Thursday, August 21, 2008

Winter temperatures in the August heat

Sometimes in this great game of energy consumption and environmental impact, all you can do is plead for someone to just pay attention.

Unlike most of our posts here on the larger vision, new technologies, and policy frameworks, this one simply describes the last two days I spent in Chicago. In sum: It is August and I was freezing.

Not outside, mind you. A few years ago, I was in Chicago in August when it was cool enough for a light winter jacket. No, this time, I was indoors. Literally, everywhere was over-air-conditioned. And I asked around. I was by no means the only one freezing.

I was in the Hyatt Hotel O'Hare, a large meeting room at the Stephenson Convention Center at Rosemount, a charter bus to Wrigley Field (Yes, I believe this is the year Cubs fans will no longer have the curse to blame their poor showings on year to year), and the Field Museum. Everywhere, the AC system was doing refrigeration, not cooling.

I am used to being over-AC'ed in Houston. But that's a city that proudly proclaims to be the energy capital of the world, in production and consumption. But Chicago? This is the city that increasingly is referred to in the same breath as "green cities," "cities that work," cities making a collective effort to inculcate green building design into the urban psyche.

I suspect I know the reason, but it's really only an excuse. It was cooler than normal for August. Spaces are commonly over-air-conditioned in the summer under these conditions. Or, in the case of the Field Museum, it could have been a combination of the unseasonably moderate temperature and smaller number of crowds in the space.

My question is, why isn't anyone paying attention and doing something about it? It seems all it takes is for a facility manager to dial back the control system or change the settings if the control system is automated.

Chicago this week seemed like a city where gasoline costs $1.50 a gallon, they have a special deal on petroleum for the low, low price of $25/barrel, and electricity rates are still frozen at 1995 levels.

So, the next time you are talking up green building design, renewable energy mandates, demand side management, energy independence, and the horrors being inflicted on all of us by global oil companies, let's remember that we're not part of the solution until we start paying attention.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Energy storage: It's time to get excited!

For years, I've been speaking and writing and (sometimes, even) ranting about the sad state of our electricity grid. Now, I'm really getting frustrated. Every day I learn about some new effort to wean ourselves from coal by putting up huge windfarms or solar arrays. Everyone is on the solar and wind bandwagon, but still no one is talking about transmission. Or at least talking about it realistically. It's easy to say we're going to put up X number of miles of new transmission, but getting the permits, access to the land, and dealing with private owners and multiple state governments isn't so easy.

We all know that to meet our nation's demand for electricity, wind farms and solar arrays are going to have to be huge. And they are, more often than not, going to be located at some distance (often hundreds of miles) from where the electricity demand is located. Think North Dakota and Chicago, or West Texas and Houston. If we truly want to shift our dependence from coal to renewable wind and solar, we need a grid that will support the shift--one that reaches from North Dakota to Chicago and West Texas to Houston. But, beyond that, simply extending the grid only solves one of the problems.

The other problem is intermittency. No matter what wind proponents tell you, intermittency is a problem. Ask any grid operator. The physics of operating the grid demand that the electricity fed into it NOT be intermittent. A surge or sudden drop in electrons can actually cause the system to trip offline. I don't think anyone running a business or a home wants to depend on intermittent electricity --we all want quality, usable electricity 24/7. The point is that the electricity generated by the wind farm, for instance, has to get to the demand center and it has to be fed onto the grid in a way that does not disrupt the physics of the transmission's a little more complicated than saying, oh, some electrons have arrived, let's dispatch 'em on the wire and ship them out to neighborhood A or factory B.

So, not only do we need a new network of transmission lines to get energy from the remote source to the demand center, we also need a way to solve intermittency. But what gets me so frustrated is that the solution to making solar and wind installations economically viable and physically dispatchable is energy storage--and yet, when was the last time you heard anyone get really excited about storage?

We'll I'm excited about storage. In fact, I'm really excited. I believe storage is the key to changing the way we think about electricity, global warming and energy independence. Storage has the potential to change how we live our lives. I'm not just talking about large scale storage that enables renewable energy; I'm talking about energy storage in all its sizes and all its possibilities.

Today, the world’s electricity system is essentially a massive network we are all plugged into. Everything we depend on that runs on electricity must be plugged in. Even our small modern conveniences—our cell phones or laptops—must be plugged in and recharged. We live lives connected to the grid.

Tomorrow, however, the traditional, one-way, electricity grid may be, literally, a relic of the past. Instead of being attached to the grid, we can set ourselves free with powerful living, transportation, and communications storage devices that allow us to use the grid simply as a base charging station. Our storage devices will both draw electricity from and feed electricity into the base station. And the base station will be fed by sustainable wind, solar and thermal energy that relies on bulk storage devices to make them both economically and physically viable.

In fact, the key to addressing global warming and our dependence on foreign oil is energy storage. Energy storage increases the ability of solar and wind to meet our energy needs, therefore reducing our dependence on coal. With more wind and solar feeding our base charging stations, energy storage eliminates coal from the equation and enables the electric transportation revolution. The electric transportation revolution eliminates our need to import oil from nations that don't necessarily have our best interests at heart. And, beyond all that, powerful energy storage devices open up a vast new world of possibilities for how we live, work and play in the future. Energy storage is central to addressing our current challenges and to enabling a sustainable future. It's past time we all got excited it!