It’s Halloween and a time for scary things. Some of them are about energy.
The way we use energy, some of its effects, and its impact on our lives can be frightening. Here are some scary energy issues, and then some ways to make them less scary.
No grid preparedness: Electrification is a term to remember, getting away from hydrocarbons (oil, gas) as much as possible, and moving to devices that charge from clean power sources.
Like vehicles. Specifically, a challenge is transitioning to electric vehicles and having the electric system to serve them. The power structure to serve EVs is not there now. Example: Here’s sub-headline from a Wall Street Journal story about California: The state has recently struggled with rolling blackouts due to tight power supplies. Going all electric in 15 years will dramatically increase electricity demand.
“The grid will need to be upgraded to prepare for millions of new electric vehicles. The majority of people who own them usually charge them at home, which would mean changes to substations and distribution circuits to accommodate multiple homes in a neighborhood drawing power to fill up batteries,” said the news story.
California is not alone in the need to upgrade the grid, just perhaps the most obvious. Proposals have been brought forward in the Carolinas to get moving on this important need. There’s room to move ahead there. Regulators need to be on board.
Drastic changes in the system: This is sort of like grid preparedness, with a twist. Electric operations will evolve. A lot. The public needs power 24/7, too. Change will happen while the electric system is serving customers. For power companies, this is like working under the hood of a car going 85 mph.
Integrated distributed energy resources (iDER) is what is what’s ahead. “The concept revolves around platforms such as microgrids or virtual power plants that combine diverse and distributed DER assets such as solar photovoltaic, batteries and electric vehicles into aggregated portfolios…” (Source)
Another say to say it – lots of small energy sources are efficiently bundled into a big energy source.
Structural changes are uppermost in power professionals’ minds says a report from engineering company Black and Veatch. It asked, What are the most challenging issues facing the electric industry in your region today? “Aging infrastructure” came in first (33%) and “Distribution system upgrade and modernization” came in fourth (22%) of 11 answer categories. Transmission and distribution are big deals for the future. (BTW, “Aging workforce” and “Renewables” were between these answers.)
No supply: When I entered the energy workforce in the 1970’s, energy shortage meant there would be little or no gasoline available. Different now. Power brownouts and blackouts from wildfires, grid damage, or extreme power demand during heatwaves redefine energy shortage.
An aside: One satirical newspaper ran this headline about California, which just banned future sales of gasoline vehicles: State With No Electricity Orders Everyone To Drive Cars That Run On Electricity.
But it is a point well taken. Consumer products and our energy systems are changing. The changes have to work together. The power industry is transitioning from a grid feeding off large scale nuclear, hydro, and coal plants to one that aggregates numerous smaller generation sources, like solar and wind. That’s a big shift.
Impact on the environment: Using energy affects our environment. “In the past 70 years, humans have exceeded the energy consumption of the entire preceding 11,700 years – largely through combustion of fossil fuels. This huge increase in energy consumption has then allowed for a dramatic increase in human population, industrial activity, pollution, environmental degradation and climate change.” (Source)
Following decades of warnings about sea-level, temperature, and weather changes, we now see it real time. That physical evidence shows up in opinion polls. “Most Americans today (62%) say that climate change is affecting their local community either a great deal or some. … Large shares of Americans nationwide who report at least some local impact of climate change cite long periods of unusually hot weather as occurring where they live.” (Pew Research)
Outages: It doesn’t matter how power is made if customers can’t get it. Coming off a record storm season shows the need to harden electric infrastructure. Wood power poles make way to metal or concrete poles (not likely to break). Walls around some facilities protect them better from bad weather, like floods. Smart distribution systems pinpoint problems and help keep consumers online. …just a couple ways companies improve power resilience. Utilities must make those improvements.
Does that work? Yes. Florida Power and Light hardened its system and drastically reduced its outage time – something like half – after Hurricane Maria plowed up the middle of the state. Less outage time means better safety, health, and convenience for customers.
Finding facts: Consumers can make good decisions if they have the facts. Sometimes facts are tough to get. Lots of specialty groups are out there with snippets of facts and narrow studies. Be sure, there are blue-ribbon groups doing work, too. Consumers who want a deep understanding of energy must read a lot of diverse news and make their own decisions.
Too scary? Shouldn’t be. Utilities have a good record overall in their approach to planning and execution for the future. Some states make utilities run a real gauntlet, certainly. Utilities that do the best show that they are good learning organizations, they adapt and improve all the time.
Consumers have several roles to take to make their energy future less scary, too.
Learn. Take time to learn about energy options and innovations.
Express yourself. Be strong and clear with your voice to your elected representatives about what you expect from their legislation. Express to your utility the kinds of services you want.
Act. Change your energy habits, more than you have in the past. The Pew Research study noted above suggests several things, some easier than others:
- Drive and fly less: If you do not have to go on a trip, don’t go.
- Upgrade the energy efficiency of your residence: Some 20 percent of US energy-related greenhouse gas emissions come from HVAC and powering households.
- Buy food mindfully: Do not waste food. Meat and dairy account for about 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Shop less: Tough one for Americans, some of whom say shopping is their hobby. Buy used when you can … fashion, books… In other words, go easier on resources.
- Dump the high-status SUV: The Pew report says SUVs are the second-largest source of the global rise in emissions over the past decade, eclipsing all shipping, aviation, heavy industry, and even trucks.