Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why Can't We Just Turn Off The Light Ourselves?

Image: Evgeny Morozov
I went to a talk by Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov) last night who is on a tour promoting his new book To Save Everything, Click Here.  It was an excellent conversation and one key takeaway from it for me was that the blind reliance on technology to solve many of our difficult social problems may be a futile.  Evgeny made the point that technology often emerges to solve a problem before the root cause is understood and that the proposed fix may create unintended consequences in addition to failing to remedy the original problem in the first place.  He even made the point that we may be trying to use technology to solve problems which really aren't problems at all.

Energy issues are attracting our attention these days and with that attention comes creative ideas for new businesses, products, and services.  Almost any new energy product assumes a need for cleaner operation or greater efficiency with a reduced need for finite energy inputs.  I buy into this to a large degree and enjoy seeing new technologies like smart sensors and distributed renewable generation systems pop up on a daily basis.  But as Evgeny discussed, disconnecting human consideration from the end result, no matter how well-intended, opens us up to downside risks.
Enlighted light sensor
The simplification and automation of energy saving in the way that companies like Enlighted are doing is exciting in many ways.  I wonder if we really need technological tools to do things like turning off lights when we don't need them on though.  Automated lighting controls address a situation where lights are left on at a constant luminosity all the time.  Why do we have so many applications where we are obviously wasting energy like this?  Even with automated lighting controls, energy is wasted if the lightening doesn't provide real -time value to building occupants.  

An additional unsettling aspect of the reliance on technology to automate the management of energy might be a decrease in our understanding of how energy systems work.  In past generations, we understood, appreciated and respected energy use more because how we harnessed energy was more simple and more labor oriented than it is today.  We were physically involved with carrying water, splitting firewood or turning soil for farming.  People were hyper-aware of wasted energy because it was their own physical effort.  Technology now separates us from energy production so much so that most people don't comprehend the vast network of people and products that keep our lights on everyday.  Further automation will lead to even less respect for energy resources and arguably cause more energy consumption paradoxically
The speed of technological change is outpacing our capacity to consider the impact these of technologies and discuss with our communities the range of impacts they will have on us in the future.  In many ways, life is so much better today than it was yesterday and we should appreciate this.  We also need to maintain the essence of our humanity, part of which is the innate curiosity that created the technology that we see today.  Blind acceptance of new technology may end up stifling the spirit of innovation which spawned it and make us no better off than we were before.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Utilities are Fighting the Last War

The Maginot Line was backwards thinking on a grand scale
Military analysts are fond of pointing out that generals tend to focus future strategy and acquisitions on what was needed for success in previous conflicts.  Called "fighting the last war", it seldom works out well to look in the rearview mirror to see what is coming ahead on the road.  A modern military example of wrong way planning is with the Maginot Line in France following World War I.  The horrors and technology of trench warfare pushed French military planners to build a massive network of fortifications along the border of France and Germany.  While the Maginot Line did prove to be an effective barrier, it didn't account for the Germans to decide to just go around it.  The mental energy and commitment of resources to a static defense completely paralyzed the French army's ability to adapt to a rapidly changing set of circumstances.

I see a similar situation in the US energy sector today.  While at a recent energy conference, I learned that utilities fear two major disruptive forces that have hit the energy market in the last few years--impending carbon emission regulations and the collapse of natural gas pricing.  EPA regulations will force power plants to operate cleaner but added costs may be mitigated by reduced operating costs and/or offset by short term government incentives to switch.  Natural gas prices fell dramatically due to the unexpected rise in hydraulic fracturing and has made the economics of power generating technologies using other fuels hard to justify.  Because of the long timeline for power plant construction and operation for cost recovery, the precipitous fall in gas prices puts utilities in a dilemma since quickly switching fuels is not easy. On the bright side though, we already see natgas generation beginning to displace coal generation both saving money and reducing pollution in a win/win scenario ("clean coal" is also officially dead).  While these two effects throw utility forecasts for capital expenditure and price prediction into turmoil, they are being planned for and even have potential upside benefits to the utilities and ratepayers.
Clinging to centralized power generation may be as backward as the Maginot Line
The future that utilities don't seem to be prepared for and one with much more downside risk is a loss of ratepayers to distributed generation systems installed behind the meter (i.e. not connected to the grid).  Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems run on natural gas and are now viable for a large number of building owners to replace their electric supply from utilities.  If electricity costs rise, more and more commercial and industrial utility customers will opt for CHP. Solar PV is also rapidly approaching grid parity much faster than anticipated.  The danger these two technologies pose to utilities is that they open up ratepayers to the option of completely disconnecting from the grid--something entirely new.  With even losing a small fraction of their ratepayer base to distributed systems, the utility revenue models significantly change for the worse.  Less utility revenue means more pressure to raise rates to maintain the grid and thus pushes more ratepayers away towards distributed systems.  A most unvirtuous cycle indeed.

Distributed generation of electricity for utilities is the Blitzkrieg that the French did not anticipate.  I talked about this in previous article about how solar PV (and CHP) represent a mortal threat to the utilities.  Unfortunately it seems that not all utilities recognize it as the existential threat that it is.  Progress happens and outdated technologies get replaced with better ones.  Unlike with the transition from regulated, wired telephone service to deregulated, wireless service, electricity infrastructure has safety (nuclear plants and superfund sites) concerns that can't be overlooked.  If fewer people are paying for the same grid infrastructure, where will the money come from to keep it working?  How will keep electricity both reliable and affordable if the utilities can't keep up with the trends?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Why We Don't Build Green

There seems to be a natural inclination towards green building practices yet traditional building methodologies continue to dominate in the United States today.  Green building is about reducing waste in the construction and operation of the building, proper site selection with respect to local ecology along with enhancing the health and quality of life of the occupants.  All seemingly good design goals but still usually prioritized lower than ROI calculations by developers.  The World Green Building Council released a report recently addressing ROI in that it is also superior in structures built with sustainability in mind.  Maybe this will be helpful in continuing the trend towards better building, but I think addressing a few of the reasons why we haven't adopted green building so far will be even more helpful in spurring change.

I've written before about how we are cursed with abundance here in the US.  My point was that we don't have to innovate on the energy front because we have significant traditional energy resources that feed an energy generation infrastructure that still works (albeit typically near the end of its design life).  Dan Burris in Flash Foresight makes a similar observation about how developing nations have the ability to skip the incremental technology gains that we've had to slog through and just adopt the latest and greatest stuff.  I still think this situation is the primary reason (i.e. we don't have to change) we don't see more growth in green building or in clean energy system development.

Here are a few of my observations about why green building continues to languish in the margins:

Construction professionals have years of experience building and designing in a particular way.  Without formal training, many are unwilling or unable to do things differently and formal training is costly in time and money.  Often local building code is too restrictive and government bureaucracy too slow to meet the speed of change.  Since building construction is a such a collaborative process involving so many people like architects, engineers, code officials, product manufacturers, skilled trade workers, building management companies, and the owners/occupants, any new techniques that would be innovative enough to make a significant impact in terms of sustainability are usually too complicated to pass through the gauntlet of these disparate stakeholders.  The end result is that we seldom bother with innovation and build buildings the way we always have.

Another problem is that green buildings seldom seem any different than a non-green one.  The key stakeholders may not see much reason to go through the effort without an end result that wows them or their clients.  Incremental enhancements in air quality, lighting, or energy savings often goes unnoticed.  No one can see where building materials were sourced without explicitly stating this with signage.  Local environmental amelioration is also hard to tell without educational efforts.  To encourage more green building people have to see and feel that they are getting something more for the struggle.

A third big reason that green building is held back in the US is the stagnant building market as a whole.  In parts of the world where any significant building activity is occurring, green building principles are at least considered if not completely implemented.  Developers here feel lucky to get any projects going so pushing the envelope with respect to innovative design or cost constraints is dead on the drawing board.  Developers typically give the customer what they want anyways and lowest cost is what almost all the customers want. Without an external force mandating better design features and building products, the US market will continue to see green building as merely an academic exercise for a small group of idealists with deep pockets.

Timing is key to getting good ideas off the ground.  Green building is a great idea.  The speed of technological change across industries we are seeing means that we can't afford to adopt innovation in a merely incremental way though.  We need to develop an ability to discard old practices before they are obsolete.  If we don't, our building practices and construction professional talent pool will fall behind other parts of the world and we won't be the innovative nation that got us to the point where we are today.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Solar a Mortal Threat to Utilities

It appears that the public is waking up to the obvious threat that solar is to the status quo energy providers.  We live in an age of accelerating change and disruption.  I wrote last year about how solar will continue to expand rapidly into the general market regardless of what the utilities do to discourage it.  What today's Wall Street Journal piece means to me is that the national dialog will start to become even more rancorous with respect to clean energy issues.
David & Goliath -- Distributed Generation vs Traditional Utilities
Unfortunately, there is some truth to the fact that solar is currently only feasible for the wealthy and that federal tax credits could be seen as a transfer payment from average tax payers who can't afford solar to wealthy ones who can. The consequence of this dialog will be the elimination of federal and state incentives for distributed generation systems. Solar already has unsubsidized grid parity in many markets so growth their will continue to drive down the global costs for installing solar.  Companies like Solar City & Sun Run will have to re-model their current business plans, and I doubt they will weather the storm very well since their profitability is so tied to the current incentives.  New installation company concepts will emerge though and I think more traditional contractors will finally get into the game.
Utilities may go further and try to ban the connection of solar systems to the grid. Standalone solar with back up systems will be ready for the market by the time this happens though. Essentially this will be the last arrow in the utility's quiver to stop the rising tide of distributed solar. At that point, we'll probably cross the tipping point where they don't have enough rate payers to maintain affordable rates. Then things get really ugly.

While I am advocate for progress and technological innovation, crippled utilities will be a major issue for an already crippled political system to address. Add this difficult situation to the already huge list of complex issues that we don't seem to be able to effectively address (national debt, climate change, social security insolvency, resource depletion, population growth). The brinksmanship games we are playing will take on an entirely new dimension when we start to have daily brown outs and extended power outages.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Dirty Side of Deregulated Energy

I've written about deregulated energy markets in a previous post.  While every deregulated state is not the same in how they run their energy programs, most often clean energy development needlessly suffers when clean energy tariffs are integrated with generation fees.
Distribution is not the same as generation--this matters to clean energy
To drill into this a little bit, we pay separate charges on our bills based on our consumption for generated energy and for the distribution of that energy to our location (there is also a flat metering charge).  Taxes and green energy tariffs are assessed on top of these fees based on the amount of energy consumed.  In a deregulated market, consumers have a choice of purchasing the generation portion of their bill from companies other than their local utility.  The local utility provides the distribution services (power line maintenance, service for power outages, billing, etc) regardless of where the power is purchased from.  This is good for consumers in that they can get the best price for their electricity and even get added value from companies like Power2Switch.

When clean energy tariffs originally went into effect, legislators associated them to generation which was logical since the clean energy fund was intended to mitigate environmental issues with coal, oil, gas, and nuclear generation plants.  As a consumer used more electricity, they would pay more into the fund to encourage better energy (seems fair to me).  Clean energy funds came about in the context of Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) which are self-imposed mandates requiring clean energy to make up a portion of total electrical generation.  With an RPS and clean energy fund, the idea is that more local clean energy systems would pop up to meet the RPS over time.
The sun is setting unnecessarily on some clean energy incentives
The wrinkle in this good plan is that with deregulated electricity, consumers pay money to companies outside of the original clean energy tariff structure for their generation so these tariffs don't get collected.  The consequence is that the funds for local solar and wind projects dry up as is happening in Illinois right now.  The easy fix is to shift the clean energy tariffs to the distribution portion of the electricity bill since that money is paid to utilities within the RPS umbrella.  Rate payers don't pay anymore on their bills than they originally would have and local clean energy gets the boost it was intended to get.

Legislation, like making sausage, is typically an ugly process.  This is a unique example of a simple fix that will have significant positive benefits for us all.  I encourage my fellow Illini to support the bill to fix the Illinois RPS.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Embedded Computers and Solar

The Raspberry Pi a small, inexpensive, full-featured computer  
Lately, I've been going down the rabbit hole of learning about embedded computers and it got me thinking about how these cool devices might benefit solar energy systems.  Embedded computers are essentially modern desktop computing power in a much smaller size (i.e. deck of cards) and priced in such a way that they could be almost be viewed as disposable (>$25).

My first thought was that embedded computers might control solar systems or aid with the reporting of data. Any decent residential inverter does this pretty well already with a variety of data input and outputs pre-loaded.  On the solar thermal side of things, energy metering packages could be built for well under $100 in parts which could reduce the cost of these types of add-ons for a small residential system so there could be a solid application there competing with products like the Apollo package.
A solar toaster?  Maybe not, but solar powered entertainment equipment is likely
Turning this computer-to-solar relationship on its head, solar PV might actually help make these little computers even more autonomous by cutting their power cord tether and keeping them in action almost continuously.  Think of little Roomba-like robots at home that don't need a charging station anymore.  Embedded computers don't only relate to robots but have all sorts of other applications like in home automation & entertainment systems.  PV built into these devices would not add any new load to the existing building.  Even better, these new devices could interact with energy management systems and even provide additional power back to the house when the devices aren't in use.  Quality of life continues to improve while our buildings continue to get smarter.

Whole building PV versus task-oriented, embedded solar?  Both have their applications and both versions of solar may end up working along each other very soon.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Think Waste Before New Technology

In a natural ecosystem, energy flows from organism to organism.  Plants feed animals which feed other animals in the food chain.  Decomposition replenishes plants and the cycle continues in a closed loop.  There is no waste in nature, only different forms of useful energy that is shared and transferred.

Man is not separate from nature but we have struggled to be separate in some sense.  We struggle to keep the elements, predators, hunger, disease and decay at bay in an effort to extend our lives as long as we can.  We build things to endure the destructive forces which play such a key role in making the ecosystem of planet Earth work so well.  We are self-aware and we can anticipate threats--because of this we have thrived.

Our success is becoming our undoing however.   In the spirit of progress, we've created materials, chemicals, structures and even new elements with little regard for how these new things fit into the balance of life on Spaceship Earth. In fairness to us humans, we don't view ourselves as a hive of interchangeable or even disposable units working for the greater good.  We struggle individually in a symbiotic relationship with other humans but ultimately for our own welfare.  We now know that our relationship with other Earthlings is much less mutually beneficial and our own survival is now at stake due to natural corrections.
My point to this post is to highlight that a single-minded focus on new technology to solve our environmental, economic, and social issues we face today needs to be balanced by paying even more attention to the waste stream that we create.  Heat escaping from a building in the winter, concentration of toxins from the exhaust pipe on vehicles, creation of single use, disposable items and the harvesting of vital materials faster than the replacement rate are examples of in-balances where new technology may not be the best solution of the problem.

Linear design philosophy created plastic water bottles; the producers of the bottles had no concern for what happened to the bottles once they served their purpose.  Under a growth economic paradigm, linear design is preferred since it encourages consumption and economic activity.  Cradle to Grave design accounts for all the energy inputs required to make something and considers how these inputs will be recovered at the end of its useful life.  Not only is energy conserved but externalities like pollution & solid waste are mitigated.

Unfortunately life-cycle analysis does not fit well with our current economic model.  The very nature of money relies on growth.  Einstein may have called compound interest the "most powerful force in the universe" but we are now realizing that economic forces invented by humans don't trump the finite physical resources that we have to work with here on Earth.  We can't unlearn what we now know about human impact on our ecosystem.  We need to tap into our self-awareness and ability to plan ahead to modify our social structures to accommodate better ways to mitigate our impact and not just wait for a new gadget to come along to save the day.  More solar panels are great but not needing more solar panels is even better.