Friday, June 13, 2014

Empowering New Innovations Toward A Sustainable Future

One of the most spectacular ways to drive up into the Rockies of northern Idaho is a winding 140 mile stretch of US Highway 2 from Kalispell, Montana to Bonners Ferry, Idaho and then down the Idaho panhandle to Sandpoint and Lake Pend Oreille.

A unique solar energy demonstration project in a parking lot there will draw me along this route again soon, maybe after picking up US 2 west across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula near the Hiawatha National Forest.

Of course, the trip will take a detour south at the North Dakota line to collect my grandsons and daughter in Salt Lake City before heading up to the Northern Rockies.

Two local engineers there are testing road-worthy solar technology on a parking lot in Sandpoint as part of the Federal Highway Administration’s effort to accelerate innovation.

This has the promise of turning every highway, parking lot and runway into generators of renewable energy.

Germany’s dramatic “Energiewende” transition away from nuclear and carbon-sourced energy including a new grid, is already generating as much as 75% of that country’s power from renewables (up from 6.6% in 2000) so don’t be surprised to see the Autobahn system become a solar roadway first.

It’s that country’s biggest infrastructure project since post-WWII reconstruction.

Of course, the challenge with energy in this country is not only America’s antiquated, “main frame” (therefore vulnerable) grid, but the storage and transmission to and from remote areas where renewables are in abundance.

Roads may be part of the solution but so are rails.  ARES stands for “Advanced Rail Energy Storage,” and is already proven as a utility-grade, grid-scaled solution using rail car carriages.  Click here on a recent story in High Country News for a better explanation.

ARES could enable access to vast geothermal energy including from areas up in my native Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho that could make “fracking gas” a distant memory surfaced only by occasional news about Superfund hazardous waste cleanups.

The energy internet means at least two things from what I read.  One is patterning the distribution of energy through a grid much like how the internet works, allowing supplies to function like a network where they can be rerouted an infinite number of ways.

It also refers to smart grid technology including microgrids that would allow, for instance, households and businesses that generate excess solar or geothermal power at home to exchange it with other people and businesses in need.

This would all be without being required, as it is now, to dump the excess energy onto the archaic main frame grid that utilities use but for a fraction in return for what they resell it.

Microgrids which have rapidly evolved from use on military installations and university research facilities to adoption by cities and neighborhoods are now being commercialized.  Deployment is projected to quadruple in seven years to $40 billion by 2020.

Early adoption has been by third-world towns and villages left behind by the current grid, which, by the way, they are now entirely leapfrogging.

Beginning more than a century ago when saying it was too costly, investor-owned utilities refused to run power to many American cities and towns as well as rural areas so coops and municipally owned power generation and distribution systems evolved.

The Municipality of Anchorage had its own system in the 1980s when I lived there and as of two years ago still did.  There has been something of a resurgence in these systems since the late 1990s.

Now the hybrid think tank Rocky Mountain Institute is projecting that with microgrids, the relationship of both communities and utilities will evolve again including in some models re-municipalization.

This transformation promises to end power outages.  It also scares the bejesus out of utility companies because it not only means they become less relevant but because these changes promise to drop the marginal cost of energy to close to zero.

For more on that, a good book is The Zero Marginal Cost Society.

Jumping way out in front where I live is Solarize Durham, bringing to mind the pejorative from a state legislator who recently quipped, “whatever it is you do in Durham.”  Oh, if he only knew how inspiring his works were instead!

Ah, I guess his attempt also applies to two 40+ acre solar farms in Northern Durham, one up and running and the other under development.

I guess the two, which together generate enough to power 1,500 homes, could also be part of any microgrid in Durham’s future.  Other developments here also bode well in this regard.

Google, which is considering Durham for super-fast fiber, already has one of its tech hubs here as well as partnering in a sustainability pilot energy project with Duke Energy developed by environmental scientists in Durham to convert hog waste on a farm across the state.

The company is also going into the solar business, partnering to offer them to homeowners on affordable leases.  According to a report, Google and other tech giants have given North Carolina a reputation for server farms because Duke Energy had excess power to provide.

Duke Energy established its roots here when a Durham native, forced to divest of one of the nation’s biggest trusts, reinvested in not only education but renewable hydro power technology instead.

Now the company is better know here for its insistence on crotch cutting street trees to prop up an obsolete technology responsible for most power interruptions.

Unsightly telephone poles are the reason “more than 10% of all electricity is ultimately lost due to conversion inefficiencies.”  Central European utilities have already jumped on new technology from an American company named Transform, whose is putting words such as mini and efficient into transformers that regularly blow up.

Unfortunately utility companies don’t factor billions of dollars caused to households and businesses as well as their own losses when power is made unsalable when things like weather events cause outages because they refuse to put lines underground.

After a study showed lowered costs and enhanced benefits, Florida  slashed the cost of putting overhead lines underground instead by more than half or more.

Some energy companies brag about their sustainability achievements but spend millions lobbying bills to state legislators hoping to erase mandates to shift to renewables, ironically under the name “Electricity Freedom” acts.

It is no wonder then from the campaign donor reports that I’ve seen that the company is a heavy donor to regressive-leaning elected officials in North Carolina while at the same time hedging bets by investing in Clean Power Finance.

Mandates such as North Carolina’s are working.  Click here to see how the state’s energy will be sourced by 2050 if momentum isn’t undermined by those who are threatened.  Click here to view other states.

New research shows a side-benefit from the projection that 50% of North Carolina’s energy will eventually come from offshore wind.  Those turbines are modeled to reduce wind speeds in hurricanes by 56-92 mph, and storm surge by 6-79%.

That’s a doubled edged sword for North Carolina because drinking water supplies historically rely on hurricanes.  But by then we will have also greatly improved the recycling and use of water.

But water collection, treatment, use and reuse is undergoing its own revolution.

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