Utilities Feel Threat of Sustainable Tech

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By Daniel C. Adkins

The utility model of selling fossil fuel energy from a few large power plants is under assault by the growing success of new technologies and policies.  Some utilities are trying to slow down this renewable and efficiency growth because it challenges their way of making money and pushes them to be collaborative.  New developments have inspired new technologies that minimize renewable power variations and regulators have also tried to lessen peak daily energy demand.  Utilities act if they are afraid that the new market changes will redefine their role in a less profitable way.  As renewables and new tech defuse we are setting up the possibility of a much less centralized but more-connected energy sector.  Below are some of the new technologies and policies.

Rooftop solar and wind are beginning to have such an impact in some states that utilities are blocking initializations and charging increasing amounts for roof top connections and slowing wind development.  Part of the problem is that grids need to balance electricity production or the grid becomes unstable.  Utilities have not made their grids smart enough and they are used to having to coordinate only a few plants.  Now the utilities need to be able to identify the power from home systems in real time but do not have a method to do it yet.  It is doable by smart meters or sampling and modeling.  So instead of inventing the future, utilities are trying to slow it down.  We can only hope they can soon get over the cultural shock of their changing industry.

New techniques are being employed which expand wind energy’s usability.  Some of these involve storage methods that allow wind energy to be saved for peak demand hours.  They include better batteries, and the use of ice.  Ice can store energy when the demand is low at night.  This stored energy would then be available during peak demand during the day.  Batteries can provide energy directly during the day’s peak demand and so can Ice Energy’s Ice Bear (see below), which has worked with commercial, utility, and industrial partners. 

Newly deployed commercial and residential batteries are now being used to work with micro grids.  SolarCity Corp. has created software to keep peak costs down when used with batteries.  SolarCity is using Telsa’s new commercial batteries to eliminate power outages and peak electric costs in California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Micro grids could be a solution for neighborhoods, universities, office parks, military bases, and mixed with renewables might become an independent and self-sufficient.

The Ice Bear links to traditional air conditioning units by computers and liquid refrigerant.  The Ice Bear uses electrical energy at night to move water from a liquid to solid phase when it requires less energy to do so.  During the peak heat of the day, the Ice Bear transfers the cold to the air conditioner by a refrigerant liquid.  This saves the electrical daytime energy that would be required to run the air conditioner’s compressor.

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Passive energy design can significantly lower the energy cost for houses.  A passive building is one that has no (or little) active heating or cooling systems.  Some of these units are being built in New York City, where buildings account for 71% of carbon emissions and the new mayor is looking to use passive standards to decrease energy consumption.  The passive system works by building an airtight envelope and ventilation to exchange interior and exterior air.  Heavy insulation and triple-pane windows are also used.

In Copenhagen the city is networking street lamps and streetlights to save the cost of lighting and petroleum.   The new LED lights save energy, and motion sensors turn off the lights when cars are not present.  Smartphone apps for trucks and green lights on the bike paths let truckers, buses, and cyclists link their speed to match the changing street lights and thus minimize costly starts and stops, saving petroleum and muscle use.  Copenhagen’s goal of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025 looks promising.

Some of these techniques are currently being used by Southern California Edison, which has an excess of nighttime wind energy.  If a utility bases its pricing on the time of day the energy is used, then these techniques are saving peak energy costs.  An older way of meeting peak demand would be to use a jet turbine using oil or gas or have a dedicated power plant.  A full-scale implementation of these and other techniques will decrease the need for a number of power plants that burn fossil fuels by dropping peak energy needs.

However, no good deed goes unpunished.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) created a policy lowering peak demand.  The policy allows electric customers to unplug units to avoid high peak costs. This tactic has so frightened some utilities that the Electric Power Supply Association sued FERC, claiming that retail customers should not have the right to follow interstate rules.  A court ruled against FERC and we will see if FERC goes to the Supreme Court. The utilities claim that the only way to ensure no blackouts is with dedicated power plants.  They would have a point if the agreement to turn off power units was not reliable or enforceable.  So we have a choice between legal agreements or mostly unused power plants.  The battle is between utility rights to sell fossil fuels versus residences and businesses that want to use energy efficiency to reduce their costs.

The energy environment battle is becoming clearer.  It is a battle between fossil fuel industries and utilities that are fighting for the right to make money the way they always have and a cheaper, distributive, energy efficient, less polluting, and sustainable future.

DanielAdkins2.jpg Daniel C. Adkins, an active member of Washington, DC DSA, has been a member of the Laborers’ International Union of North America and the American Federation of Teachers, and an officer in the National Treasury Employee’s Union Chapter 213 for the U.S. Department of Energy headquarters.  At the DoE’s Energy Information Administration he was the union partner to EIA’s Administrator for total quality management and quality issues.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.


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