Dog Days of Summer

The phrase is used to describe those hot, sultry days in July and August. Here in the southeastern U.S., these days are typically almost unbearable with the heat and humidity. We welcome the break in weather that comes in the fall that allows us to open the windows to enjoy fresh air.

The Greeks and the Romans believed that the “Dog Days” were an evil time. Here’s how Brady’s Clavis Calendaria put it: “The Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies,”

I made the mistake of traveling during this evil time over the past couple of weeks. My odyssey of weather, mechanical problems, delayed flights, missed connections and luggage was almost worthy of Homer.

I know that everyone reading this has experienced the same. I try to use these experiences as learning opportunities. While it is tempting to say “I learned never to travel again,” I know that I will be on planes and going places within a few weeks. So what were my lessons?
The airlines are using some kind of optimizer to minimize the number of planes and maximize their time in the air. Makes sense. They don’t make money if a plane is sitting on the ground.
The optimum the airlines are finding is a “brittle optimum.” If you think of optimums as either a peak or a valley, where a ball will sit still, the airlines have chosen a “peak” where once the ball shifts even SLIGHTLY off the optimum, it will roll further and further away.

A “valley” is a stability point; the ball moves away, but rolls back to the optimum with no external forcing mechanism.

They count on the overnight reset to bring the system back to “optimum.” In other words, they roll the ball back up the hill overnight, but that’s a different Greek myth (Sisyphus) for another day.

We passengers are at least partly to blame. Few travelers are willing to pay even a few dollars more for an improved on time rate. In the world of deregulated air travel, we’ve demonstrated to the airlines that the only thing that matters is the cheapest fare.
From now on, I will try to remember Harding’s First Principal of Travel: ALWAYS FLY IN THE MORNING.

Cheapist Aint Best. What does this have to do with nuclear energy? The electricity system in the U.S. is in real danger of doing EXACTLY the same thing. Ratepayers, public utility commissions and independent system operators are always looking for the cheapest electricity.
The fact that some of the players get outside subsidies, or that some players get state mandates to support their chosen form of generation, are inadequately considered in electricity markets. Also improperly considered is the need for capacity to be available whenever the demand is there.

The capacity issue is the one that haunts the nuclear industry the most. Flying a plane half full to get equipment to the right place, and to have some extra equipment in the system to allow for potential failures, is the right thing to do but it costs money.

If the airline cannot get compensated by the passengers for having extra planes available when and where they are needed, they eliminate those flights that don’t pay enough.

Base load plants operate best when they run flat out as much as possible. Having them on line and operating gives the system cushion for when other generation isn’t available or demand peaks high enough.

The problem is that the markets will not pay (reward) these plants for their capacity to generate electricity when demand is low or their ability to stabilize the grid, or they don’t pay enough to keep the plants running.

This is where the analogy ends. There is a profound difference between the airlines and electricity. If passengers decided that on time performance was worth paying for, airlines could quickly add planes to their fleets and improve that performance over a matter of a few months.

If nuclear plants are closed, and their licenses withdrawn, there is no way to bring that generation capacity back. New plants take time to build.
If we allow nuclear plants to continue to close for economic reasons alone, we’re going to wake up one day and realize that we allowed a terrible decision process to destroy our way of life.

We have to stop talking to ourselves and get out there and start shouting to the world about these issues. Too many people are asleep and dreaming of a make-believe world where windmills and solar panels will keep them warm and dry and well fed.

This article was originally published in Fuel Cycle Week Vol 13 #582, 08.28.2014 where Margaret is a regular columnist. To become a subscriber, go to www.FuelCycleWeek.com or contact the publication at info@fuelcycleweek.com.

Message from “the edge” – SmartGrid and the consumer (Part II)

So a few days ago, I wrote a pretty bleak blog about consumer engagement in SmartGrid. Fully 90% of small consumers (residential and small retail) are not interested in participating in SmartGrid technologies. The other 10% divide into groups interested in saving the planet, saving some money or beating their neighbors. When looking at how to reach the 90% that remain apathetic, I concluded yesterday that much of the status quo efforts in this area will not work, or will not work as intended. It’s easy to say something can’t be done, but much harder to suggest ways that might be more effective at accomplishing the goal.

One of things that struck me in all of the discussions during GridWeek was the interesting opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs to engage the small consumer. There has been much focus on “SmartGrid” meters as the absolute baseline for all new applications for consumers. I argue that this is NOT the case and, in fact, a smart meters may well be the LAST application at the retail consumer level.

Currently, the meter sitting at each house is owned by the utility. To upgrade to smart meters capable of some of the more complex interactions between end consumer and utility is a fairly expensive proposition for the utility. Today, where it is available, most utilities are operation strictly on an “opt-in” basis. The utility has some upside for installing smart (or at least not completely stupid) meters if, in the exchange, they can convince the consumer to reduce usage during peak hours. But sending trucks to individual homes scattered across their service areas is inefficient and costly. As more people decide to participate in such programs, those trucks and service people will make repeated calls into the same neighborhoods.

Conversely, installing expensive smart meters in a wholesale fashion in neighborhoods if 90% of the homes will not take advantage of, or participate in load shifting programs is a costly inefficient use of limited resources on the utilities part as well.

For the most part, people expect savings associated with such an upgrade. This makes the whole effort a questionable cost-benefit analysis for the utility. How much are they gaining by putting in more expensive meters? How much does it cost? Consistently the rate setting commissions have been reluctant to allow utilities to venture into time of use based rates, especially for residential consumers, unless it is an “opt-in” basis. Making the wholesale installation of smart meters not cost effective unless the government subsidizes the entire effort. I think that money is better spent elsewhere.

Considering lessons learned from pioneering technologies in the past, let’s look at more interesting entrepreneurial opportunities at the residential consumer level. To cite examples of market creation in MY lifetime. Let’s consider PC’s, microwaves, cell phones, laptops, DVD players as technology disruptions that have quickly expanded. In some cases, there was “no market” and “no need” for these technologies when first introduced, and yet today some of these appliances are almost considered standard in most homes.

One way to begin to bring consumers into the market is to promote devices that can be retrofitted to current appliances and meters to observe home consumption. A multitude of online store offer such packages at various price levels. More consistent advertising and advocacy for such devices and demonstrated savings associated with their use will expand the application more widely. The penetration into the home market is still limited, but expanding.

An interesting idea that is being developed is a video game that has a character that gains strength as the home reduces energy usage. One presumes that such a game would come with a device to measure and transmit usage. The idea that teenagers and other gamers might start turning off all other lights and appliances and run the software on the most efficient systems possible delights me.

As PHEV’s or even just EV’s begin to come into the market, it would be a wonderful opportunity to provide purchasers with some options regarding these vehicles. A sensor/timer device that will only charge the car during non-peak hours, or a package offering that would allow the utility to use the battery during high peak load and provide the consumer with cost incentives could make such vehicles more attractive and more cost competitive.

The need for smart metering can wait until market penetration of these more mundane devices has reached a level where a smart meter system can make economic sense for both the end consumer and the utility.

Definitions and other matters

Once again, while wandering on another social media site, I ran across a question that needed answering. This time, someone wanted to know why hydrogen was never mentioned as a renewable energy source. As I wrote a response to this individual, I realized that there is significant potential for confusion and incorrect thinking around all of these terms that are thrown around today for various energy sources.

Baseload Power – Power that is generated pretty much continuously. Electrical use goes through peaks and valleys over time periods, baseload is that minimum power level that is pretty much always demanded. Most utilities will define different baseload levels for summer and winter. This seems to be a concept our FERC chairman, Mr. Wellinghoff, does not grasp. Baseload power is usually generated by the least expensive source available to the utility, but supply must be highly reliable. The three sources most commonly used for baseload power today are coal, nuclear, and hydro. Some regions use oil.

Low Carbon (Carbon free) Energy – Those sources of energy that emit little or no carbon dioxide (CO2) in the generation of energy. There is significant disagreement over how to tally the carbon impact of each energy source. Usually, it depends on the agenda of the author of any given study. Most agree that all hydrocarbon sources are NOT low carbon energy sources. All others can be considered low/no carbon sources. This includes geo-thermal, hydro, nuclear, solar, and wind. There are several more under development that may be added to this list.

Reliable Energy – Energy sources that can be relied on for consistent power generation over long periods of time. These sources are frequently considered for baseload supply. This term is not used as frequently because in the developed world, energy reliability is inherently assumed. However, as we consider new energy sources, reliability becomes important. For this article, I will assume reliable energy must be available > 75% of the time. Reliable energy sources today are coal, nuclear, hydro, oil, natural gas, wood.

Renewable Energy – These are those sources of energy that are either easily regrown, or are constantly available. Renewable forms of energy include, ethanol, solar, wind, hydro, geo-thermal, wood pellets. Renewable energy is perhaps the most misunderstood phrase in the energy pantheon. Many people believe that renewable implies ecologically sound, sustainable energy. This is not the case. Ethanol and wood pellets both are sources of atmospheric carbon, both are also not sustainable in the long term. Ethanol is currently made using corn. This places food and energy production in direct competition for land and resources.

Sustainable Energy – Those sources of energy that can be used long term with minimal total impact on the environment and without depleting the fuel source. Most consider this the intersection of renewable and low carbon sources. Typically, solar, wind, and geo-thermal are considered sustainable energy sources. Arguments for nuclear, hydrogen, and hydro are also quite compelling.

I hope that by spending a few minutes reading these definitions, I have provided some clarity to these discussions.

Solar Panels – the math

On another social media network, the question was posed…”If every single rooftop in the country was covered in PVs, I’ve heard that we would generate enough electrical energy not to need any other source of electrical power! But, has anyone done the maths?”

The questioner was from the UK. Many people immediately jumped on the issue as a dumb idea because of many other logistical issues, but no one “did the math”. Anyone that knows me at all knows that I tend to “do the math” first then look at the resulting implications.

Basis and Assumptions:

On average the sun provides about 1000 watts per square meter (at sea level, higher as you go up in elevation, but a convenient number for my purpose…)

Current solar panels are currently less than 30% efficient. We’ll use 30% because it makes the math easier. We’ll add “windage” later.

Let’s be generous – given Britain’s famous weather – and say you can generate electricity from all panels at this peak efficiency for 10 hours per day, 365 days a year.

Current consumption in UK is nearly 400TwH per year.

The Math

Solar panels (at 30% efficiency) generate 300 watts per square meter. So for each hour of sunlight, they generate 300 watt-hours or 0.3 KwH.

Over a 10 hour period, each square meter of solar panel can generate 3 KwH of electricity. Over the course of a year, each square meter could produce just over 1 MwH of electricity.

To generate 400 TwH of electricity would require almost 400 square kilometers of solarpanels.

If, on the average, one could put 2 square meters of PV’s in the most optimal south facing position on the roof of a building, then you would need 200,000,000 buildings.

Given my rather positive assertions related to both efficiency, and available sunlight, I would double that for a realistic scenario. SO, you would need to put PV’s on 400,000,000 buildings

Conclusions

Solar panels are not a panacea that will solve all of our problems. My scenario above ignores the complex grid and energy storage structures that would be required to move electricity from such a dispersed generation to concentrated population centers and industrial applications and storing summer generation for use in winter. I’m sure any utility engineer could add dozens more considerations that I’ve not mentioned.

I believe that all of the low carbon emission options must be explored and applied to the maximum extent feasible to lower both dependence on non-domestic sources of fuel and GHG impact on our planet. But, we must maintain a balanced application of all of these technologies in order to maintain a society we all want to live in.

A Parable of Power

Originally posted May 2009, given today’s news about Venezuela’s electricity woes, it seems appropriate to repost. I predict sales of diesel generators to do up exponentially across Venezuela on the heels of this news.

A farmer in western Venezuela is tired of his intermittent electric power. For several hours every day he is without electricity. Why? Primarily because Venezuela’s government controlled electrical system is inadequate to the growing population. They have large hydro electric dams in the eastern part of the country, closer to Caracas, to the major population center of the country. But that power must travel across the country on an unreliable grid to get to the farmer’s property in the mountains above San Cristobal in the west. So, for several hours each day, the farmer is without power.

This is more than just annoying for the farmer. Because he has no centralized source for water, he relies on a local well for his water with a pump. When there’s no electricity, there’s no water either. If there’s not water, he can’t water the tender plants in his subsistence garden when the rains don’t come at the right time. He also can’t get water for bathing and cooking.

So what should this farmer do?

Well, first, he built some additional tanks to store water so that during these outages, he can water his plants, cook his food, and keep himself and his family clean. But still, this lack of power holds the farmer back. Unreliable power is a key contributor to his community’s inability to grow and develop. They cannot count on electricity to light their homes, heat their water, run their computers.

So what should this farmer do?

He decided to put in something to generate electricity whenever the government provided system failed. What should he install?

A solar array? He lives in an equatorial region high in the mountains, a solar array would certainly provide significant power, but only during daylight hours and not at peak efficiency when it rains (a frequent occurrence in this region). To install a solar array means that he must also install a complex battery storage system and inverters. He is not a technical person, this is more than he can manage.

A wind turbine? The wind blows down the valley to his home pretty steadily, but again, there is an inconsistency to deal with. Perhaps it would still suffice, at least most of the time, the wind blows sufficently.

A nuclear plant? Geo-thermal facility? Both require far more resources than the farmer has at his disposal, even his little community could not band together to build such complex facility. The Venezuelan government is giving serious consideration to a nuclear plant, but the time is years away.

So what DID the farmer do?

He installed a gas-powered generator. Why? Because the Venezuelan government subsidizes gasoline to where it costs about 5 cents/gallon. A generator is easily started when it is needed and can be run only when it is needed. It is a relatively simple mechanical system that the farmer and his community can maintain without a degree in engineering. At 5 cents/ gallon, fuel is relatively inexpensive compared to his income, so the operating costs as well as the initial installation costs are low.

So what is the lesson from this parable?

Ultimately, all of the “green options” failed for this farmer. Instead, he chose a technology that provided him with the needed power, in a way he could understand and manage. We, in the developed countries, sit in our heated and air-conditioned homes, with our computers, microwaves, and refrigerators and argue the relative merits of the low-carbon options that are available to us.

How do we change this conversation?

Added 5/5/09  This is not just a parable, but a true story, not something made up by me to provoke discussion. I personally know the farmer involved in making this decision. Some facts have been altered to preserve his anonymity.