Friday, August 5, 2011

Microgrids, solar and achieving energy independence

Comedian George Wallace often starts a joke with the line, "I be thinking."

I use the reference for two reasons. First, I saw Wallace in Vegas recently (and I totally recommend his show) and second, because I'd been thinking about teaming solar with fuel cells to create power producers on a small scale via energy-independent homes, commercial buildings and industrial scale operations.

The conclusion? The merger is possible. But more importantly, the query introduced me to the concept of microgrids and the Galvin Electricity Initiative.

I'd posed the question of fuel cell-solar viability to Al Weinrub, who penned the report, "Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California." Weinrub, coordinator of the San Francisco Bay Area Local Clean Energy Alliance, said quite a few people have been thinking in the direction of microgrids, which he defined as "islands of self-sufficient energy producers that are independent of the grid or possibly networked into the grid."

Galvin Electricity Initiative

And he said the group includes folks who want to create net-zero communities not dependent on the grid. He introduced me to the Galvin Electricity Initiative, founded by former Motorola Chairman and CEO Robert Galvin. The initiative addresses a revamped utility system incorporating microelectrity production. Galvin's proposal is meant to be a catalyst for transforming America’s electric grid to "ways that are profoundly beneficial to consumers, the environment and the economy."

"In these models, fuel cells can play a role, but there is little reason to go to fossil-based fuel cells," Weinrub said. "That would only prolong the use of fossil fuels."

He compared it to combined heat and power technology, "where ultimately it makes sense only if the source of heat is renewable fuel."

I believe Weinrub's response is perfect and gives me perspective on fuel cells, which can be fueled with natural gas.

Oil still in system

I'm a little awash in oil with my Alaska background so petroleum taints my world view.

It was big news up north when the cat train went up to Prudhoe Bay for the first time in the winter of 1968, followed by a collective "Holy (moly), there's work and they're paying $24 an hour" from the hundreds of un- or underemployed in the Alaska Interior. I was 10 in '71 but eventually worked in the oil patch one summer in Bismark, N.D. building concrete weights for a 48-inch diameter pipeline.

So I'm somewhat impressed by North Dakota's current performance in petroleum exports. Steve Everly of the Kansas City Star writes, "Perhaps within a year the state is expected to supply more oil for domestic use than the 1.1 million barrels a day that Saudi Arabia now exports to the United States."

Likewise, I'm intrigued by the Canada tar sands pipeline.

Bill McKibben would yell at me. I know, I know. But my perspective is a little old-fashioned. We used wood heat for six years back in very rural Fairbanks in the early 1970s during mom's Last Whole Earth Catalog phase. Eighteen cords a season is a lot to cut and split, believe me. I was disgusted by coal on a personal level as sub-bituminous sends dust everywhere and creates a haze in your house. But rich people had propane tanks. And I still marvel at running water. Melting snow is a pain and rainwater gets mosquito infested quick -- although the Aussies have perfected those systems.

Moving beyond fossil fuel

I ramble, but I guess I'm using this navel gazing to understand the feelings of my generation. It's tough to move on from burning whatever we could get our hands on.

At some point, solar panels on newly constructed homes will be commonplace. But I agree with multiple studies that call for added government support for renewables as right now, a 19.5-year return on investment is hard to justify by homeowners like myself. Although my co-worker just plunked down about $30,000 for a solar system on his home.

Growth is unsustainable

I was fascinated by Asher Miller's video "Who killed economic growth?" In it Miller, executive director of the Post Carbon Institute, says we've been seduced by cheap energy and the concept that constant growth fueled by industrialization is the way it should be. His contention is there are limits we've been ignoring and that change is coming to a screen near you quite soon.

People like Weinrub, Miller and McKibben are the visionaries who will prod at least a percentage of us in the right direction, and hopefully we'll be able to guide movement toward something that enables us to see the Sierra on a non-rainy day. Running in Valley air is really pretty nasty.

Right now I'm doing my best to help. I'm working on guiding the 39 cities and counties to install energy saving projects. I administer stimulus energy efficiency grants, and it's been a long haul from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009. The retrofit projects are lighting, pumps, ACs and other stuff, but all are big on energy savings. I'll be done on most of them by March.

Going net-zero

Many of these cities want to install solar, so in my free time I'm trying to find out ways to do that cheaply. Their big expenses (most of these communities are rather small) are pumping for water and waste water. For instance, Pump No. 8 in one Merced County town runs 24 hours a day during the hot season and costs upwards of $58,000 per month.

Such spiraling costs create incentive as does California's requirement that energy suppliers provide a third of their electricity through renewables by 2020.

Maybe a San Joaquin Valley city will go net-zero. Progressive Firebaugh, perhaps? Santa Monica is pushing in that direction. Cities in Norway and Germany reportedly have reached the threshold.

We'll see how it works out.


Stephen H. Provost said...

I always thought George Wallace was a segregationist and failed presidential candidate back in the 1960s. I guess I am way behind the times.

Mike Nemeth said...

Perhaps this one has been in the pages of Life magazine too (former gov. had a spread after the shooting), but that's where the similarity ends. I believe he's a pal of the late Red Foxx. He's truly amazing to watch.

Niebylski said...

You cover a lot of ground with your post, but let me latch on to a couple topics:

First, the idea of combining PV panel output (or any small-scale renewable) with a fuel cell (or any other load following generation source) on a small scale is the direction that the grid needs to be going in. Microgrids - energy systems powered both by local energy resources and the existing utility grid - have characteristics that make them more reliable, cleaner, and more efficient that grid generation alone.

With benefits like those, you might wonder why we haven't seen more of that type of configuration already. There are two major obstacles, one technical and the other regulatory.

On the technical side, the real difficulty is with interconnection to the existing utility grid. The utility grid was designed with top-down, one-way power flows in mind and is simply not built to accomodate the kind of bottom-up, sideways energy flows associated with distributed generation. A given feeder can accomodate a few PV panels here or there, but once the local power gets up to 10-20% of that feeder's capacity, the utility will just say "no" to any additional interconnection requests - or they'll make the client pay for the necessary feeder/substation upgrades. There are newer methods of interconnecting (inverter-based approaches) that are helping overcome the technical hurdles.

As far as the regulatory landscape goes, utility franchises mean that even if you can generate your own power (and get interconnected) the minute you start to think about expanding the boundaries of your system, you'll face utility opposition - the distribution wires have the "right of way".
There are ways around the regulatory issue - electricity Coops, for example, are allowed to exist in most states. And newer forms, like Energy Improvement Districts, are increasingly common.

I've gone on for quite a bit - just a couple of quick points:

-All fuel cells require hydrogen - which they extract from natural gas via reformers. It can be pipeline gas or "renewable" bio-gas or landfill gas (both of which require expensive equipment to clean up the gas). But the point remains, Fuel Cell CO2 emissions are *no less* than comparably efficient gas engines. Fuel cells also have a harder time following load than engines or turbines.

The real emissions reductions will come from Combined Heat and Power-CHP- (cogeneration or trigeneration). The CHP system could very well use a fuel cell - many do. The important part is the capture and useful application of the waste heat for heating/cooling/process loads.

Mike Nemeth said...

Thanks for the information. I figured it would be a major pain to adapt the existing system. However, I assume that as more alternatives come on line, the push for change/innovation will grow too loud for the status quo.

Mike Nemeth said...

Niebylski, I'd love to bounce future ideas off you. Perhaps use you as a source. Email me at if you're interested.

valfrid said...

It may have been on the side of Life magazine, (former Governor had a spreading after the shooting), but that is na─Źrtovalnega the similarities. I think he is a friend of the late Red Foxx. Hey great to see.
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