Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Heat Is On In Texas, But Will The Power Be?

Source: Doggett, Trip. “Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association.” ERCOT. April 9, 2012.

As Texans celebrated the Summer solstice last week, the forecast for this week’s weather was simultaneously making people uneasy.  With practically all of Texas, from El Paso to the Panhandle and the Coast, hitting 100+ degrees the only solace is that we were spared triple digits for the majority of June. Despite this respite, it was by no means a cool spring. According to the National Climactic Data Center, “Texas had its warmest spring (March through May) on record and its third warmest January-through-May period“.  

This heat is not only uncomfortable for the people living in it, but it also puts a strain on our electric grid as demand increases.  According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), “peak-hour power consumption could exceed 66,000 megawatts (MW) Monday afternoon, surpassing the monthly records for June of last year and straining the state’s electric resources.”  ERCOT goes on to conclude that it “expects to have adequate generation and surplus available to serve the state without imposing emergency programs that could lead to curtailment of power to certain industrial customers or broader rolling outages,” however warning, “that rolling outages could occur this summer given the state’s limited amount of surplus generation.”

So what is ERCOT planning for?

ERCOT is projecting weather, and thus electricity usage, using a “normal weather” baseline that reflects more a 2007 outlier (an abnormally cool and lush summer) than it does the actual trajectory of increasing temperatures year after year from 2006 to 2011.  Their “normal weather” equates to a usage of 63,898 MW.

But we are breaking records yet again. In May, we already set a “monthly power demand record of 59,037 MW, surpassing the previous high set in May 2011 by 2.9 percent, and an all-time ERCOT’s peak of 68,379 MW was set last August.” And this week, as predicted, “Tuesday broke the new peak demand record it set Monday. Electric use during the 4-5 p.m. hour reached 66,583 MW, also exceeding the standing record for July”. Typically in the high 80’s this time of year, Galveston reached 100 degrees in June for the first time ever.  

Despite, breaking records this June, and hitting that all-time peak of 68,379 MW last August, ERCOT’s projection for peak summer demand in 2013 is around 67,168 MW. This is a risky projection, but the good news is that this peak amount includes reductions that come from demand response (DR) and energy efficiency mechanisms thus allowing for a firm forecast of 65,649 MW instead.  We argue that if restrictions were lifted for demand response (DR) and energy efficiency measures were not being gutted we would cut that amount even further, avoiding the need for ramping up polluting peaker plants and building new ones.

PUC Chairman Nelson also reflected uncertainty as to the reliability of our grid when she said, “You know, we want to get the message out of reduced usage during peak demand…At the same time, we want to get the message out ‘Texas is open for business. We want to get the message out, peak demand, turn your thermostat up a couple degrees, don’t do your laundry, those kinds of things. But we don’t want to say, ‘if you don’t we’ll have rolling outages’, OK? So, it’s a fine line to walk.”

However, as we reported a few weeks ago, parts of the PUC’s proposed rules would actually hurt energy efficiency programs and decrease the effectiveness of current programs by adding unnecessary red tape and discouraging efficiency. The same types of programs that help shore up ERCOT’s peak demand projections for next year. Right when efficiency needs to expand, the PUC instead is making it more difficult. Why this mixed message?

John Moura, the reliability assessment manager at NERC, the North American Electric Reliability Corp., said “the ‘million-dollar question’ is what will happen if Texas sees a repeat of Aug. 3, 2011, when a prolonged heat wave led to a state record for electricity demand. If power lines go down, the wind stops blowing or drought forces a power plant to stop sucking up water to cool its equipment, the state could be in trouble.”

Posted in Demand Response, Energy Efficiency, Texas / Comments are closed

EDF Energy Innovation Series Feature #7: Cloud Platform From Tendril

Throughout 2012, EDF’s Energy Innovation Series will highlight more than 20 innovations across a broad range of energy categories, including smart grid and renewable energy technologies, energy efficiency financing, and progressive utilities, to name a few. This series will demonstrate that cost-effective, clean energy solutions are available now and imperative to lowering our dependence on fossil fuels.

For more information on this featured innovation, please view this video on Tendril’s cloud platform Tendril Connect.

Solar panels. Electric vehicles. Wifi thermostats. Home security and energy management systems. More than ever, the devices we use every day have the potential to talk to each other and work together. It’s what some people are calling the “Internet of things” or the “Energy Internet,” and it has the potential to put an amazing amount of control in consumers’ hands.

Boulder, Colorado-based Tendril is linking all those devices — and the data they generate — together. Tendril’s staff merges decades of expertise in the energy industry, software development and behavioral science with one goal: to deliver the most engaging consumer applications, so that both utilities and the manufacturers of smart goods and products can connect more closely with their consumers. Tendril hopes its software platform—Tendril Connect—will be the platform for the Energy Internet.

Just as software developers big and small are able to build apps for Windows, OSX, Android and iOS, they are also able to build energy apps for devices that may tell you the best electricity rate plan based on your usage and your utility’s offerings, or point you to changes you can make to shrink your carbon footprint.

In January 2012, Tendril opened its Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) making it possible for third party developers to leverage Tendril’s platform to create apps. More than 400 developers have registered with the company’s application developer program and more than 20 third party apps have been created—many at “hackathons”.

For example, in May at The Next Web “Hack Battle” coding marathon, in Amsterdam, a 15-year old hacker used Tendril’s APIs to build a prototype app that used geolocation data (GPS) to retrieve meter and customer information in order to control his home’s energy usage.

“It blew us away,” O’Neill said. “We gave this kid the tools, and he made a prototype in one weekend. Just imagine what teams of developers could do with a few months of work.”

Source: Tendril

Tendril Connect is an open standards-based cloud platform that connects utilities, homes, applications and devices to realize the opportunities unlocked by new, smarter grids.

As more and more energy data becomes available and more and more developers use this data to create compelling apps, consumers will have increased insights, choice and control over energy management.

One example is, where consumers can upload their Green Button data and select Green Button apps from an app gallery. Green Button, supported by the Obama Administration and an impressive number of companies and organizations, is literally a green button on utility customer interface websites that customers can click to instantly download their historical energy use data in a simple, standardized electronic format.

“When it comes to energy products consumers want simplicity and ease of use,” O’Neill said. “But so do the innovators that will make those products. The amount of data being created by the energy system is exploding, but developers need a common language or platform to build on.”

All types of companies are moving into this area, from utilities and other energy-focused companies to information technology entrepreneurs who are looking at energy issues for the first time.  The potential for profit is coming into focus, and developers want to get in early and create the Energy Internet’s first killer app.

Posted in Energy Innovation, General / Comments are closed

ERCOT’s Three-card Monte Trick For Grid Reliability

(Credit: Arnie Levin)

 This commentary was originally posted on the Texas Clean Air Matters blog.

First we have enough generating capacity, but next year is the problem; now that next year is upon us it’s really the next few years that are the issue. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), grid operator for most of Texas, foresees potential electricity shortages. Clearly the risk is real, but when?  This year? Two years from now? Reports swirl by, some only weeks apart, showing different numbers and contradicting previous reports. Are we seeing a bureaucratic version of Three-card Monte?

During last summer’s drought, demand peaked on August 3, using more than 68,000 megawatts. ERCOT’s stated goal is to maintain a 13.75% reserve margin in generating capacity. Their latest report shows the state’s electrical grid will fail to meet the target reserve margin as soon as 2014, two years from now.  A report in early May actually shows that this summer ERCOT will fail to meet that target as well, although it isn’t stated explicitly.

Meanwhile EPA is meeting with ERCOT and the nation’s other grid operators to develop an implementation timeline for the new Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) air toxics rule, which should begin this fall. Utilities have three years to implement the new rules…unless the three-year timeline threatens grid reliability. Then utilities can get a fourth year…unless grid reliability is still threatened. Then utilities have a full five years to comply.

Concerns about grid reliability are very real, but they are due to power companies deciding to hold off on constructing new power plants while prices are so low.  Unfortunately some state leaders and utilities have seized on these ERCOT reports, and are shifting their conclusions in an attempt to delay rules that have been in the works for years, and in some cases decades.  The new EPA standards will dramatically cut mercury, heavy metals, acid gas and other emissions from power plants. The public health benefits to our state will be enormous, especially for Texas children who breathe air tainted by power plant emissions. The cost of unwarranted delay is a price Texas should not have to pay.

Posted in Texas / Comments are closed

Postcard from Mark Brownstein in Ramallah, Palestinian Territory

Many environmentalist believe that the ideal landscape is one untouched by human hands, and we fight tenaciously to protect unspoiled places from all manner of intrusion.   Yet sometimes landscapes are inspiring precisely because of human action.  Etched upon the Judean Hills is evidence of over a millennium of human activity, and this ancient record enhances their beauty.  The biblical origins of environmentalism are found in Genesis 2:15 where God places man in the Garden of Eden to till and tend it, and driving through hills lined with ancient terraces you can almost hear the voices of a thousand generations whispering “amen.”

I believe that Thoreau was the first to offer the idea that a walk though unspoiled nature restores our souls, but no matter who first said it, I believe it.  But I also believe we were not put on this earth only to contemplate it, and so, how we choose to make use of nature is as important to our spiritual health as the fact that we appreciate it. 

On the outskirts of Ramallah, in the Palestinian Territories, the planned community of Rawabi is rising from the Judean Hills.  When you first arrive there it looks like any other construction site, and you recoil at how significantly the landscape is being scraped and shaped for what looks like just another housing development in the middle of the wilderness.  You recoil, that is, until you meet Amir Dajani, a large, jovial man, who is deputy director of what is this large project.  Dajani talks like a man on a mission, and he is.  The purpose of Rawabi is to establish a town that, in all respects, reflects a new and progressive vision for a Palestinian state.  Rawabi is being developed according to a master plan that takes into consideration all aspects of what makes for a quality life.  The vision statement for the development is “live, work, grow” and this reflects the fact that the developers are thinking about all aspects of what makes for a liveable community, and they are taking steps to ensure that this is a place where Palestinians of different ages, religions, and occupations can build a comfortable and secure life.  The hope is that Rawabi becomes a replicable model for building other similar communities on the West Bank.

Sustainability is at the heart of everything being done at Rawabi, from the site plan that honors the natural contours of site to the buildings which are efficient and make use of the ample solar energy available in the region.  Waste water will be fully recycled to support location-appropriate greenery, and smart grid technology will be deployed to help manage water and energy use.  Rawabi will be a city with free public transportation and a walkable town center where cars will not be required.  For those who believe that smarter land use is a necessary aspect of a sustainable, low carbon future, Rawabi is an exciting experiment in the making.

But perhaps most remarkable is how the Palestinian developers are reaching out to Israeli Jews for advice on the design and development of this project.  Israel itself was inspired by a utopian vision of a better future, and hopefully there is some healing that comes from Jewish expertise and experience helping to lay the foundation of an environmentally and economically sustainable Palestinian state alongside the Jewish one.  There are a thousand reasons why this all ultimately may not work, only some of which pertain to the environmental challenges being tackled here.  But the hope is that in tilling and tending this bit of earth properly, the seeds of a better future will begin to blossom for everybody.

This will be my last post card.  Tomorrow we spend time at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and tour the Old City of Jerusalem, both of which are infused with much personal meaning, but something I’ll choose to keep private. 

L’hitraot, chaverim.  Looking forward to seeing you all stateside.

Posted in Grid Modernization / Read 2 Responses

Postcard From Mark Brownstein In Israel- The Negev Desert

High tech entrepreneurs here repeatedly tell you that Israel is a small market, so if you hope to have your idea become a commercial success, from the start it must be designed and developed with other countries and cultures in mind.  What is true for software is also true for innovative ideas for sustainable living.  The Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research, a program of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev was established in 1974 to facilitate the sustainable development of the Negev desert – an area comprising 60% of Israel’s total land mass – but quickly established itself as one of the world’s leading research institutions on the challenges of living sustainably on the world’s many dry lands.  Professor Pedro Berliner, the director of the Institute tells the story of how they discovered that planting acacia trees in close proximity to crops like wheat or maize produces better results for both trees and crop than if planted apart.  The idea was piloted in Kenya and is now being brought to Botswana, where the Blaustein Institute hopes to develop a permanent presence in partnership with one of Botswana’s existing universities.  This is a good reminder that simple, low-tech solutions can often make a big difference to both people and the planet.

Credit: Zazzle

Of course, when it comes to energy, things are rarely ever simple.  Professor David Faiman, Chair of the Department of Solar Energy & Environmental Physics at the Blaustein Institute, spent the rest of the morning explaining the challenges of bringing solar energy to scale.  For over 30 years, Dr. Faiman has pioneered research into concentrated solar, and a commercial product based on his research, manufactured and marketed by Zenith Solar, shows tremendous promise for raising efficiency, lowering cost, and greatly reducing the physical footprint of commercially meaningful quantities of solar electricity.  Dr. Faiman would surely be both embarrassed and amused to be called a solar energy rock star, but I’ll call him that all the same. 

Equally exciting is the work Dr. Faiman has been doing to conceptualize what would be required to transition Israel’s electric grid to renewable energy.  Dr. Faiman, like many Israelis I’ve met on this trip, is both a visionary and a realist.  On the one hand, he believes it is possible for Israel to get to 90 percent renewable energy based on solar, energy storage, and natural gas-fired generation, but on the other hand, he believes it could take 60 years to get there.  His primary point is that Israel needs to start the transition now for there to be any hope of making even a 60 year deadline.  This means phasing out coal (which Israel continues to depend on quite a bit) and staying away from nuclear, both of which are too inflexible for a renewable-centric world.  Investments in natural-gas fired generation might be ok, as some of these facilities would likely be required to recharge the energy storage systems that would perform the lion’s share of the work in-filling where solar output is unavailable or varies.  His overarching concern is that Israel will continue to make short-term decisions that lead to the construction of conventional energy infrastructure, such as new coal plants (a proposal for a new plant was only narrowly defeated two years ago)  that all but lock the nation into a long-term future of fossil fuel dependence and high carbon pollution.

After a short visit to the research facility of Brightsource, a concentrating solar energy provider active in the United States, we began our hour and a half journey back to Tel Aviv.  As the bus rumbled along, I reflected on the irony that in a land of all this energy technology innovation, so little of it is actually deployed in Israel.  Indeed, practically the only place you see solar photovoltaic panels deployed in Israel are on the ramshackle homes of the Bedouin, who for a variety of reasons, are not otherwise connected to Israel’s electric grid.  Tel Aviv may be a sophisticated, high tech capital, but it is the agrarian, socially-traditional Bedouin, who is light years ahead when it comes to embracing advanced energy technology.

I’ve now asked several Israelis why this is, and two answers stick out in my mind.  The first is that Israel is a place where everyone focuses on the near term, because the future is so unpredictable.  Random rocket attacks (a rocket slammed into Beersheva this morning about a half hour after we checked out of our hotel there) and sudden outbreaks of serious fighting certainly contribute to a “live for this moment” attitude.   The second answer is tied to the first.  As one Israeli explained to me, after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel, like the rest of the world suffered the consequences of high oil prices and invested in renewable energy, but as oil prices fell, the government came to view renewable deployment as expensive and unnecessary.   The recent experience of the oil embargo notwithstanding, the energy minister at the time concluded that Israel’s energy requirements will always be so small in the general scheme of things that even in times of global shortage there will always be fossil fuels available somewhere, albeit at a price.  In short, Israel did not have an energy supply problem, it had a money problem, and the only challenge was to find the cheapest of available options.

Fast forward to today.  The Egyptian natural gas pipeline that carried 40 percent of Israel’s natural gas supply was blown up this spring.  And, what is the response?  The Israel Electric Company simply switched to purchasing fuel oil and coal while it waits for the nation’s significant new offshore gas reserves to come on line.  A triumph for short term thinking in a nation that sells its visionary clean energy technologies to the rest of the world.

Posted in Natural Gas / Read 1 Response

Latest Brattle Group Report Points To Solar Power To Lessen Energy Crunch In Texas

Is there a way for Texas to keep the lights on in the face of our energy crunch and manage to save electric customers some money at the same time?  According to a new report from Brattle Group, solar power needs to be a big part of the answer if the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) plans to reduce the financial impact of their decisions on consumers.  Fresh on the heels of their report detailing changes that could be made by ERCOT to keep our electric grid reliable, comes a new report from The Brattle Group showing the important role solar power can play in solving our long-term energy problems.

The difference between the reports is really focused on whether short-term fixes to help build new fossil-fueled power plants are enough, or if Texas should be looking at long-term solutions for the whole market (not just power companies, but customers too).  The report couldn’t be more timely either: over the past few years, Texas has relied on the few forward thinking municipal utilities like San Antonio’s CPS, El Paso Electric and Austin Energy to attract solar companies to the state.  Until now, the approach has worked. Because of those three cities, as recently as last year, the Solar Foundation ranked Texas #7 for solar jobs in the country and #9 for solar installations but as solar markets continue to grow throughout the U.S., Texas may be left behind. 

The market is changing quickly.  With panel prices declining 47 percent over the last year, many other states have entered the solar market – which means Texas can no longer rely on a few utilities to keep the state on the solar industry’s radar.  In fact, according to the latest report from GTM Research, Texas has fallen from a ranking of #9 in the nation for new solar installations to #15.

As the Brattle Group’s new report shows, the importance of this shift relates not only to growing jobs in Texas, but also to the state’s ability to provide homeowners and businesses with reliable electricity. As we come off of the warmest spring on record in Texas, with triple digit temperatures making us all thankful for our air conditioners, reliable electricity will remain a critical issue. The new rules proposed by the PUC will help companies build new power plants, but these rules cannot focus solely on power companies.  As the Brattle Report shows, we can meet the energy crunch head-on with policies that help Texans invest in solar to meet our growing energy demand in a way that relies less on water to operate.

Posted in Renewable Energy, Texas / Read 1 Response