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Archive for the ‘green grid’ Category

photo: Better Place

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

First Chicago gets Rahm Emanuel, now electric cars.

Well, at least an electric car infrastructure. In a move that indicates electric cars won’t just be a phenomenon of Greater Portlandia, utility Exelon and the city will roll out 280 charging stations across Chicagoland by year’s end. Two stations will even be solar-powered.

It’s part of a smart grid demonstration project, partially funded by the federal government, to get a jump-start on the potential impact on the electric system if Chicagoans start buying battery-powered vehicles in big numbers.

Windy, snow-swept Chicago doesn’t exactly pop to the top of the list as an EV epicenter. But former Mayor Richard M. Daley made greening the second city a priority, and according to a spokesperson for Exelon — which owns Chicago utility ComEd — Illinois ranks in the top 10 when it comes to hybrid car ownership.

“ComEd is preparing now for what may be a large influx of PHEVs in the market and managing its impact on the grid,” Kerry Kelly-Guiliano, the Exelon spokesperson, said in an email, referring to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. “And they are putting in place the charging infrastructure to demonstrate that Chicago is plug-in ready.”

The locations for the charging stations have yet to be determined, but Kelly-Guiliano said they would most likely be deployed at places like shopping malls, Chicago’s two airports, and rest stops along the Illinois Tollway in the city.

Chicago follows another unlikely hot spot for electric cars, the petro capital of Houston. Late last year, utility NRG Energy announced plans to build a $10 million electric charging network in a 25-mile radius surrounding downtown Houston.

Initially, Chicago’s electric charging network will be used by a fleet of electric and hybrid cars maintained by ComEd.

Now we just want to see Mayor Emanuel behind the wheel of a Chevy Volt.

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On Thursday in The New York Times, I write about an independent report that finds that PG&E’s smart meters are not responsible for higher utility bills incurred by some customers:

After Pacific Gas & Electric, the giant California utility, began installing smart meters in the state’s Central Valley, the company was swamped with complaints from residents that their utility bills had increased.

But an independent review of the smart meters released Thursday found that the devices were functioning properly and attributed the high charges to a heat wave last year that coincided with their installation as well as poor customer service by P.G.&.E.

“They are accurately recording usage and throughout our evaluation we found no systemic issues,” Stacey Wood, an executive with the Structure Group, a Houston consulting company, said on Thursday at a meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission. “We did identify there were weakness in the focus on customer service.”

The utilities commission hired the Structure Group to conduct test P.G.&.E’s smart meters and conduct a technical review.

The digital devices wirelessly transmit data on a home’s electricity and natural gas usage to utilities while allowing residents to monitor their electricity consumption in real time. Smart meters are considered a linchpin for the development of a smart power grid and tens of millions of the gadgets are set to be installed nationwide in coming years.

But the rollout has been anything but smooth in California, where nearly 10 million smart meters will be deployed.

“By the fall of 2009, the C.P.U.C. had received over 600 smart meter consumer complaints about ‘unexpectedly high’ bills and allegations that the new electric smart meters were not accurately recording electric usage, almost all of which were from P.G.&E.’s service area,” according to the Structure Report.

The consulting firm said it then tested more than 750 smart meters in the laboratory and in the field and reviewed utility account records for 1,378 customers, including those that had complained of abnormally high bills.

“Of the 613 smart meter field tests, 611 meters were successfully tested, and 100 percent passed average registration accuracy,” the report stated.

The study attributed some residents’ higher bills to a 2009 heat wave in Kern County as well as increased electricity usage due to new swimming pools or additions to their homes.

Then there was P.G.&E.’s handling of the controversy.

“P.G.&E. processes did not address the customer concerns associated with the new equipment and usage changes,” the report said. “Customer skepticism regarding the new advanced meter technology was not effectively addressed by P.G.&E. on a timely basis.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: GE

In my Green State column on Grist on Thursday, I write about General Electric’s $200 million contest to find ideas and technologies to accelerate deployment of the smart grid:

Got a killer smart grid idea? General Electric has $200 million to spend.

Jeff Immelt, chief executive of the industrial conglomerate, flew into San Francisco to announce on Tuesday that GE was hooking up with prominent venture capital firms from Silicon Valley, the East Coast, and Europe to offer a supersized version of the X Prize for innovation. (GE and the participating venture capitalists are each contributing $100 million to the challenge.)

“We really believe this digital energy space is going to move fast and big as an economic proposition,” Immelt said before a hundred or so of Silicon Valley’s green tech elite who gathered for a lavish press event at the neo-classical Bently Reserve building in downtown San Francisco. “It also lays the groundwork for everything that needs to be done in an energy future, from nuclear to renewables.”

“GE can offer 50 to 60 percent of the solutions,” he added. “But the only way we can grow is by partnering with the venture community.”

And you too, Grist reader. GE will essentially crowdsource ideas, business plans, and potential startup acquisitions at a new site called Ecomagination Challenge: Powering the Grid. (“Ecomagination” is how GE brands its various environmental and green technology ventures and initiatives.)

Between now and September 30 you can submit ideas and vote on the best ones — the one scoring the most reader votes, and GE’s approval, wins $50,000. The company and its venture partners will award five other entries $100,000 each, which could lead to further equity investment.

A day into the smart grid challenge, ideas submitted from around the world range from wind farms on the Great Lakes to a proposal to “harness the energy from the Earth’s rotation.”

Now it’s doubtful that any startup entrepreneur worth her seed funding will risk floating  a potential multimillion-dollar idea for all to see. But GE’s partnership with venture capital firms such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Rockport Capital Partners — not to mention its use of social media to troll for innovative ideas — speaks to the challenges of building a smart grid.

First we need to define what a smart grid is. Comparing it to the Internet is a favored analogy. The current power transmission system is patchwork of early-to-mid 20th century technology that sends electricity from power plants to homes, offices, and factories. It’s essentially a one-way, analog system.

What Immelt calls “digital energy” will transform the power grid into a two-way, interactive system through the use of software, sensors, and other devices that allow utilities and grid operators to control and monitor energy use from the household level up, as well as get real-time data on electricity demand and supply. The various parts of the grid — transformers, substations, power lines — will communicate digitally, alerting operators, for instance, when a component has failed.

The ability to collect and analyze such grid data is crucial for the mass expansion of renewable energy. Most forms of green energy — solar and wind, for instance — are intermittent and increasingly decentralized; there are more than 31,000 rooftop solar installations in California alone.

To maximize renewable energy production and minimize greenhouse gas emissions, utilities and grid operators must be able to balance electricity being fed into the grid from tens of thousands of such sources along with energy from centralized fossil fuel power stations.

And in the coming years, utilities will need to know the location and charging status of tens of thousands of electric cars, each one automobile battery both a consumer and a potential provider of electricity. (If 100,000 cars plug in at 9 p.m. in California just as wind farms hit peak production, a utility will want to use that emission-free electricity to charge up emission-free vehicles rather than rely on, say, natural gas-fired power plants.)

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: Todd Woody

This post first appeared on Grist.

The California Assembly has passed legislation that takes the first step to requiring that a percentage of electricity generated in the state be stored.

Electricity, of course, is the ultimate perishable commodity. If the bill is approved by the California Senate and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it would apparently be the first time a state will move toward mandating that electricity generated by wind farms, solar power plants, and other intermittent sources be stored for use during peak demand.

That’s key if California is to meet its ambitious mandates to obtain 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

“Electric energy storage is an emerging industry that offers the possibility to solve a number of major obstacles to the achievement of a sustainable electricity future,” according to an analysis of the legislation prepared by the California Public Utilities Commission in May. “It can effectively address problems such as the integration of intermittent renewables.”

Sponsored by Assembly member Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat, the bill has been watered down to make it palatable to the state’s utilities and regulators. It originally required the state’s utilities to obtain energy storage systems capable of providing at least 2.25 percent of average peak electrical demand by 2014. By 2020 the target would rise to at least 5 percent.

The latest version of the bill now wending its way through the state Senate requires the California Public Utilities Commission to open proceedings on energy storage and by October 2013 to adopt an initial target — if appropriate — for utilities to meet by the end of 2015.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor, is sponsoring the legislation, which is backed, not surprisingly, by the renewable energy industry and venture capitalists.

“It’s part of our bigger effort to deal with climate change,” Cliff Rechtschaffen, Special Assistant Attorney General, told me. “When we looked at how to develop renewables, the technology is here but stalled by lack of regulatory focus.”

Utilities spend billions of dollars building so-called peaker plants that operate just hours a year to supply electricity and avoid blackouts when demand spikes — say, on a hot day when everyone cranks up their air conditioners.

Such costs — and greenhouse gas emissions — could be cut or reduced if electricity stored from wind farms or solar power plants could be dispatched when demand rises.

A report prepared for the California Energy Commission and released this month concluded that adding gigawatts of wind and solar energy to the grid to meet renewable energy mandates would require “major alterations to system operations.”

Without storage, more natural gas power plants or hydroelectric facilities would need to be built to smooth out grid operations as increasing amounts of solar and wind energy comes online, according to the report prepared by Kema, an energy consulting firm.

“Storage can be up to two to three times as effective as adding a combustion turbine to the system,” the report stated.

The cost and feasibility of such storage systems is another matter, as it remains a nascent industry.

Most efforts focus on using batteries or mechanical systems like flywheels to store electricity. California utility PG&E has launched a pilot project to store electricity in the form of compressed air. Some developers of solar power plants intend to use molten salt to capture heat that can be released and used to drive an electricity-generating turbine after the soon goes down.

“This bill moves storage to the top of the regulatory agenda where it belongs,” says Rechtschaffe

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In The New York Times on Monday, I write about IBM’s new smart grid lab in Beijing that will develop technology for the global market:

In another sign of China’s emergence as an epicenter of green technology, I.B.M. has opened a lab in Beijing to develop smart grid software for the global market.

“We’re developing solutions for around the world but we’re looking to China to see how the pieces integrate across the value chain,” said Brad Gammons, I.B.M.’s vice president for sales and distribution for the company’s Energy and Utilities division.

Mr. Gammons himself has relocated to Beijing, where he will continue to oversee worldwide sales for the unit.

“The company made a decision that China is a very, very important growth market and to put some executives here,” he said in a telephone interview from Beijing. He said I.B.M. expects the new Energy & Utilities Solutions Lab to drive $400 million in revenue over the next four years.

It is operating out of I.B.M.’s 5,000-person China Development Laboratory. The new lab is working with the State Grid Corporation of China on pilot projects to integrate wind and solar power with the grid, manage grid operations and increase the efficiency of nuclear power plants.

The Chinese government has budgeted $7.3 billion for smart grid-related energy projects this year, according to ZPryme Research & Consulting, a firm based in Austin, Tex.

Mr. Gammons said electric cars will be one focus of I.B.M.’s new lab.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I have a story on Bloom Energy, which has revealed its fuel cell technology with much fanfare after remaining in stealth mode for eight years:

SUNNYVALE, Calif. — A Silicon Valley company is claiming a breakthrough in a decades-old quest to develop fuel cells that can supply affordable and relatively clean electricity. Google, Bank of America, Wal-Mart and other large corporations have been testing the devices, which will be formally introduced on Wednesday.

The start-up, Bloom Energy, has raised about $400 million from investors and spent nearly a decade developing a new variety of solid oxide fuel cell, considered the most efficient but most technologically challenging fuel-cell technology.

K. R. Sridhar, Bloom’s co-founder and chief executive, said devices made by his company were generating electricity at a cost of 8 to 10 cents a kilowatt hour, using natural gas. That is lower than commercial electricity prices in some parts of the country.

“We got into this business to make affordable electricity, not fuel cells,” Mr. Sridhar said Tuesday as workers assembled stacks of fuel cells in tall, round cylinders and installed them in silver metal cubes at Bloom’s headquarters in a Silicon Valley office park.

The company has been working on the technology for eight years while saying little. The secrecy, and the prominence of the venture capitalists backing Bloom, have fueled both hype and skepticism about its efforts. Bloom is scheduled to unveil the technology Wednesday at a news conference attended by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and a member of Bloom’s board.

You can read the rest of the story here.

I followed up the piece with an online story in The Times offering a more detailed look at Bloom:

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote about Bloom Energy, the once-secretive Silicon Valley start-up that has apparently made a big breakthrough in developing a fuel cell that can generate electricity at competitive prices while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.

The company is officially unveiling its Bloom Energy Server at a news conference on Wednesday morning featuring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state and a Bloom board member; and John Doerr, Silicon Valley’s leading green-tech investor. But on Monday and Tuesday, I had the opportunity to spend some time at the start-up’s headquarters in Sunnyvale and to see the Bloom box up close.

In contrast to the usual Silicon Valley practice of announcing a coming product, Bloom spent nearly a decade developing its fuel-cell technology while saying nary a word. Over the past year and a half, it has quietly sold and installed 100-kilowatt Bloom boxes at Google, Bank of America, Wal-Mart and other big companies. The boxes cost $700,000 to $800,000 apiece.

“Silicon Valley is learning some hard and important skills, mainly making stuff again,” said Mr. Doerr, a partner at the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and a Bloom Energy board member.

Making stuff, particularly solid-oxide fuel cells, is very hard work. Such fuel cells have been something of a holy grail as they can operate at extremely high temperatures to maximize efficiency and can use a variety of fuels, like natural gas and biogas. Since the heat allows the fuel to be directly transformed into electricity through an electrochemical process, the expensive precious metals and rare-earth elements used in other fuel cells to act as catalysts could theoretically be eliminated.

But finding cheap common materials as substitutes and ensuring fuel cells don’t crack and leak under such conditions have stymied scientists for more than 30 years.

So how did Bloom crack the fuel-cell conundrum?

You can read the rest of the story here.

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A Silicon Valley  startup called EcoFactor aims to cut consumers’ electricity bills and help utilities manage peak demand by controlling homes’ heating and air conditioning systems over the Internet. As I write on Tuesday in The New York Times:

As utilities install more smart meters in homes, more companies are offering services that tap the devices’ ability to give consumers information about their electricity use.

But EcoFactor, a startup in the Silicon Valley suburb of Redwood City, aims to take things even further by gathering data about the weather, as well as consumers’ individual climate-control habits, to adjust a home’s air-conditioning and heating systems.

Call it a smart thermostat.

Besides learning when homeowners tend to turn on their heat or air-conditioning, EcoFactor also monitors weather down to the zip code level. Every 60 seconds, its algorithms take that data and calculate how much electricity use can be reduced while keeping the occupants comfortable.

“After three days of energy data collection, we’re able to create a thermodynamic model for a home and use that for running energy efficiency programs,” said Scott Hublou, a co-founder of EcoFactor and its senior vice president for products. “We understand how much outside weather impacts temperatures inside and how a home’s systems have to overcome that outside temperature.”
On Tuesday, EcoFactor announced a three-year agreement to run a program for the Texas utility Oncor to reduce peak electricity demand by three megawatts. That’s a relatively small amount, and the program will initially involve only a handful of households.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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