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Asheville Citizen-Times

Smart Grid DEEP: The Smart Grid, Distributed Energy and Efficiency Program

Author: Grant Millin | Web Link

May 1, 2007

"(Distributed energy) includes photovoltaic solar arrays, micro-turbines, and fuel cells, as well as combined heat and power, which are installed on site, and owned and operated by customers themselves to reduce energy costs, boost on-site power reliability and improve power quality..." -- "The Potential Benefits of Distributed Generation... : A Study Pursuant to Sec. 1817, Energy Policy Act of 2005", DOE, February 2007.

Why distributed energy (DE)? The idea of smaller power plants closer to demand centers goes back to the early applications of mass electrification. DE is efficient, and because ultra-low emission systems like hybrid solar-fuel cell plants are being deployed (i.e. US Postal Service), highly effective in addressing global warming. A centralized coal-fired plant is now more expensive than a series of smaller plants using cleaner, more efficient systems like combined heat and power (CHP), solar and biofuel feedstock, due to resulting greenhouse gases (GHG) and dwindling conventional energy supplies.

We clearly need to address our energy usage through efficiency, first: whether this is commercializing LED (light emitting diode), incentives for compact florescent lighting (CFL) and LEED standards [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, ], or other green design. Asheville is making progress in the area of energy conservation, but recent proposals for "energy modernization" including more fossil fuel and nuclear plants located far from usage sites (meaning energy is wasted in production and transmission) indicates many decision makers are unaware of the conditions or nomenclature surrounding the complex area of energy policy and infrastructure choice. The relative inaction in Washington and by states like North Carolina in mitigating GHG is atrocious.

Smart Grid is about information technology for some. These new technologies improve the performance of the existing grid. These Smart Grid technologies are also controversial because many consumers have a privacy issue with the idea of having their appliance usage monitored. Of course utilities and the Department of Energy can already determine the average home energy use. Smart Grid will be invasive, but privacy measure can be part of the solution. With community building these ethical issues can be addressed. This article emphasizes the definition of Smart Grid used in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) that Smart Grid is about IT, but also about a retrofit of the grid to include general efficiency, distributed energy, and it should include the LEED standardizations described in the rest of EISA.

The Distributed Energy option

DE and all other efficiency measures work together to reduce the number of old and new centralized nuclear and fossil fuel power plants and their resulting general waste. DE can be thought of as diesel generators of the past, but better as a new energy policy direction that combines efficiency and cleaner generation. Some justifications for distributed energy include potential lower cost, high power quality and reliability, land conservancy, and energy independence. DE systems reduce transmission waste. All reasons we might want to consider distributed energy resources.

DE technology presents new ways of producing, and more importantly, owning, energy resources. In terms of reliability, energy production closer to users can mean uninterruptible supply. With destructive weather, we see how vulnerable our transmission lines are and that moving clean power generation in close makes sense.

The California Energy Commission's Distributed Energy Resources Guide [ ] represents one component example of California's model energy dissent program operating successfully in advanced industrial society. California cities are canceling contracts with coal-fired plants. That's because California took a gamble on advanced energy policy years ago and they will grab the benefits first. Any comparative analysis of North Carolina's energy program would be bleak.

One of the easiest ways to conceptualize the effect of a robust national DE plan is to watch Greenpeace UK's short film "What are we waiting for?" [ ]. Congress began studying DE following major blackouts earlier this decade. More recently, the international market analysis firm Frost & Sullivan noted DE technologies show "high potential" in answering our energy needs.

High efficiency fuel cells work

Solar and wind alone are important yet incomplete energy grid modernization solutions. Advanced societies require constant energy production, 24/7/365. The basic and peak demand of a society must be met despite conditions affecting solar and wind, though wind and solar reduce fuel consumption. Meeting this civil society requirement is what big energy companies do.

Stationary fuel cells are consistently cited as being central to powering society towards zero emissions and produce power at night and without consideration to weather.

Solar-fuel cell distributed energy could reduce Southern California's ozone concentrations by as much as six parts per billion and peak particulate matter by up to three micrograms per cubic meter compared to current power plant technology [National Fuel Cell Research Center]. These are small percentages, but the point is emissions are reversed when considering future demand growth.

In the winter of 2006, a 680,000-square-foot US Postal Service sorting facility in San Francisco began powering up partially with a hybrid solar-fuel cell power plant that cut power purchases by 46%. The site's heating requirements were reduced by 69%. Those modernization efforts, including LEED improvements, and improvements to a smaller USPS facility in San Francisco, reduced local electric utility emissions by about 6,600 tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of planting about 1,860 acres of trees [Chevron Energy Solutions].

Fuel cells are usually powered by natural gas, though a gaseous biofuel called HydroMax is now available. They're expensive, but they are also a multifuel technology that can use clean hydrogen equally from biomass byproduct and as well as water. Given 24/7 demand options, fuel cells work. One stationary fuel cell company recently gained 20% efficiency on their medium fuel cells suitable for powering residential communities, factories, stores, hotels, hospitals and municipal buildings.


In the future, I hope to be involved in similar activities as these in order to help address the issue of energy modernization and subsequently global warming:

DEEP/H2: The Distributed Energy, Efficiency and Hydrogen Infrastructure Program -- A leadership project initiating at least 150 Megawatts (MW) of DE and other efficiency measures for Metro Asheville, 1,000 MW for Metro Charlotte, with additional 500 MW throughout Western North Carolina. Initially install one fueling station for each metro region for hydrogen vehicle demonstrations. DEEP/H2 would be repeated across the nation on a region-by-region basis. Phase 1 will be a digital visualization project providing decision making tools and regional communication for DEEP/H2 implementation.

GLOBAL DEEP/H2 -- A repeated international model of DEEP/H2, especially for developing nations.

The global warming/energy modernization solution is a set of tough decisions best made early rather than later. Whether it's local, state or federal politicians, or energy corporations, don't let them off the hook when it comes to energy solutions. Don't just ask for solar, wind, biowaste or biofuel energy sources separately. Ask for a broader distributed energy portfolio. Ask for a clean energy fund that exceeds the limits of NC Green Power. Ask for real solutions through real competition.


Grant Millin is president of The PublicGen Companies

Article appeared as Renewable energy could pioneer a bright future for WNC, Asheville Citizen-Times, 5/07.

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