Energy

My Utility COOP & Solar Power

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There’s a crucial difference between an energy utility company being concerned about the costs associated with moving toward new technology like net metering, and the company pretending concern as a tactic to avoid changing the status quo.

According to a Deutsche Bank study, related in
a great article by Lucas Mearian for Computerworld, ten US States already “boast solar energy costs that are on par with those of conventional electricity generation.” And by 2016, the study expects price parity in all 50 states. Comparing American solar capability with that of the world leader, Germany, the study says cloudy “Seattle is the worst place in the continental U.S. For solar. Germany’s worse than Seattle.”

Last August, my local electric utility’s quarterly PR magazine included a letter by the utility’s General Manager, saying the company was concerned that in “traditional individual-owner net metering applications, the solar owner’s share of the utility fixed costs is transferred to other members.” I was unsure whether this was a real concern or a smokescreen, so I wrote to the GM and received a response from both her and from one of the technical managers.

The utility’s idea of implementing solar seems to be a scheme that would allow customers to buy a “share” of the output of a solar generating plant operated by another nearby utility. While there may be some economies of scale in a big “on-grid” solar farm, the successful model in places like Germany where solar has really taken off has been rooftop. Solar farms seem like just another way for the utilities to retain control and hang onto a lion’s share of the benefit. To make matters even stranger, my local utility is a cooperative. And its most recent PR magazine featured an article urging customers to fight the proposed new EPA carbon rule under the Clean Air Act.

So what’s the solution for electricity customers interested in trying new technology? As Photovoltaic costs continue to come down, there will certainly be more of us. The government confers monopolies on public utilities, using the logic that a region only needs one, and competition would be bad because the streets would constantly be torn up by new companies laying redundant cable. This makes sense, as long as the company granted the monopoly remains focused on the best interests of the community. I don’t see how advocating for less regulation on coal and dragging your feet on new, sustainable technology benefits the community in the long run.

My utility coop’s approach seems more likely to drive the really interested users off the grid entirely. We’ve all heard stories about the local visionary northwest of Bemidji who installed solar panels on his roof, only to have the utility issue a rate increase to all his neighbors to cover the cost of retrofitting to the smart grid. Talk about driving away precisely the people who could be your best allies! I’ve got to admit that faced with that type of attitude, my response is, “Well, is there a way I can do off-grid power for part of my needs, and just reduce my dependence on the utility?” this may be good news for battery manufacturers, but it’s probably not the most efficient or effective way to move the community toward a sustainable future.

Ethanol and the Illusion of Inevitability

Today I'm writing a textbook chapter on transportation. As  I’m writing about internal combustion and energy,  I'm thinking about the illusion of inevitability.

The argument about energy independence, renewability, and ethanol isn’t new: it has been going on for nearly a century. Samuel Morey’s 1826 internal combustion engine burned ethyl alcohol because it was readily available. Henry Ford and Charles Kettering both expected their future cars would burn alcohol fuels. Ford saw ethanol as a way to support American farmers and use grain surpluses that were depressing prices. Kettering’s statement that alcohol was the best way to convert solar energy to fuel reflected a belief that it was better to live on annual solar “income” than to become dependent on drawing down fossil fuel “capital.” And both men worried that gasoline would involve the United States in the affairs of faraway regions. A speaker at a 1936 conference sponsored by Ford remarked that the biggest known oil reserves were “in Persia…and in Russia. Do you think that is much defense for your children?”

Since energy is such an important and contentious issue today, why aren’t we more aware that these debates are not new? General-purpose American History textbooks have a lot to cover, it’s true. They can’t go into detail on every issue. Checking the indexes of several popular textbooks reveals that if they address the petroleum industry at all, it’s usually just to mention that Standard Oil pioneered horizontal business integration and that John D. Rockefeller eventually controlled 90% of the industry. But even respected histories of technology like Vaclav Smil’s 2005 book,
Creating the Twentieth Century, tell the story of early internal combustion as if gasoline was the only fuel used until the end of World War I, when diesel trucks began entering the market. In Smil’s history, there was no solution to the “violent knocking that came with higher compression. That is why all pre-WWI engines worked with compression ratios no higher than 4.3-1 and why the ratio began to rise to modern levels (between 8 and 10) only after the introduction of leaded gasoline.” This is simply not true, so why doesn’t an expert like Smil know the facts?

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Ethyl alcohol fuels were already widely used before the beginning of the kerosene and petroleum boom dominated by Standard Oil. Engineers at both Ford and General Motors were aware that ethyl alcohol ran at high compression ratios without knocking. So how is it possible that historians, even historians of technology, seem to be unaware of the battles fought in the early years of the twentieth century over what American drivers would put in their tanks?

Part of the answer, I think, is that the winners of those battles left more records for historians than the losers. History depends on evidence. A seemingly comprehensive history of the petroleum industry can be written, based on mountains of documents in academic libraries and corporate archives. Books about companies like DuPont and Standard Oil, written by both supporters and opponents, could fill a library. Anyone who undertakes a new history of these subjects must read all this material, which leaves little time to dig for other perspectives.

The makers of ethanol in the early twentieth century, unlike the corporations, left few documents. And finding the story of alcohol in the archives of Ford or General Motors requires dedication and persistence. A good percentage of the records left by these companies, after all, are not objective accounts at all. They’re advertisements, public relations statements, and internal documents arguing not about what could be done, but about what they wanted to do.

As a result, the history we read tells the story of an apparently inevitable, unstoppable journey toward the petroleum-powered world we live in today. This type of history celebrates the winners while at the same time excusing them. When we assume the outcome was inevitable, we conclude that if it hadn’t been Rockefeller, it would just have been somebody else. And that’s the biggest problem. When we believe the present was inevitable, we lose the ability to imagine alternatives. In the past, and also in the present and the future.

Energy and Progressives

Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, Maggie Koerth-Baker, 2011


I’m going to be critical of this book, so I ought to say at the outset that it’s a really effective introduction to contemporary energy issues. Maggie Koerth-Baker makes several really interesting points, and raises a bunch of questions that more people need to be thinking about. This is not a book of academic Environmental History. But it’s about energy, and it has a historical element. And I like my EnvHist reading to be about more than just the academic literature, and I’d especially like them to be relevant to current issues.


That said, I think that in addition to the story of how the power grid got to be the way it is, the other interesting historical element in Koerth-Baker’s account is the Progressive idea she seems to channel that the only way to change things is from the top down. This is old-fashioned Progressivism from a hundred years ago -- not whatever the word is supposed to mean when politicians hurl it at each other today It includes a degree of faith in central planners and technologists that I find uncomfortable, given where they’ve taken us in the past. Also, I think it puts the cart in front of the horse, in terms of how social change happens.


The first important distinction Koerth-Baker makes, though, is between the difference between “what the activists thought the public believed” and what has actually inspired people to change their energy behaviors in the past (p. 2). This goes part of the way toward mitigating her own assumptions, if the reader keeps it in mind. And it’s a good point. Opinions about the sources of (or even the validity of) climate change can get in the way of finding
actions people can agree to take. Do we care that some people conserve out of a sense of stewardship or nationalism or a love of efficiency, rather than because they’re alarmed about global warming? Should we?


“Americans used only a little less energy per person in 2009 than we did in 1981 (and in 2007, we used more),” Koerth-Baker says. “Basically, our energy efficiency has made us wealthier, but it hasn’t done much to solve our energy problems” (p. 4). And probably the increase in wealth wasn’t spread too evenly across the population. The way changing energy use affects the growing inequality of American life is outside the scope of this book, but it’s probably important to think about.


One of Koerth-Baker’s big points is that the energy system is very complicated. The national electrical grid, which she spends most of her time discussing, is limited by the haphazard way it was built. Electricity is not stored, but is generated and used in real-time. This means central managers in several key locations have to balance supply and demand. This means it’s difficult adding local alternative sources to the grid. That seems intuitive, until you remember that if these local sources removed demand from the grid, they’d be self-balancing. That’s a way to implement alternative power sources Koerth-Baker fails to adequately explore.


Rural America didn’t get electricity, she reminds us, until the government stepped in. And life will go on, whatever society does: “it’s not the planet that needs saving. It’s our way of life. More important, I’m not going to save anything, and neither are you. Not alone. The way we use energy is determined by the systems we share” (p. 28). Koerth-Baker insists we “won’t get a 21 quadrillion BTU cut in our energy use in eighteen years by relying on everyone to do his or her small part on a voluntary basis” (p. 31). And she may be right, but that doesn’t exactly square with the changes she reports in places like the military, without accepting some big assumptions about what initially motivated the changes and why individuals responded to the institutional initiatives the way they did.


Energy isn’t obvious, Koerth-Baker reminds us, and it’s hard to see in spite of being all around us. “People don’t make a choice between ‘undermine the efficiency and emissions benefits produced by my utility company’ and ‘go without a DVR,’” she says. “They simply decide how they’d prefer to watch TV and don’t have the information they need to make an energy-efficient choice even if they wanted to” (because they’re always on, DVRs use as much energy as refrigerators! p. 158). Koerth-Baker wants to try to maintain current standards of living by becoming more efficient at a systemic level: “Conservation says, ‘Don’t do it.’ Efficiency says, ‘Do it better.’ That’s a really, really, really important distinction, because it gets to the heart of where we—human beings, that is—have been, where we’re going, and what we’re afraid of,” she says (pp. 143-144). Koerth-Baker can’t seem to get to the point of admitting that things can’t go on as they have – can’t acknowledge the elephant in the living room. So she’s left with improving the efficiency of the system; rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.


“You have to give people insights, not data,” she says, quoting Ogi Kavazovic, VP of Opower (p. 164). And it would definitely help to make efficiency (or even conservation) the default option, as Koerth-Baker suggests. But she also says, “There were downsides to the rural Industrial Revolution, but given the benefits industrialization brought his family—free time, health, educational opportunities, financial security—I don’t know that my grandpa would have traded those drawbacks for a less energy-intensive world where he’d have had to work harder at an already hard job and maybe not done as well” (p. 144). Okay, that’s true as far as it goes, but it assumes the only choices her grandpa had were the two she mentions. That’s anachronistic, and it hides the fact that her grandpa dealt with limited information, and that these really big
systems she puts so much hope in pretty much guarantee that regular people are not going to be able to see all the effects and externalities of their choices. But not telling people and relying on the technocrats is not the option people like the folks at Opower seem to be trying to choose.


At one point, when Koerth-Baker is arguing for carbon taxes, she says “A price on carbon would tell us what we want to know instantly, with up-to-the-minute accuracy—like trading out that beat-up Rand McNally for an iPhone” (p. 171). The core of my problem with this book is right here. An iPhone? Wouldn’t another metaphorical option be using the old map (which, after all, still gets most of the roads right), with a few penciled-in corrections and additions? Or even asking a local, and relying on some of that informal
MÄ“tis knowledge James Scott was talking about in Seeing Like a State? Wouldn’t that be the best way to do efficiency and conservation?

Tesla Batteries

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Bloomberg posted an article today called "Why Elon Musk's Batteries Scare the Hell Out of the Electric Company." The article mentions that Morgan Stanley analysts came to the same conclusion that I did when I was trading emails with the executives at my local electrical coop. "In a July report, Morgan Stanley said Tesla’s home and business energy-storage product could be 'disruptive' in the U.S. and in Europe as customers seek to avoid utility fees by going 'off-grid,'" they said. Why would American households want to go off-grid? It's not so much that we want to, as that our utility providers are doing everything possible to drag their feet on implementing net-metering so that we can deploy solar and wind systems to bring down our dependence on fossil fuels. Some utilities have even gone so far as to jack up the rates of all the neighbors of a solar user, and then tell them it's the solar user's fault. True story.

The article also says “'The mortal threat that ever cheaper on-site renewables pose' comes from systems that include storage, said Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Snowmass, Colorado-based energy consultant. 'That is an unregulated product you can buy at Home Depot that leaves the old business model with no place to hide.'” Really, it would be better for customers if they were able to partner with their local utilities. It would be better for the utilities too, in the long run. The question is, can we get them to think about the long run?

Enbridge 67

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