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.