EYE ON THE GRID BLOG

Archive for 'January 2013'

    China's 'airpocalypse' chokes Beijing

    January 15, 2013 2:23 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    China is suffering industrial strength growing pains — particularly in its capital, Beijing, where the air pollution is so bad that the problem can no longer be ignored.

    Even the People's Daily, a mouthpiece of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, is publicly asking in its editorials for answers to the pollution problem. This is remarkable given the Chinese government's reluctance to address the problem at all in recent years.

    The air pollution level in Beijing in the past few days hit levels 25 times worse than what the U.S. government considers safe. In fact, one reason this story rose to a level beyond any government's control was that people started to notice the difference between the air pollution forecasts released by the Chinese government and those tweeted out by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing (see that information here ).

    (Above: A NASA image shows Beijing's smog is visible from space )

    The first time people worldwide began to notice how embarrassed China was of its unfriendly skies was during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, when rumors of how the government was covering up its pollution problem abounded. According to some, they shut down power plants and rerouted all power to Beijing while leaving the outlying areas in the dark just to get a few clear-skied days. Others said the athletes had to move in early and practice doing their events while breathing Beijing's air, just to get used to it.

    Beijing isn't even the worst-polluted place in China. Other cities reporting high levels of smog are Tianjin and Wuhan City. In total, some 30 major cities and their outlying areas could be affected.

    In response to the air crisis, authorities have shut down several major construction projects. One Hyundai Motors plant shut down completely, while others are merely reducing their output. The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center has encouraged the elderly, children and those suffering from respiratory ailments to stay indoors and avoid strenuous exercise.

    The pollution in question is particulate matter less than 2.5 micrograms in diameter, or "fines," as they are sometimes called in the power generation industry. The primary causes of the smog include tailpipe exhaust, emissions from coal-fired power plants and even the coal-burning heaters that people in poorer areas use to keep warm in China's unusually cold winter this year.

    What can China do other than what it has already done? Well, the country has made up its mind to continue building nuclear power plants , which can serve the needs of a power-hungry nation without polluting.

    China's roads are filling up with cars, too, so perhaps the country could take a cue from another country that is also growing quickly. India's prime minister recently unveiled his plan to put 7 million electric vehicles on his country's roads. With China's famous manufacturing sector, the country could probably build 7 million cars before lunchtime. (In seriousness, the country only has 5 million vehicles and the process for getting a license to own a car can take years)

    When it comes to designing cities, high-rises could be spread out and planners could focus on building greenbelts and planting more trees. More open air would mean more places for the wind to circulate and sweep away some of the smog.

    The application of energy efficiency in older buildings could go a long way, as could the installation of scrubbers and other retrofits at coal-fired power plants.

    Something has to give, though. What good can come from building huge, glittering cities that you can't safely power? What's the point of becoming an economic superpower whose people can't go outside?

    China's government has long been mindful of dissidents, so it's hard to see them not taking this problem seriously. When nobody can breathe easily, it gets harder and harder to get people to look the other way.

    As they say, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

    Energy stats to remember

    January 4, 2013 1:35 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    Every now and then I like to be able to raise eyebrows with an impressive, unexpected or otherwise ... well, eyebrow-raising fact about energy. The people over at OPower shared a list they compiled with me, and I wanted to pass them on to you. Maybe you'll find one or two of them worth passing on.

    The increase in power generation capacity from natural gas-fired power plants in the U.S. between 2000 and 2012: More than 96 percent.

    As previously predicted on this blog, the dash for gas is a trend many energy analyists expect to see continue into 2013 and beyond.

    In April 2012, for the first time ever in the U.S., the amount of power generated from natural gas was equal to that generated from coal. Because of low prices and other factors, natural gas is on the rise and coal is on the decline. Even given all of that, this is a statistic I wouldn't have easily guessed.

    The annual cost of charging an iPhone 5: $0.41

    I'm kind of surprised that Apple doesn't talk about this. I would. Then again, when it comes to getting people to want to buy their stuff, Apple has never had a problem with that at all. But still, that's pretty impressive. You can't buy much for four dimes and a penny, so to find out that gives your iPhone a year's worth of juice for that amount is surprising.

    The year that the United States will become the world's largest producer of oil: 2017

    "Drill here, drill now" say the bumper stickers. Well, we actually do quite a bit of drilling here and now. So much so, in fact, that the U.S. is giving Saudi Arabia a run for its money. And America beating the Saudis at drilling oil is a bit like beating Canada at hockey. It's kind of their thing.

    The consequences of this trend are obvious. The U.S. gets to brag that it is less reliant on foreign oil than ever before. This has been a goal of every president since Richard Nixon, and one it felt like we'd never make any real progress on. But we have managed already to become a net exporter of petroleum, and we did it with expanded drilling, new technology and energy efficiency .

    2012's rank in the list of the warmest years ever recorded in the continental United States: No. 1

    I am writing this blog from Tulsa, Oklahoma. And nobody knows this fact better than we Oklahomans. Except perhaps Texans. During the summer we were trapped in a cruel heat bubble, and we had a winter that wasn't a winter.

    Me personally, I'd rather be hot than cold, and part of me enjoyed a winter that was more cool than cold, but it is creepy to see weather act this way. Especially when storm season rolls around. Watching the damaging hurricanes and hybrid "Frankenstorms " of the past year have made more people than yours truly wonder whether "once in a lifetime" weather is the new normal.

    The average miles per gallon of new cars sold in the first half of 2012 in the U.S.: 23.8 MPG

    Consumers rank fuel economy as the first question they ask a car salesman about, and no wonder with fuel prices being what they are. But high gas prices and consumer demand is only one factor. Government action is another. Congress passed new CAFE standards in 2007. The measures of this law are now taking effect and the average fuel economy of a car is expected to rise to 35.5 MPG by 2016.

    The proportion of U.S. households that have a smart meter installed: 1 in 3

    The number of smart meters deployed in the U.S. has increased fivefold in just five years. Utilities love them because they provide the two-way communication that helps them in so many different ways, and some consumers like them too because they can make billing easier and make sure they don't pay too much for the electricity they use.

    By mid-decade, it's predicted that half of U.S. households will have a smart meter installed. Economists foresee that the world smart meter market could grow to $34 billion in spending from 2012 to 2020.

    The number of new nuclear reactors in the U.S. that were granted licenses in 2012: 2

    These were, of course, the first new licenses granted to any nuclear reactor in the U.S. since 1978. For fans of nuclear energy, this is an exciting number. Perhaps even more exciting than that is the number of new nuclear reactors currently under consideration by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: 16 other plants across the country have applications with the NRC to build 25 new reactors.

    The number of nuclear reactors that Japan has announced it will close by 2040: 50

    Likewise, if you're not a fan of nuclear energy, here's a statistic that should be important to you. Japan is, by and large, getting out of the nuclear power industry when it used to be at the forefront of the science of nuclear energy. A surprising development that few would have predicted a few years back, when many were talking about a worldwide nuclear renaissance. If there is a nuclear renaissance, it doesn't look like it will be happening in Japan. It's not looking too good in Germany, Switzerland or France, either.

    The percentage of energy that is wasted in the U.S. every year: 56.2 percent

    That's right, the U.S. wastes more energy than it uses. Despite recent advances in the world of energy efficiency, we are still a deeply inefficient country when it comes to what we do with our energy once it's generated. Of the 97.3 quadrillion British Thermal Units of raw energy that the U.S. generates, only 41.7 were used constructively. Most of this wastage has to do with how we generate energy in the first place. Most power plants are inherently inefficient. As is our transportation sector, even though it is becoming more efficient.

    Thanks again to OPower for helping gather these facts.

    How smart grid helped New York weather Sandy

    January 2, 2013 1:48 PM by Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
    The sight of the island of Manhattan and its world-famous skyline going almost completely dark is a memory from 2012 that few will forget, but New York City did not lose power completely. Thanks to smart grid technology installed before Hurricane Sandy (2012's so-called "Frankenstorm"), there were buildings that did not darken the night the storm made landfall.

    General Electric was in touch with at least a dozen utilities in Sandy's path and provided essential support before the hurricane came aground, said John McDonald, director of technical strategy and policy development with GE Digital Energy.

    Because of the deployment of smart grid technology on site, GE's home base in New York City, the famous Rockefeller Center never lost power.

    To keep the lights on at 30 Rock, power operators used technology similar to that used to channel continuous, uninterrupted power to data centers.

    "It's similar to the technology that Google supplies to its very large data centers. It's a business called critical power. We look at the needs of the building. At 30 Rock we had an uninterruptable power supply and a series of batteries," McDonald said. "In a storm situation, the volts can bound around a lot in terms of power quality. But with this system, no mater what the volatility is, it is able to provide a steady stream of consistent voltage."


    If power is interrupted completely, the batteries can kick in for the short term. If the battery energy storage system runs low on charge, then an on-site power generation system powered by diesel engines kicks in.

    Using these systems, the building complex was able to compensate for dips in the grid with power from batteries and stayed lit until after gale-force winds calmed down. Thanks to the advent of this technology, 30 Rock stayed lit for the duration of the storm, he said.

    Of course, a storm of Sandy's rarely-seen scale and power affected more than just New York City. During the storm's impact, GE was in touch with multiple utilities whose service areas were in the path of the storm.

    Once the storm swept through, those in charge of the restoration had an easier time estimating the damage in areas that had deployed smart meters.

    "Utilities like PPL had made recent investments in some key technologies. They had smart meters with two-way communications," he said.

    The biggest advantage offered by smart meters in storm scenarios is that in the nanoseconds before a customer loses power, the smart meter contains a capacitor that stores enough energy for a "last gasp" communication to the grid operator telling them that power has just been cut off.

    "That's key, because then the utility knows the exact time, the exact customer and how the customer is connected to the grid," he said. "Without that information, the utility would have to wait for the customer to call in, which could take many minutes, if they call at all."

    GE also worked to increase production of new transformers that the company realized would be needed as part of the grid repair effort.

    A geographical information system (GIS) that lists out all the assets owned by a utility (as well as their locations) also sped the power restoration process for utilities with large workforces to mobilize, he said.

    "This GIS system is really the reference map for our outage management system. Its input, for many utilities, is from phone calls. The other source of input we have today is interfacing with the distribution management system," he said.

    The distribution management system has an application called fault detection isolation restoration (FDIR ). Once it isolates the disturbance, it enables all "healthy" parts of the grid to keep using power, he said.

    Again, two-way communication is crucial for utilities dealing with a storm-battered grid and potentially angry or frightened customers. Functioning in such an environment was made easier after Sandy by the proliferation of Facebook and Twitter.

    "Something we've been working on is bringing in social media. We can gather information from our customers from social media, particularly tweets," he said.

    My thanks to John McDonald for his contributions to this post. McDonald provides strategic leadership and develops long-term plans to operate GE Digital Energy's position. He received his BSEE and MSEE (power engineering) degrees from Purdue University and an MBA in finance from the University of California at Berkeley. He is past president of IEEE PES and co-author of "Automating a Distribution Cooperative, From A to Z," published by the National Rural Electric Cooperative.

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