Tag Archives: energy

IBM software patch upgrades power grid to version 2.0

IBM software patch upgrades power grid to version 2.0 | ExtremeTech.

In the past 120 years, the world’s aging energy grid has not seen much innovation. Companies are still making implementation decisions based on principles that were developed in the grid’s infancy. As the world faces down a growing energy problem in the light of there now being almost 7 billion people walking the planet, companies are deciding that it is time to bring about some change to take advantage of modern technology to help with resource conservation. A consortium that includes IBM, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and other power companies has decided that a software update is the first major step to both regulate power consumption, and integrate new renewable energy technologies; “Grid 2.0? if you will. The consortium is getting ready to install the system across five states in the Pacific Northwest, after a successful trial run in Washington state last year.

The main idea behind the software platform is simple: Give the power companies the ability to control energy consumption at peak times by making small changes in each home that will equal big savings when looking at the zoomed-out, macro picture of the grid. This is accomplished by installing “smart” thermostats in the homes of customers who opt into the program. By giving these consumers rebates and different incentives, the providers increase adoption to help make the project viable. Simply put, the power company is able to remotely tweak your thermostat, ultimately reducing the energy your home is using. Taking a page out of the airline executives book that saved his company millions by taking away one olive in each salad it served during flight, the power providers seek to save energy by the volume of micro-changes it makes in smart thermostats since they are saving a large amount of energy overall.

In addition to consumption control, IBM is helping the consortium tie other energy sources such as wind and solar into the grid to store them for use during periods of high demand. Integration of renewable energy sources is a big part of the consortium’s overall plan for the future of the grid. On paper, this plan certainly looks like it could be a winner, but there are two large problems to overcome: First, dealing with Big Brother — second, dealing with infrastructure.

I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave

George Orwell's 1984 (Big Brother)Let’s start with the most obvious problem there is with this plan, the idea that a “Big Brother” company is going to be able to take control of a user’s thermostat and other household appliances. There are some serious concerns that have been voiced with this idea. Exactly how much control will the company assert? If they make a change to your thermostat and you change it back, will the software reassert the temperature change? Could this lead to energy “caps” like consumers already have with home and mobile internet connections? It sure would be a bummer to hit a cap on one of the coldest days of the year and not be able to heat your home.

The consumer is said to benefit from this plan by enjoying a flat rate based on average consumption of the grid overall. At the end of a billing cycle, if a home has used significantly less than that average, the consumer will get a rebate. There is a problem here as well as companies could regulate the power usage so that users never fall below that point. This might sound overly cynical and rather “Skynet” in nature, but these possibilities are there, and a result would be subject to heavy governmental regulation that could bog down the process until it’s no longer viable. There would need to be some real transparency and an implementation of some sort of real-time information on the power usage of a home. The consumers have the right to see how the software run by their power company is regulating their homes. Google had a great project called Google Power Meter, now retired, which allowed users to see how much energy they were burning. Something like that is what is needed for this overhaul to work.

Supersize me

It can be argued that this is what is needed to help curb the high rate of energy consumption, especially in the US. Environmentalists hold that without this kind of plan in place, people will inherently wasteful because that is what they have been taught to do. They may have a point as many of the “dumb” thermostats in homes are left unset despite some having some intricate scheduling systems. The issue is that any kind of control asserted by a company might be looked upon as draconian in parts of the country used to expressing individual freedoms.

The other hurdle to leap over is the practical aspect of the power grid’s aging infrastructure. Simply put, some of it is ancient and costly to replace. It is a sound idea for this plan to start with software that will take advantage of existing infrastructure, because the cost of a complete overhaul would be staggering. Add in the fact that the software project was funded in large part by the economic Recovery Act of 2009 in the US, there is a looming question of who will pay. Where does the power company responsibility come in as far as the monetary side of an overhaul?

Wind farmThere are some logistical issues as well with the integration of renewable energy sources. Windmill farms are usually pretty distant from heavily populated areas, solar panel arrays the same. Getting the power from these sources to the consumer is an issue because the current wiring in use is “lossy,” wasting precious energy in transport. One has to think of the grid as a large factory system with supply and demand and logistical challenges that rival UPS. Any overhaul would require some research into carrying power over long distances without losing much volume.

Problems aside, this is as good of a plan as any out there at the moment to help reduce energy consumption. Make no mistake, this is a problem that we as a planet must face and work together on. We are in the infancy of the work that needs to be done. The exciting part is that through this kind of work comes great innovations that can carry over into other technology, bringing new advances in ways that have not be thought of yet. The pursuit to overcome the hurdles of this project will be nothing but positive on the whole. It will be exciting to see where this project goes.

Heat waves pushes Texas power grid to the limit

Heat waves pushes Texas power grid into red zone | Reuters.

HOUSTON | Thu Aug 4, 2011 4:56pm EDT

(Reuters) – The Texas power grid operator has scrambled this week to meet soaring electricity demand in the face of a brutal heat wave, and residents of the second most populous U.S. state are one power plant shut-down away from rolling blackouts.

Power demand for Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc, or ERCOT, which runs the power grid for most of the state, hit three consecutive records this week as Texans cranked up air conditioners to escape one of the hottest summers on record.

The grid operator on Thursday cut power to some big industrial users, and businesses and households face a repeat of the rolling blackouts they faced in February, when a bitter cold snap interrupted power supplies.

Though ERCOT has done a good job balancing supply and demand, “You always have to expect the unexpected can happen,” said Arshad Mansoor, senior vice president at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). “A unit can shut. The wind may not blow.”

It’s been a year of extreme weather for the Lone Star State, already suffering from the worst drought on record.

Ice storms in February crippled dozens of power plants, forcing ERCOT to impose rolling blackouts for hours as electric supplies dropped below demand for the juice.

Now a protracted heat wave with temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius) for several weeks in a row in many cities has stretched power supplies to the limit.

Power usage in ERCOT reached its highest level ever on Wednesday at 68,294 megawatts, almost 4 percent over last year’s peak.

The Texas grid faces at least one more day of extreme stress before temperatures cool a bit over the weekend. Temperatures in Houston, the state’s biggest city, should return to near normal levels in the upper 90s over the weekend, according to AccuWeather.com.

The state’s biggest power generators, including units of Energy Future Holdings, NRG Energy, Calpine Corp and others, have been running flat out to cash in real-time prices that have hit the $3,000/MWh cap in recent days.

But the state’s reserve margins have been running razor thin. On Wednesday ERCOT came within 50 megawatts of interrupting flows to industrial customers. That’s equal to the output of about 25 industrial-scale windmills.

One megawatt powers about 200 homes in Texas during hot weather when air conditioners are running for long periods.

More generation supplies would come in handy, but state power generators can’t be expected to prepare for every extreme, said Kent Saathoff, ERCOT’s vice president of system planning and operations.

“You have to determine if it is worth spending millions or billions to avoid a one in 10-year event,” Saathoff told reporters on Wednesday.


With record-breaking demand came record-breaking prices. Prices for Thursday power topped $400 per megawatt hour, the highest in at least a decade. Friday’s power prices approached $600.

Real-time prices also hit the $3,000 market cap over the past few days.

ERCOT has about 73,000 MW of natural gas, coal, oil, nuclear and wind generating facilities, but not all of that capacity is available all the time.

Texas has the most wind power in the country, but the wind does not blow during the summer. Ercot said it got about 2,000 MW from wind during the peak hour on Wednesday. Those wind farms can produce about 9,000 MW when all turbines are spinning.

Moreover, the ERCOT power grid is a virtual island with only a few small transmission links to neighboring electric grids, making it tough for Texas to pull energy from neighboring states in times of need.

Connecting Texas wires to the rest of the U.S. grid would cost at least as much as a state transmission investment program to carry Texas wind supplies to cities like Dallas and Houston, pegged at about $6 billion, Saathoff said.

(Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York, editing by Chris Baltimore; Editing by David Gregorio)

Can China Survive without Coal?

The Carbon Trap: Can China Survive without Coal?: Scientific American.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Watt’s book, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind–or Destroy It.

Cold, dark, silent. Close to death. Buried in the depths of a collapsed, illegal coal mine, Meng Xianchen and Meng Xianyou knew they had been given up for dead.

The rescue effort had been abandoned. The two brothers could no longer hear the sound of mechanical diggers, drills and spades above their heads. Dismayed and exhausted, they had stopped yelling frantically for help.

How long had it been? Hours, days, weeks? There was no way of knowing. When their mobile phone batteries died, they lost all track of time.

And place. With the silence and the darkness came disorientation. They were unsure which way led to the surface and which led deeper into the mountain. They had little evidence that they were even still alive. It was like being lost inside a tomb.

Above ground, their families were already preparing a funeral. In accordance with tradition, relatives had started burning ‘ghost money’ for the two brothers to spend in the other world. Negotiations had begun with the local authorities about compensation. Yet down below, the Mengs stubbornly refused to die.

Driven by a powerful instinct to survive, they fought against the earth and the darkness, against death itself. The brothers started digging. They hacked and shovelled, using a single pick and their bare hands. They were only a few dozen metres from the surface, but despite twenty years of mining experience, they were so panicked and confused by the darkness that they started to worry they were tunnelling deeper into the mountain. They changed direction once, twice, three times, before deciding to head straight up.

With every hour that passed they grew wearier and more depressed. It grew harder to dig, exhausting even to crawl. They filled water bottles with urine. The taste was so foul, they could only drink in small sips and felt like crying after they swallowed. Desperately hungry, Xianchen took to nibbling finger-sized pieces of coal, not knowing it had zero nutritional value. Yet they kept digging. Their companionship was a source of comfort and strength. They slept in each other’s arms to stave off the cold and told jokes about their wives to maintain morale. ‘My wife will be happy after I die. She can find a rich husband in Shenyang to replace me,’ mused Xianchen out loud, then laughingly contradicted himself. ‘But then again, she is an ugly woman with two children so it will be hard for her to remarry.’ Humour does not get much blacker than laughter in a collapsed coal mine. But it kept them going for six days, until finally, miraculously, they scratched their way to the surface.

Weak and close to starvation, they emerged blinking into the light, then staggered to the village where they were met with a hero’s welcome and incredulous joy that the dead could rise from their tombs. They were carried off to hospital, where the doctors treated their damaged kidneys and journalists bombarded them with questions. The mine owner, meanwhile, was on the run. Aware that the standard bribes would not protect him from a deadly accident investigation, he had fled as soon as he heard of the collapse.

The survival of the magnificent Meng brothers made front-page headlines in Beijing. Their experience captured the Chinese zeitgeist of the past thirty years—gritty, poor, dirty, illegal, dangerous, willing to go to almost any lengths to get ahead, ill as a result, but surviving long after being written off. They had been trapped in a carbon hell in which they dug, ate, inhaled and were almost suffocated by coal, yet they had lived to tell the tale.

China finds itself in a similar predicament in the first decade of this century. Demand for energy continues to grow and most of it comes from underground. The economy is utterly dependent on coal. It provides 69.5 per cent of the country’s energy, a greater degree of reliance than that of any other major nation. This, more than anything, explains why China is so cautious in setting carbon targets in international climate talks such as the 2009 summit in Copenhagen. Cheap coal generates electricity for Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, fires the steel mills of Huaxi, powers the production lines of Guangdong, and allows consumers in the West to buy Chinese goods at a knockdown price. No other fuel has such an impact on the environment.

Collieries destroy arable land and grazing pastures, erode topsoil, worsen air and water pollution, increase levels of river sediment (raising the risk of floods), and accelerate deforestation (especially if the coal is used to make charcoal). The country’s most pressing environmental problems—acid rain, smog, lung disease, water contamination, loss of aquifers and the filthy layer of black dust that settled on many villages—can all be traced back in varying degrees to this single cause.

Then there are the losses caused by global warming. In 2007 China overtook the US as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases because it was so dependent on this fossil fuel. For each unit of energy, coal produces 80 per cent more carbon dioxide than natural gas, and 20 per cent more than oil. This does not even include methane released from mines, for which China accounts for almost half the global total.

Coal is compressed history, buried death. Geologists estimate the seams of anthracite and bituminate in northern China were formed from the Jurassic period onward. Within them are the remains of ferns, trees, mosses and other life-forms from millions of years ago. Though long extinguished on the surface world, they still—like ghosts or the Meng brothers—possess form and energy. Consider coal with a superstitious eye and foul air might seem a curse suffered for disinterring pre-ancient life. Described with a little poetic licence, global warming is a planetary fever caused by burning too much of our past. But whether we prefer these archaic formulations or modern science, the conclusion is the same: the more we dig and burn, the worse we breathe.

Given the low priority the Chinese coal industry places on ecological and health concerns, it is little surprise that safety standards are also appalling. The country’s collieries are the most dangerous in the world. Since the start of economic reforms, the equivalent of an entire city of people has died underground.

More than 170,000 miners have been killed in tunnel collapses, explosions and floods, a death rate per tonne at least thirty times higher than that in the United States. Countless more will perish prematurely of pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, because there is little or no protection from the dust in the enclosed tunnels. Mine deaths are so frequent that if the Meng brothers had been less stubborn about surviving, the collapse at their pit could easily have gone unreported. All that is unique in their story is that they emerged to tell the tale.

With 20 per cent of the world’s population and a fast growing econ- omy, China needs huge amounts of fuel.

Deposits of oil and gas are small relative to the country’s size, but coal is abundant. Unfortunately, it is mostly of low quality and inconveniently located in the northwest, the opposite end of the country from where it is most needed: the manufacturing belt of the southeast.

The cleanest solution would be to transform the fuel into electricity or gas near the source and transfer it via power lines or pipes. But this would mean the mining provinces receiving even less economic benefit. So the coal has to be transported by train, barge and ship at huge extra cost to the economy and the environment. Coal accounts for 40 per cent of the freight on China’s railways. On the track from Shanxi through Beijing to the southeast, I counted in astonishment as double locomotives pulled a train of more than two hundred cars each loaded high with more than 60 tonnes of coal and ash. There was another ten minutes later. Then another. A million tons could pass along a single line in a day.

Millions of dollars flow in the other direction. China’s spectacular economic rise can be tracked by the volume of coal mined, freighted and burned. During the Mao era, colliery production was held back by centralised price restraints that turned coal into red ink. But after the market reforms of the late 1970s and early 1980s, digging mines suddenly became the quickest way to get rich. The wealth of Shanxi’s colliery bosses was notorious.

The problems caused by coal were not entirely their fault—the state’s control over extraction rights and frequent crackdowns encouraged mine owners to cash in as quickly as possible and with minimum concern for safety. But mine owners were a reviled group, who were accused of having blood on their hands, ruining the land and being the epitome of bad taste. Young people who drove flashy cars, wore loud clothes and treated people badly were taunted as being “like the child of a Shanxi mine own- er.” The image was not helped by the forty Porsches seen at the ostentatious wedding parade of one of these children.

Pan Yue, the deputy environment minister, described the bosses as little more than parasites. “Coal-mine owners from Shanxi province indiscriminately extract coal and dig up the land, creating pollution. As a result they become extremely wealthy. Once they have polluted Shanxi, however, they do not stay there. Instead they move to Beijing, where they buy luxury villas and push up house prices. They have also pushed up property prices in all the coastal regions of north China. If these areas then become polluted, they will no doubt move to the US, Canada or Australia and cause inflation there too. They create pollution, but are removed from its consequences. They take all the benefits of polluting industries, but pay nothing towards the clean-up costs.”

The true cost of the mines never shows up on balance sheets. For the mining provinces, it is a curse. They receive far from a fair market price because the mines are owned by the state and the colliery owners get the rights to profit from extraction. The prosperity of cities like Shanghai and Beijing is based on cheap energy from provinces like Shanxi and Shaanxi, which are left with the environmental and health costs. One influential study estimates the environmental and social costs associated with China’s use of coal at about 7.1 per cent of the nation’s GDP in 2007.

Industry forecasters say it can’t go on. Without a long-term strategic plan, the country’s reserves will be exhausted before the end of the century. The government has responded with a drive for more efficiency, the key focus of president Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development.” It has closed small private mines and opened automated mega-collieries. It has replaced small old thermal plants with supercritical and ultra-supercritical generators equipped with scrubbers and other technology to reduce emissions of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide (though it has not always been properly used). Policymakers are studying the possibility of a carbon tax. More public funds and utility cash are being invested in “clean coal” technology. Along with the tightening of safety standards, this has begun to drive up the cost of domestic coal, as has Shanxi’s introduction of an ecological restoration fund.

Indeed, as prices soared in 2008, many factories in the southeast started importing from Australia and elsewhere. Abandoning coal completely is not, of course, an option, as I learned in a discussion with Xiao Yunhan, an energy visionary at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Nobody likes coal, even in China. But do you have a better solution for our energy supply problems?” he said. He expected consumption of coal to double over the following ten years. For at least another two decades, China would be trapped in a coal-dependent economy.

“Even if China utilises every kind of energy to the maximum level, it is still difficult for us to produce enough energy for economic development. It’s not a case of choosing coal or renewables. We need both,” the senior scientist said. “We have to use coal so the best thing we can do is make that use as efficient as possible.”

Unlike the Meng brothers, people will not be expected to eat lumps of anthracite, but industrialists are expected to find new ways to consume carbon. In addition to installing newer and more efficient power plants, China is also ahead of other nations in developing and adopting Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology that turns coal into gas, removes impurities, maximises efficiency and can capture carbon. In the future, Xiao predicted plants will be able to turn coal into gas and diesel, capturing and eventually sequestrating carbon dioxide emissions. Some of the technology is at an advanced stage of development.

“That’s my idea. At Shanxi and Shaanxi, coal-to-oil and IGCC will be integrated into one system. In this regard, China is ahead of other nations. The US is only talking about this,” he told me matter-of-factly over a cup of green tea.

The technology is expensive, but Xiao estimated that China could build and operate IGCC plants for about a third of the price of the US. In the near future, he predicted China would have to choose whether to invest primarily in supercritical plants, which burn coal efficiently, or IGCC facilities that dealt more effectively with carbon. The latter are more expensive, but price is not the only consideration. “The uncertainty of climate change constraints is a factor in deciding which plants we build,” he said. “If we don’t need to worry about CO2 emissions, then supercritical plants make more sense. But if we are concerned about carbon dioxide, then IGCC is the best. This is the big decision we must make in the next five to ten years . . . Sequestration will be the final solution for carbon dioxide control. But before that we should try other things.”

Isn’t the priority in the long term to reduce demand?” I asked.

He shrugged and smiled. “We cannot deny people a happy life. But we also must not deny future generations a happy life,” I said.

“True,” he replied.

From When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind–or Destroy It by Jonathan Watts. © 2010 Jonathan Watts. Reproduced by permission of Scribner.

Stop wasting food, save the world's energy

Stop wasting food, save the world’s energy – opinion – 18 August 2010 – New Scientist.

The scandal of food waste is even worse when you consider how much energy is being thrown away, say Sheril Kirshenbaum and Michael Webber

IT IS no secret that meeting the world’s growing energy demands will be difficult. So far, most of the focus has been on finding oil in areas that are ever more difficult to access – think BP’s Deepwater Horizon well – bringing new fossil fuels such as tar sands online and increasing energy efficiency.

Yet we have been overlooking an easier way. We could save an enormous amount of energy by tackling the huge problem of food waste. Doing so is likely to be quicker than many of the other options on the table, while also saving money and reducing emissions.

The energy footprint of food is enormous. Consider the US, where just 5 per cent of the global population consumes one-fifth of the world’s energy. Around 15 per cent of the energy used in the US is swallowed up by food production and distribution. Most of that comes from farming with mechanised equipment, fertilisers and pesticides, irrigation and so on. Then there’s the energy cost of sorting, processing and packaging.

On top of that, each item of food on an American plate has made an average trip of over 2400 kilometres by boat, plane, train or automobile. Then there’s unloading, stocking grocery stores and meal preparation. By the time all of these steps are accounted for, food takes a significant bite out of the US’s total annual energy budget of about 100 million terajoules.

We have to eat, of course, but what about the food that we produce but do not eat?

Between one-quarter and one-third of the food produced in the US gets wasted, for a variety of reasons. A great deal spoils or is discarded before even reaching consumers, on farms, in fisheries and during processing. Buyers often reject perfectly edible produce because of minor blemishes. Food gets tossed in the trash in the home just because we bought or served too much, or let food spoil. Over a year, the average American family of four spends almost $600 on food that they do not eat.

Between one-quarter and one-third of all the food produced in the US gets wasted

Whatever the reason, food waste has a large cumulative impact. A recent analysis by one of us (Michael Webber) and Amanda Cuéllar at the University of Texas at Austin found that close to 2.2 million terajoules embedded in food waste was discarded in the US in 2007 – the energy equivalent of about 350 million barrels of oil (Environmental Science & Technology, DOI: 10.1021/es100310d).

This means that at least 2 per cent of the total US energy budget is literally thrown in the trash. For comparison, 350 million barrels of oil is nearly double Switzerland’s total annual energy consumption. Only a small fraction of what is wasted is ever recovered.

Global energy consumption is projected to increase by close to 50 per cent between 2006 and 2030. That makes reducing our dependency on fossil fuels even more challenging.

Tackling food waste should be added to the toolbox of policy options because its relative impact is on the same scale as more popular measures such as biofuel production and offshore drilling. Although we will never eliminate food waste completely, we can assuredly create the means to discard less by coming up with the right incentives for producers and consumers.

The first step involves identifying efficiency savings along the production chain, which might include improved farming practices or more funding for agricultural research. We already have the means to create varieties of vegetables and fruit that spoil more slowly than before, but the approach involves genetic engineering and there is consumer resistance, so public acceptance of new technologies should be encouraged.

Companies can do their bit, too. Hotels are already saving significantly on water and energy by encouraging their guests to use towels more than once. In the same manner, restaurants might reduce food waste by reducing their often profligate portion sizes.

Supermarkets could benefit by selling perfectly edible fruits and vegetables that are currently discarded because of blemishes. Such measures would not only reduce food waste but also save companies money and demonstrate that they are environmentally conscious, which in turn would enhance their reputation and increase their profits.

However, businesses function based on the demands of their customers, so ultimately we need to change people’s actions. This will be tricky.

Foremost, the public needs to be better educated about proper storage of foods to keep them edible for longer. Shoppers could be supplied with easy-to-digest, accurate information about the proper shelf life of products, so that they are able to plan meals more carefully and end up with less spoilt food at the end of the week.

Another problem is “use by” dates, which are extremely conservative and can encourage consumers to throw away perfectly edible food. Similarly, “sell by” dates are usually meant as guidelines for retailers to ensure they do not keep stock too long, not as guidance to consumers about when the food will spoil. We need to improve the way we label foods.

Initiatives targeted at consumers could also have ripple-out effects: not only will educating people about food waste reduce pressure on their wallets, it would also lead to fewer trips to the store, saving on gasoline and reducing carbon emissions. Most important, it would help to promote a culture that places a higher value on food, energy, and the way their complex relationship affects us all.

Sheril R. Kirshenbaum is a research associate at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy (CIEEP) at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future (with Chris Mooney).

Michael E. Webber is associate director of CIEEP