Posts from November 2009

Electricity 101

What Really Happens When You Turn On The Light

There are a couple of things that I consider everyday miracles. My list does not include moments such as a child phoning me without asking for my credit card number. I’m thinking here about opening a tap for hot and cold water whenever I want it, and flipping a switch for a flood of light whenever I want it.

Most of us know vaguely where water comes from, but electricity is just there—you know, in the socket. This morning, I went out to the front yard to take a look at my electric meter. The dial spun around lazily, numbers breezed past, and I had not a clue what it all meant. I asked Mark Brownstein, Deputy Director of EDF’s Energy Program, to be my guide through the world of electricity, because he is the sort of person whose eyes brighten when conversation turns to transmission grids. He developed a passion for all things electric as a child, watching Godzilla send sparks flying as he tromped on those spindly towers.

"Electricity is the only industry that has not yet been revolutionized by the information technology that has so utterly transformed the rest of our lives."

“Electricity is the most amazing form of energy we have,” says Brownstein, whose passion for the subject is contagious. “Even our bodies work because of electricity. When you’re talking about electricity, you’re talking about everything. Social science, politics, economics, physics, environmental science. Everything.”

powerplantListening to him, I finally realize why it is imperative to understand what happens when I flick a light switch. Nearly 50% of U.S. electricity comes from coal, the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive, source of energy. Burning coal pollutes the air, contributes to acid rain, wastes huge amounts of water and creates mercury emissions that get into our water and food supplies. Eat tuna sushi for lunch everyday, and watch the toxic methylmercury levels in your bloodstream go up.

Meanwhile electricity demand is steadily rising; the Department of Energy calculates that it will rise by 26% over the next 23 years. The answer to meeting that demand with clean energy supply lies in the ever-renewing abundance of the wind and the sun. That’s the future. There’s only one problem. We are not—yet—ready for it.

The way we generate and deliver electricity has basically not changed in a century. If Thomas Edison came back to life tomorrow, he would recognize today’s electric grid. (In contrast, imagine how stunned Alexander Graham Bell would be by our cell phones.) The system is massive, a marvel of human engineering, with 160,000 miles of lines designed to move electricity from power plants to customers. The grid is so finely tuned that it adjusts to changing conditions and demands instantaneously, in milliseconds. If a tree falls on a line in Florida, it takes a mere two seconds for people in Canada to feel the impact. That’s not always a good thing: The calamitous blackout in the Northeast in August 2003 was triggered by branches touching two wires in Ohio.

Unfortunately, the grid, however fast, is not efficient: up to two-thirds of the fuel burned to produce electricity is lost in the process of generation and delivery. Wasted. And at the other end of those lines, when the power reaches you and me? More wasted energy.

electric meterBack to that spinning meter in my front yard—the one that speeds up alarmingly when my clothes are in the dryer. Electricity is the only thing that is simultaneously purchased and consumed. Every time you flick that switch, a power plant has to generate the electrons you’ve asked for and send them to you, often from hundreds of miles away. Because we can’t store electricity, we need to keep lots of extra power plants waiting around, ready to meet any level of demand. Expensive.

We can text or twitter or tweet, day and night, to let each other know where we are, moment by moment. But your local electricity supplier has no idea if your lights are on. In fact, the system operates blindly. If you lose power in your home, you have to notify your company. Electricity is the only industry that has not yet been revolutionized by the information technology that has so utterly transformed the rest of our lives.

That is changing. If it seems miraculous for power to arrive at the flick of a switch, things are going to get even more wondrous with smart grids, a vision for the nimble utility of the future. EDF is a partner in The Pecan Street Project in Austin, Texas, one of the nation’s first comprehensive smart grid experiments. As team leader Miriam Horn puts it, “Smart grids are networked, like the Internet. They will find what you need on the energy web and route it to you along the most efficient pathways. They’ll adjust demand to match clean, renewable supply, not only in your home, but across neighborhoods.”

Smart grids will make us smarter about energy consumption, because they’ll give us lots of detail about what we’re spending on those extra refrigerators, and when during the day it will be cheaper to spin that clothes dryer. Sure, it takes time to build a new power system—but remember, it wasn’t so long ago that we had to buy our phones from one phone company. We can change the world quickly—especially when change makes our lives better.

But will smart grids make us smarter about the real cost of wastefulness? We seem to be finding more ways to do things electrically that used to be done by hand. I have to remind myself that I don’t always need to haul out the vacuum cleaner, and can reach for a broom to sweep the floor. Just stroll down any suburban street in the middle of the night and try to see the starry skies—you’ll be blinded by the blaze of outdoor lights. I doubt they’re on to give the raccoons a better look inside the garbage bins.

In the end, it’s a free country. When you get down to it, these days we have come to believe in a right to be wasteful. Smart grids won’t immediately change that. They’ll just charge a premium for prime-time use. But maybe smart grids can do something more radical.

Information is powerful. Learning more about how we’re spending our resources could throw light on what’s become of our national character. A prominent part of the American temperament, deeply embedded in our cultural DNA, is a propensity to be thrifty, which my dictionary defines as “wise economy in the management of money and other resources.” It may be old-fashioned; it may even, in just one generation, have become a recessive trait. But with the right kind of support, we could once again see how to get a charge out of saving. Now that would be forward thinking.

The New Home Ec: Saving Electricity Every Day

It is difficult to feel responsible about something that’s relatively cheap, that you can’t see, don’t understand and take for granted. When I realized how ignorant I was about the way things work, I thought of my high school days, when girls had to take Home Economics, and learn to cook and sew, while the boys took Shop, and learned about things like electricity and plumbing. I’ve decided that this is the time in my life for a new kind of Home Economics.

Personal change is not the same as social change—and that’s what we need. Lots of political energy right now is aimed at a large-scale overhaul. But as individuals, we can still make a surprising difference in cutting carbon emissions, starting at home. Read on for some easy ways to save money on your electric bill.

Turn down the thermostat on your hot water heater. We generally make the water much hotter than is necessary; think about how much cold water you have to add to the mix to get a temperature comfortable for your skin. If appropriate, have a timer installed on the hot water heater too; most of us have pretty regular patterns of hot water use and don’t need the heater working all day long.

Wash your clothes in cold water. And use a non-polluting cold-water detergent. It really does work just as well.

Buy a drying rack. Use it in the bathroom for hanging those wet clothes. After the spin cycle on your new front loader, laundry isn’t that wet anyway. I tried using a clothesline but got turned off by the souvenirs left behind by birds. By the way, that lint in your dryer means your clothes are getting thinner. (At least throw it outside for the birds and mice to use in making their nests.)

Shut off your freezer. One day I realized that I had half an appliance running full force for one box of frozen peas and a pint of ice cream. Why? If you don’t depend heavily on frozen foods, shut off the freezer. (And just buy ice next time your friends come for Whiskey Sours.)

Buy more efficient appliances. If your appliances are old—more than 25 years—and you can afford it, the energy savings will be large. Find out about rebates and tax breaks.

Change HVAC filters regularly. Maintain the equipment you have diligently—get to know it, and care for it. Learn your way around your basement. Ask your plumber or your electrician to explain what you have; I’ve found that people are delighted that you are interested enough in their work to want to understand it.

Turn down the heat. Wear those sweaters that are piled up in the closet. And tuck small blankets around your legs when you are curled up with a book.

Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. The quality of light has improved radically in the last few years, so if you gave up on CFLs a while back, try again.

Turn off the lights when you aren’t in a room. And if you can’t get family members to remember, or cooperate, install motion detectors to do the job.

Turn off the lights when you are in a room. Try candlelit family dinners every night. You’ll be astonished at how calming—and bonding—it is. Your children might even use their restaurant voices at home.

Install efficient flow showerheads. You can cut hot water consumption by 40% or more simply by replacing your showerhead. And time your showers. Even more important: time your teenagers’ showers.

Turn everything off when you don’t need it. And watch closely. The single largest new source of electricity use in your home is all the electronic gadgets that don’t turn off, but instead stand by. Plug these into a power strip and turn it off when you’re done for the day.

Insulation, insulation, insulation. If you do one remodeling project this year, inject new insulation into your walls or replace the old stuff in your attic. Why let your precious hot or cool air leak away?

For more tips about how each one of us cans save energy, go to the EPA's Climate Change Action Steps.

Smart Grids: The Pecan Street Project

Because electricity is so readily available, we take it for granted. We forget how quickly we’ve gotten used to turning on the lights. As recently as the 1930s and ’40s—within living memory—Lyndon Johnson was just beginning to electrify rural areas of central Texas, which today include the state’s high-tech corridor. Watching the lights come on across the beautiful Hill Country was one of the proudest moments of Johnson’s life.

So it is fitting that the most exciting new development in the story of electricity is happening in the capitol city of Austin. The city is becoming a clean energy lab, staking out a leadership position in our energy future. The goal of the ambitious Pecan Street Project is to invent and deploy, at a significant scale, the most innovative urban power system possible. EDF has partnered with the city, Austin Energy, the University of Texas and corporate partners like Cisco, Oracle, Gridpoint and Applied Materials to develop the project.

Miriam Horn, co-author with EDF president Fred Krupp of the bestselling book Earth: The Sequel, and a team leader in Austin, says that this is the most interesting project she has ever worked on. “The old electric system is like a single-celled amoeba,” she notes. “Poke it, and it responds.” (Think back to 2003, when a branch falling in Ohio caused a blackout in the Northeast.)

Horn adds: “A smart grid adds brains and a nervous system. Instead of the one-directional system we have now—electricity is generated every time you ask for it—smart grids will be networked to find many different sources of supply, or to modify demand. They will enable dozens of things to happen instantaneously when you flip that switch, to find the lowest cost, lowest impact way to turn on your light.”

The Pecan Street Project is creating tools and installing 400,000 smart meters to give customers real-time information about, and control over, their energy use. “It’s like YouTube,” Horn says. “Citizens will no longer just be passive consumers but also energy producers with a system smart enough to manage itself according to their goals—buying them the cleanest power, or the cheapest, selling their homemade electricity when the price is right. Their refrigerator will know to cycle off for a few minutes when a cloud passes over their solar panels. They will be able to buy cars that run on electricity, and the car battery will know to charge at 2:00 am when windmills are churning out clean, cheap electricity and demand is low. And people will be able to sell electricity back into the grid—for a profit—during peak demand.”

Similar experiments are blossoming nationwide. President Obama recently announced a $3.4 billion stimulus grant to 49 states to deploy sensors and communications technology on transmission lines, substations and houses. This is a small down payment toward a safer, cleaner energy future.

But as EDF's Mark Brownstein points out, a smart grid system will only work if, to the consumer, it is seamless, better than what we have now. “No one will adopt anything that has voltage fluctuations, or that is more expensive. And consumers have to get a share of the savings that smart grids will generate.” In addition, energy systems won’t come in one-size-fits-all models, but will be designed to make the best use of local resources. “Just as you wouldn’t dream of growing pineapple trees in your Rhode Island backyard,” says Horn, “the electric system in Seattle won’t be based on solar energy.”

Note to engineering students: this is the most exciting time ever to be in the energy business. If the future for the college graduate in 1967 was “plastics,” the future now, in one word, is “batteries.” Energy storage. That will make it possible to deploy energy from lots of different sources, even the sun, in the middle of the night.

Transforming the way we produce and use energy, the kind of change that can have a significant impact on global warming, must be developed system-wide. The Pecan Street Project captures a kind of world-altering approach, and its promise ignites hope. Sure, we’re consumers. But we’re citizens, too. It is ultimately up to us to demand a new system of power.

Personal Nature is powered by WordPress.

RSS feeds are available for posts and comments.

Share this Blog

Subscribe

Subscribe to Personal Nature by RSS feed or email: