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.


Why the Power Grid Should Go The Way of the Shuttle

The final voyage of the Endeavour made its way to San Francisco and Silicon Valley on September 21, 2012.  It was a gloriously beautiful day, and many people turned out to bid farewell to the fifth and final space shuttle.  The shuttle program lasted thirty years, and has a remarkable record of accomplishments, such as being the first reuseable spacecraft to carry humans into orbit and launching (and fixing) the Hubble Space Telescope.  But from a systems perspective, it is time to think differently about how we continue space exploration.

New entrants like SpaceX will drive innovation that could upend current space programs, technologies, and models. New thinking will challenge presumptions about what we can and want to achieve and how we achieve it.  And that should be equally true about today’s power grid.  Like the mission for the Enterprise in StarTrek, we need to “…boldly go where no one has gone before” in disruptive thinking about sources of power, grid resiliency (not just reliability), and markets.   The extent of our successful applications of innovation will define the Smart Grid.

This is a point that more and more industry movers and shakers are making.  At a recent meeting of an angel investor group in Silicon Valley, speakers from the University of Strathclyde – Glasgow emphasized the need for innovation in grid technologies and policies; plus innovations in investments (venture capitalists take note); and a few political profiles in courage.  Professor Sir Jim McDonald, Principal and Vice-Chancellor and possessor of the Rolls-Royce Chair in Electrical Power Systems delivered a wide-ranging talk that covered the need for low-carbon networks, inversion of the traditional electricity generation to consumption value chain, and convergences of technologies, industries, and systems.

Some of those technologies include convergences of sensors, wired and wireless machine to machine (M2M) communications, and advanced data analytics to manage the bits and bytes that can help optimize grids and networks.  See these articles for more information.

The speaker also noted that there are interesting technology contributions that the aerospace industry is making in wind and wave turbine design and materials. Scotland’s policy planners estimate  Scottish wind, wave, and tidal energy potential at a staggering 206 GW.   For wind alone, Europe is forecasted to be a $100 billion market, and high voltage DC (HVDC) technologies make export of wind energy to the continent feasible.  As there are no forecasts for the ocean to stop responding to the moon’s gravitational pull, Scotland looks like it’s in good shape on the energy front.  It’s easy to see why governments and businesses such as Alstom, Siemens, Samsung, Areva, and Mitsubishi are investing in Scotland to leverage energy potential and expertise.

The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) located in Orkney contains 14 test berths that are usually occupied with innovative products that harness “no-carbon” energy from waves and tides.  Just as important to innovation acceleration, the center is also proactive in proposing policies to streamline siting for marine energy locations.

Courtesy of Dan Lankford

Activities like these challenge the “like for like” thinking that still exists in utilities and regulatory agencies and act as brakes on Smart Grid innovations.   There’s still too much focus on the same old generation to consumption model that presumes every renewable energy deployment has to be “utility-scale” and an asset owned by a traditional generator or utility.  Microgrids and distributed energy resources (DER) completely shake up these presumptions and offer new system models that deliver resiliency as well as reliability to the electrical grid; and create new markets and market entrants.  The current grid system, like the space shuttle program, has served us well, but it is time to be put into mothballs in favor of new systems that have the highest energy return on investment with the lowest environmental impacts in terms of carbon, water, and waste.  Scotland is moving in the right direction, so instead of “beam me up”, US policy-makers and utilities should say “beam me over” and learn more about the exciting work there.