressing important environmental and social issues. Today, there are creative innovators developing products and services that save energy or water.  But the really interesting innovations manage to do both.

PowWow Energy, Inc. is one of those companies.  It just won the national Cleantech Open’s Grand Prize for the best company in early-stage cleantech innovation and viable solutions to tough challenges in the world today.  It has a very compelling story for sustainability.  (Disclaimer:  I’m an advisor to the company.)  It uses the data that is readily available from smart meters (which are abundant in California) that are attached to irrigation pumps (also abundant in California and other agricultural regions). It leverages this data using proprietary algorithms to detect anomalies in electricity use patterns that signal a water leak.

Traditional leak detection technologies for water utilities rely on specially deployed acoustic sensors to detect running water and communications networks to relay sensor data to an application that can make sense of it.  Farmers could also opt to install an expensive water meter, but why bother when a smart electricity meter can deliver the relevant information instead? In addition, Olivier Jerphagnon, the CEO and founder of PowWow Energy, explains “leak detection using data from smart electricity meters is often more precise than using water data because of the way most water pumps work.”

This solution also avoids the challenge of dealing with the extremely fragmented water utility market sector by working with the less fragmented, and more technologically advanced electric utility sector.  San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) is using the solution to assist farmers and ranchers in saving electricity and mitigating- leaks in irrigation systems. PowWow Energy’s application is one of the dozen applications currently available on their Green Button Connect My Data platform, a sort of “App Store” for their customers who want to save electricity.

For SDG&E, the aphorism “time is money” could easily translate to “water is energy”.  Electricity generation and irrigation are the two biggest consumers of water in the country. In California, 8% of all energy use goes to agriculture and water pump use, so shaving a percentage or two here can help alleviate electricity consumption– especially at peak load situations.  This is one of many solutions that will help address the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS) closure.

PowWow Energy is releasing its application first in California, a target-rich environment for micro-irrigation systems that need leak detection, but will expand across the Western United States when it raises a Series-A round of financing next year.  The company’s value proposition is particularly entrancing to Silicon Valley investors because it is wholly software-based and offered as a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).

The sensor hardware – the smart meter – is supplied and maintained by the utility company. PowWow Energy provides the data analytics to find leaks in a reliable and repeatable way.   The data is supplied by the utility companies via a standard Energy Services Provider interface (ESPI) adopted by the Green Button initiative.    It is a response to a White House call for action in 2011.  PowWow Energy’s solution represents a new and different use of Green Button data too – which has primarily focused on residential or commercial building applications.  Currently, 18 utilities in the USA have implemented Green Button data, another 21 are committed to doing it.  Here’s one more application that offers a compelling reason for utilities to adopt the initiative.  Saving electricity and water are huge benefits for farmers and ranchers, as well as electric and water utilities.

Olivier has his sights set on the agricultural water market in the Western United States – valued as a total addressable market of $10B USD, but there’s much more to the company’s potential in harnessing data to address agricultural water and energy uses.  It will be interesting to see what other innovations that address the energy/water nexus come from PowWow Energy and other energy entrepreneurs.


Smart Grid Policy Trends to Watch in 2013

The large-scale rollouts of smart meters heralded one of the first noticeable machine to machine (M2M) communications deployments.   It also launched a series of conversations about safety and privacy concerns, which will continue to play out in many other M2M applications.  DOE ARPA-E funding jumpstarted an interesting array of technologies that will shape grid modernization – particularly in renewables and energy storage.  The ongoing IT/OT convergence will continue to influence utility operations and consumer interactions.

So what will be the most influential Smart Grid trends in 2013? There’s always the potential for technology breakthroughs – particularly in fixed and mobile energy storage.  However, we’re well overdue for gamechanging policies, because the current practice of applying technology innovations within existing utility business models is akin to pouring new wine into old wineskins.  Something’s gotta give.

Here are four policy trends that will gain momentum in 2013:

  1. Industry attention will focus on transactive energy, which conceptualizes the impacts of widely distributed energy resources on utility business models, technologies/services, markets, and consumers.  Organized as peer-based energy grids, this concept would revolutionize the electricity grid by enabling massive integration of renewable energy sources into the grid, and “democratizing” the energy marketplace by allowing prosumers producing relatively small amounts of kilowatts or negawatts (via demand response) to participate in the market.  The GridWise® Architecture Council is already at work on the metaconcept.
  2. Forward-thinking regulators will consider how to influence utilities to act as distribution grid load controllers to accommodate new sources of kilowatts or negawatts without detriments to grid reliability and resiliency.  Managers of wholesale energy markets will continue to plan and experiment with programs that incorporate distribution grid participants into the bulk power grid.  PJM has made the most progress in expanding market participation, but CAISO is also actively engaged here.
  3. The energy/water nexus will become a more dominant part of project and technology conversations.  While the extremely synergistic relationship between energy and water has been publicized by many organizations, it hasn’t achieved critical mass in the minds of policy makers or the general public.  But that’s changing in the USA and around the globe.  Large water projects for desalinization and water transport often use significant amounts of energy to support pumps and treatment.  These infrastructure projects will be weighed not only on their overall public costs versus benefits, but also from the perspectives of how their energy loads impact local grids.  Funded projects and selected technologies may be the ones that are the most energy-frugal.  Natural gas fracking technologies will come under greater scrutiny in terms of the impacts of drilling fluids and practices to the purity of ground and underground water supplies.
  4. In a rare show of bipartisanship, Congress will allow Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) for renewable energy, which are currently limited to oil and gas investments.  MLPs are taxed like partnerships, but owned like stock.  This financing mechanism has been quite successfully used to organize funding of large infrastructure projects with lower costs and reduced risks for investors.  It also allows for a greater range of participation in investments.  This website provides an excellent description of how MLPs work.  Leveling the playing field for renewables via MLPs will accelerate projects across the many states that have Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), despite efforts by fossil fuel industry groups to weaken or eliminate these standards.

Policy changes won’t happen overnight, but these trends are worth watching to understand the evolution of the Smart Grid across the entire value chain from generation to consumption.