Having Better Conversations About "New" Energy
The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado is about as swank as it gets in terms of a place to host a conference on energy topics, whether those sources are “old” or “new.” One of the top-rated luxury spas in the country, the beautiful surroundings at the Broadmoor reminded me of how lucky we are to be engaged in this sort of business, discussing the future of the planet while nibbling on gourmet food and swilling fine wine.
I was curious to see what kinds of technologies were being considered at the Global New Energy Summit (GNES). Hailing from northern California, it is sometimes a shock when I travel to other parts of the world, and the Rocky Mountain West is no exception. Along with the usual suspects such as wind and solar, traditional fuels were also highlighted, including nuclear power. I must admit it was a curious phenomenon to hear from one of Pike Research’s prime competitor representatives that being a yogi, vegan, liberal Democrat had not stopped him from being enamored with the possibility surrounding new nuclear technologies.
I felt like I should suggest he take a big bite of Filet Mignon and come to his senses, but valor held me back. I have often made the argument of how I don’t understand how any good Republican that believes in the free market could supported centralized and costly (and super-subsidized) nuclear power, so maybe liberals are a better fit after all!
I was at GNES between April 17th and 19th on behalf of Pike Research to moderate a panel on smart grid topics that featured both some heavy weights (General Electric, Intel and Lockheed Martin) and some smaller innovators (Power Tagging and Tendril). I used this platform to highlight some of my own research on microgrids and “virtual power plants.”
Some of the more fascinating insights culled from this panel came from Intel and Lockheed Martin.
Guy AILee, manager of Intel’s New Mexico Energy Systems Research Center, talked about how he saw the world moving away from AC systems that have dominated our electricity delivery system for the last century back to DC, the technology that was Thomas Edison’s first choice. Furthermore, Intel is investigating the viability of DC-based microgrids, noting that these systems are more efficient due to less energy loss and are more compatible with emerging storage devices, the current weak link in microgrid components. Upon further questioning, AILee admitted the path back to DC could literally take a century, but I think he’s on to something. DC is having a major comeback, and not just at the distribution level of service. A forthcoming report from yours truly on offshore wind will highlight the critical role high-voltage DC transmission lines will play in bring long-distance offshore wind capacity to markets, first in Europe, then the U.S.
AILee produced a slide that showed that a surprising number of devices in our homes are already DC-based, including TVs, refrigerator/freezers, computers and thermostats.
The other speaker that really stuck with me was Paul Wyman, Lockheed Martin’s general manager for smart grid solutions. He pointed out some striking parallels between his company’s core customer – the U.S. military – and utilities. Both are conservative and ultra-worried about reliability and security. These concerns have driven military bases to investigate microgrids as the preferred solution. In the utility sector, the regulated aspect of these markets has led to a series of pilot projects that to Lockheed Martin, seems to be agonizingly slow in development.
“What we learned in DOD markets is that different branches of the military were operating in silos with a platform-centric approach. When in combat, however, these systems need to be able to communicate with one another. Hence, the move to a more network-centric approach based on the notion of open standards and interoperability.” This view of what the smart grid should look like really resonated with me. The complexity of the smart grid requires that all of these devices – going down to individual appliances in our homes – are going to be able to talk to each other.
Later, Wyman reflected on a question I asked about what single policy reform would spark a smart grid revolution? “A single power market,” was his simple response. He highlighted the stupefying and Byzantine nature of electricity, with 50 different states, private and public structures, and then an overlay of independent grid operators. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this maze of complexity will go away, but Wyman makes an excellent point. His frustration is shared by many. It appears the idea of “laboratories of reform” is the only hope we have.
There was one more thing that stood out to me as I reflect back on this conference.
On the way in and on the way out of the conference, I bumped into Vimal Chaitanya, vice president of research at New Mexico State University. With our flight back home from Colorado Springs delayed for over an hour, we ended up chatting quite a bit. He raised some important points that we in this analyst businesses sometime forget.
Vimal happened to take a cab over to a restaurant and engaged in a spirited conversation with the cab driver. Once the cab driver heard that the theme of the conference was “new energy” he apparently went on a tirade about why Colorado didn’t need to engage in all of these green energy technologies – such as wind power. The state was, after all, an oil and natural gas state, and there were plenty of these traditional fuels to carry us through. Vimal sensed the cab driver thought everyone at the conference were elitists totally out of touch with mainstream America. What did discussions over “cap and trade,” the PTC or FITs have to do with the ordinary man on the street (or in his car)?
Next time the GNES is held, whether that be in Colorado or New Mexico (the site of the first two events), it might be wise to invite some of ordinary consumers. Why not have a panel where John Q. Citizen gets to ask a few questions – or even let the GE’s and Intel’s of the world interact with the common folks to see if they can speak the same language?
The only way for the smart grid, our distributed energy future and our zero net energy future to become a reality is to have a shared vision of where we want to go. The idea that greener always costs more is old school thinking, yet that is still a popular myth. With gasoline over $4 in California, and our governments at the federal and state level in deep debt, it is now time to break-out of old school thinking, and really more precisely define what “new” energy is.
I welcome a conversation on that topic with anybody, whether they are in a suit in the lobby at the Broadmoor Hotel or smoking a cigar while on break in a crusty old cab.