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Archive for the ‘green grid’ Category

betterplaceplug

photo: Better Place

With electric cars months away from hitting the road, the California Public Utilities Commission has begun the complex task of establishing a regulatory framework for the state’s emerging electric vehicle infrastructure. The biggest fight is likely to be over whether to regulate companies like Better Place, which plans to build an electric car charging network in the state. As I write in The New York Times on Monday:

With electric cars set to hit the mass market next year, a skirmish is breaking out in California over who will control the state’s electric vehicle infrastructure.

The California Public Utilities Commission will write the rules of the electric road and is just starting to grapple with the complex regulatory issues surrounding the integration of battery-powered cars into the state’s electrical grid.

One of the biggest questions is whether to regulate Better Place, Coulomb Technologies and other companies that plan to sell electricity to drivers through a network of battery charging stations.

California’s three big investor-owned utilities have split over the issue.

“The commission should establish its authority to regulate third-party providers of electricity for electric vehicles,” Christopher Warner, an attorney for Pacific Gas & Electric, wrote in a filing with the utilities commission. “Managing the increased electricity consumption and load attributable to electric vehicles in order to avoid adverse impacts on the safety and reliability of the electric grid may be one of the most difficult management challenges that electric utilities will face.”

Southern California Edison, meanwhile, urged the commission to move cautiously, calibrating any regulation to the specific business models of the companies.

San Diego Gas & Electric said the commission does not have the right to regulate companies like Better Place.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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The wind industry has been getting a lot of love of late from the Obama administration.

The president spent Earth Day at an Iowa factory that makes wind turbine towers and announced new regulations for offshore wind farms. Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has been talking up the potential of offshore wind to generate as much as 20% of the eastern seaboard’s electricity that is now provided by coal-fired power plants.

But such scenarios won’t come to pass unless the administration seriously tackles the transmission grid problems that are keeping wind from becoming a nationwide source of green energy, according to panel of wind industry executives who spoke at Fortune Magazine’s Brainstorm Green panel this week.

“The real challenge is to connect wind farms in the Great Plains with the population centers of the Midwest,” said Bob Gates, senior vice president of commercial operations for Clipper Windpower. California-based Clipper is one of two U.S.-owned wind turbine makers (the other being General Electric (GE) ).

For instance, Clipper and BP (BP) have signed an agreement to build a 5,000-megawatt wind farm – the nation’s largest – in South Dakota. But the deal is more a dream at this stage because there are no power lines to transmit such massive amounts of electricity to Chicago and other Midwestern cities. (Gates said there is enough transmission available to begin construction this summer of a small 25-megawatt portion of the wind farm.)

The Obama administration has devoted billions of dollars in stimulus package funding to transmission projects and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week approved incentives for a company planning to build a $12 billion “Green Power Express” transmission project to bring wind to Midwest metropolises.

Gates and the other panelists — Andris Cukurs, CEO of Indian turbine maker Suzlon’s North American operations; Don Furman, a transmission executive with Spanish wind developer Iberdrola Renewables, and James Walker, vice chairman of French-owned wind developer enXco – said the development of wind offshore from East Coast cities would ease transmission bottlenecks.

“Connecting offshore wind to cities is relatively cheap and easy compared to bringing wind power from the Dakotas to New York City,” Gates said. Another way to work around transmission gridlock would be to develop highly efficient small turbines that could be placed near cities and existing power lines, said Gates.

Despite Obama’s embrace of wind, the executives said they don’t see the industry resuming its record growth in 2008 – when U.S. wind capacity more than doubled – until 2010 or later. The credit crunch delayed or scuttled numerous wind farms and turbine orders have fallen dramatically.

One bright spot: Growing interest from well-capitalized utilities in directly investing in wind farms.

“Utility ownership is about 15% of the U.S. turbine fleet,” said Furman of Iberdrola Renewables. “I see more utility ownership in the coming years,, perhaps up to a third of the fleet.”

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photo: Todd Woody

IBM on Tuesday said it has signed  a deal to help build a smart grid for utility EnergyAustralia. Some 12,000 sensors will be installed on the Australian utility’s transmission network around Sydney to monitor electricity distribution and detect outages and other problems. It’s IBM’s largest smart grid project of its type to date.

Big Blue will build the software systems to integrate the sensor data into the operations of EnergyAustralia, which runs the country’s biggest electricity distribution network. In dollar terms, the deal is small – just A$3.2 million (U.S. $2.2 million) – but significant in showing the viability of transforming analog electricity distribution systems into an intelligent network, according to Michael Valocchi, an executive with IBM’s (IBM) global energy and utilities unit.

“The electricity distribution operator will have a real-time view of the network and will be able to pinpoint outages quickly and reduce their length,” Valocchi told Green Wombat. “What I really like about this deal is that it starts to show and harden the message that smart grid is much more than automated metering. As you see more distributed energy and renewable energy out there, this type of sensor and this type of intelligence on the grid will help manage that.”

The sensors will be placed mainly at EnergyAustralia’s substations and around transformers, Valocchi says.

IBM had previously rolled out a smaller version of the smart grid system in Denmark. And in February the tech giant announced a deal to build a smart utility and water system for the Mediterranean island nation of Malta.  While overseas utilities have been quicker to smarten up their analog power grids, Valocchi says the United States should not be far beyond, especially as federal stimulus money for smart grids begins to flow.

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photo: IBM

IBM on Friday unveiled a series of  “smart water” services to deploy sensor networks and data-crunching software to help environmental officials better manage an increasingly scarce commodity.

“What we got back from people who monitor water systems is that they had a huge amount of data, that they were often entering the data by hand, and that they didn’t have time to analyze the data,” says Sharon Nunes, vice president for Big Green Innovations at IBM. “What we’re trying to to do is build more intelligence into their water systems.”

Here’s how it works in a nutshell: Sensors are scattered throughout a water district’s infrastructure – from reservoirs to the pipes that deliver H20 to homes – and gather information on water quality, leakage and other conditions. IBM (IBM) software analyzes that data and organizes it on a computer dashboard so water managers can at a glance detect problems and balance supply and demand.

A demonstration of the IBM technology and its reach is underway in Ireland’s Galway Bay. Working with Marine Institute Ireland, IBM’s SmartBay project has equipped several hundred buoys like the one in the photo above with sensors that are networked through wireless links. The sensors measure such things as water temperature, salinity and oxygen content. Nunes said some sensors measure wave height to determine the best locales for wave energy production while another experimental intelligent sensor detects phosphates and then essentially does a science experiment in a box to determine whether the data is of sufficient quality to beam back to the home base.

The project also uses fishermen as “nodes on the network,” allowing them to text-message reports of floating debris on the bay. SmartBay crunches that data and sends back a map showing the likely position of flotsam over the next 24 hours so boats can avoid collisions.

Nunes says all this data – presented on a computer dashboard – allows the Galway harbor master to get a quick snapshot of the the bay’s health and potential navigation hazards so decisions can be made quickly – like whether to close the beaches because of a spike in pollution.

She estimates the potential market for smart water technology to be between $15 billion and $20 billion. The $64,000 question, though, is whether IBM’s likely customers – cash-strapped municipalities and state and local governments – can afford to get smart.

The answer, Nunes says, is that federal stimulus package money is available for water projects while other countries like China have set aside cash – $53 billion in China’s case – for water quality projects.

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tendril-iphone-appHere’s an iPhone app that really could help save the planet while saving stressed consumers’ money: Boulder, Colo.-based startup Tendril this week unveiled a mobile software program that lets people monitor and control their home’s energy use while on the go.

Say you’re sitting in the unemployment office listening to some bureaucrat drone on, so you pull out your iPhone to update your Facebook status and then check on whether that next unemployment check will cover the utility bill. When Tendril tells you that your electricity consumption is spiking and so will your estimated monthly bill, you remember you left the air conditioner set on Arctic. Flick your finger and shut that energy hog down.

That scenario won’t become common for awhile it as relies on a widespread rollout of smart utility meters that will bring the interactive smart grid and real-time electricity pricing into the home. That is happening, albeit very slowly (though the pace is expected to accelerate with billions in the stimulus package being poured into smart grid-related projects. The ability to remote-control your appliance, however, is some years away).

For instance, Tendril, is rolling out a home energy management system for Texas utility Reliant Energy (RRI) that allows customers to monitor and control their electricity use through a video display that sits in the living room. When Green Wombat visited Reliant’s smart house project in Houston last September, the utility’s tech guys showed me their own home-brewed iPhone app.

As anyone with an iPhone knows, Apple’s (AAPL) app store makes it ridiculously easy to turn the gadget into Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver – a gizmo that does everything but put out the trash and feed your pet bunny. But earth2tech’s Katie Fehrenbacher questions how widespread Tendril’s app would be used given the difficulty in putting any third-party software program on a BlackBerry or other smartphone. But that’s changing by dint of Apple’s growing share of the smartphone market and the advent of the app-friendly Google (GOOG) phone.

Green Wombat is most intrigued by the potential of such apps as the Tendril Mobile Vantage to tap into people’s inherent competitiveness, keeping-up-with-Jones mentality and, in the Facebook era, compulsion to share, share, share. The data generated by smart meters and home energy management systems like Tendril’s will let consumers compare their energy use – and thus contribution to global warming – with their neighbors and friends.

In fact, Tendril is planning to add a carbon footprint feature to its mobile app. Funnel that data into a Facebook newsfeed and let the peer-to-peer pressure go to work to see who can claim Twittering rights to a low-impact lifestyle.

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google-powermeter

Google has become the utility of the digital age, something we click on as much as we flick on a light switch or turn on the water tap. Now the search giant is literally getting into the utility business with the development of smart grid software that gives consumers real-time information on their electricity consumption.

Called the PowerMeter, the prototype online dashboard is designed to download data from smart meters and display current electricity use and show how much power your refrigerator, big-screen television and other appliances are using at any point in time.

“We believe that by building a ‘smarter’ electricity grid, we can use the synergies of information and technology to give consumers better tools to track and reduce their energy use and, by doing so, save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” wrote engineering executive Bill Coughran and Dan Reicher, Google.org’s director of climate change and energy initiatives, in a filing Monday with the California Public Utilities Commission. “Down the road, consumers should have access to additional information such as the source and mix of their power.”

The Google (GOOG) executives urged California regulators to adopt policies to give consumers direct access to their real-time electricity usage in an open-source format. “The goal is to foster a thriving ecosystem of partners where third-parties develop and provide products to help consumers decrease and manage their energy demand and save money,” Coughran and Reicher wrote. “For example, a third-party could offer a service that analyzes a household’s electricity usage data, identifies inefficient appliances or practices in the home, and offers tips on how to reduce energy or provides special discounts on efficient appliances or electronic equipment.”

Utilities across the country are rolling out so-called smart meters that allow the real-time monitoring of electricity use, letting them charge variable rates depending on demand. The idea promoted by Google and other smart grid proponents is that once people become aware of how much electricity their various appliances and gadgets consume – and how much it costs them – they’ll start, say, running the dishwasher at night when electricity demand and rates are lower. That will help utilities cut their costs and over the long run avoid building new carbon-spewing power plants to meet peak demand.

Google’s move comes as the Obama administration pushes to upgrade the nation’s aging analog electricity grid, including $11 billion in the stimulus package for smart grid-related initiatives.

Google says PowerMeter, now being tested among Google employees, will be a free, open source application. “Google tool is only one of many ways to provide consumers with this information,” the company stated in its utilities commission filing. “Our primary goal is for consumers to get this information, whether through our tool or another source.”

It remains to be seen how the Google initiative affects the fortunes of startups like Tendril, Greenbox and others developing software and services for utilities to let their customers monitor their electricity consumption.

Google says it’s currently working with utilities and device makers. Green Wombat is waiting to hear back from Google on which ones, but a good bet would be General Electric (GE), which struck a partnership last year with the search giant to develop smart grid technology. Also likely on the list is PG&E (PCG), which has been collaborating with Google on plug-in hybrid electric car and vehicle-to-grid research.

Then there’s IBM (IBM), which has become the leading player integrating smart grid technology for utilities and managing the data produced by a digital power grid. (Big Blue last week announced it is building the world’s first nationwide smart grid for the Mediterranean island nation of Malta.)

So will Google PowerMeter save consumers money while saving the planet? That’s the early word from Google employees – not exactly the most neutral of sources – who’ve been testing the smart grid app, according to testimonials Google posted online.

“By monitoring my energy use, I figured out that the bulk of my electricity was caused by my two 20-year-old fridges, my incandescent lights and my pool pump, which was set to be on all the time,” wrote “Russ, hardware engineer.” “By replacing the refrigerators with new energy-efficient models, the lights with CFLs and setting the pool pump to only run at specified intervals, I’ve saved $3,000 in the past year and I am on track to save even more this year!”

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Over the weekend The New York Times’ Matthew L. Wald had a sobering story on the not-inconsiderable challenges facing efforts to expand and upgrade the United States’ power grid to tap renewable energy from wind farms and solar power plants. Among them: Opposition to new high-voltage power lines from landowners and environmentalists, a Byzantine permitting process and fights over who pays the costs of transmission projects that span state lines.

Here in California, the ongoing controversy over the Sunrise Powerlink project is a case study in just how difficult it will be to build the infrastructure to transmit electricity from dozens of solar power plants planned for the Mojave Desert. Among the big companies looking to cash in on the solar land rush: Goldman Sachs (GS), Chevron (CVX) and FPL (FPL)

Utility San Diego Gas & Electric first proposed the $1.3 billion, 150-mile Sunrise Powerlink in 2005 to connect the coastal metropolis with remote solar power stations and wind farms in eastern San Diego County and the Imperial Valley. For instance, SDG&E’s contract to buy up to 900 megawatts of solar electricity from massive solar farms to be built by Stirling Energy Systems is dependent on the construction of the Sunrise Powerlink. Like California’s other big investor-owned utilities – PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) – SDG&E, a unit of energy giant Sempra (SRE), is racing the clock to meet a state mandate to obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 33% by 2020.

But Sunrise sparked opposition from the get-go as the utility proposed routing part of the transmission project through a pristine wilderness area of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  The prospect of 150-foot-tall transmission towers marching through critical habitat for desert tortoises and other protected wildlife galvanized environmentalists well-versed in the arcane arts of regulatory warfare.

Opponents also painted the project as a Trojan horse to bring in cheap coal-fired power from Mexico. (Wald makes a similar point in his Times‘ piece – the same high-voltage lines designed to transmit green electricity from wind farms can also be used to send cheap carbon-intensive coal-fired electricity across the country.) That argument subsequently lost currency when regulators, citing California’s landmark global warming law, barred utilities from signing long-term contracts for out-of-state coal power.

After more than three years of hearings and procedural skirmishes culminating in an 11,000-page environmental impact report, a PUC administrative law judge last October issued a 265-page decision all but killing the project on environmental grounds. Whether SDG&E thought that green energy and climate change concerns would trump worries over wildlife and wilderness, it was clear that trying to build an industrial project through a state park was a costly mistake.

Then in December, after California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order to streamline and prioritize the licensing of renewable energy projects, the utilities commission’s board revived Sunrise Powerlink, approving a different route for the transmission lines that avoids Anza-Borrego.

But the fight is far from over. With the cost of the project now approaching $2 billion, late last month the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.-based environmental group, filed a suit in the California Supreme Court challenging the utilties commission’s approval of Sunrise Powerlink.

Safe to say, the battle will drag on for some time to come, giving new meaning to the term “stranded assets” for some would-be Big Solar developers.

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