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Think globally, act locally

Buckle your seatbelts. This is about "the mix," rational energy policy and your work on adding intelligence to the grid. The perceptive operational engineers, IT gurus and customer service leaders among you working to build smarter grids will recognize that global events today dictate how you do your jobs locally tomorrow.

We've just heard from Steve Hauser, vice president for grid integration at NREL, that merely modernizing the grid will lead to higher electricity prices. (See "Energy Grid Integration.") The good news: modernizing the grid with digital technology—a half-century refresh—will enable efficiencies and flexibilities that bode well for "the mix." Though digital technology creates more attack vectors, we've also just heard that Stuxnet establishes that an IP backbone isn't the only vulnerability. (See "Stuxnet's Lessons Learned.")

Enter two data points worthy of notice from this week's newspapers.

The New York Times documented the threats to surface and ground water from hydro-fracturing, or "fracking," used to recover natural gas. (See "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells' Tainted Water Hits Rivers.") How inconvenient that the solution du jour—and the latest promise of energy salvation, not to mention investor profits—turns out to be more complicated and, probably, more expensive than previously presented. That is, if it's done responsibly so the taxpayer doesn't once again hold the bag for obscenely expensive cleanups, if that's even possible once groundwater contamination has taken place.

The Washington Post reported on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's warning that oil prices are likely to rise—he used the term "soaring fuel prices"—due to many factors, among them political disruptions in oil-producing Arab states. The U.S. and its consumers—that is, you and me—have managed to keep oil prices affordable by propping up Middle Eastern despots who finance terrorism and keep their people under their thumbs.

Now that movie has reached a long-predicted moment of drama—U.S. policy to "promote democracy" either through peaceful means or by the use of force has failed. Only the natural yearning of human beings for freedom, in the end, has toppled the long line of Arab despots who sold us cheap oil. Who do we buddy up to now? And our opportunity to capture just a sliver of that revenue to finance technology and infrastructure to free us from destabilizing energy prices may be gone.

I mention these somewhat disparate points because they underscore our short-sightedness on how we produce and consumer energy, the very thesis of a smarter grid. "The mix," as I call our energy source conundrum, brings strength in diversity as well as a diversity of challenges. Yet we're still stuck in an either/or argument when every source and every load has its place.

Coal mining brings jobs and cheap energy, while often devastating miners' lives and some lands, and when burned emits billions of tons of toxic waste into the air, causing cardiopulmonary disease that drags on our economy.

Natural gas burns more cleanly, but its recovery can require vast amounts of water and can lead to surface and groundwater contamination that it would be negligent to ignore up front; we've seen the Superfund movie before and it cost taxpayers untold billions of dollars.

Nuclear power is not a "renewable resource," no matter how often that phrase is repeated. But it's a no-emission fossil fuel. The U.S. nuclear industry, unfortunately, self-immolated over cost-overruns, lax safety practices and failure to solve the fuel disposal. (Shame on President Obama for closing Yucca Mountain to save Sen. Harry Reid's behind in 2010.) But tree huggers didn't kill that industry, that industry lost the confidence of investors. Thus it comes, supplicant, to the taxpayer to take risks it couldn't manage first time around.

Renewables want an even playing field that for so long has tilted to the long-powerful oil and gas industries, which depend on your tax subsidies to help power their insane profits. Yet renewables require substantial public investment and manufacturing renewable equipment and infrastructure has its own carbon footprint and intermittency challenges to meet.

Now let's reverse the camera angle and look at load. On the load side, Hauser called attention Monday to the elephant in the room with an explicit acknowledgement of limits: "Now," Hauser said, "it's time to change the assumption that over 100 million customers can have access to any amount of electricity at anytime, anywhere."

Thanks to a reader comment Monday, we have the quintessential American response to the notion of limits: Blarney! Blasphemy! Well, folks, the people who actually produce and distribute power will tell you that Hauser merely stated the obvious truth in place today. Demand response isn't about Puritanical deprivation or capitalist fleecing, it's about keeping the lights on.

In short, grid modernization and added smarts lay the groundwork for the integration of various power sources on the supply side of a centralized model, while enabling the integration of wild cards such as distributed generation and EVs on the load side. With diversity and intelligence at both ends, we might just balance supply and load in real-time while maintaining economic growth, comfort, safety and security.

The good news is that major utilities are pushing hard in this enlightened direction. The utilities themselves as well as conservative commentators have called for a price on carbon to lend certainty to the market and align costs and prices. (See Susan Eisenhower's remarks in "From Smart Meters to Smart Policy.") But on the federal policy level, an adolescent, anti-tax, anti-government obsession has derailed adult discussion of the issues and an array of solutions that could promote "the mix" on the supply side and digital intelligence and wise use awareness on the end-user side.

This movie isn't over yet. As Hauser pointed out, utilities are moving ahead, states are moving ahead, consumers are moving ahead. Whether their innovative efforts win out over willful ignorance, wishful thinking and the obstinate self-interest of some big players remains to be seen.

That unfolding story is what gets me up in the morning. How about you?

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily






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