One of the hot topics in renewable energy is "distributed generation." If every home and business would install some solar panels or small wind turbines to generate their own electricity, then any excess electricity could be sold back to the grid. Build enough small solar photovoltaic systems and windmills, the theory goes, and we won't have to build as many coal-fired power plants.
Those who support this concept make analogies to the internet, where the computing power and brainpower of numerous individuals and their personal computers can be harnessed via distributed computing and wikis and social networks into something really big and powerful.
Will the same concept work with “distributed generation” of electricity?
Asa an energy efficiency measure, putting solar panels and wind turbines on individual facilities is a very good idea. It will reduce the need for that facility to draw power from the grid. But for large scale production of electricity and selling back to the grid, distributed generation does not provide the quality control and economies of scale necessary for the efficient generation and distribution of electricity. Let’s look at those two issues:
Power Quality. The internet works by allowing everyone to post whatever information they want, without any initial filter on quality. That won't work on the electric grid.
An efficient power distribution system requires that power quality (voltage, harmonics, etc.) be maintained at all times. That is difficult enough to accomplish with highly variable generation sources such as wind and solar. Every time the wind dies down or clouds start to cover the solar panels in one geographic area, the grid would have to find power elsewhere to maintain adequate voltage levels. That is a very difficult and complicated task when you are dealing with large wind and solar farms. It is even more difficult when the wind and solar power is being supplied by thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of different sources, each with its own variations in power quality.
Economies of Scale. Building small windmills and solar photovoltaic arrays is not very cost efficient. The number of workers required per megawatt -- and the gasoline they will use going from one site to another -- makes this a very inefficient process. And what about maintenance? Can we really afford a renewable energy system that requires maintenance crews to take care of generation capacity that is located at hundreds or thousands of different locations?
Does that mean our electric power systems will continue to be centralized? Yes, but only on the generation side. On the storage side, distributed networks may offer an excellent solution to the problem of matching generation with demand.
The biggest inefficiency in our current electric power system is caused by the need to build excess generation capacity to meet peak demand. Many electric utilities have generators that are used less than 40% of the time. They exist solely to provide extra power when it is needed -- like from 7 am to 7 pm when every office building has its lights, computers, fax machines and HVAC systems turned on. And on that very hot August day when everyone turns on their incredibly inefficient window air-conditioning units at the same time.
Power companies must build enough generating capacity to handle the highest possible peak demand for electricity. When we operate substantially below peak capacity (like, almost every night of the year), that peak capacity goes wasted.
The real problem is not generation, but storage. If we could use that generating capacity at night and store the electricity for the next day, then we would have a truly efficient system.
Fran Lamparello, my good friend and business partner, sees the future of energy storage by looking at the past. Fran has spent his entire working life in different aspects of the energy industry, from designing building controls systems to running a home heating oil distribution business. He envisions a time in the near future when the electric utilities will address energy storage the same way the home heating oil industry did. At the customer's home or business.
By putting storage tanks at each customer's home or business, the oil companies turned their customers into a "distributed storage" network. It was a very efficient system. The distributor could buy home heating fuel during the off season when prices were low, and then store it until the winter. The distributor did not have to pay for storage of large fuel inventories because it could store that inventory at the customer's home or business. Properly sized, an oil tank at the home or business also reduced the number of trips that had to be made to deliver fuel to the customer.
Fran and I predict that you will see the same type of distributed storage system with electricity. As the efficiency and cost of fuel cells and other storage mechanisms for electricity improve, you will see utilities offering to put that storage mechanism on site at the customer's location. It may be in the form of electric cars as Tom Friedman predicts in his book "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," or it may be in the form of fuel cells.
The real value of the internet model for electricity is not “distributed generation.” It is “distributed storage.” Do not put a solar panel on every roof. Put a hydrogen fuel cell in every backyard or basement! Or an electric car in every garage!
A data center that requires no air-conditioning?
Google has figured out a way to do it. And it is so simple. Locate your data center in a place like Belgium where you can use outside air as “free cooling.”
The concept of “free cooling” – bringing in outside air to cool the inside of a building -- is not new. Building managers in the US and elsewhere have been doing it for decades. By controlling dampers to balance the mix of inside and outside air, building managers can use the “free” outside air to better control temperature, humidity, and air pressure inside buildings without spending money on electricity.
Actually, all of us have done this at one time or another. Like on a Fall day when the sun hitting our windows makes it a little too warm inside, even though the air outside is cool. Instead of turning on the air-conditioning, we just open the window a little. Same concept. “Free” cooling.
All Google has done is take this very basic principle of facility energy management and apply it to complex data centers by adding a dash of information technology and off-shoring. The equipment in data centers generate a lot of heat. By locating them in a cooler climate and carefully managing the amount of cool fresh air coming into the building, Google can control the temperature without needing electricity to generate air-conditioning.
Belgium does have a few days per year (maybe about 7) when the outside air temperature is not cold enough to cool a data center. Google will monitor the weather and outside temperatures. If it gets too warm in Belgium, Google will simply shut down some equipment there (which will reduce the amount of heat being generated inside the data center) and shift some of the work load to other data centers around the world until the weather in Belgium returns to normal.
Now, in complex buildings like data centers, the cooling is not entirely "free." First, you need a building management system to monitor operating conditions inside the building and external data such as weather. Then you need to use the brainpower of facilities engineers to manage the system. But that little bit of data analysis and brainpower leads to tremendous reductions in both energy costs and carbon emissions.
Pretty good results for essentially opening windows.
Last week the US and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing to cooperate on climate change. Some have criticized the document as nothing more than an “agreement to agree” that failed to address the contentious issue of firm targets for carbon emissions reductions.
This criticism misses the point.
To begin, consider how far the US-China relationship has come in such a very short time.
In April 2001, just months after the Bush Administration took office, the US sent a military plane near Hainan Island in China. China responded by forcing down the plane and detaining the 24 American crew members for 10 days until the US apologized.
The message then was clear: Do not mess with us.
In stark contrast, China began its relationship with the Obama Administration by sending 150 senior Chinese officials to Washington to discuss the global economy and climate change. Before leaving Washington, they signed an agreement to cooperate on renewable energy, smart grid technologies, electric vehicles, carbon capture and sequestration, joint research and development, clean air and water, and protection of natural resources.
A very different but equally clear message: We want to work with you on climate change.
Consider also the importance of a US-China consensus on: (a) the existence of a climate change problem, and (b) the need to address it.
Many in the Bush Administration – including Vice President Cheney – did not believe that we had a problem or that we needed to do anything about it. The official position on climate change was that America should not sign any agreements until China and other developing nations agreed to firm targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
China responded by arguing that they should not consider firm targets until the US and other developed nations first agreed to firm targets to remediate their much longer history of carbon emissions.
As Wu Changhua of The Climate Group in Beijing has noted, very little progress was possible when the US and China each “used the other as an excuse for inaction.” The agreement last week is meaningful because it signals an intent by both sides to find ways to work together. That is the essential first step towards any progress.
Equally encouraging are the reasons why the US and China are beginning to work together:
1. A solid consensus in the US on the need for renewable energy. This consensus rests on beliefs that transcend partisan lines, including: (a) that US national security requires a shift away from dependence on foreign oil; (b) that we are leaving a legacy of significant environmental damage for generations in the not-so-distant future; and (c) that economic growth in the US depends on becoming a world leader in new, clean energy technologies.
2. A recognition in China that it must move quickly to prevent environmental disaster. In each of the past five years, China has built an average of 70 gigawatts of electric generating capacity – about the same amount as exists in all of France. Most of these plants have been dirty coal plants with obvious environmental impacts. Remember when China had to shut down factories before and during the Beijing Olympics to make sure the air quality would not kill the athletes? China knows that it cannot continue on this path.
Does this mean that the US and China will agree on firm targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions in Copenhagen later this year?
I hate to disappoint you. But I think the answer is "No."
The underlying message of the agreement signed in Washington last week is that the US and China are going to forge two paths to address climate change. Yes, they will still argue with one another over how much each country should reduce its carbon emissions and by when. But at the same time, they will pursue a second path of cooperation towards achievable solutions with or without an agreement on targets.
Those looking for simple solutions to climate change will be very disappointed by the absence of firm emission reduction targets in Copenhagen later this year. But what would you rather have? A Copenhagen Agreement on firm targets without any agreement on how to reach them? Or a Copenhagen Agreement on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without firm targets?
Whichever you prefer, get ready for the latter.