Super Bowl Power Outage Reminds Us of the Importance of Electricity

Were you one of the 100+ million fans watching the Super Bowl yesterday?  How about that 34 minute power outage?  It was a potent reminder of the reliance we place on an uninterruptible supply of electricity to maintain our lifestyles, our entertainment, and our economy.

I’m reading an interesting book which (slightly tongue in cheek) catalogs everything we should worry about. This is my short and quite serious list of things we should worry about with our energy infrastructure policies for electricity.

1.  Energy surety.  This is similar to energy autarchy – a concept and practices that ensure national self-sufficiency and independence.  For some, transitioning from imported sources to domestic sources of oil and natural gas delivers energy surety. That’s a correct assumption only if we decree that domestic oil and gas cannot be exported overseas, which gets to an extremely intertwined item number two in my list of energy concerns.  One of the primary objectives and benefits of the Smart Grid is the incorporation of domestic renewable sources of energy that build true energy autarchy and independence from polluting commodity fuels.

2.  Economic surety.  Fuels that are importable, like oil and gas, are also exportable.  And guess what?  These commodities go to the highest bidder – on or offshore.  That’s how capitalism works.  Some American manufacturers like Dow Chemical, which consumes significant quantities of electricity for their operations, are already raising concerns that American natural gas will go up in price as more infrastructure is in place to make it easier to export.   Sixteen applications are sitting with the Department of Energy to build export terminals to ship natural gas to countries that don’t have free trade agreements with the USA.   Promoters of unrestricted exports include companies like Exxon, one of the beneficiaries of the annual $4B in subsidies lavished on them by our current federal tax code.  What odds would Las Vegas bookies put on the current low price of natural gas remaining steady? Or is it’s currently low price merely a temporary reprieve for a fuel that has shown extensive volatility over the years?  Utilities aren’t betting on it as a single source of energy for electricity.

If we really want intertwined energy and economic surety, we need to seriously bulk up on energy sources for electricity that are not exportable.  Sun and wind are two prime possibilities, and biomass and water – whether innovative tidal or traditional dam – are others.  And in the cases of solar and wind energies, the extraction costs are relatively stable or even declining.

3.  Grid brittleness.  Our electrical grids, and even our grids for supplies of natural gas to power plants are extremely vulnerable to disruptions from weather as well as from cyber attack.  The recent devastation wrought by superstorm Sandy is just the latest illustration that reliance on remote generation or extraction sources can play havoc on communities and regional economies.  And when it comes to natural gas, our current supplies overwhelm the existing infrastructure, creating new congestion points and requiring pipeline buildouts.  These undertakings are not fast nor cheap, and likely to be slowed down by legitimate concerns about pipeline safety.  Building distributed energy resources (DER) that range from locally produced and consumed renewables generation, energy storage, and negawatt plays in energy efficiency and demand response can deliver resiliency as well as increased reliability into our grids to withstand and recover from natural or human-caused disruptions.

Widely and massively distributed and small scale energy resources that use or store electricity produced from domestic renewables address this short list of concerns. We have a good understanding of the range of technologies, policies, and financing that are required and will be topics of future articles.


Today’s Streetlight Programs Save Money But Miss An Opportunity to Build Smart Cities

Streetlights are a ubiquitous presence in our modern infrastructure.  They deliver security and safety benefits but are expensive to operate in terms of consumed electricity and fixture maintenance. Light-emitting diode (LED) fixtures that replace the old sodium vapor lights can reduce operating costs and CO2 emissions, improve lighting for traffic and personal safety, and produce less “light pollution” spilling up into the night sky.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) is representative of US investor-owned utilities (IOUs).  It owns over 235,000 sodium vapor streetlights, and provides electricity for another 515,000 owned by cities, towns, and private companies or citizens.  That’s a significant amount of electricity consumed on the grid during off-peak times.  According to a 2006 study, replacement of all of the PG&E-owned streetlights would produce annual savings of $16M and be equivalent to deleting 6,000 cars from California roads in terms of CO2 emissions.  For cash-strapped municipalities, the numbers look even better – $37M in annual savings, and 82,000 tons of CO2 (equivalent to 14,000 cars) eliminated from the atmosphere. In northern California, more than 75 cities and counties have worked with PG&E to replace sodium vapor lights with LED versions, saving more than $1.1M per year in electricity costs.    For instance, the city of Oakland recently replaced 241 lights with LEDs – and expects to save $20,000 annually in electricity costs.   For the residents in the areas with upgraded lighting, they see an improvement in quality of life through increased safety and security.

But most replacement projects have opted for the LED fixtures and do not include the communications capabilities that the smartest streetlights contain. The low adoption rates are a shame, because smart streetlights could create interesting M2M (machine to machine) communications networks for more smart city services, especially those focused on transportation. Smart parking applications that share the communications capabilities enabled by smart streetlights could alert parking enforcement to inoperable meters and expired meters – just like the best smart meters for electricity do today.  What’s stopping investments in smart streetlights to build these communications foundations?  A lack of applications and a lack of the right financing programs.

We are just now seeing the first entrants in smart parking, car and bike sharing, and other innovations that could leverage communications networks and data with smart streetlights.  This past week, Cisco and Streetline announced an application that embeds sensors into street pavements. The mobile app will identify where available parking is and thus reduce traffic congestion and driver stress incurred in the hunt for parking spaces, and reduce CO2 emissions as well.

But smart streetlights cost about $100 more than LED streetlights without communications capabilities.  Cities have difficulties coming up with the cash to invest in these projects on their own.  Most loan programs for street light replacements mandate specific payback periods of 10 – 13 years.  In addition, the payback is calculated only on simple first year energy savings (the first year energy savings divided by the net project cost). When the cost/benefit analysis is made under these constraints, it doesn’t always pencil out to go with smart streetlights.

But there’s room for hope in California.  The recent carbon offsets auction put a price on carbon emissions for the first time.  California-based investor-owned utilities (IOUs) like PG&E buy offsets, and over time, the price of the offsets will rise.  The next financial analysis of streetlights should be made with projected carbon costs factored into payback periods.  And ideally, the financial aid programs that the state IOUs or the California Energy Commission offer to help cities convert streetlights should take a longer view of infrastructure investment.  After all, that’s what we’ve done with the Smart Grid.


Natural Gas – Is It Stunting Innovative Thinking?

Let’s admit it, infrastructure is a boring word.   There’s nothing sexy about it.  It implies disruptions to our lives as we deal with delays and detours for construction and repair projects.  Yet it is absolutely necessary, and infrastructure is what needs to be upgraded in our water, gas, and electric grids.

My previous articles discussed investments that are ongoing or needed in the electrical grid to modernize generation, transmission, distribution, and consumption.  However, the same issues exist for gas and water too.  In some aspects, the needs are even more striking.  But how we build our infrastructure and what we build for our infrastructure also says a great deal about how innovative is our thinking.  And unfortunately, right now that thinking is “like for like”, and merely replicates existing energy models with known weaknesses in reliability and resiliency instead of building infrastructure based on new models.

Natural gas is seen by some in the energy business as a panacea to all energy concerns.  It’s domestic.  It’s cleaner than coal.  However, it requires significant infrastructure investments.  No matter how much innovation you put into the extraction technologies for fossil fuels (which by the way had HUGE federal government assistance), the supply chains still require buildouts of pipelines to transport it to refineries and on to points of consumption.  We simply don’t have sufficient pipeline capacity to transport it to all the places that want it in the USA.  It’s an infrastructure play that has a number of challenges.

The natural gas that is extracted must be processed, just like oil must be refined, or electricity must be generated.  These industrial operations expend lots of energy in processing gas into what is considered pure gas for end use consumption.  The transport of processed natural gas in pipelines requires more energy to compress it and move it in pipelines, and compressor stations, like electricity substations, are placed along major transmission corridors to boost pressure.  This map shows the interstate natural gas pipelines that transmit highly compressed natural gas.  Pipelines have physical constraints – there is only so much space available for gas, and they require electricity to compress the gas in the pipelines.  Therefore, when there is a significant electricity outage in a region, it can also impact the transmission and distribution of natural gas.

According to the US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration records, there are over 2 million miles of distribution pipeline.  As we saw in San Bruno, California two years ago, failure to properly monitor and maintain distribution pipelines has consequences.  Smart Grid technologies including the colorfully named PIGS (Pipeline Insertable Gauges) that can monitor and transmit measurements within pipes can help reduce the odds of similar mechanical, technical, and human failures.

But with natural gas, we are once again relying on a model of centralized production, large-scale transport, and wide-scale distribution.  It has all the weaknesses of today’s electrical grid.  Acts of nature and human causes can cause disruptions.  And because natural gas is a conveniently transportable fuel, that also means it is a very exportable fuel.  Sine we won’t see any federal or state laws that require that natural gas produced in the USA must be consumed in the USA – it will go to the highest bidder – on or offshore.  While gas is inexpensive now, it hasn’t always been, and if history is our guide, there’s no guarantee that it won’t be in the future.

So at the cusp of grid modernization, we are placing much of our energy future in a source that we hope will remain cheap and be readily available at any point it is needed, which requires committed investments in new infrastructure and enhancements to existing infrastructure.  It is an energy source that also generates concerns about potential environmental degradation and seismic destabilization.  And somehow, this all looks better than clean domestic renewables that require a different infrastructure investment, but avoid those troubling questions about price fluctuations, exportability, and environmental impacts.  Yes, we have too much “like for like” thinking about infrastructure going on when we need truly revolutionary thinking.


What is the Smart Grid? The Best Approach to Put America Back to Work

The Smart Grid increases our energy security by reducing dependence on oil that only gets more costly to extract or protect.  The Smart Grid improves our economic security with a 21st century energy infrastructure that allows us to cost-effectively participate in competitive global markets.  The Smart Grid also creates new domestic white collar and blue collar jobs.   Building the Smart Grid benefits us at local, state and national levels in the USA, but the effort will require workforce education, employee reskilling, and services to assist job seekers in finding their best career transition points.    

The National Commission on Energy Policy (NCEP), part of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank focused on national challenges, issued a study from the Task Force on America’s Future Energy Jobs that highlights the magnitude of the challenges we face as we transition to the future Smart Grid.  According to the report summary, “transforming our nation’s energy systems represents an enormous undertaking.  It will require not only new, low-carbon technologies and systems, but people with the expertise to create those technologies and to plan, design, build, operate, and maintain those technologies and systems.”  In other words, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and put America back to work.

There are other reports and plenty of anecdotal evidence that highlight the fact that the Smart Grid offers numerous job opportunities.  In some cases, these opportunities are replacements of existing positions vacated by a retiring workforce.  Back in 2005, the American Public Power Association (APPA), which represents municipal power entities released a report that identified the significant losses that functions such as electricians, line workers, equipment installers, maintenance workers, plumbers, pipefitters, heating/ventilation/air conditioning (HVAC) technicians and construction workers would incur due to natural workforce attrition or lack of educational opportunities.  These are traditional jobs, but will have to accommodate new Smart Grid technologies and services.  For instance, HVAC technicians may need new training as more buildings migrate to continuous commissioning to maintain optimized energy efficiency.   Other functional changes in meter operations and outage management will trigger revisions to job definitions and training.

The Society for Human Resource Management has been discussing the workforce attrition topic to initiate and accelerate utility workforce planning, and this article offers some interesting observations.  Among them, the recent economic downturn may have temporarily postponed some retirement timelines, but as many as 40% of the 400,000 electric utility workers and 106,000 natural gas workers may retire by 2013.  A significant number of these jobs do not require a college degree, but will require a high school degree and specialized training. 

The GridWise Alliance recently released a report titled The US Smart Grid Revolution: Smart Grid Workforce Trends 2011.   This report reiterates the needs to replace retiring utility resources as well as fill entirely new roles created by the technology and service suppliers to utilities.  Smart Grid enabling technologies are creating promising hiring activity in information and communications technologies (ICT) solution providers as well as traditional utility vendors.  These jobs include skill sets in telecommunications, IT, cyber security operations, data management, project and program management, customer service, and administration.   New roles in utilities, like the Consumer Engagement Manager featured in my previous blog will be created to address the changing landscape of utility priorities and job skills in consumer relationships. is a website that specializes in assisting Smart Grid employers and job seekers and helps build the knowledge, skills, and information for effective performance through a variety of resources.   Their services for job seekers include job listings by company and category, and screening services for employers.  Right now they are running a survey to determine what information job seekers need about the Smart Grid to find their best fit in this growth area.  Check out the pop up box on their home page to complete the survey. 

The broad scope of available white collar and blue collar Smart Grid jobs is welcome news for our struggling economy.  Government investment in a 21st century electrical infrastructure can do even more to put unemployed and underemployed Americans back to work.  So why are our political leaders reluctant to invest in infrastructure like Smart Grid projects?  It’s a good question to pose to them.  Failure to invest in the Smart Grid is a failure to invest in us, our futures, and our national economic and energy security. 





Cities – The Living Laboratories for Smart Grid Infrastructure

It seems like most of the discussion about changes that Smart Grid technologies will introduce focus on changes to utilities and to consumers.  Let’s not forget cities and towns.  It’s becoming very apparent that many technologies that improve the electrical grid can also improve other networks – whether these are water, gas, or even transportation.  Just like regulatory commissions work hard to stay abreast of industry advances and breakthrough technologies to understand their impacts on ratepayers, so too must city planners and political leaders race to understand how new technologies can address existing problems as well as how to enable introduction of new solutions. 

For instance, electric vehicles (EVs) can help communities meet carbon emission reduction goals by replacing internal combustion engine vehicles.  However, the community infrastructure must accommodate charging stations to encourage citizen adoption of EVs.  The ChargePoint America Program is a great example of an initiative to construct 4600 charging stations for home and public use in nine regions – Austin, TX; Detroit, MI; Los Angeles, CA; New York, NY; Orlando, FL; Sacramento, CA; San Jose/San Francisco corridor, CA; Redmond, WA; and Washington, DC.

Coulomb Technologies is using a $15M grant from the Department of Energy and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA – or the Stimulus Act).  They are working with city planners to identify the best locations for public charging stations, which can’t be an easy job since there’s just not a lot of information out there to tell us what will be the most popular and convenient charging destinations.  One important aspect of the ChargePoint America project is to collect data about vehicle use and charging patterns, with analysis supplied by Purdue University and the Idaho National Lab.   This information will be eagerly consumed by managers of other population centers to assist them in determining their local policies and plans to encourage EV adoption and charging station placements in their communities.   

But not all the action is occurring in what we think of as the typical Smart Grid – the electrical infrastructure.  I recently attended an IBM SmartCamp held in Silicon Valley, which is one in a series of  program locations set up to identify entrepreneurs in 17 vertical application areas. 

SmartCamps provide access to global thought leaders and business advisors, and exposure to angel and venture capital investors.   There are some interesting applications of sensors to alleviate the serious parking issues that many cities face.  One of the competition winners, Streetline, stated that 30% of traffic congestion in cities is attributed to searching for parking spaces. The use of sensors that can communicate with cars and/or their GPS devices can decrease the time taken to locate parking slots.  This solution delivers multiple benefits – drivers can more easily find parking, commercial establishments get happier customers, and, because the sensors can also communicate time lengths a car is parked in a spot, parking enforcement can allocate resources to focus on the streets with the most “time expired” cars, increasing their revenues.  Well, that last benefit is good news for cash-strapped cities and towns, but not so good for anyone camping out too long in a timed parking spot. 

City planners will be challenged to take the risks of new technologies and find the funds to commit to pilots that involve Smart Grid infrastructure.  Not every pilot is going to be as successful as hoped – as the Smart Grid City project in Boulder has shown.  But as Thomas Edison noted about his research, every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.   As taxpayers, ratepayers, and citizens, we need to support intelligently planned Smart Grid  and Smart Infrastructure pilots that aim to improve our lives and our environment.