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.

Message from “the edge” – SmartGrid and the consumer

This is my fifth article relating directly to SmartGrid. This is where the message FROM “the edge” also becomes a message ABOUT “the edge.” As I learned at GridWeek, the grid industry calls the electricity user community at the far end of the system “The Edge”. Graphically the system is frequently depicted that way with a central power producing entity surrounded by the web of transmission and distribution lines terminating in the end user community.

But “The Edge” does not imply “The End”. The whole purpose of the grid is to get electricity out there to drive industry, commercial endeavors, and our residential pursuits. In fact, the presence of our stable and reliable grid and an abundance of electricity has driven the modern economy and society in the United States.

In order to make sense of all of the initiatives relating to Smart Grid, out here at The Edge, we need to separate these consumers into two categories. The divide is not a sharp line, but roughly considers large consumers and small consumers independently. Large consumers would include industrial applications, large commercial users, perhaps large educational and government facilities. Small consumers could be thought of as residential, small retail and office facilities.

Large consumers have been leading the way when it comes to conservation, load leveling, and end-user generation facilities largely because businesses and other large institutions have been seeking ways to lower any and all costs associated with the operation of their facility. While electricity is relatively low cost, it is not free and in a capitalist market like the US, any reduction in cost can be a direct benefit to the bottom line. Many large facilities have put in sophisticated monitoring devices that automatically turn-off lights, HVAC, and other devices when such equipment is not in use. Some of these facilities have even explored the possibilities of co-generation with solar panel, wind mills or gas turbines on their property. When power is not being used by the facility itself, it is made available to the rest of the grid with some cost benefit to the owner.

Because large consumers have already moved much of the way down the path of conservation, efficiency and load leveling, and the solutions are considered to be well understood, there is considerable interest in how to engage and capture the small consumer potential in this area. Three types of small consumers were actively identified, but a fourth soon emerged as well. The first three were classed as:

  • those that want to save the planet – who will reduce  or shift usage without financial incentive given a means to do so
  • those that want to save money – who will reduce or shift usage if sufficient financial incentive is provided
  • those that want to “beat their neighbors” – who will reduce or shift usage in response to some competitive incentive

The elephant in the room, however, was the fourth class. Fully 90% of all small consumers in the US are indifferent to any incentives. In fact, the heavily touted “SmartGrid City” of Boulder, CO has had only limited direct participation from the small consumers in the community. Even so, significant benefits have been demonstrated with the improvements in transmission and distribution as well as large consumer participation. There was significant discussion about how to increase consumer willingness to participate.

First, why don’t consumers care? What’s up with the 90% that are indifferent and what can be done to capture their attention, or at least more of their attention.

Show Me the Money?

Electricity bills form a fairly small fraction of most households budgets. A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that household energy costs (natural gas and electricity) were less than 4.25% of typical household spending. If a homeowner is trying to reduce household costs numerous other areas are more costly: rent/mortgage (28%), car payments (10%), food (8.%), restaurants (6%),  and recreation (6%). Energy costs are roughly equivalent to what a family spends on clothing. Consumers are far more likely to reduce in areas where little or no additional investment is required to lower costs. Eating out less often, reducing the number of cable channels, and spending less on new clothes are likely to save more money with less upfront hassle than blowing more insulation into the attic, or even upgrading a thermostat.

Trying to hit a consumer in the pocket book to get their attention would require significant increases in electricity costs. This technique will not improve what is already a tenuous relationship between government, utility, and consumer regarding electricity rates. One need only look at the reactions of consumers during the electricity price spikes in California in 2001, or more recently when gasoline went to $4/gallon.

Another concept is to introduce variable energy pricing that rises and falls with the actual costs of generating electricity. However, in order to this to work for the consumer, equipment must be installed at each home to allow the consumer to see, and manage these costs. Once again, the problem that a cost conscious consumer will look to other, more profitable ways to reduce costs will tend to limit participation in such a program.

Save the world?

So monetary incentives are unlikely to be successful. How about appealing to the altruistic nature of people? After all, much of what we’re talking about are ways to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants as well. Great idea! Problem? The industry is sending a very mixed message to consumers. Utilities have mixed motives as well.

Utilities make money by selling electrons. Convincing their customers to buy less electrons to save the planet makes little sense to the electricity generators. They’d LIKE to see consumers using MORE electrons, just doing it a little more consistently. In addition, the utilities want to sell themselves as good guys. Afterall, they are eventually going to want rate increases to pay for all the good things they are doing. So, most utilities are spending a great deal of time and money convincing the public (and the rate-setting commissions) that they are spending a great deal of time and money investing in methods of generating electricity that are GREEN and CLEAN.

If the same people then try to turn around and convince consumers that REDUCING their usage of electricity is going to reduce the generation of nasty pollutants, the consumer is left with a mixed bag of stuff. Many will simple ignore all of the messages.

Beat the Joneses?

OK, let’s add people to that third group, the competitors. The U.S. is famous (or infamous) for its one-upmanship culture. If my neighbor has two cars, I need two cars AND a motorcycle. It is part of the problem with the excesses in our culture today. We don’t buy what we need, we buy what we perceive we need to KEEP UP with our neighbors and friends.

Once again, the ability to sell this concept falls apart. Part of the fun of the whole one-upmanship is the ability to show off. Unless we put outside indicators of electricity usage on houses to allow the occupants to “show-off” their really LOW consumption, there is little likelihood of success. Some folks will enjoy beating the curve on the Internet and demonstrating their electricity skills, but the kick of “show and tell” just isn’t there.

So what to do? That, my friends, is another blog.

Message from “the edge” – SmartGrid and Distribution

This is the fourth article in my series regarding SmartGrid and we are finally beginning to get near to direct consumer contact. All of this discussion has potentially significant impacts on electricity consumers, but are parts of the grid that are “behind the green curtain”behind_the_curtain-439x356 to most consumers. Distribution is differentiated from transmission in that we are dealing with the local switchyards that step the power down from the high voltage lines and putting power out in almost spider web fashion to individual neighborhoods, businesses, and homes.

So what are the issues and SmartGrid implications at distribution?

Distribution switchyards are plagued by some of the same issues as large transmission switchyards and would benefit from some of the same detection and automation systems. Having already discussed that in my blog about transmission, I won’t repeat it here.

One of the key functions of the distribution system is to maintain quality control of the electricity as it is delivered to the home. Electricity is somewhat intangible so understanding the quality issue is important here.  Appliances in the US rely on certain consistent features of the electricity coming out of the standard 3 prong plug. This electricity should be at 120V, alternating current at 60 Hz, and adequate amperage to drive all of the appliances in the house.

In order to successfully perform this function, the systems have assumed that electricity flows only one direction, from the distribution centers outward toward the final user. Some small amount of distributed power is allowed. For example, a large industrial center might place a small gas turbine or a solar array on the roof tops to provide additional power to that facility.

distribution yard

The local utility might agree to allow the utility to push excess power from such systems back to the grid for some financial considerations. In general, these are reasonably large facilities with potential power output large enough to provide good cost benefit considerations for the transmission lines to be installed to such an installation.

However, most residential and small commercial users that have installed solar arrays, wind mills, or other residential sized power generating equipment have found that while they are free to use the power generated within their own facility, but cannot tie these units into the grid to provide power back to the system. This seriously limits the value of such systems and extends the time required to recoup the investment.

Because the current systems assumes a one way flow of electricity from the distribution systems to the final user, there are systems that trip open to protect the circuitry from electricity that is flowing “the wrong way”. These systems will have to be revised to be more sophisticated in the sensing of electrical flow to identify “good” electricity from that that is out of phase, or at unacceptable voltages or amperages for the system to accept. One concept that is currently being investigated is a “microgrid” structure where power being generated and consumed in one local area is managed somewhat autonomously from the larger grid. An intelligent gatekeeper manages the flow of electricity into and out of this microgrid from the larger grid.

Currently, the market demand for such systems that allow residential and other small volume consumers to become producers of electricity on a small and sporadic basis has been very limited. The costs to upgrade the distribution centers and the connections to the end-user to allow such endeavors to succeed are relatively high and offer minimal payback to the utility as the amount of electricity received for potential resale is minimal and unreliable as the consumer reasonably wants to service their own need first and only provide power to the larger grid when they have an excess of power to generate. In addition, very few end consumers are interested in or even willing to have such power generating devices at their homes. By some estimates, 90% of residential consumers are indifferent to electricity costs and demands today. Leaving only 10% of interested consumers, of which only a small fraction can afford the front end costs or live in a home where they have the ability to consider such an installation.

While creating such sophisticated infrastructure makes sense when whole subdivisions are being built in areas of high growth, the cost of retrofitting existing systems is not a good use of limited resources. Other, higher payback issues in transmission, storage, and generation should have more attention, time and effort spent on them before significant efforts to upgrade this portion of the grid should be considered.

Next: SmartGrid and the consumer

Message from “the edge” – SmartGrid and Transmission

At this point in my series on SmartGrid it is time to confess my background. I spent most of my 28 year career in the nuclear industry concerned with the design, analysis and operation of fuel and reactor cores. I always considered most of the rest of the system as plumbing designed to bring water to my domain. The turbine was a pinwheel on the far end of the machine. Albeit, a really BIG pinwheel.

That pinwheel, its ancillary systems, and the generator are the main sources of potential operational issues associated with nuclear power. Each operating cycle of the reactor must be designed to tolerate generator load rejects, turbine trips, and a host of other anticipated operational events.

So, why do I mention all of this in a discussion of transmission and SmartGrid? Because some of the most severe tests of my beautiful designs come as a result of grid failures forcing reactor shutdowns.

Spending a few hours in SmartGrid bootcamp at the start of grid week gave me a much greater appreciation of the issues around transmission and how Smart Grid might alleviate some of those problems. During the rest of the week, I became convinced that much of the SmartGrid efforts and spend should concentrate on this area of the system.

Current state of affairs in transmission vary widely from utility to utility depending on the vision and resources of the utility, the astuteness of the public utilities commissions (PUCs) or other rate setting commissions, and the demands of the consumers. In the worst cases, there is virtually no sensing or control devices and the grid is completely reliant on 19th century technology. Edison and Westinghouse could walk into those systems and recognize and operate them. Many utilities have installed SCADA, Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition, systemsthat allow some level of sensing and control. However, few utilities tie their SCADA systems together into a more coherent shole. Beyond SCADA improved sensing devices in the switch yards or along the high voltage lines to identifiy faults more quickly and prevent outages are almost non-exetant except in a few isolated cases.


Sadly most PUCs are loathe to grant utilities rate incentives to upgrade this equipment unless a natural disaster or major power interruption makes it clear how critical such a system is. This is the first, and one of the most important, aspects of SmartGrid’s initiatives. By some measures the lower electricity losses of such improvements saves 3-5% of total electrical generation.

Right on the heels of this initiative comes a second significant consideration for transmission. As I discussed in previous blogs, the grid was designed to work as a regional unit  – most of the energy consumed in a region is generated in that region. The regions have very limited interconnection for transmitting power between them. The limited intertie allows issues to be isolated to one region and prevents blackout from spreading nationwide. In the days of limited sensing and automation, when the grid was first designed, these physical boundaries were the only practical way to isolate regions.nercregionmap

However, if society continues to demand increase use of solar and wind, these regional grids will have to be much more strongly connected. As the figure shows, for wind, the areas of the country with relatively good wind potential are geographically remot from the major population centers where primary consumption occurs. Solar is even more concentrated in the desert southwest.Steve-Chu-4774

Even conventional power sources such as nuclear, coal and natural gas will need to leverage more closely inter-related regions. The US population has become increasingly wary of any industrial installations near population centers. As a nuclear advocate, I’ve seen the early development of this disease called NIMBY (Not In My BackYard). In communities where nuclear power plants currently operate the population has found them to be good neighbors providing jobs and tax revenue with no attendant air or water pollution. However, convincing new communities to allow construction of any major industrial facility is typically met with fierce opposition. Usually by people living near a proposed facility who fear loss of property value and some insidious pollution that they believe must come from any such facility.

This opposition will drive conventional power facilities to less populated areas of the country and will require transportation of the resulting electricity across the country to the locations needing the power. Ironically, sighting of more high voltage lines also falls victim to NIMBY’s insidious disease. This will require astute and consistent government leadership at the national, state, and local levels and reslute and visionary utility executives to work together to make this happen. While the media has spent much time on the consumer end of SmartGrid, the issues identified here at transmission have much greater impact and are in serious need of balanced, clear reporting to help the public form educated opinions regarding installation of power plants, transmission switch yards, and high voltage lines in or near their homes and communities.

Without the successful public private partnership to upgrade and expand out transmission facilities the US is in real danger of significant issues in delivering electricity to power our homes, our industry and our economy.

Message from “the edge” – SmartGrid and power generation

I went into the GridWeek conference last week assuming that nuclear power advocates needn’t worry about all of these SmartGrid initiatives and that there was a great deal of hype about this that was overblown and not viable economically. I left with a much better understanding of some of the fundamentals of the issues around electricity across the country. AND a feeling that too much time and effort was being centered on the consumer end of the grid.

Yesterday, I wrote an overview of the issues facing the electrical power industry in the 21st century. in the area of the grid. Today, I am going to pick on one aspect of the grid – power generation. While at first blush generation would not seem to be a part of the grid, it is the point at which the process starts. If the power being generated is unreliable or too slow to respond, nothing later in the grid can fix that.

As discussed in my prior post, generation in the US works on a demand basis. That means that electricity is only generated when it is demanded. There is no direct storage of electricity, except in capacitor banks that give the grid operators time to spin up or down other generation options. That brings us to the first area that is encompassed in SmartGrid.

There are other storage options, of course. The rest convert electricity into other energy forms more amenable to storage, like mechanical or chemical potential then convert it back.  The chart below, from Secretary of Energy Steven Chu identifies many storage systems by relative power and duration. Most of these options have limited use today or are still in early stages of development and deployment.

Storage Options

These storage options become even more critical when the renewable portfolio standards (RPS) recently passed by congress come into play. While solar and wind energy sources have successfully campaigned for their status as ecologically good electricity sources, the fundamentals of their technology add even more volatility to the electricity infrastructure today.

For the moment, we’ll ignore the idea that end users might have solar panels or wind mills pumping power back into the grid and concentrate solely on industrial scale renewable installations, those generating at least 10 MW of electricity from one installation. Again, in Dr. Chu’s opening remarks at grid week he presented two charts that brought home the point about both solar and wind.

Solar panel output over one day

In the first chart, power generation from a solar array in  Colorado is shown for a single day. I expected to see the first part of the curve. As the sun rose the power output of the panel increased to a fairly steady state peak with a few hours and was operating smoothly and predictably at that level. Easy to manage and providing power during the higher usage periods of the day, all good things. What happens in the mid-afternoon was something I had not appreciated before. Clouds, probably generated by the day’s heating began passing between the sun and the solar panels. These were scattered clouds, so as one passed the sun would again shine on the panels, This causes huge jumps and drops in the electrical output of this solar array. It occurs late in the afternoon, just when the demand on the grid is peaking; adding even more stress to an already burdened system.

demand response

The second chart shows the projected impact on generation over the course of a typical week. I know, the chart is too small to read. Here’s a link to the original presentation. The critical observation here is that the more green you see, the more complex the energy response of other sources becomes. At even 11% renewables in the mix, coal (grey in the chart) begins to be forced to respond when the wind is generating too much power at a lull period. As the amount increases to 23 and 35% more and more complexity is called for. At 35%, even nuclear plants are required to modify operation.

While proponents of solar and wind see this as a reduction in the use of coal and/or nuclear, the realities of the current response based system and the physics of spinning up or down the large turbines associated with base load coal and nuclear plants mean that, in reality the system is operating increasingly inefficiently. Coal and other carbon fuels is still burned at almost the same rate as before. The turbines are still spinning, they just aren’t putting electricity to the grid.

This is where SmartGrid generation options come into the big potential pay-off. If the county really wants renewable energy sources, then using excess capacity during lower power demand periods to store energy that can then be siphoned off during high demand or low availability of so-called “green sources.” The scale of storage is far beyond anything currently on the grid in terms of both power and duration.

Message from the Edge, a overview of SmartGrid

Perhaps you’ve seen commercials like GE’s “If I only had a Brain”, but what does SmartGrid really mean? And more importantly, what does it mean for the average citizen? To answer these questions for myself, I spent last week in Washington, DC attending the SmartGrid conference. I was probably the only nuclear energy consultant in the room, but I believe that understanding the issues facing the industry in this arena are key to my industry’s ability to succeed.

So What is SmartGrid? In the simplest terms, it is a broad set of initiatives around electric power delivery from generation to end-user. It breaks down into roughly 4 areas to consider: Generation, Transmission, Distribution, and Consumption.

We, as consumers, can see and feel that last portion, and that is certainly the area that has received the most attention. However, in reality, we should care about and pay attention to what is happening with the other three. These areas will have far greater impact on the availability, reliability, and stability of electricity to power our lives. What’s this? Clean, reliable electricity? Don’t we already have that?

Well, in a word, NO.

The electricity system in the US is incredibly complex. Most of us have little appreciation for shat it takes to deliver electricity to that plug in the wall. The system is essentially on demand. There is virtually no storage of energy, and yet balance is maintained. As electricity is demanded, it is created, transported and delivered to the consumer.
The fact that large swings in demand do not cause blackouts, brownouts, or fried equipment on a regular basis is an engineering marvel that is one of the major technical achievements of the 20th century. That fact that it is done with technology little changed since the 19th century is miraculous.
The initiative known as SmartGrid is probably going to impact our country almost as much as the original electrification efforts of the early 20th century. Ironically, if it succeeds, most of us will perceive little change to their daily relationship with electricity. Plug in an appliance and electricity will flow. BUT, these changes will ensure that flow is reliable, clean and safe. AND that the new plug-in electric vehicle in the garage is ready to go whenever and where ever the proud new owner chooses to take it. The air will be a little cleaner, and no warmer than it was at the start of this project.

If the initiative fails at its objectives, however, the outlook is much more bleak out at the edge of the grid. The choices in this country will be painful and expensive. The potential negative impacts on the environment and the economy are enormous and our children will face a future with fewer options.
So, SmartGrid must succeed. Succeed at what though? Briefly, here are the four areas and their issues.


The demand basis upon which we operate and the societal desire to move to more sustainable generation options make managing the generation of electiricy expremely complex. Today, the energy mix in this country is primarily coal, nuclear, and hydro (when its available) for baseload demand. Natural gas is used to handle the variable demand. Solar, wind, and other alternate energy options make up a very small percent of the total available electricity generation. However, in markets where as little as 4% of generation comes from wind, the inherent volatility can already have major impacts on both the volatility of energy pricing as well as total supply available on the grid.

The current ability of the grid to add and shed the electrical demand is too slow and too limited to handle more than a few % of these volatile energy sources. Today, in markets where significant wind or solar generation is a part of the mix, the utility must also maintain significant fossil generation (usually natural gas) spinning in reserve to back-up the supply. This back up power is idling like your car, burning fuel, but not actually going anywhere so that it is immediately available should clouds pass between sun and solar panels, or the wind change speed. On average, it requires the utility to run about 85% of the load in reserve. This means that the goal of reducing emissions is almost completely missed.


In utility speak, the phrase T&D commonly crops up and refers to transmission and distribution. An analogy related to our road system helps to understand how they relate. Transmission can be thought of as the insterstate highway system where large numbers of vehicles are moving at high rates of speed over long distances. In electricity, these are those huge high voltage lines that stretch into the distance between big power stations and the population centers. Distribution is the local road system. It delivers electricity from the neighborhood substation to each house.


Those high voltage lines that crisscross the landscape and the huge switch yards outside the power plants are the primary components. In order to allow regions to be isolated, there is minimal interface of these transmission lines from one region of the country to another. This was a conscious decision on the part of the original designers of the grid system to prevent failures in one region from propagating further. The transmision system include DC and AC current as well as transformers and capacitor banks to step voltage up or down as required.
Currently, there are few sensors or communications from the large switchyards with one another or with a central authority. Thus, problems can develop over the course of time. These issues can cause huge cascading effects that darken entire regions of the country. In addition, there is very limited sensing data associated with the high voltage lines. An issue at a single tower can require significant resources to track down and repair.


The local switchyard manages the step down of voltage from those high voltage lines to a level that is safe to distribute into a neighborhood where additional pole based transformers and capacitors manage the remaining voltage and demand control into each building.

Most utilities cannot determine where a fault occurs and must wait for consumers to contact them regarding outages to find and correct issues with the power supply.


Ultimately, all of this infrastructure exists to get power to the end-user. The consumers break down into roughly three types: commercial, industrial, and residential. This is where significant variation in usage creates huge spikes in demand. The most notable development was that of air conditioning. As air conditioning has become common, electricity demand spikes on hot summer days have continued to soar. Addition of electronic gadgets of every nature, big refrigerators and freezers, and hot water heaters have increased baseload demand as well.

The final twist is that of consumers as producers. Increasingly, consumers of all types are looking at the possibility of generating electricity. Allowing excess electricity to flow back into the grid from the edge requires some fundamental changes to the way the systems are designed to operate.

Over the next few articles, I’ll explore each of these areas in more detail.

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


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.