Archive for '2012'

    2013 trends for the power industry

    December 17, 2012 4:39 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    Even if the Mayans are wrong about the world ending, there isn't much left of 2012. So before we all rush off to relatives' houses or office holiday parties, let's take some time to consider the year ahead and what it might hold for the electric utility industry.

    I had the opportunity recently to ask a few quick questions to Andre Begosso, managing director of Accenture's Utilities North America strategy practice. Thanks to Andre's expertise, we can flesh out what might happen in the coming weeks and months.

    Trend No. 1: The "Dash for Gas" will continue, but don't count coal out

    This year, hydraulic fracking and other developments in fossil fuel extraction have tipped the scales in favor of natural gas , thus leading power companies to exploit the record low prices of natural gas-fired generation. Andre said he expects this trend to continue into 2013.

    "The price of gas will continue to fluctuate and there is a reason for that," he said. "Price is driven by marginal demand, which in turn is driven mostly by the power generation sector."

    Along with the Dash for Gas, another phrase that gained notoriety was the "War on Coal." Energy lobbyists and politicians from coal-producing countries have been among those who claim that the president, the EPA and Congress have it in for coal and are putting the industry at risk deliberately. For his part though, Andre said he doesn't buy this hype.

    "The price of gas is the single biggest pressure on the coal sector," he said. "Worse than any regulation or legislation from the government."

    Regardless of why coal is feeling the pinch, though, there will always be a need for the baseload power it provides, he said.

    "Even in the best case scenarios, we don't have enough gas to completely replace coal," he said. "Not only that, but we have some upcoming technologies currently under development that will allow us to use less coal. Coal will never go away."

    Trend No. 2: Utilities get back to their bread and butter

    With the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding spent and Congress not in a spending mood, I wondered where smart grid pilot programs and smart meter rollouts were going to get their funding. "The ratepayers," predicts Andre.

    "In terms of the smart grid, there was a wave of construction, and now people are getting better at applying the technology. We will continue to learn more about how to apply it and how to keep the technology viable," he said.

    Some of the more exotic technologies, such as energy storage, that have yet to be firmly proven in the field, utilities will take a rain check on — waiting to see how the technologies evolve over time.

    "Utilities will continue to invest in their bread and butter technologies, like AMI. There is no reason for them not to invest in those," he said.

    Trend No. 3: Has renewable energy deployment hit a peak?

    FERC announced what I thought were some surprising numbers about renewable generation. Biomass, geothermal, solar, wind and hydropower, taken together, accounted for more than 41 percent of new generation put online in the U.S. in 2012.

    This is thanks to a variety of factors, Andre said. Government support, in the form of the production tax credit, is one factor, as are state-level renewable portfolio standards.

    "A lot of states have a looming 2015 deadline to meet their portfolio standards. Michigan is one of them. So they needed to meet those standards," he said.

    In the absence of some major advance in energy storage, Andre said, he expects that renewable energy installation will probably start to slow as its shortcomings become more apparent to utilities and power companies.

    "I would not expect these trends to continue because of the tremendous limitation that renewable technologies have. You cannot break the laws of physics or the laws of chemistry. The wind doesn't blow all the time and it never will, and the sun doesn't always shine and it never will," he said.

    Trend No. 4: Energy back on the agenda

    In my last blog post , I speculated about what it might take to get energy policy back on the agenda. When I asked about this, Andre said energy already is back on the agenda.

    "Over the next 3 years, over $220 billion in new infrastructure will be built. But the problem with infrastructure is Rome wasn't built in a day. It takes time," he said.

    This new wave of infrastructure upgrades will require a level of patience and understanding on the part of ratepayers that Andre wonders whether the average person is capable of. During Hurricane Sandy, for example, Con Edison had one of the most sophisticated electric grids available — yet it still failed, and people wonder why.

    "As much as people hate outages, I don't think they understand them," he said. "If we had to build everything to withstand every possible disaster that could happen, it would never be built. It would be too expensive."

    As far as utilities are concerned in this, Andre compares adopting new infrastructure improvements to how consumers usually approach the release of flashy new electronic gizmos.

    "Remember when BluRay players were $400? Some people did pay for them, but the average Joe looked at it and said, 'Well, I can still watch movies on my old DVD player.' The infrastructure problem isn't much different from that."

    Trend No 5: Growth opportunities will come from new start-ups

    Maybe one of the biggest long-term changes the utility industry has ever seen is the reversal of the status quo of energy use. Energy companies are realizing they have a vested interest in getting customers to use less of their product, and this trend in turn is leading to a market for all kinds of consumer gadgets that will help people use less energy.

    "The regulatory model of the U.S. was built around capital. The underlying assumption was we'd always have growth and we'd always consume more energy," he said. "What we may see in the future is that assumption might not be true... If you have a good understanding of the way the market works, you will be successful."

    Small start-up companies that have a good idea and a way to market it might make a bigger splash in the energy sector with it comes to growth than the older, more established players.

    "I just got a new smart thermostat called the Nest , and it's one of the coolest things I've ever bought," he said. "I installed it myself and I'm not a very handy person."

    My thanks to Andre Begosso for his help with this post. Andre is a managing director in the Accenture management consulting practice and is focused on the resources operating group. He has more than seventeen years of experience in the utility and energy industries and advises clients in the alternative energy, power generation and oil and gas sectors. Andre has a B.S. in industrial engineering from the university of Sao Paulo, Brazil and an MBA from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

    What will it take to get energy on the agenda?

    November 15, 2012 3:56 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    The elections are over, the White House successfully defended by the incumbent and neither the House nor the Senate changed hands. Now reporters on the Hill and in the White House Press Corps are asking their questions about what will be on the agenda for the next four years.

    Those of us in the utility and energy sector are wondering — and I hope we're not the only ones — whether energy policy will have any space at all on that agenda.

    If you want to know what will be on the agenda, look at what the winner ran on. President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign was mostly about taxes, the economy and the role of government — although there were frequent detours into the realms of foreign policy, education and immigration reform.

    Energy, when it was mentioned at all, was colored in extremely broad strokes. National politicians  seldom get much more specific than the standard lines about energy independence, and the latest buzz phrase appears to be advocating for an "all of the above" energy strategy.

    Talking in broad strokes, though, never seems to produce a broad-based, holistic energy strategy that addresses how we generate, deliver and consume electricity. If we want to address the problems we face in this area, we have to get specific.

    A complete energy policy would need to take a stand on what our generation mix would be. Where would we get our power from, beginning with what we have work with in the first place? It would need to address the fact that we still use an energy delivery system that Thomas Edison would recognize, were he alive today. How can we improve on that? Finally, our energy policy would need to make investments in the future — not in a way that attempts to pick winners or losers, but instead makes educated guesses at where we could get the most bang for our buck from promising new research areas.

    Those of us in the energy arena already know what we need to do, but our friends (if any) in the political arena would tell us it's a matter of political will and ability. As I said before, if you want to know what will be on the agenda, look at who won, consider how much they won by and remember what they talked about before they won.

    In this case, Obama won. Again, and by more than 120 electoral votes and all but one or two of the swing states. And he won without talking about energy frequently or specifically. Apparently he (and voters) felt he didn't need to address that subject in any great depth. When his opponent, Gov. Romney, mentioned energy, it was to express his fondness for coal and nuclear energy, or else to name-check Solyndra. There isn't much sign from exit polls that people who didn't vote for Obama made that choice because he wasn't talking about energy issues.

    In all likelihood, this means budget battles and possibly immigration reform will probably take the front seat for the next couple of years as Congress handles the fiscal cliff and Republicans and Democrats attempt to find a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants that everyone can live with. Or maybe I'm being too optimistic. One thing I'm less optimistic of is politicians spending much time on energy.

    So what would it take? I'm trying to envision a scenario in which energy becomes the No. 1 issue in American politics and coming up short. We just had a major blackout scenario with Superstorm Sandy and that didn't do it. Neither did the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Nothing seems to get people talking about energy, even though this is such an exciting time to be talking about it.

    As I was working on this blog, I saw a report that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters, "We would never propose a carbon tax." It wasn't too long ago that a cap-and-trade bill was working its way through Congress — it passed the House before languishing and dying in the Senate. Cap and trade, itself a Republican idea originally, lost its luster in the highly partisan, budget-preoccupied atmosphere of Obama's first term.

    Are there still some brief flickers of hope for a dialogue on energy? Well, I thought it was telling that in his election night address in Chicago, President Obama made a pretty direct reference to climate change — no doubt still thinking about the previous week's storm recovery effort along the East Coast. Although few are willing to point to a single storm and say, "This is climate change," it's hard to watch a storm of Sandy's sheer scale unfold without wondering if this kind of weather is here to stay.

    In the end, I'm not sure what it will take to get energy back on the agenda. There are plenty of worthy approaches and plenty of policies Congress, the EPA and others could look into, but it feels like the will just isn't there, or else it's gone anemic in the past few years.

    That new website smell

    November 9, 2012 9:54 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    Welcome to the new Electric Light & Power and POWERGRID International online! Our new look is backed up by an all-new content management system behind the scenes that will allow us to bring you news and analysis in new and improved ways.

    When I say the site is new, I don't mean we just changed the colors — although we did that too. From top to bottom, our website is redesigned to be a richer source of information with even more specialized topic coverage — whether you're looking for smart grid information, a stories about renewable energy projects or a feature on smart meter rollouts, our website has been retooled to make it easier for you to find what you need.

    Allow me to take you on a little tour of what's new and improved.

    Our topic centers are redesigned and offer more news and information uniquely tailored to what you're looking for. These centers include our new Executive Insight topic center, plus centers that cover power generation , transmission and distribution, metering , renewable energy, energy efficiency, customer service and the smart grid .

    We have a new video center designed to help you sort through our newscasts (plus the player itself is larger than the one we have on the homepage, which is nice).

    Our social media center not only makes it easy to get in touch with us on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, but it also provides a live feed of what we're talking about and what people are talking to us about.

    At the very top of the home page, our revamped content rotator will show you more of what our site has to offer, including digital issues of our magazines .

    Also, I think it's important to note that we're not done yet. We will continue to improve our site and apply good ideas when and where we come up with them. If there is anything you'd like to see more of (or less of), or if you have your own idea of how we can do better, please let us know with a comment at this blog, or via email.

    Thanks, and we hope you enjoy exploring and getting to know our new site.

    Sandy was everything they said she would be

    October 30, 2012 3:38 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    This morning while watching news footage of Hurricane Sandy's aftermath, for some reason I thought of "Jurassic Park."

    On CNN, I could see just about every prediction meteorologists made the day before come true, one by one. It made me think of the chaos theory-obsessed mathematician Ian Malcolm who predicted Jurassic Park's dinosaurs would be impossible to contain.

    Later on, with a full-grown tyrannosaurus broken loose and stomping around, Malcolm says regretfully, "Boy, do I hate being right all the time."

    The day the storm made landfall, I called into a webinar hosted by Earth Networks, a weather forecasting firm that makes the WeatherBug iPhone app that I use myself just about every morning.

    The company's meteorologist, Mark Hoekzema, predicted storm surges around Long Island, flooding in New York, heavy rains in Maryland and Virginia, wind gusts throughout New England and blizzards in Appalachia.

    If you want to see how accurate those predictions turned out to be, I recommend reading the story I wrote yesterday and comparing them with today's headlines .

    All we have to go on in times of severe weather are the predictions of scientists and the mass media's transcription of those predictions. Sometimes predictions fall short of coming true — call it chaos theory. Sometimes this leads to people getting a little blase about how severe the storm could be — even if they live in or near its predicted path.

    Sometimes the media over-hypes what the scientists are trying to say. Many people felt the warnings about Hurricane Irene in 2011 were exaggerated, even though the storm was the fifth costliest storm in U.S. history.

    One group who can never assume that the worst won't happen, however, is electric utilities. It's a scary thing to lose power in the middle of a disaster — especially with frightening news stories coming in and people tweeting some pretty awful pictures of storm damage. And if utilities aren't completely on point with their recovery efforts — or even if the public merely doesn't think the lights are coming back on fast enough — they have to face an angry public.

    This particular storm was everything they said it would be. Some 7.5 million people were left without electricity, multiple billions will have to be spent on repairs, thousands are likely homeless, hundreds of thousands are cut off from transportation and almost 40 Americans are now dead. And that's just what we know about now. There will certainly be stories in the coming days and weeks of other kinds of damage. Whether you're in a utility, working for the media or just some a bystander hunkering down and hoping for the best, pays to be careful.

    NOTE: The Red Cross is seeking donations, preferably money, blood or volunteer time. Click here for more information.

    'Frankenstorm' threatens East Coast

    October 26, 2012 2:21 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    When did storms start getting such creative names? The East Coast's blizzard of 2010 was dubbed "Snowmageddon." Runners-up for that storm's name were "Snowzilla" or even "SnOMG."

    This most recent storm at least tells you what makes it so dangerous. According to the experts, the "Frankenstorm" could be a hybrid weather monster resulting from the collision of Hurricane Sandy sweeping in from east to west, and a wintry storm coming from west to east. Worse, a cold front is coming down from Canada.

    At the time that I write this, they're not exactly certain where these storms could collide, if indeed they do, but forecasters are predicting the worst storm in 100 years for the American Northeast.

    At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, forecasters are saying there may be no precedent for the kind of storm activity their models are suggesting.

    NASA even has a video uplink showing what the storm looks like from space. Pretty scary.

    Sandy has weakened somewhat since moving away from the Bahamas, and is now a Category 1 hurricane. It is predicted to run parallel to the coastline, near the outer banks of North Carolina. It could run aground anywhere between the Maryland-Delaware-Virginia peninsula to Southern New England. As with any hurricane track, however, this prediction could change.

    I'm sure there will be plenty of people snarking at the media for overhyping Frankenstorm if it turns out to be milder than predicted, but with damage predictions ranging from at least $1 billion to as much as $5 billion, utilities will be glad not to have to clean up such a mess.

    Like utilities do, however, companies large and small are preparing. The usual press releases about staying away from downed power lines are going out, severe weather centers are activating, call centers are bringing in their staffs and mutual assistance crews are organizing.

    Pepco has held back some 400 contractors in their service area to address storm damage. Exelon's Baltimore Gas & Electric has warned its customers of power outages and flooding. Duke Energy is monitoring the storm and activating the initial phases of its storm plan. FirstEnergy utilities (which include Penelec, Potomac Edison, Jersey Central Power & Light, West Penn Power and Potomac Edison are mobilizing internal crews and support personnel to assist with the restoration effort.

    Obama, Romney talk about energy, with energy

    October 18, 2012 8:55 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney faced off at New York State's Hofstra University October 17 with polls tightening and each man eager to make their appeals to the country's remaining undecided voters still available in the 2012 election's last few weeks.

    While the first presidential debate saw little mention of energy as an issue — with Romney briefly mentioning government subsidies to green energy firms, like the bankrupt Solyndra — this debate had the candidates talking energy both frequently and early on in the proceedings.

    Last night, a member of the town hall audience broached the topic of energy costs with a question about gas prices and plans to lower them. He said Obama's secretary of Energy, Stephen Chu, has said it is not the policy of the DOE to help lower gas prices, and asked Obama directly if he agreed. Obama responded to this question by talking about the production of oil, coal and natural gas.

    The president said that while production of fossil fuels is up, the country must also invest in wind power, solar power and biofuels, as well as make vehicles that burn less gas.

    On natural gas, Obama said, "We've got potentially 600,000 jobs and 100 years worth of energy right beneath our feet with natural gas. And we can do it in an environmentally friendly way, but we have got to continue to figure out how we can get efficient energy because that is how we can reduce demand and that is what's going to keep gas prices lower."

    Both candidates tried to claim the mantle of an "all of the above" energy policy, which has become a bit of a catchphrase for both parties of late. Obama said Romney's plan is not all-of-the-above because he would let "oil companies write the energy policies."

    "So he's got the oil and gas part, but not the clean energy part," Obama said. "China and Germany are making these clean energy investments, and I'm not going to cede those jobs of the future to those countries. I expect those new energy sources to be built right here in the United States."

    "I want to make sure we use our oil, our coal, our gas, our nuclear, our renewables. I believe very much in our renewable capabilities. Ethanol, wind, solar will all be an important part of our energy mix," Romney said. "But what we don't need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas."

    Building a coal-fired power plant in specific, Romney said, is nearly impossible to do under current regulations — hinting that this is by the design of Obama's EPA.

    Obama countered this charge by saying that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney "took great pride" in shutting down a coal plant.

    "You stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, 'This plant kills,'" Obama said.

    According to the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact, the plant Obama referred to was the Salem Harbor Power Station, which was then owned by Pacific Gas & Electric. The four-unit coal-burning plant had been ranked as one of the "Filthy Five" plants by an environmental group and as the newly elected governor, Romney decided not to support a plan to grant the plant an extension to comply with emissions rules. At a videotaped press conference, Romney said, "I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people, and that plant — that plant kills people."

    Obama went on to say that his administration invested in "clean coal" technology.

    CNN reporter Candy Crowley, who served as moderator, asked whether the price of gas be meaningfully addressed by an American president at all, or are per-gallon prices hovering around $4 the "new normal," Crowley wanted to know.

    The subject went back to oil production, where Romney said production on public land had dropped by 14 percent this year, which sparked a testy exchange and back-and-forth denials.

    Apparently both men decided that the sure-fire winner was talking about gas prices — with Obama defending his record and talking about production, and Romney in turn saying the strategy hasn't worked because of the price you pay at the pump.

    While there was occasional name-checking of wind or solar, this debate's energy talk was almost limited to fossil fuels, though. The energy we feed into the grid by burning fossil fuels wasn't talked about much by either candidate, and nobody said a word about energy infrastructure, grid cybersecurity or the smart grid.

    It wasn't too much to hope for either. I have heard this president say the words "smart grid" before, even though many voters might not yet know what it means. Romney, I'm sure, is aware of these technologies too, having helped manage the finances of high-tech companies in his private asset management days.

    I wish "energy" in the context of a political debate could occasionally mean something more than "gas prices" though.

    It was a town hall style debate, and time was limited however. According to at least one report, Crowley had a question on climate change in her pocket that she never got around to asking. That could have potentially yielded some thought-provoking statements. Maybe if there had been a bit less crosstalk on the floor, she could have gotten to it.

    There is still one more debate, but it will primarily concern foreign policy. This debate, then, was probably the last time energy policy could conceivably have been brought up in any great detail — at least with both the president and the governor in the same room.

    If you want to know where these candidates stand on energy issues, it looks like you're going to have to do a little digging.

    For more on Romney and Obama's respective energy plans, see Jennifer Van Burkleo's story from the September-October issue of Electric Light & Power magazine.

    And please, don't forget to vote — Nov. 6, or earlier if your state allows it.

    Land of the rising sun runs increasingly on solar power

    September 13, 2012 9:58 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    UPDATE : Shortly after this blog was written, Reuters reported that Japan will shortly introduce a plan to wean itself off of nuclear energy entirely by as soon as 2030. This development will doubtless result in an entirely new energy policy and eventually an entirely new generation mix for the country.

    In many spots around the globe, power producers and utilities are looking to deconcentrate their grids away from large, centralized power generators and steer them more toward distributed generation. There are cons to this approach, but the benefits are attractive, at least in theory.

    While some countries have the luxury of carefully weighing these pros and cons, there is one country that's being forced by current events to decentralize, and rapidly, just to keep the lights on.

    New research indicates that post-Fukushima Japan is now the world's third-largest solar energy markets, with nearly 5 GW of installed solar capacity. Germany and Italy, respectively, are the first and second. In some ways, though, this is a return to form for Japan rather than a new development.

    In the 1990s and the early 2000s, Japan was the world leader in solar. Due to the cancelation of programs that backed solar (as a result of the government response to the "Lost Decade" depression in that country) and an accompanying shift toward nuclear power, Japan took its eye off the ball when it came to solar energy.

    Then, of course, came the earthquake, the tsunami and the Fukushima disaster.

    (Photo credit: Shutterstock )

    Since then, Japan's government has taken a second look at solar, and added more than 1 GW of solar capacity last year. The majority of this new generation is grid-connected, with all the benefits and drawbacks that adds.

    With the adoption of new solar-friendly regulations and generous tariffs, companies across Japan's economic spectrum have announced plans to set up solar parks and install rooftop solar arrays on their properties. To boot, Japan is also one of the world leaders in manufacturing solar cells, modules and other key materials that support the solar energy supply chain.

    Can a country replace a highly productive nuclear fleet with solar energy? That question raises further questions, but it's certainly a daring strategy and it will be interesting to watch unfold.

    Utilities helping utilities

    September 5, 2012 3:58 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    Following Hurricane Isaac life is getting back to normal for most residents all along the Gulf Coast. As with other major storm recovery efforts of years past, power utilities are looking out for each other through mutual assistance practices.

    Isaac, which came aground in the U.S. as a Category 2 hurricane, arrived in time for the 7-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the worst hurricane in American history in terms of dollars spent on damage recovery.

    Some of these crew members worked 16-hour days to help families without power. To do that, they had to take open-ended commitments of their time and leave their hometowns for days or weeks at a time.

    Eric Silagy, president of Florida Power & Light company told NBC's Today Show that these storm recovery crews are like an army on the move. Looking at some of the video, it's easy to see the truth in that comparison.

    WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

    Cleco Corp. managed a 2,400-member storm team to restore power to 95,000 customers. The utility secured workers from Oklahoma, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland.

    Alabama Power sent crews into Mississippi to help with recover efforts there. See video of that deployment here .

    AEP's Southwestern Electric Power Co. served in Shreveport, Louisiana, booking hotel rooms for crews to sleep in, organized fleet vehicle fuel stops and planned out other logistics. The utility received help from AEP operating companies from Ohio, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia, as well as outside contractors.

    Dominion Virginia Power sent 130 workers and contractors, plus bucket trucks. Dominion workers were returning a favor in a way, as crews from Louisiana came to Dominion's Virginia service area to assist with the June 2012 derecho.

    Oklahoma Gas & Electric sent 71 employees to southern Louisiana. OG&E, a member of the Southeast Electric Exchange, served in the same area following Hurricane Gustav.

    TECO Energy and Progress Energy Florida sent teams from Florida to help storm victims — about 290 workers total. Progress Energy's parent company, Duke Energy, sent 1,000 contractors total to help restore power.

    These are just a few examples and this blog post is not meant to be comprehensive. Utilities maintain extensive networks of work crews, and some are participants of multiple assistance programs.

    Mutual assistance is pretty cool to watch at work. When there's a big job to do, it's hard to imagine storm recovery going as smoothly any other way. It's especially cool when you hear about a utility returning the favor by assisting crews that once helped them.

    Man bites dog: Utility reports record dog attacks

    August 31, 2012 10:24 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    By Jeff Postelwait
    Online Editor

    My background is in newspapers, and reporters have a lot of colorful jargon — not all of which can be used in polite society. One phrase we use that the public at large might know about is "man bites dog." It refers to a story that has novelty. It's the opposite of what you normally hear about.

    I immediately thought of that old phrase when I saw Consumers Energy post a release about a record number of dog attacks on their meter readers. Of course, I have a comfortable distance from this problem as my job doesn't require me to wander into strangers' backyards. If I did, I wouldn't be snickering.

    In just the last two weeks, according to Consumers, meter readers reported six dog attacks and a record 14 dog bite incidents have happened since the year began. This is compared to six total in 2011. Five of these incidents resulted in injuries, including one that needed hospitalization and stitches to the face and neck.

    So what do utility workers do about uncontrolled dogs in the areas they have to service? First of all, utilities are asking their customers to keep their dogs confined to houses or other enclosures. But in some cases, the customers were setting their dogs loose on purpose as the meter reader approached. In an extreme circumstance like that, the utility and its lawyers will be getting involved.

    In more routine situations, the meter readers use "dog wands" to distract and divert trouble canines. One version of this tool looks like a tennis ball on a stick. As both a dog owner and someone who has raised a kid successfully through his terrible twos, I understand the value of distracting away from bad behavior.

    (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

    Employees are instructed not to enter a yard that appears to have an unrestrained dog. In cases like that, the customer's energy use is estimated. The dog doesn't have to appear particularly threatening either — just unrestrained.

    "Even the most gentle, well-mannered dog can become protective and aggressive around people it doesn't know," said Michele Kirkland, vice president of energy operations at Consumers.

    That is true especially when the owner isn't around to calm the animal down, I would add. Dogs are pack animals, so they look to you for guidance. If you don't have a problem with someone, then neither will the dog in most situations.

    Also, people should know when meter readers are coming around. I admit I don't, but many utilities will let you know that using their websites. Consumers is one such utility.

    It's in the customer's interest to make sure their dog or dogs aren't running free in the yard because these estimated bills that could result might be higher than the amount of electricity they actually used. So keeping the dog away from the meter reader is good for the bank account as well as the meter reader's stress level.

    A solution that takes the dogs, the backyards, and the meter readers out of the equation entirely is smart meters with automated meter reading capability. People might have their qualms about smart meters, but one thing you can't argue with is it would take some of these utility employees out of harm's way.

    Utilities, elections, government and grading the stimulus

    August 16, 2012 10:02 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    With about 80 days left to go, the 2012 presidential election is shaping up to be a question of how much the government can or should get involved with the economy, with business and in people's individual lives. Both President Barack Obama and his challenger Gov. Mitt Romney have their own ideas about the role of government, but in the utility industry people demand results.

    One of the biggest things the government did for the power industry since the 2008 election is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. While not always popular with voters, the so-called "stimulus act " allotted a fair chunk of change to the industry, and it's fair to say there are many infrastructure projects that might not have gotten off the ground without that money.

    If the utility industry were to give the Recovery Act a three-year report card, it might look something like the points shared with me by Ron Chebra, who is vice president of management and operations consulting with DNV KEMA .

    Looking back over the past three years, Chebra said, it's helpful to remember what the point of it all was. The Recovery Act was intended to stabilize state and local government budgets, invest in technological advances, assist those impacted by the recession, boost infrastructure and — most importantly — create jobs and promote recovery.

    The Recovery Act included the Smart Grid Investment Grants (SGIG), which were supposed to "accelerate the modernization of the nation's electric transmission and distribution systems and promote investments in smart grid technologies, tools and techniques that increase flexibility, functionality, interoperability, cyber-security, situational awareness and operational efficiency."

    In Chebra's analysis, "It is my belief that many energy jobs were created as a result of the stimulus. The greatest areas of positive impact have been in the manufacturing and installation sectors where the rush to build and install millions of smart meters formed a great need for these resources."

    But the question that only time can answer is how long will these jobs last? Will they plateaued along with the end of their subsidy, or will they get the ball rolling on something lasting?

    "Certainly, with the step change that stimulus created, there seems to be some sluggishness in new U.S. smart meter orders," he writes.

    When it comes to helping those affected by the recession and the worldwide credit crunch, the stimulus "definitely" helped spur growth in domestic manufacturing, which had been brought to a near standstill and was at risk of being out-competed by businesses in Europe and China, among others.

    Technology innovation, another goal of the act, were accelerated by the flow of money that went into research and development, he said.

    "For some time, some of the investments made in the electric infrastructure were directed toward meeting the increasing need for supply; through the initiatives funded by these grants, many of the investments focused on the delivery and demand side," he said.

    How to get customers involved and educated when it comes to smart meters has always been a key aspect of smart grid rollouts, and "As we await the tally of realized net benefits of these investments, the trends now show that many of these programs have resulted in greater customer awareness and participation in demand management efforts that will result in sustainable long-term economic benefits."

    Some of the bad news that might result from the Department of Energy-funded projects include stumbles in customer engagement. Because of the smart meter rollouts made possible in places like California, there are now grassroots citizens groups advocating against the use of smart meters and their efforts have led to opt-outs.

    There's also the problem of utility "haves" and "have-nots." So in the wake of the stimulus, there's now a gap between those whose projects got government funding and those who didn't.

    Another problem is the creation of "islands" of automation in the rush to be shovel-ready. These islands now need to be integrated to achieve the benefits anticipated in the business cases, he said.

    Fixing the world's biggest blackout

    August 2, 2012 9:33 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    About 10 percent of the world's population lost power recently as a blackout swept across northern India. As many as 700 million people, or twice the population of the U.S., were affected. Fortunately there have been no reports of deaths connected to the blackout, but the loss of power did result in traffic snarls, stranded train passengers and a group of trapped coal miners.

    So what can the world's biggest democracy do to help stave off such wide-sweeping outages in the future? To find out, I spoke with Jason Black, a research leader in grid systems with Battelle's Energy, Environment and Material Sciences Global Business.

    Black characterized India's power grid as reasonably good on the transmission side, but a bit dodgy on the distribution side. Furthermore, the country has struggled with power shortages as its current generation mix often can't meet the demands of the population.

    "In many sections of the country, they use rolling blackouts regularly," Black said. "But I don't think it's as simple as an excessive load. There are protection schemes in place to deal with that."

    In recent years, India has worked to encourage investment in new power generation of just about every type, including distributed renewable generation like solar energy, of which India now has about 1 GW.

    "Traditionally they have used coal, and they have some hydro as well. They have made some legislation that was meant to increase their renewable capacity — just as a way to try to correct some of their power shortages," he said.

    In addition to bringing more generation online, India's grid operators have attempted to interconnect their grid more thoroughly — an approach not without its dangers.

    "[Interconnection is] good from one perspective, because the redundancies can address an interruption in one area. But from another perspective, it can increase the risk of cascading power outages, which it appears this one is."

    Though its transmission grid is reasonably well developed, India's rapid development and population growth have left it with a distribution system that often falls short of the task of delivering power to those that need it.

    "They have had some ongoing problems with electricity theft, which has become a local political problem and leads to losses, making the pull on the system unpredictable. Cleaning up the distribution system would help them a lot," he said.

    For one thing, India's grid could implement underfrequency load shedding as is done in the U.S.

    "In the U.S., we operate our system at 60 Hertz. This keeps the power flowing in sync, so generators don't trip offline. Imbalances in demand and supply are what cause these kinds of outages — when the generators can't handle the imbalances. That's one way to get these cascading power outages," he said.

    To prevent further outages during the restoration process, India's grid operators need to be careful how they manage the grid in the coming days.

    "If you're a steam plant and the system has tripped off to protect itself, your steam cools off. It can take many hours to return to service. Depending on how many of their generators have black start capability, that process can take a while," he said.

    As generators start spinning again, grid operators have important choices to make.

    "There's a trade off. Do I bring on all my generators, or do I bring on a certain subset of customers that I can get to faster?" he said. "If there isn't enough slack in the system when you start up these plants, it can bring the system offline again."

    Furthermore, there might be physical damage to the grid that needs fixing — delaying restoration even more.

    "There could be parts of the grid that broke... Some transformers that exploded or some circuit breakers that opened. They have to deal with those things before bringing the grid back online," he said.

    Black said this blackout is likely one of the worst in history, in terms of the number of people affected. While Indian officials are still investigating the causes, it bears all the telltale signs of a cascading power outage, like the Northeast blackout of 2003, which began in Ohio, ran through New York and into Canada. But even in a blackout so widespread in North America, only 55 million people were affected. It's almost unthinkable to most of us to imagine 700 million people without power.

    But that's pretty much how it always goes with power outages, as people in the utility industry know. People don't think about it at all until the lights go out. Then the next day (hopefully) when they come back on, the finger-wagging starts.

    Sorting out the Duke Energy CEO shuffle

    July 11, 2012 9:38 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    Something about the reports coming out of Charlotte are making the Duke Energy merger feel more like a break-up than the start of a new relationship. The merger with Progress Energy was supposed to create one of the biggest utilities in the world, with some 7.1 million customers. Instead, the only thing it seems to be creating so far is a lot of bad press for the newly merged company.

    For those who are still catching up, Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson was supposed to take charge of the newly merged Duke Energy. Instead, shortly after the merger was finalized, reports came out that Jim Rogers would be the top man at Duke instead of Johnson, as was previously agreed upon.

    In effect, Rogers was swapped out for Johnson with Johnson having "served" as CEO for less than a day. Duke called this a "mutual agreement," but that phrasing has sounded fishier as time has gone by and people have talked to the press.

    Jim Rogers himself laid out Duke's side of the story, telling the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which is looking into the CEO shuffle that followed the merger, that the board simply lost confidence in Johnson as the merger process advanced.

    Rogers' people were concerned about Johnson's management methods, Rogers said, adding that the Duke people were afraid Johnson and his people would try to impose Progress Energy's culture onto the merged company.

    Rogers said Johnson's management style was "autocratic" and tended to crowd out other points of view. These concerns were held by the Duke people for quite a while, but apparently weren't bad enough to stop the merger in its tracks. It seems they decided that Johnson was the issue, even as they agreed to make him CEO of the combined company.

    Duke Energy officials have said, somewhat defensively, that they had a contractual obligation to make Johnson the CEO, and they did — albeit for less than a day.

    Meanwhile, the mainstream press is full of stories about Johnson's "$44 million payday," with "nice work if you can get it" being the go-to punchline.

    What we're not hearing much of yet, though, is Johnson's side of the story. Right now it's looking like less of a merger of equals and more that Duke Energy simply swallowed Progress Energy whole. Keeping Johnson as CEO was supposed to ensure that Progress Energy's interests were well-represented in the early days of the new Duke Energy's operations, but now that won't be happening.

    One thing's for sure: People will be talking, and soon. The latest development in this story is the departure of many Johnson loyalists from Duke. The vice president of regulated utilities, the executive vice president and chief administrative officer and the chief integration and innovation officer have each just handed in their resignations. We'll be keeping an eye on this story, so stay tuned.

    Fukushima a disaster made in Japan

    July 5, 2012 11:57 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    The Japanese government's official report on the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster hit the internet earlier this morning and now everyone is picking apart what it means.

    The parliamentary report purports to assign some level of responsibility for the accident, and the part that is making headlines so far is the finding that it was "man made," which must be opposed to a natural disaster — even though it was a natural disaster that touched the meltdowns off in the first place. The report, by the way, took half a year to put together, and the commission who authored it had the authority to compel government agencies to surrender pertinent information whether they wanted to or not.

    Man-made failures that occurred both before and after last year's earthquake and tsunami were chiefly to blame for the Fukushima disaster, the report holds. This is probably the strongest-worded rebuke that plant operator TEPCO has received through official channels to date.

    The commission's chairman wrote that the triple meltdown cannot be regarded as a natural disaster, but went on to say that it could have been prevented with a more effective human response.

    In a twist that might be hard for Westerners to understand, the report places blame on Japanese culture itself.

    "Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: Our reflexive obedience, our reluctance to question authority, our devotion to sticking with the program, our groupism and our insularity," according to the preface of the report. "Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result might well have been the same."

    It's sharply worded indeed, but it also comes right on the heels of the 1 trillion yen (or about $12.5 billion) bailout from the Japanese government that will both save the company and put the government in charge of it. At least temporarily, if all goes as planned.

    It's interesting to note that this report, unlike some others, did not specifically say that the magnitude-9 earthquake did not damage equipment or structures at the Fukushima plant. Most other reports held that the plant withstood the earthquake only to succumb to tsunami damage.

    These findings could challenge some of the design assumptions the Japanese nuclear industry and the Japanese government (which are, even now, regarded as especially cozy) have stood by over the past few decades.

    The report devoted a good deal of attention to the relationship between industry and government in Japan, implying that TEPCO lobbied the government to slacken regulations. To build this case, the commission requested information from Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

    Government mismanagement of the situation as it evolved, the report also said, didn't help matters. The report's writers made it explicit that TEPCO can't and shouldn't try to pin blame on the government, however.

    When Japan's government gave the nod to restart the first reactors to complete their required stress tests, those restarts were met with public protests. The public, perhaps understandably, thinks nuclear energy is too dangerous. A suite of new safety requirements — maybe passed in the wake of reports like this one — could create a new argument for protesters: That nuclear power is too expensive.

    The incredible shrinking solar plant

    June 21, 2012 1:32 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    By Jeff Postelwait
    Online Editor

    In the U.S. solar power market, developers are looking for access to the cash they need to build large, utility-scale solar projects, but that money is proving hard to find. If this keeps up, makers of solar farms in excess of 20 MW could be eclipsed by firms who put solar panels on rooftops.

    In the first quarter of 2012, there were 506 MW of new solar projects that went online — accounting for some $1.9 billion in spending. This is a drop from the last quarter of 2011, which saw $3.1 billion worth of investment.

    One factor? Shrinking and disappearing subsidies. Government funding is fading fast, and it's hard to say when Washington might feel like investing in solar power again — particularly with elections looming. It goes without saying that any whiff of uncertainty isn't good for upstart solar companies and their projects.

    However, where the industry has recently favored big solar projects like the 290 MW Agua Caliente Solar Project being built by First Solar and NRG Solar in Yuma County, Arizona, we could soon see an uptick in small and medium solar power projects.

    A huge undertaking like Agua Caliente was once thought to represent an industry sea change toward big solar power , but even proponents of solar power as a generation source can't deny that Agua Caliente would still be a patch of bare sand out in the desert without the Department of Energy loan guarantee that made it possible.

    It's much easier at this point for solar developers to pursue smaller projects, like say teaming up with a big-box electronics store and installing some solar panels on the rooftops of a few stores. The chain gets good press, the solar manufacturers sell equipment, the projects are easier to approve, nobody has to worry about harming the desert tortoise's habitat, and generally everyone goes home happy.

    But is this the way for the solar industry to finally get off what I've heard energy analysts describe as "the crack cocaine of public subsidies" once and for all and stand by themselves as their own industry? It's hard to say yet because there are still too many factors to consider.

    Cheap natural gas is still a fierce competitor to just about any other generation technology, whether it's coal-fired plants or a solar farm. On the other hand, many state governments still have renewable portfolio standards to think about. On the other, other hand, there's the problem of incorporating too much solar energy onto the grid too soon without infrastructure upgrades. On the other-other-other hand, solar still has the advantage of being "sexy," meaning companies who want to look hip or forward thinking are still going to want to invest a little in solar — like Google, Inc. for one example.

    Whether solar as an industry is ready to take off the training wheels and pedal without extensive tax breaks and subsidies is too large a question for me to answer. But from the way things are looking now, I expect to see fewer mega-sized solar projects going up in the U.S.

    What your email address says about your energy use

    June 14, 2012 11:22 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    By Jeff Postelwait
    Online Editor

    Do you Yahoo? Maybe you prefer Gmail. But did you know what email address you're registered with could reveal something about how much energy you use at home?

    According to energy efficiency technology firm Opower, Yahoo Mail users could be paying $110 more annually on their energy bills than people who use Google's Gmail.

    It's not that the act of sending emails eats up less energy if you use Gmail. This analysis has more to do with demographics. Opower looked at the overall household energy use of 2.8 million households across the country. Of those, roughly 1.15 million of them used either Gmail or Yahoo.

    The average Yahoo Mail household used 11 percent more electricity than a Gmail household. The Yahoo users are eating up nearly a whole megawatt-hour more ever year than Gmail users.

    Why is that? Well, Opower thinks the people who prefer Yahoo are more likely to live in larger households and use more energy per square foot. Gmail users typically are city dwellers who live in more compact, energy-efficient housing. Gmail users are also more likely to take an interest in their home energy usage by signing up for an energy audit or similar program.

    So if you are interested in using less energy in your house, it's not as simple as registering for a new email account. It's more that people who care a little more than average about cutting their energy use tend to prefer Gmail over Yahoo. No matter what email you use, though, there are still plenty of things you can do to use less energy.

    Talking Congress, security and generation at EEI

    June 7, 2012 3:47 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    By Jennifer Van Burkleo,
    Associate Editor

    At the EEI Annual Convention this week, I caught up with former EEI Chairman Tom Farrell and Lew Hay, the new EEI chairman and CEO of NextEra Energy, to talk about what conventioneers were talking about in Orlando this year. I was glad to be inside, given how hot and rainy it was most of the time.

    At the convention, held at the Marriott, my editor in chief Teresa Hansen and I were able to meet with both the incoming and outgoing chairmen. Hay said that although he is the incoming chairman, he will work closely with Farrell on industry priorities like cyber security, distributed generation, workforce issues and the direction of EEI .

    Utilities compete in many ways, but they also pull together and work together for mutual advantage, Hay said. He also credited Farrell for helping build a consensus among EEI's member utilities.

    As we sat down, the two men tackled the topic of cyber security. Hay and Farrell agreed that EEI would support a legislative solution in Congress to help private industry and the government share information on cyber threats. Such a bill is making its way through Congress, having earned approval in the House of Representatives in April and now awaiting a vote in the Senate.

    The bill was introduced by Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, who heads the House Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration threatened to veto the bill, claiming that the country's critical infrastructure would not be adequately protected by the legislation. The administration also expressed doubts about the level of protection the bill offered for consumer privacy.

    "I think my company's system gets attacked more than a million times a day, but most aren't robust and we detect them," said Hay as he ate a giant cookie, provided at the meeting.

    Hay and Farrell agreed that the government and Congress should let utilities share information to better protect their customers.

    "The government clearly has information (about threats) that they aren't sharing with us," Hay said. "It will take an act of Congress to work these issues out."

    When we asked about the future of distributed generation, Farrell stated that it will grow in a variety of forms, many that are still unknown. Utilities should be sure that they have in place a fair way to distribute the cost of upgrading the distribution grid to accommodate distributed generation now rather than when it might be too late in the future, Farrell said.

    EEI's outgoing president Thomas Kuhn, who stepped into our meeting later on, used Germany's current cost problem as an example of why the U.S. should prepare for the future now. Because Germany waited too long to deal with the issue of electric costs, utility prices are now double those seen in the U.S.

    According to Hay, utilities need to communicate the value of electricity to their customers. They need to find a way to communicate what is driving utility bills.

    As technology changes, so do employees and their skills. Companies need to update their training materials by including more detail to what the position is, Hay said. Utilities shouldn't assume that potential employees know what the position description is.

    Hay also suggested that companies look toward military personnel and veterans to fill their open positions, adding that troops are much better trained than they were 20 years ago.

    Farrell has been chairman, president and CEO of Dominion since 2007. Hay is CEO and chairman of NextEra Energy. Hay's last day as CEO will be July 1, 2012, where he will then take over as executive chairman of NextEra through 2013.

    It's (trade) war between the U.S. and China

    May 22, 2012 2:05 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    By Jeff Postelwait
    Online Editor

    Things are heating up again between the U.S. and China, and this time the trouble has to do with international trade and the equipment used to capture solar energy. For several years now, U.S. energy companies have complained they can't compete with the "flood" of cheap solar energy gear that's coming from China and flooding the U.S. and world markets. Companies facing financial troubles or bankruptcy, like Solyndra for one, are looking for a scapegoat, and many of them are pointing at China.

    In response, the U.S. Department of Commerce is launching an investigation into these practices. This "anti-dumping " investigation led Commerce to explore the option of levying duty fees, or tariffs, against the Chinese-made solar goods. Just last year, China sold more than $3.1 billion worth of solar cells and panels in the U.S., so it's easy to see why it's referred to as a "dump." While nothing is final yet, Chinese firms are hopping mad , some American firms are pointedly silent, and trade groups with interests worldwide just want everyone to get along .

    This isn't the first time Commerce has threatened to impose such tariffs, or indeed carried them out. There were tariffs taken out against Chinese electric blankets, of all things, not too long ago. But protectionism is always controversial, and in today's global economy it's not always easy to know if one country's tariffs might not also harm companies within that same country's borders. Some American energy companies that use Chinese-made solar parts might stand to lose profits if they have to buy them at higher margins, for example.

    If the tariffs go through, Chinese companies will be left to either raise their prices in hopes of turning a (now lowered) profit, or else move their manufacturing centers outside of China to dodge the tariffs. Some companies that might be subject to future tariffs could be poised to do so. Suntech Power Holdings , for example, which could face tariffs as high as 31.2 percent, has regional headquarters in Switzerland and the U.S. as well as China, and could conceivably shift operations to those or other countries. Mexico and Taiwan are two spots that Suntech, and other companies like it, might consider.

    Suntech, perhaps predictably, says it opposes any barriers to trade at any point along the solar power supply chain. But what are American companies saying? As I write this, they're mostly pretty quiet, and I'd assume happy. But there are signs I might be assuming wrong.

    Whether an energy company in America is smiling or frowning about these potential tariffs depends greatly upon where they sit on the solar supply chain. The guys who shape steel and silicon into panels might be happy, but the folks who actually slap the finished panels onto rooftops, for example, might be less so.

    We should also not forget that there are other firms in other countries who'd like to do business making solar farms in the U.S. Companies based in Germany, Spain and elsewhere are feeling the squeeze as China has tightened its grip on the U.S. market these past few years. They might also stand to benefit from tariffs, perhaps. Assuming they are pointed squarely at Chinese firms, that is.

    The U.S., for its part, claims that all it wants to do is level the playing field. But can it really be level at this point? By now everyone understands the problems that China, also known as "The World's Factory," can cause the rest of the world with their massive workforce and low labor costs. They have the power and willingness to produce goods and ship them to market at costs few other countries can match.

    Still, there is the little matter of international trade laws. While I am by no means an expert on those, I assume the U.S. Commerce Department is. So I will be watching what comes out of their offices in the coming weeks, as I'm sure the Chinese will as well. It should be interesting. Stay tuned for more.

    No, Obama is not paying your utility bills

    May 17, 2012 1:54 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    By Jeff Postelwait
    Online Editor

    Presidents promise a lot, particularly in an election year, but President Barack Obama is apparently getting credit for delivering on a promise he never made — namely, paying people's utility bills.

    Major utilities like PG&E, Westar Energy and SDG&E have posted some announcements in recent days to alert customers of a "nationwide scam." It seems imposter utility workers are going door to door with promises that the president has started a program by which customers can obtain credits to pay for their utility bills. The scammers, as usual, are sniffing around for people's personal information, like Social Security numbers and the like, in the furtherance of other scams.

    Obviously, utilities don't want their good names tarnished by some phishing fiasco, so several of them are doing what they can to spread the word that there is no such government program, and that you should always confirm that someone claiming to be a utility worker is legitimate before handing over any personal information.

    Also par for the course when it comes to con artists, the main targets appear to be elderly people. The scammers, according to reports, make their contacts door to door, by phone or online and ask for the customer's information. After they get that, they give the customer a fake bank routing number (not unlike the notorious "Nigerian prince" identity theft scams) where the customer can make payments. They are promised credit on that account, but the payment makes its way to the scammer's pockets, and not to any utility company.

    So... basically be on your guard, and beware of phony utility workers bearing gifts. It's not a bad idea in an election year to take everything with a larger than usual grain of salt.

    Why is coal in a slump ��? really?

    April 30, 2012 4:36 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    By Jeff Postelwait
    Online Editor

    Everyone knows that with enough time and pressure, coal can turn into diamonds. What will become of the coal industry with all the pressure it is currently under, nobody can say.

    The Wall Street Journal took a look at two of the top three coal producers, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources, both of which are experiencing lower demand and falling profits. Peabody Energy, another top coal miner, predicted that demand for coal could drop by as much as 10 percent this year. But why?

    Given the fact that everyone has their own politics concerning using coal to make power, it's tempting to point the finger at either EPA regulations or some draconian piece of legislation that came from Congress, but I think blaming any one culprit for this trend is short sighted.

    One factor the Journal neglects to get into, for example, is the other fossil fuel we use for energy. Natural gas recently hit a 10-year low in demand, some estimates have it. We're sitting on massive new reserves of the stuff because of new extraction techniques, and so many utilities would much rather build a natural-gas fired unit than a coal unit right now.

    You could well argue that natural gas, being a finite resource, is also subject to price swings back and forth, but based on all the generation news I handle every day, I'm definitely seeing a big trend toward natural gas to the detriment of other forms of generation.

    To explore another possible explanation for this problem, just open a window. It's beautiful out, and it has been for several financial quarters. The almost freakishly warm winter that the U.S. experienced had people eating up less energy — from coal or from any other source. While the EPA has been flexing its regulatory muscles in the direction of coal power lately, you can hardly blame the weather on government bureaucrats.

    To be fair, we are seeing quite a few new and proposed regulations that appear to have the coal industry in their sights, whether you'd call it intentional or not. There's the proposed Clean Air Act standard for carbon dioxide pollution for new power plants. There's the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule issued in February, which could require coal plants to retrofit and reduce emissions of arsenic, acid gases, nickel, cyanide and other toxins. And finally there's the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule from earlier in 2012.

    When the new carbon standards were proposed, more than a few were saying that this was regulation meant to kill coal for good. But at that time, the Energy Information Administration listed only a single coal-fired unit in the pipeline to be built. So if there is a piece of regulation out there threatening to kill coal, this one wasn't it. 

    If coal is dying off — still an alarmist thing to say for this multi-billion dollar a year industry — there isn't a single factor you can point to if you're looking for something to blame. The entire energy industry is changing, just as surely as the customers it serves are changing their minds and thinking more about how energy is produced. So while these may be challenging times, there is still time to make changes.

    If these trends prove irreversible and it becomes impossible to sell coal in the same country where it is mined, then the U.S. coal industry needs to develop new markets. I can think of nowhere better to look than at China and India, the former of which is about to become the world's most coal-hungry nation. China generates nearly 70 percent of its energy from coal, but only has about 13 percent of the world's reserves. That's just one country that has "potential customer" written all over it.

    Unmanned drones could deploy in the fight against outages

    April 16, 2012 4:32 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    By Jeff Postelwait
    Online Editor

    Maybe this is just the viewpoint of an American who grew up on "Terminator" movies, but I still find it incredibly weird and interesting that we live in a world where robots patrol the skies. Apparently the Electric Power Research Institute still thinks robots are cool too because they're researching ways for the technology to help out the electric power industry.

    Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, of the same category of the Hellfire-carrying Predator, deployed around the world by the United States Armed Forces, could potentially be used by utilities to check on the status of distribution systems, according to an EPRI study. Instead of sporting Hellfire missiles, though, these units could carry cameras, sensors and global positioning capability.

    It's easy to see why an all-seeing eye that can fly to a remote area and report data back to its operators might be of good use to an industry that frequently deals with icy roads, downed trees and other hazards at the very same time when the need for good communications has never been higher.

    EPRI decided to take that idea and run with it with a series of tests of different types of UAVs at the New Mexico State University Flight Test Center, which is just a short distance away from the White Sands Missile Range in south-central New Mexico. These aircraft carried high-resolution video cameras and transmitted images of power lines from a useful distance of 7,000 feet in the air.

    Footage shot like this could provide timely information to grid operators and their field crews, allowing them to better prioritize their outage restoration efforts and get accurate information sent off to affected customers.

    "The tests indicated that unmanned airborne technologies equipped with sensors, cameras and GPS could be deployed quickly, allowing utilities to evaluate large areas more quickly than ground-based crews, then develop a repair strategy and mobilize repair crews more quickly and effectively," according to EPRI.

    EPRI is also taking a look at the capabilities of drones for the inspection and assessment of overhead transmission lines. To make sure these findings are more practical for the utilities, EPRI is gathering data on UAV functional requirements, costs, inspection technologies, as well as testing several different types of UAVs.

    Other sectors have taken a look at UAVs before, including the oil and gas industry, firefighting departments, meteorologists, forestry services and others. Still, I think that for utilities that have the resources to put these drones in the sky, it could dramatically boost response time — and utilities know that when customers are in the dark, every second counts.

    10 energy game changers for the Third World

    April 12, 2012 4:26 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    By Jeff Postelwait
    Online Editor

    It's a safe bet that most people who are reading this are used to living no fewer than a few footsteps away from a lightswitch or electric socket. For almost all of us, the most frequent blackout we have to deal with is a when our smart phones go dark after a long session of Angry Birds. In fact, there are some people who dream of living off the grid — whether that means camping out in a national park or investing in distributed generation equipment for the home.

    But as many as a quarter of the world's population live without easy access to grid-connected electricity, according to Scientific American. To address problems such as unemployment, poverty, education and malnutrition, that remaining 25 percent of humanity without power needs innovative solutions that address off-grid life.

    I spoke recently with Dr. Al Malouf of NineSigma, which styles itself as an "open innovation services provider." The organization works with companies like Kraft Foods, Unilever, Philips, L'Oreal and others to develop these innovations.

    One such partnership is the LAUNCH program, a consortium that includes the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), NASA, Nike and others. The LAUNCH effort aims to develop ten "game-changing" solutions for those who live without adequate access to electricity, heating and cooling, water and other basic needs.

    LAUNCH recently identified ten entrepreneurs with ten good ideas in the hopes that their technologies could be developed and deployed to those who need them.

    "There was a focus on third world or developing world, as well as the developed world. A lot of our partners had techs that would benefit places in rural Africa that might not even be connected to the grid," Malouf said. "About 80 percent of the people in Africa own cell phones, but fewer than that are connected to the grid. So a big challenge for them is where to charge their cell phone that doesn't involve walking ten miles."

    When choosing which energy entrepreneurs to approach for submissions, Malouf said his organization had to stick with technologies that work on the distributed energy level or smaller, as utility-scale, grid-connected technologies.

    One example of a highly distributed power source now approved by LAUNCH is the Hydrovolts hydrokinetic mini-turbine. The unit is small enough to take advantage of the potential energy of flowing water just about anywhere it can be found.

    "You can just throw these things into the canals. They can work in shallow water, they right themselves automatically and they can power pumps and drive gates within the canal system," he said. "It's a nice way of capturing the kinetic energy of the water to do work in the area."

    The technology is scalable too, in that you can fasten three or four of the units together to produce a greater amount of power, if needed.

    The Solanterns Initiative aims to replace a million dirty, inefficient kerosene lanterns in Kenya with solar powered LED lights.

    "Using kerosene lamps, the problem is the quality of light is poor and they generate indoor pollution, which can lead to lung diseases — especially in young children," he said. "With better quality light, businesses can stay open longer after dark and students can learn better in school."

    The devices, when charged up by the sun, can also provide enough juice to charge up a cell phone — eliminating the need to travel to a town center for a working electricity source.

    NanoTune Technologies, also chosen by LAUNCH, developed a new ultracapacitor that they claim offers five to seven times greater energy storage technology than conventional capacitors.

    "They can't divulge exactly what the technology is, but they think the tech might be able to replace conventional batteries," he said, adding that the ultracapacitors charge quickly, and might one day become a good storage device for wind or solar power — eliminating the need for a bulkier battery bank.

    Gram Power's innovation is a microgrid technology that offers pre-paid, intelligently metered power with both AC and DC voltage outputs as well as battery backup at the household level.

    "This is a smart DC grid — a way to power a house with a very small power supply," he said, adding that the innovation includes a business model for delivering this pre-paid power source to rural people and their dwellings.

    "They will plug these battery packs into this smart grid system that is installed in the house. It works on a prepaid, weekly basis. An affordable and realistic way for rural people to have high quality lighting and places to charge their cell phones," he said.

    Point Source Power came up with a fuel cell technology that could allow people living off the grid to charge a cell phone as they cook their dinner — with the same heat they use to cook that dinner.

    "This uses biomass to create electricity. It's a small fuel cell, driven by heat. Most of these villagers use a fire pit to cook their food, so they developed a fuel cell that is totally sealed. The heat from the cookstove will generate a small amount of electricity when the cell is thrown into the burning fuel — enough power to charge a cell phone," he said.

    You can read more about these and other technologies backed by LAUNCH at their website .

    Too early to use the phrase 'nuclear renaissance' again?

    April 2, 2012 8:26 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    Back around late 2008 when I worked for Power Engineering , one of our sister publications in the electric power trade media people were using the phrase "nuclear renaissance" quite a bit.

    Is it too early to talk about a nuclear renaissance again? The short answer is: "Probably." The only other answer I can think of right now is, "Time will tell."

    With both 2008 presidential candidates supporting a new fleet of nuclear plants and nearly 40 planned nuclear reactors ready to be constructed around the world, my senior editors told me a "sea change" was happening. Those were their exact words. The industry hadn't been buzzing about nuclear energy this much since the days before the Three Mile Island accident, they said.

    This was, of course, before the world economy hit rock bottom and an earthquake-spawned tsunami swamped the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, touching off the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. That was before Japan's nuclear industry was shattered, Germany pulled out of nuclear energy entirely and few countries seemed eager to pursue anything resembling a renaissance.

    For an industry that has for so long been defined by the terrible accidents associated with it, and not for the carbon-free energy that it produces as baseload electricity for some 30 countries, good news has often been scarce.

    Even when people don't think about nuclear disasters, they tend to think of nuclear energy as being more expensive than it appears. While it is true you can fuel cities on just a few small pieces of fissionable material, the sheer amount of cash it takes to get those fuel rods humming in a fully constructed plant makes nuclear energy seem more promising on paper than it is in the real world.

    So maybe it's because this industry hasn't gotten much good news over the past decade that people who advocate for nuclear energy are willing to latch on to any bit of progress. That progress may be arriving with the approval of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency's first Combined Constriction and Operating Licenses ever.

    At Southern Co.'s Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant and South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.'s Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station , the idea of the nuclear renaissance is being tested yet again. The approvals of the licenses are a big step — a historic step, even. But there is still a lot standing in the way of a true renaissance.

    The first time Americans started talking about a nuclear renaissance was around the turn of the century. Perhaps key here was that natural gas and coal prices had spiked. Today, natural gas is dirt cheap, and there's a rush to build more gas-fired turbines. One might justifiably ask now why we shouldn't just build a fleet of gas-fired units instead of a large, expensive nuclear plant.

    While there is still some dispute over cost-per-megawatt figure building a nuclear plant represents, no one will call that figure low. Even as large as modern power utilities are, some doubt whether there's a single utility with a balance sheet large enough to float a loan to build one — thus requiring the advent of nuclear consortiums, perhaps even international ones.

    Then there's the problem of getting plans for a plant past the local public utility commissions, who must approve these expenditures. In today's economy, they might want to know why the utility doesn't want to choose a cheaper generation technology. Plant Vogtle's builders said they wanted to diversify into nuclear energy because they don't want to be held hostage to a future spike in natural gas prices. This seems logical, but bureaucrats can be less than logical.

    Finally, you've got to sell the idea to a post-Fukushima public that is more skeptical of nuclear than ever. Even if you manage to find a receptive audience and the locals do want a nuclear plant, anti-nuclear and other hostile environmental organizations will be more emboldened than they were a decade ago when the talk of a nuclear renaissance first started.

    There are still 18 expansion projects comprising 28 nuclear units that have applied for COLs, including Vogtle and Summer, according to the NRC. I'm thinking that potential nuclear power plant builders are thanking heaven for small favors that they are able to apply for and occasionally get a COL approved. Licensing might actually be one of the easier things about building a nuclear plant.

    Then again, editors have long memories and we can be a cynical bunch. Just because we've heard this stuff before doesn't mean big things aren't about to happen.

    The college student as smart meter guinea pig

    March 29, 2012 10:49 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    Public Service Co. of Oklahoma is teaming up with a local private university, the University of Tulsa, to install about 1,000 smart meters in and around the school's campus in the hopes of helping students learn how to make smarter energy choices.

    Installation kick-off happened in mid-March, and university officials say they're glad to be working with PSO. The installations were completed this week, just in time for students returning from spring break.

    PSO last showed an interest in smart meters with a spring 2011 deployment of about 14,000 advanced meters in the Tulsa suburb town of Owasso.

    "As we strive to identify new technologies that can help our students conserve resources and control energy costs, we welcome the installation of PSO's smart meters on TU's student apartments," said TU president Steadman Upham.

    Using these advanced meters, the utility can connect or disconnect electric service remotely. This capability offers a special advantage on a college campus: With students moving in and out of campus housing for the fall and spring semesters, PSO can turn service on or off easily and without the need to send out a utility worker to the site to service the order.

    The meters will connect with a specially designed Web portal, allowing participating customers to check out their electric usage and other information that will let them see how much energy they are using and how they can use less.

    The utility is hoping that this pilot program will help them learn about the energy habits of college students, and how interested they are in cutting their energy use.

    "The installation of smart meters on student apartment housing is a perfect opportunity to see how young, technology-savvy young people take advantage of information they will have available to help manage their energy usage and costs," said Derek Lewellen, PSO gridSMART project manager. "The number of meters we'll install, plus the fact that TU is a leader in the field of energy technology makes this partnership a natural fit."

    It's not just dorms, suites and on-campus housing that will get a smart meter. PSO will also install smart meters at residences and commercial buildings along the northern edge of the campus.

    The TU campus is just a few miles away from where I type this, here at PennWell Corp. headquarters in Tulsa. Locally, TU is considered to be a really prestigious (and expensive) school to go to, and I'm not saying that because I went there — I didn't.

    University campuses and college towns have long been targeted as test beds for smart grid technologies, and for good reason. They often operate as self-contained grids with their own physical plants and occasionally their own on-site power sources.

    So they definitely hold promise for companies and investors who want to try their hand at, say, a smart grid program, an energy storage pilot or a smart meter installation. Plus, as an investor, you get access to a group of young, educated people who might be a little more receptive to new energy ideas than the average local resident.

    When I was in college, I spent most of my time living in off-campus apartments where the utilities were pre-paid by the landlord. That was generally something you looked for as a student on a fixed income. So I didn't think much about my energy use at all.

    If I had had the ability to keep an eye on my electricity use though, I might have been interested in doing it. College is where a lot of people live on their own for the first time, and you pick up a lot of domestic skills during that time as you think about things you never had to think about before — like supplying groceries to a whole dwelling, how much water you use in a month, or where to get enough quarters to do your laundry.

    Testing this kind of program out on student, then, seems like a good choice. If today's utilities are interested in helping foster a generation of people who think about their energy use, getting into colleges and starting programs like these is a great first step. Once you pick up that habit, it's likely you'll continue it as you enter what your elders call "the real world."

    By Jeff Postelwait
    Online Editor

    A utility pole tree?

    March 26, 2012 3:11 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    By Jeff Postelwait
    Online Editor

    On Spring Break weekend, my family, friends and I went on a 7-mile hike in the Winding Stair Mountain National Recreation Area in Electric Light & Power's home state of Oklahoma. The area, which is home to the Ouachita National Forest, extends into Arkansas. It's the oldest national forest in the southern states and was a setting used in the John Wayne classic "True Grit," as well as the 2010 Coen Brothers remake.

    The striking thing about the land for me, being an Oklahoman, was the very tall, very vertical cedar trees. From my first step out of my car, I could hear the wind rushing through the treetops (and not much else). With as many ice storms, violent winds and tornadoes that come through the area, there aren't many tall trees in this part of the world — although we do have some battle-tested utilities and co-ops that can vouch for the intensity of this kind of severe weather.

    About a third of the way into the hike, I rounded a corner on the trail that cut near a small creek and saw something worth taking a few pictures of. I'm not the world's most experienced hiker, and I don't know a lot about forests or trees, but I'd never seen a tree quite like this one before.

    To me, this tree's trunk looked for all the world like a utility pole. I thought that someone's "Lost Dog" poster might not look too out of place duct-taped to this tree.

    The area where the thick, papery bark had fallen away revealed a smooth, shiny surface that was immediately familiar. Yet when I looked skyward, what I saw looked more like the other cedar trees that made up this forest.

    After the hike, I had to do a little bit of Googling just to satisfy my curiosity. Even though I work for a company that deals with the transmission and distribution side of the utility industry, I wasn't exactly certain where all those familiar-looking power poles actually came from. A few sources online have said that cedar wood is used by utility pole manufacturers because the wood is more resilient to moisture, weather, warping and temperature changes — clearly qualities that you'd want if you were making utility poles.

    So, again, I'm not an expert, but I wanted to share a little scene from my hike that I thought was interesting. Also, there might be someone out there who could comment a little more on where utilities get their poles and what kind of trees are used to make them.

    Happy trails!

    What's the Green Button?

    March 22, 2012 10:27 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    By Jeff Postelwait,
    Online Editor

    The Internet is buzzing this morning as utilities and energy companies gush their support of an industry-led, White House-spurred energy efficiency program called the "Green Button ."

    I remember posting about the Green Button first when San Diego Gas & Electric shortly before DistribuTECH 2012 came to San Diego. Here's an outside link to SDG&E's version of the Green Button on their customer website.

    But now I'm seeing around a dozen different companies, each with their own announcements either of support of or participation in this program.

    Itron, Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., PECO, American Electric Power, Reliant Energy, Oracle, Silver Spring Networks, OPower, Efficiency 2.0, Schneider Electric, FirstFuel were just a few I could find as of press time. These are some of the utilities who will make Green Button functionality available to customers, or else provide some kind of logistical support for the effort.

    Announcements of supporting utilities and companies are still going out. A few other major participants include Centerpoint Energy, Glendale Power & Light, Pepco Holdings, Southern California Edison, Dominion Virginia Power, Austin Energy, Commonwealth Edison and PG&E. Click here for a full list of companies that are supporting the Green Button.

    What these utilities all seem to have in common is they've each had some kind of large smart meter deployment in their histories, which makes me wonder if those meters might be a part of some new, thus-unmentioned functionality for the Green Button program at some point in the future. Or maybe it's just that these companies want to be seen as both "smart" and "green."

    Reports are that this initiative is a response to a White House challenge to American utilities to engage and empower consumers to help them save energy and money while also driving innovation in energy efficiency.

    In fact, President Barack Obama, currently on a mini-tour of the U.S. to highlight his ideas on energy policy that included a recent stop in Cushing, Oklahoma to talk oil pipelines, will be talking about the Green Button at Ohio State University later today. So clearly this is a program the administration is proud of.

    All told, nearly 30 million customers may now live in the footprint of the Green Button. But what does the Green Button do and how can customers use it?

    "By clicking a Green Button, residential and commercial utility customers can download detailed energy usage information in a standardized format to manage consumption and costs," or so say the press releases.

    For the Department of Energy's part, the federal agency decided to pony up about $8 million in grant funding to spur the development of "apps for energy" that help customers learn more about how much power they use.

    This initiative may just be step one in the effort to educate consumers about their energy use, however. As the process evolves a bit and becomes more automated, it could become easier for electric customers to learn about their energy habits.

    Even for a guy like me, who spends most of his waking life online, the process looks a bit involved. It looks like customers will have to start up an account with their utility's website if they don't have one already, then download the data to some kind of third-party application. Maybe a more streamlined process could be in the works.

    Still, there could be a sign that the initiative could improve in the sheer number of technology types who are crowing about the Green Button. Google, Intel, GE Energy, Verizon and Johnson Controls, have each sent out letters in support of Green Button.

    Lending credence to this theory is the White House's official blog, which said, "Companies are already developing Web and smartphone applications and services for businesses and homeowners that can use Green Button data."

    So, assuming this gadget garners any measurable interest from people in these utilities' service territory (and actually use the information to cut demand down a bit), we might hear more about this Green Button thing later on. I'll keep an eye out.

    DOE's 2013 budget includes electric distribution funding

    February 28, 2012 8:06 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power

    President Barack Obama on Feb. 13 released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 (FY 13). The budget includes $27.2 billion for Department of Energy (DOE) projects.

    Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the budget underscores the president's commitment to an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy. The budget request, Chu said, also represents tough choices aimed at focusing taxpayer resources on areas that will yield the greatest benefits.

    Obama in recent months has voiced his support of the nation's energy delivery business, including in his June report "Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid: Enabling Our Secure Energy Future."

    "A smarter, modernized and expanded grid will be pivotal to the United States' world leadership in a clean energy future…" the report states. "A 21st century clean energy economy demands a 21st century grid."

    And during January's State of the Union address, the president said, "Building this new energy future should be just one part of a broader agenda to repair America's infrastructure… We've got … a power grid that wastes too much energy."

    This DOE table shows the budget request breakdown for research and development related to electricity transmission and distribution and how it compares to previous years' budgets.

    The president said he asked for less money to support work on sodium-ion batteries for grid-scale energy storage because the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) project is on track to show commercial viability.

    In addition to the research budget for energy delivery technologies, the FY 13 proposal shows much support for energy-savings technologies and strategies. The budget request includes $310 million to improve commercial and residential building efficiency, supporting the president's Better Buildings Initiative aimed at driving private sector investment in commercial building efficiency.

    This brief overview represents only a small portion of the more than $27 billion requested by the DOE, but I thought you might like to see how some of the funding, if approved, will be used to help move along smart grid.

    Kudos to Southern Co. and Georgia Power

    February 15, 2012 12:52 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    It looks like it’s really going to happen. Finally, a new nuclear power plant is going to be built in the U.S. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted a combined construction and operating license (COL) for Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4. Receipt of the license signifies that full construction can begin.I applaud Southern Nuclear and Georgia Power, subsidiaries of Southern Co., operators of Plant Vogtle units 1 and 2 and overseers of units 3 and 4 construction. Their perseverance and ability to look beyond the next five to 10 years when making decisions about future capacity should be commended. I’ve mentioned before that I began my career in the electricity industry working at a nuclear power plant. I believe nuclear power is a safe, reliable and clean way to generate electricity and I’ve sometimes been discouraged because it’s taken 30 years for a utility to step up and be the first to take on the task of building a new plant. I hope this is the first of many more to come. I hope the construction goes smoothly and proves to those who want to follow that the road isn’t too long or bumpy for them.

    Southern Nuclear and Georgia Power are stepping up and taking a risk, but they aren’t shouldering the risk alone. The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is taking some of the risk through loan guarantees. Based on the project’s projected costs, the DOE’ loan guarantee will be about $3.4 billion. It will be funded by the Federal Financing Bank. Reports I’ve read say the project partners should close on the DOE loan guarantees around the second quarter of 2012.

    Of course, not everyone is as thrilled as I am about the new nuclear units. Many believe nuclear power is too dangerous or too expensive or both. Certainly, some risks to public health and safety are involved, but these risks are low. Even Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant accident wasn’t nearly as bad as first feared. Japanese authorities recently concluded no local residents or power plant employees were harmed by radiation. And, even though the incident was scary and unnerving, it is the source of many lessons learned that will ultimately lead to improved performance and safety at nuclear plants, both old and new, around the world.

    Certainly, a new nuclear power plant will not be cheap. When you look at the expected life of a new plant and the relatively low cost of its fuel, however, the price tag doesn’t seem so bad, especially when you consider the expenses that many coal-fired generators face because of Environmental Protection Agency regulations. I received a press release that said Vogtle units 3 and 4 are “Solyndra on steroids.” It was, of course, referring to the load guarantees and the fact that Solyndra defaulted on its loans and the DOE will have to pay up. I strongly disagree with this analogy. Nuclear power has been providing reliable, safe, clean and affordable electricity for nearly a half century. It currently provides about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and has for more than 30 years. It is a mature, proven technology, not a start up generation technology that is still in the research and development stage. In addition, Southern Co. and the other companies involved in the project, are responsible, well-established companies and are not likely to declare bankruptcy. I don’t mean to sound like I’m dissing solar energy, but it’s simply irresponsible for so called experts to compare nuclear energy to solar energy.

    Details about the approval of Vogtle’s COL are available in a recent story on this website titled “NRC approves license for Plant Vogtle, first new nuclear units in U.S. since 1978.” I invite you to read it, as well as check back for updates on the two new nuclear units. We plan to follow the progress closely.

    Remembering the EPRI robots

    February 6, 2012 8:18 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    A couple of weeks ago, over 8,000 people gathered in San Antonio for the combined DistribuTECH/Utility Products Conference & Exposition. There were many high points in the week, from the well-attended Department of Energy megasession to the supremely well-attended western-themed networking reception. Some of my favorite moments from the show were the demonstrations of the Electric Power Research Institute's (EPRI's) family of robots.

    EPRI has been kind enough to post the demonstrations on YouTube, if you didn't have the chance to get away to suprisingly rainy San Antonio this January.

    The overhead demonstration of Ti---he was hanging from a wire about 20 feet into the convention exhibit floor air--- the transmission inspection robot can be seen by clicking here .

    Adorable little rover Scotty, who measures lighting, was running around the exhibit floor as well, albeit with a lot more freedom than Ti; he can be seen by clicking here .

    Finally, EPRI was kind enough to bring their latest and greatest robot, the insulator inspector robot Ike, who can be seen in all his glory by clicking here .

    Those are my personal favorite highlights of the week. If you attended DistribuTECH and Utility Products in San Antonio, feel free to share your favorite moments right here in the comments section.

    Robots, smart grid invade San Antonio

    January 18, 2012 9:53 AM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power

    If you're in the great state of Texas---or visiting the great state of Texas next week---I want to extend you an invitation to a robot party.

    Yes, seriously, a robot party. (Scotty, our lighting robot, is already getting down with his bad self in the picture here.)

    For the Utility Products Conference and Expo 2012 (UPCE), which will be at the Henry Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio Jan. 24-26, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has graciously agreed to bring three of their robots onsite to the exhibit floor. Each robot will be demonstrating its skills multiple times during the show, and you are welcome to join in. Times for those demonstrations will be listed in the UPCE show guide, which will be available in hard copy at registration when you pick up your conference badge for either UPCE or DistribuTECH. (The robot demonstrations are open to DistribuTECH attendees as well.)

    Additionally, EPRI will have the world premiere of their newest transmission robot right on the combined UPCE/DistribuTECH show floor. And we would love all of you to be there for that unveiling. The premiere is scheduled during the opening reception on Tues., Jan. 24, 2012 at 5:30 p.m. And all will be revealed on the exhibit floor, right down aisle 4400/4500.

    UPCE officially kicks off with an opening keynote session on this Tuesday morning, Jan. 24, 2012. After the keynote, the conference itself is open for business with a bevy of learning opportunities.

    Experts from the Electrical Industry Training Institute (EITI) will present a number of sessions during the conference, including a two-part session on managing electrical operations. Arkansas State University’s Dr. Duane Doyle will speak on developing occupation programs at local community colleges during the conference. UPCE will also present a two-part session on occupational grounding. And the EITI experts will return with a session on understanding switching best practices. The National Utility Industry Training Fund (NUITF)---a part of the IBEW---will discuss crafting training and development for line workers as well. Finally, local utility CPS Energy will discuss adopting lessons from local smart grid work.

    Additionally, EITI will offer some precourses on qualifying employees to work near high voltage substation equipment and high voltage substation grounding and bonding on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012, before the show begins. More information on those precourses can be found online at http://eiti.us/upce.html.

    UPCE isn’t all business, though. It’s about fun, too. Also onsite: Hooters girls, a buckin’ bullride and a cash giveaway multiple times each day of the show. The cash prize giveaway will be featured on the UPCE exhibit floor all week. Just get your passport stamped by all the UPCE sponsors, and your name may be called to get a few minutes in our money machine. The Hooters girls will escort your trip in and out of the booth. You may go in broke and come out ready to buy the next round.

    I hope you can join us for the robot premiere, and feel free to contact me directly if you have any questions about the robots or the show itself.

    More information on the robots can be found online at http://www.utilityproductsexpo.com/

    Looking forward to seeing all of you in San Antonio at this exciting robot shindig. Block out a few minutes of your time on Tues., Jan. 24 and join us.

    More 2012 perspectives, predictions

    January 5, 2012 2:24 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    Last week, I made my own annual predictions about what will happen in the power industry in 2012. I summed it up with four items: More smart grid, more cautious consumers having growing pains, more consumer growing pains means fewer EVs on the road, and more government contraction pains means less renewables investment.

    You can read my predictions here .

    This week, I look to other industry insiders to give 2012 predictions with a little insider perspective.

    Chris King of eMeter (now owned by Siemens) tells us they’ll be a lot of meter growth in South America, Easter Europe and other emerging markets with Brazil, Poland and Singapore leading the way. King also notes that prepayment will become a major topic and “Smart Grid 2.0 will become a reality,” meaning that some consumers who live where smart meters are already deployed in full will start seeing the whole smart grid package.

    King also predicts that data analytics apps will be a popular item with leading utilities and, unlike my predictions, that EVs “will reach critical mass.”

    Steve Ehrlich with Space-Time Insight touched on data volumes just like King, pushing analytics, again, as a big 2012 trend.

    “Pulling yesterday’s data out of a data warehouse is not the answer,” he tells us. “Utilities not only need access to real-time data but, because getting to the root cause of problems is increasingly complex, they also need more sophisticated software to come up with answers.”

    From today’s waste of data to tomorrow’s waste of power, King also sees the idling of renewables becoming a “significant problem” with “utilities paying millions to curtail wind power and, for the first time, solar power.” Unfortunately, the solutions of more power lines and time-based pricing are longer-term items, according to King.

    IDC Energy Insights sees positives in renewables for 2012, however, including it in one of the technology areas they expect to grow this year. In fact, they forecast that solar PV installations in North America will grow by more than 25% just this year.

    As 2012 advances, we’ll get to see just how smart meters, smart grid, EVs, renewables and data analytics progresses. Keep an eye out.


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