Why we should ALL support Renewable Energy 3 – Electrical Generation and Transmission, and RTOs

Electrical energy has probably been the greatest single technology that has improved our Standard of Living.  Before I delve more into how this has affected our Quality of Life, an overview of how this system works is in order. 

Our electricity grid is where our food distribution system was before refrigeration” Elliott Negin.  Quite a profound statement since electrical energy is so central to our lives.  Despite the increase in wind and solar renewable energy systems, the electrical grid in this country is still based on a system that started to be put in place during the 1870s.  It is predicated on the use of centralized power plants that transmit electricity through lines across the country. One problem with transmitting electrical power is that it loses energy during the transmission.  Local lines lose around 4%, while high energy transmission on distances of 300 miles only lose about 2%.  Electrical power is transmitted between 155,000 – 765,000 volts depending on the distance to be covered.  Voltages are stepped up for transmission and stepped down in when the power reaches the area it is to be used (think multiple sub-stations).  The grid itself is fickle and complex, especially when one considers the difficulty of transmission coupled with trying to estimate supply and demand.  Small scale local power grids began as early as 1882 with the national grid established in 1938. 

The grid is not simply a system where electricity that is produced is simply dumped into the grid when it is produced for everyone to tap into as they need it.  The electricity has to be directed to a location.  The complexity of the national grid has increased since locally distributed power from rooftop solar panels and local wind generators have connected to the grid.  Local distributed systems are more variable in reliability compared to larger MW systems.  Yet, with increasing electrical demand the need to use local systems is essential and if managed through modern computerized technology using real-time data would allow a more resilient and flexible grid.   The idea of RTOs (Regional transmission Organizations) was introduced in a previous post (Why we should ALL support Renewable Energy 1) which is the realistic way that power is transmitted within the grid.    

Most energy utilities work on a triple goal – reliability of energy delivery, financial viability over the long term, and social and environmental responsibility.  To move beyond the current grid system will not be simple or cheap. Until the whole system is either extensively upgraded and modernized the potential for power failures within the grid system is a real problem.  There are two terms used to describe disruptive power interruptions – Brownouts and Blackouts.Most computer system need to be plugged into voltage smoothing devices (to ensure consistent voltage) that protect from voltage drops and spikes, the latter having the potential to destroy computerized systems.  

brownout is an intentional, or unintentional, drop in voltage within the electrical power supply delivery system. If comptrollers of the system see a potential load emergency, they will Intentional reduce power outputs (under-voltage) to prevent a power outage known as a blackout. When voltage is quickly restored, the resulting voltage spikes (over-voltage) can be quite damaging to unprotected computer components and data systems.

A blackout, however, is a complete interruption of power within a given service area.   Blackouts can occur without warning and last for extended periods.  Reasons for blackouts are usually caused by catastrophic equipment failure or severe weather.   While rare in the USA but more common in many less developed countries, rolling blackouts are controlled and usually preplanned interruptions of service. Power companies may deliberately cause rolling blackouts for numerous reasons, most often it is because the peak demands cannot be met by existing supply within a region. Rather than blackout a whole region for a longer period, the blackout is shared for short periods throughout the service area. To emphasize the fragility of the current aging electrical grid, the great 2003 blackout throughout Northeast North America (southeastern Canada and eight northeastern states) lasted for up to two days in some areas and affected more than 50 million people.  Apparently, some tree branches in Ohio interacting with high voltage power lines tripped emergency fuses that caused unexpected voltage spikes, which then created a cascade of system failures across the region.

RTO (Regional Transmission Organizations)

One of the ways that local utility companies manage power supply stability is through RTOs (operators that coordinate, control, and monitor multi-state electric grid systems), which can be a variety of direct and indirect brokerage systems, that sell and trade electricity through complex wholesale RTO market systems.  The complexity may ensure stable electrical supply, but also causes high fluctuations in market pricing that can be restrictive for smaller and rural community utilities who have minimal electrical energy generation systems they control. 

Remember the triple line goal (given above) of most utility companies is reliability of energy delivery, financial viability over the long term, and social and environmental responsibility.  The big problem with ensuring a stable supply through RTOs is that most local utilities have to place environmental responsibility subservient to supply stability and price viability.  This inevitably means that air quality suffers.  An electrical system on a grid does not differentiate where its electrons are derived – fossil fuel or renewable source.  You may live in an area that generates completely renewable electricity but if it is a part of an RTO, your utility may be competing for electrons, that when peak supply is needed, the electrons come from a fossil fuel source. Fossil fuel derived electricity comes with a high cost in air quality, especially in areas where they are generated or areas downwind of those generation systems.  The social and environmental costs are not shared.  Coupled with other fossil fuel problems from oil and gas extraction and the burning of gasoline and diesel, air quality can become quite harmful and even deadly for some.  The costs of using fossil fuels and the reduction in the quality of life, while trying to maintain a standard of living are the focus of the next post.                   

Why we should ALL support Renewable Energy 2 – SOL, QOL, and GDP

As I discuss why we need to rethink not just renewable energy, but how we live and consider moving into a sustainable world, there are some basic factors of how we measure the Country’s success that we truly need to understand. 

In the last post I said that we all confuse Quality of Life (QOL) and Standard of Living (SOL) when we think about the things we need in our lives.  SOL is the degree of monetary wealth that makes available material comforts to a person or community.  It is measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita.  In other words, how much money is moving through a country’s economy in a given year relative to the population. It does not take into account the negative or positive aspects of how the money is used. GDP was conceived of in the mid-1600, but in 1934, FDR wanted some measure to know if the USA was doing better economically as it struggled out of the Great Depression era.  GDP up to that point was used as the measure simply because it could be measured.  BUT it was only a minor metric in a whole economic slew of other minor and ineffectual measures that really didn’t work in the big scheme of everyday life.  It simply measures the movement of money – it has no good or bad component to it – a new community center hires a lot of people and money moves.  Likewise, a terrible disaster creates a lot of aid help and rebuilding and money moves.  A million people dying in a terrible disaster also increases GDP even more so if they have to be nicely buried. War is particularly good at increasing GDP. Yet, since 1944 from the infamous Bretton Woods we have used it as the international measure of choice about comparisons on lifestyle and SOL.  How do you compare SOL when one country is dirt poor and another has people with lots of ‘stuff’ but are mired in debt in which most will remain for the remainder of their lives.   

QOL on the other hand is about the general well-being of individuals and societies, taking into account the negative and positive aspects of life.   It is less about the economy and more about life satisfaction, including everything from happiness, physical health, family, education, employment, wealth, safety, security to freedom, religious beliefs, and the quality of the environment.  A good SOL is good, but a better QOL is preferable!  If a QOL includes a good SOL, so much the better, as long as the SOL has all the attributes that create a good QOL. Having sat in many ridiculous traffic jams and read about the debilitating debt so many people live with, I see that the QOL in the U.S. is not as high as everyone thinks it is. If the amount of money were truly equal to QOL then people with more money should have the highest QOL.  Alas, this is not true.  People with more money feel more secure from financial threats, but other than that, they do not score any higher on any measure of QOL – indeed, in many cases they score lower because their whole world is tied up with financial worries and loss of community support.     

So, can we measure QOL?  Yes, we can, but it is a lot more finicky than simply measuring money moving.  Yet, QOL gives a much clearer picture of how well a country and its people are doing.  In 2019, the U.S. economy is supposedly doing well, but the majority of people in the country are struggling more than ever because this conclusion is based on a rising GDP.  Money is moving but it is siphoning up from a local economy we all live within to an elite economy.  Consider what happens when a Big Box store moves into town (especially in smaller rural towns) with localized incentives and promises of jobs.  Then economies of scale happen when low priced goods, that people didn’t know they wanted, flood the local economy.  The Box store forces local businesses out of business with that cannot compete with the low prices or the lower paying jobs.  Then with little competition the big box stores raise their prices and often move their store to just outside the community’s tax jurisdiction to avoid paying back to the local community.  The money made by the store then whistles back to a head office elsewhere that shelters its profits in overseas banks so the country gets no tax base either.  The rich investors/owners then engage in the ‘elite economy siphon’ to pump money from the local economy up to the elite economy where it gets invested in stocks and shares and other lucrative investments that do nothing for local economies.  

In 1981, the Reagan administration promoted the concept of ‘Trickle-Down’ to argue that allowing this elite siphon economy would benefit everyone as the ultra-wealthy invested their profits back into the U.S. economy.  The truth is that never happened and has never happened.  During the Golden Era of the Robber Barons (late 1800s) these Captains of Industry actually did invest some their massive profits back in to the U.S. business infrastructure.  The problem was that they ruthlessly ran monopolies that drove out smaller competition and formed ‘Trusts’ that were a collection of the largest Robber Barons within a similar industry that maintained such monopolies.  They were even more ruthless in how they treated employees.  One only has to read about the typical Robber Baron behavior of John D. Rockefeller at his coal mine in Ludlow, Colorado, to understand the brutality and working conditions of the masses of people at that time.  Obviously in the last century many laws have been passed to prevent monopolies from reforming and to enhance the working conditions of people.  Unfortunately, the elite economy has not been regulated as well, and the great gains that created the economic boom of post-WWII, allowing a large middle class, have since 1981, been eroding swiftly.  Yes, GDP has risen steadily since 1934, but while the country’s QOL rose as well for a while, it maxed out in 1957, and has been stagnant and has even decreasing in the last 30 years.                   

One country in the world decided to opt out of the simple international of using GDP/GNP and instead instituted metrics of Gross National Happiness (GNH) that focusses on QOL as measures of the country’s success.  Critics of Bhutan’s GNH measures cite the country’s political problems as evidence that GNH doesn’t work, as if our current economic measures (i.e. GDP) do work and somehow are evidence that we have harmonic political situations??  It’s like comparing Apples to Tomatoes and complaining that tomatoes do not grow in orchards.  The critics are thinking from the current system and cannot break out of the box of their rigid economic paradigms.  Are the Bhutanese rolling around in money because of the GNH?  No!  but, are they as depressed as many in the developed world?   Many sociologists and Anthropologists refer to the community aspects of these cultures as evidence that they are much more connected and hence ‘happier’ than we in the western world seem to be because of the cohesive kinds of community’s in which they live.  One common critique of the developed nations is something often referred to as ‘The disease of Isolation.’  This is referring to the individualistic nature of how we live – isolated from each other even with neighborhoods.  What most critics of Bhutan’s GNH so often keep missing is what the rest of the GNH metrics show.  We have no such metrics in our economy to compare, and so we don’t, merely using the GDP that equates to one of Bhutan’s eighth metric in the GNH.  (The nine GNH metrics are Psychological well-being; Time use; Community Vitality; Cultural Vitality, diversity and resilience; Human Health; Educations; Ecological diversity and resilience; Living Standard (the economic measures); and last, Good Governance.)      

To Be Continued……….

Why we should ALL support Renewable Energy 1 – QOL versus SOL, and new technology

The next series of posts are about broader aspects of why we all should support renewable energy and fuels and a different way of thinking that is as revolutionary and cost effective as the electricity and the automobile was to the lost world of the animal drawn wagon and whale oil lighting systems.

Do you believe that Climate change is human caused, or not?  It doesn’t really matter.  We all should be supporting renewable fuels for logical reasons that are beyond the geo-economic-political-scientific arguments that are causing the rifts between rational people and a better quality of life for everyone. Note, that I say Quality of Life (QOL) not Standard of Living (SOL) – we assume and confuse the two as being the same when each is vastly different. 

SOL is the degree of wealth and material comfort available to a person or community.  It is measured by Gross Domestic Product per capita.  In other words, how much money is moving through a country’s economy in a given year (this will be covered more in the next posting). QOL is the general well-being of individuals and societies, taking into account the negative and positive aspects of life.  It is less about the economy and more about life satisfaction, including everything from happiness, physical health, family, education, employment, wealth, safety, security to freedom, religious beliefs, and the quality of the environment.  A good SOL is good, but a better QOL is preferable!  If a QOL includes a good SOL, so much the better, as long as the SOL has all the attributes that create a good QOL!!!  Having sat in many ridiculous traffic jams and watched people struggle with finances, I note that sociological studies show that that the Quality of Life (QOL) in the U.S. is not as people would believe. If the amount of money were truly equal to QOL then people with more money should have the highest QOL.  Alas, this is not true.  People with more money feel more secure from financial threats, but other than that, they do not score any higher on any measure of QOL – indeed, in many cases they score lower because their whole world is tied up with financial worries and loss of community support.       

I also find that what people are determined to defend, quite passionately at times, is the technology they perceive is essential to standard of living in a modern industrial society. If we exclude the people who benefit directly from investments in fossil fuels, we find that people supporting fossil fuels do so from an ideological basis and not a factual one.  I was once in a discussion – actually I was talking but he was almost screaming at me – about fossil fuels and renewable energy options. The man kept saying that society and the economy would collapse without oil, coal, and gas fuels.  He kept going on about his problem of getting to work without gasoline to put in his car.  Like me he was old enough to recall the oil embargo and shortages of the 1970s and he feared a reoccurrence.  When he had calmed down, I asked him if he was in love with gasoline and the internal combustion engine, or was it more that he needed a vehicle to get to work in a reliable, efficient, convenient and cost-effective manner. Did he really care what happened behind the scenes when he flipped a light switch as long as the light or appliance came on? So many people seem ready to fight for fossil fuels when in fact what they really want is merely the technology and resource stability to maintain their lifestyle and move about with the ease that modern cars allow. If battery systems were more advanced in 1893, we would all be driving electric cars today and no one would be fighting for gasoline driven engines.  Back then we would have had coal fired, and hydro, electric generation, but batteries may have been a major storage factor even back then.  When we look at today’s problematic electrical grid system, the easiest solution using today’s options is the one most challenged – to use renewable forms of energy generation that readily lend themselves to localized sources.  More about the grid and Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) in another post.  

First, a little short story about greed and control and the electrical system we take for granted.  By 1900, the modern AC electrical grid was fast becoming the way of the worlds electrical supply.  There were two inventors vying for dominance in this new technology: Thomas Edison (General Electric) using his DC system and Nikola Tesla (Westinghouse) with his AC system.  Tesla was well ahead of the game and won the contract to electrify the lighting system at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. After that the AC system became the standard for electric utilities worldwide.  Now the big money guys got into the act. The first automobiles were electric and John D. Rockefeller was greatly concerned.  Not only was his oil monopoly profit being threatened by the electric grid (people used Kerosene derived from Oil, which had taken over from Whale oil before then) but electric cars would also remove gasoline as a potential fuel in the cars.  Rockefeller backed Henry Ford and created the gasoline driven internal combustion engine as the automotive standard. Tesla was still at the top of his game and his electricity genius was beginning to concern other money giants.  For a time, many of the leading financiers of the day vied with one another to invest in Tesla’s projects. Eventually the most important US banker of his generation, J.P. Morgan (notable financier for the Rothchild family), became Tesla’s exclusive backer during the period when he experimented most actively using wireless transmission rather than wires for conducting electrical current.  At this point the story becomes unclear.  Despite J.P. Morgan backing Tesla’s many inventions with a 51% share, it seems that Tesla was more concerned about providing humanity with cheap, even free, energy more than making money.  Almost overnight, Morgan, for whatever reason, pulled his support vilifying Tesla’s work as problematic.  The most popular and logical reason seems to be that Tesla’s potential wireless electrical system would be almost impossible (at that time) to meter usage for the buying and selling of electricity.  Tesla lived the rest of his life a broken and ruined man unable to continue his experiments.  Almost immediately after his death in 1943 all his research documentation was removed by U.S. government’s Office of Alien Property. What happened to it after that is the stuff of Hollywood movies.     

Over a century later we are still entrenched with the same system of producing electricity – we need something to spin a turbine that creates electrical AC energy.  Until relatively recently, we heated water (coal, oil, methane, nuclear decay, trash) to produce super-heated steam, or a kinetic water source (e.g. water moving downhill), that spins the turbine.  While micro-hydroelectric systems are now available (if you live near a running water source you’re allowed to use) the rest require a large-scale power plant, so we stuck with the grid system.  Or are we? 

The current technology exists for every house to be its own power generating system, which can then feed unused electricity back into a more localized grid for local businesses to use.  In classes I would show my students a Google image of the houses surrounding the university.  I asked them to notice the most wasted space in the picture that was soaking up sunlight – the roofs!  Imagine every house having solar panels (PVs) on the sunny side coupled with Solar Thermal panels, small wind generators, and below surface geothermal heat-pump systems connected to the house.  This means we could all be independent of grid electrical needs.  It has already been shown to be doable.  I had a friend who built his house off the grid in Evergreen, Colorado, and for the next 20 years that he lived there, never paid a utility bill. His water was from a well with a solar powered pump. He also had a leach field so no sewage costs either.  His house costs to build were $1.05 cent per square foot compared to the average $1.25 square foot for all the other ‘regular homes’ around him. There are so many ways to do this kind of system with current technology.  The only drawback?  People resistant to thinking differently!  Economists also have a say emphasizing its expense to changing the whole system.  What they neglect to show is how scale of use reduces prices needed for investing in this idea when building a home.  Before all the naysayers rush out to point out a minor problem, let me point out that all the technologies require some form of manufacturing that in itself can be a polluting part of the system through mining of necessary minerals.  I admit it is not perfect, but compared to the highly polluting fossil fuels that we burn ALL the time, it is a step in a better direction, because once in place they are a non-polluting source of electricity for a long time. The pollution aspect is the one I hear least about when people are arguing about getting beyond fossil fuels.  The reliability and economic aspects are always the first and foremost arguments, but quality of life gets lost in the arguments.  More about that in the next posting.