The best minds in electricity R&D have a plan: Every node in the power network of the future will be awake, responsive, adaptive, price-smart, eco-sensitive, real-time, flexible, humming - and interconnected with everything else.
By Steve Silberman
When Times Square flickered out below him, the pilot feared he was witnessing a terrorist attack. Beneath the suddenly dark canyons of Manhattan, subway trains lurched to a stop, stranding hundreds of thousands of rush-hour commuters. To a satellite in orbit, it must have looked like a major constellation was being snuffed out. First Toronto went black, then Rochester, Boston, and finally New York City. In just 13 minutes, one of the crowning achievements of industrial engineering - the computer-controlled power grid of the 80,000-square-mile Canada-United States Eastern Interconnection area - was toast. For the first time in decades, night held dominion over the cities of the Northeast, which were now without traffic signals, television, airport landing lights, elevators, and refrigeration.
You might say that the cascading blackout of November 9, 1965 - eventually traced to a single overloaded relay in Ontario - was the dawn of the networked era. The moment the lights went out, 30 million people woke up to the fact that the apparently seamless scrim of modern life is stretched over an intricate and vulnerable technological infrastructure that transcends national borders.
Now, 36 years later, in the halls of the Electric Power Research Institute, they've been calling the energy debacle in California the perfect storm. Founded during the national period of soul-searching that followed the failure of the grid in 1965, EPRI believes we still have not fully heard the message of that massive blackout. The underlying lesson of the current crisis, researchers at the institute believe, is that we need smarter methods of electricity generation, transmission, and delivery - not just more power. "This isn't about stringing more wires, or rallying around to make today's technology work better," says EPRI's president, Kurt Yeager. "That's trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again."
The utilities' own privately funded think tank, and the sole independent research organization employed by more than 1,000 power companies, EPRI was the first industrywide R&D consortium in America. It's still one of the largest in the world, representing utilities in 40 countries. EPRI's constituency - ranging from old-guard, investor-owned monoliths like Consolidated Edison of New York to upstarts like Mirant and Dynegy - generates 90 percent of the electricity used in the United States.
The Bush-Cheney administration's declarations about beefing up our energy networks with 21st-century technology rang familiar at EPRI, because the institute has been laying the scientific groundwork for this technology for decades. Though EPRI's oldest members stand to gain from an energy policy that favors traditional means of boosting supply (such as building more fossil-fuel plants, extracting more oil, and reviving the domestic nuclear power industry), the institute's spokespeople share the conviction held by many researchers in our national energy laboratories that the administration's emphasis on supply-side solutions could be disastrous, if the budgets and legislation that follow undercut the search for alternative means of producing, distributing, and using energy.
National debate over the merits of such short-term nostrums as drilling in national wilderness areas, EPRI believes, is a distraction from what's really at stake: our ability to implement a practical blueprint for a radically new conception of the energy grid.
In recent years, a series of technological breakthroughs - and, more important, a critical mass of scientific ideas - has begun to coalesce around a new model for an energy system that would better serve the needs of the near future, while enabling power producers as well as consumers to lessen their impact on the environment in the long term. Both privately and publicly, many at the institute express concern that the policy thrust of the current administration will lock out the most promising set of innovations to emerge in the energy community since the creation of the existing grid in the first half of the 20th century. The end result, they fear, may be to freeze us into high-emissions power pathways for decades to come.
"We've seen the words that they're getting the message," Kurt Yeager says. "Now let's hear the music." In fact, at the budgetary level, the administration has been singing a much different tune - systematically slashing the programs that produced the technological developments they're now touting to sell their policy.
"The current regime in Washington believes that the tree-huggers can go be virtuous and make sacrifices while real men go out and build more pipelines," EPRI spokesperson Brent Barker observes. "They think new technology appears by magic. The problem is that the existing technology puts us on a collision course with the environment. Their strategy is to keep us on that course."
Like the infrastructure itself, the failure of support for long-range R&D transcends national borders. Ironically, as the global economy becomes increasingly dependent on the digital networks made possible by electricity, public funding worldwide for tapping new, cleaner power sources and evolving our infrastructure is tanking. The US spent one-third less on energy R&D in 1995 than it did in 1985. Germany, Italy, and the UK spent two-thirds less. Venture capital and private investment in energy research almost never address systemwide issues. The grid itself is falling through the cracks.
The smarter energy network of the future, EPRI believes, will incorporate a diversified pool of resources located closer to the consumer, pumping out low- or zero-emissions power in backyards, driveways, downscaled local power stations, and even in automobiles, while giving electricity users the option to become energy vendors. The front end of this new system will be managed by third-party "virtual utilities," which will bundle electricity, gas, Internet access, broadband entertainment, and other customized energy services. (This vision is reminiscent of Edison's original ambition for the industry, which was not to sell lightbulbs, but to create a network of technologies and services that provided illumination.)
Now, the digital networks will be called upon to remake the grid in their own image. By embedding sensors, solid-state controllers, and intelligent agents throughout this new supply chain, the meter and the monthly bill will be swapped out for something more robust, adaptive, interconnected, and alive: a humming, real-time, interactive energy marketplace.
EPRI's bland headquarters, just up the road from Xerox PARC in the heart of Silicon Valley, looks like an unlikely place to invent the future of energy. With 750 employees at work in a cluster of office-park bunkers, there are no fuel cell-powered cars undergoing testing in the parking lot, no photovoltaic arrays or wind turbines spinning on the roof. The site serves purely as a command center for nuts-and-bolts science that happens elsewhere.
This dislocation is intentional. EPRI's founding director, Chauncey Starr, who is now 89, was shrewd enough to know that the utilities - then still secure in their monopoly markets - wouldn't be patient enough to give Starr half a decade to build the equivalent of a Bell Labs for energy research. The new operation would have to run lean. His strategy for extracting the maximum value from limited resources was a sensible one. Instead of stealing talent from the utilities' own R&D shops, and sinking billions into new infrastructure, the institute would assemble small, agile, task-oriented teams from the best and brightest in academic, corporate, and government research, outsourcing the lab work to existing facilities. When a project was completed, the findings would be disseminated to the institute's membership, and the team dissolved.
Distributed generation isn't a new idea - it was Edison's first template for universal electrification. Today it goes by another name: micropower.Over the years, EPRI and its collaborators have contributed a number of refinements to the energy mix, including more efficient photovoltaic arrays and cleaner-burning gas turbines; sensors for remotely controlling the operation of coal and nuclear plants; variable-speed wind turbines that help make the price of wind power competitive with fossil fuels; and 3-D imaging systems for uncovering hidden deposits of natural gas. The institute is widely respected as a source of impartial research data, even by many industry critics, and its reports exert influence on public policy. When three 25-year-old nuclear reactors came up for relicensing last year, EPRI filed risk-assessment reports with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the licenses were granted. The institute is pro-solar and pro-nuclear - that is, EPRI is in favor of electricity.
In the tightly knit clubhouse of Big Energy before deregulation, Starr's blueprint for "virtual R&D" - available to its members for a .3 percent slice of their annual revenues - made a perfect fit. (By contrast, telcos and drug manufacturers commit more than 10 percent of their budgets to R&D.) When the clubhouse doors were thrown open to competition, however, the institute got slammed hard. As the business of selling energy disaggregated into swarms of startups and spin-offs, EPRI's funding slumped from $600 million to $400 million. Allocations for development of renewable resources and increasing energy efficiency - two areas of R&D most essential to securing a sustainable future - took particular hits.
"One unintended side effect of the market restructuring," Kurt Yeager says, "has been a total preoccupation with the immediate."
Two years ago, he decided it was time to pull some heads out of the sand. A former F-4 Phantom flier for the Air Force, red-cheeked and trim at 61, Yeager invited experts from 150 organizations to the institute to brainstorm a set of goals for the next 50 years of energy R&D. He brought together representatives from the Department of Energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Rand, MIT, the New York Power Authority, General Electric, AT&T, Motorola, the Nature Conservancy, Exxon, the World Bank, Royal Dutch/Shell, Oracle, Microsoft, and many other organizations. It was the first time that representatives from many of these outfits had sat down in the same room to talk about the future. The long-range prescription distilled from these sessions is EPRI's "Electricity Technology Roadmap" (available in summarized form online at www.epri.com/corporate/discover_epri/roadmap/index.html).
Meeting the energy needs of the next century, the Roadmap's creators suggest, will require a substantial overhaul in how we think about electricity. The industry's most basic assumptions will have to be put on the table, including the hub-and-spoke hierarchy of the existing grid - based on huge central power stations with long distance transmission lines radiating outward - which has been the backbone of the business since Edison's avaricious protégé, Samuel Insull, became the first utility tycoon in the 1920s.
"In periods of profound change, the most dangerous thing is to incrementalize yourself into the future," says Yeager. "Our society is changing more broadly and more rapidly than at any time since Edison's day. The current power infrastructure is as incompatible with the future as horse trails were to automobiles."
That incompatibility is already apparent in Silicon Valley, where tech giants like Oracle are underwriting the construction of their own balkanized energy network in the form of substations, diesel generators, and power-conditioning systems. For tech-sector installations where a supply of fluctuation-free electricity is critical - chip fabrication plants and server farms - the expense of building independent electricity resources is trivial compared with the cost of equipment failures and network crashes caused by unreliable power. Hewlett-Packard once estimated that a 15-minute outage at one chip fab would cost the company $30 million, or half the plant's power budget for an entire year. The organic development of this backup system of distributed energy resources foreshadows the kind of network that will be required to meet the needs of the digital economy.
The impending marriage of the engineering marvel of the late 19th century with one of the most resonant innovations of the late 20th - the distributed network - hasn't been named yet. In incubators of our energy future like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Bonneville Power Administration, however, researchers are starting to describe the new system with phrases like the intelligent grid, the energy net, and the Energy Web.
Pieces of this network are already popping up in all sectors of the power industry with the momentum of an inevitable idea, straining against the regulatory and market barriers that are holding it back. Imagine a road map designed by a consortium of mainframe manufacturers who declared in 1960 that the future was in desktop PCs, broadband wireless, and the Internet.
The message of EPRI's Roadmap is that an energy revolution of that scale is already under way.
Swiss engineering giant ABB surprised the world in 1999 by announcing that it was off-loading the business of building nuclear plants to focus on renewables and distributed generation, an umbrella term for various smaller-scale methods for producing electricity closer to the consumer. Distributed generation isn't a new idea - it was Edison's first template for universal electrification, with neighborhood steam plants furnishing power and heat for 1-square-mile lighting districts. Seth Dunn of the Worldwatch Institute uses a more felicitous term for distributed generation: micropower.
Green resources such as photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines fall into the micropower category, as do reciprocating engines, fuel cells, Stirling engines, and gas-fired microturbines. Micropower is surging in world markets, both in industrialized countries and in regions with no electricity, where distributed generation offers rural communities and local entrepreneurs access to power without waiting for the costly grid extensions promised long ago by national utilities.
One of the biggest distributed-generation success stories is the deployment of wind power - now the world's fastest-growing energy source, ramping up at an average of 24 percent per year. Freestanding windmills and wind farms are sprouting up all over, particularly in Europe. Denmark draws 13 percent of its energy supply from renewable resources, and half of the wind turbines in the world are made by Danish manufacturers, such as Vestas Wind Systems and Bonus Energy, which export primarily to Germany, Spain, and the UK. A wind farm under construction in Texas, using Danish turbines, will spin up enough electricity for 139,000 homes by the end of the year, while avoiding 20 million tons of carbon-dioxide emissions.
EPRI was instrumental in giving a boost to the US wind-power market by designing turbines that issue steady streams of electricity under varying wind speeds. With a single memorandum in 1989, a project manager at the institute set in motion a five-year program that pooled the resources of two major utilities and a wind turbine manufacturer to upgrade the technology. EPRI and the Department of Energy formed advisory groups that talked up the potential of wind power in the industry, while utilities and federal and state agencies mapped out promising high-wind sites. EPRI contacted utilities in those areas, seeding the future market. By 1995, variable-speed wind turbines designed by the institute were generating 3 billion kilowatt-hours per year.
Photovoltaics - which make power from sunlight - are taking off internationally as well. This fall, the largest solar-energy project in the world will be rolled out in the Philippines, a cooperative effort involving the Spanish government, the Philippines Department of Agrarian Reform, and BP Solar, the wing of British Petroleum that currently produces more than 10 percent of the photovoltaic cells used in the world. The $48 million project will bring electricity to 400,000 residents of 150 villages on the island of Mindanao, home to one-third of the nation's rural poor. The project will produce enough electricity to create 69 new irrigation systems and 97 drinking-water distribution systems, as well as power lights and medical equipment for 147 schools and 37 health clinics. Seventy-nine new AC systems will also become available, enabling the creation of new local businesses.
The scale of the Mindanao project is extraordinary, but the potential for micropower to raise the quality of life in developing countries - without relying on huge power plants or expensive, difficult-to-obtain fossil fuels - is being demonstrated all over the globe. Just as developing countries are jumping straight to mobile phone service without laying expensive landlines, micropower technologies are enabling those historically left in the dark to leapfrog the hub-and-spoke grids altogether.
In his comprehensive white paper, "Micropower: The Next Electrical Era" (www.worldwatch.org/pubs/paper151.html), Seth Dunn offers a roster of thriving solar- and wind-power markets in China, India, Indonesia, and South Africa, where photovoltaic panels run wireless telephone networks in rural areas. Tens of thousands of Kenyan households are going solar in a market driven by local entrepreneurs, and in Zimbabwe, where a major international solar-power summit was convened in 1996, there's a lively generation of startups devoted to designing and installing photovoltaics for home use. EPRI estimates that, for every 100 South Africans who get electricity, 10 new businesses are created. Still, one out of three people on earth has no access to electricity.
In many countries, where supplies of sunlight and wind are enormous and inexhaustible, the primary energy source for the poor is high-carbon biomass. These fuels - crop residues, scavenged wood and charcoal, and cattle dung - take significant tolls on the health of those who burn them, and add to the impact of first-world power profligacy in heating up the atmosphere. In India alone, indoor air pollution created by high-emission fuels causes half a million premature deaths a year.
Hardest hit are women, whose responsibility it often is to provide fuel for household use. In China, nonsmoking women suffer chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, pneumonia, and heart disease at rates rivaling or exceeding those of chronic smokers. These energy cycles are vicious and all-pervading: Where men have migrated out to more-developed urban areas, women - and, increasingly, children - now must clear land and plow fields in addition to scavenging for fuel, food, and water. "What provides the energy that electricity would replace? Women," Yeager observes.
In countries that already have access to electricity, micropower resources will provide ways to reduce carbon emissions, improve energy efficiency, and ease the strain on stressed grids by providing supplemental power during periods of peak use. Not all methods of distributed generation run cleanly - the diesel backup generators keeping server farms and databases online this summer in Silicon Valley also count as micropower. But even the units that run on fossil fuels generally have a lighter environmental footprint than traditional central-generation plants. Microturbines can also make use of a much wider range of fuels, from methanol, propane, and natural gas to "sour gas" normally flared off in oil drilling, thus turning waste into low-emission power. And micropower is a better fit with the quick-turnaround imperatives of the deregulated market; the construction and securing of permits for a new 10,000-megawatt power plant takes years, and requires millions of dollars in capital up front. Most important, scaling the generators to the load reduces energy waste.
There's another virtue in moving power sources closer to home: The thermal energy they produce can provide heat, run air-conditioning systems, or be used to boil water, making steam that generates even more electricity. Like distributed generation, cogeneration is an idea that's been around a while. In the Middle Ages, excess heat from cooking fires was captured to turn roasting spits, and Edison's Pearl Street station piped steam to Drexel Morgan to warm the offices of his potential investors. Cogen was widely employed in US factories, until utility tycoon Samuel Insull's economies of scale spaced the heat and lights hundreds or thousands of miles apart. While a conventional gas turbine squanders two-thirds of its energy input into the atmosphere, cogeneration can result in a total energy efficiency of 70 percent or higher, and cuts CO2 emissions in half. For the past six years, MIT has run a 21-kilowatt gas turbine cogen plant on its campus, allowing the university to meet many of its electricity needs off the grid.
Cogen is booming in Europe, Australia, and Asia (with the exception of Japan, which has limited distribution of natural gas). In China, where grid electricity is notoriously unreliable, 10 percent of the country's total energy supply is in cogeneration, furnishing off-grid power to petroleum refineries, pulp and paper factories, chemical plants, and iron and steel mills. One especially impressive European installation is the Mitte plant in Germany, which meets nearly all the electricity, heating, and air-conditioning needs of central Berlin, while recovering 100 percent of its waste heat. Mitte's neighborhood-friendly design even offers warmed benches for visitors in winter.
The micropower/cogen technology with the most commercial potential - and some of the greatest environmental benefits - is the fuel cell. Employing electrochemical combustion of hydrogen with oxygen, fuel cells are powered by gas, and will eventually be run by supplying hydrogen directly, producing stable streams of current and emitting only water vapor and heat. Unlike gas turbines, they are silent and require little maintenance. When hooked up to water electrolyzers - like fuel cells run in reverse - they can also store electricity as hydrogen, for energy that can be poured back into the system during times of high demand. When photovoltaic panels and gas turbines are networked with fuel cells, their efficiency and reliability soar. Last summer, the US Postal Service began running its mail center in Anchorage, Alaska, off the output of five 200-kilowatt cells. After a one-hour outage crashed the First National Bank of Omaha's data network at a cost of $6 million, the bank put in stacks of fuel cells to power its computer center.
Fuel-cell technologies, such as the proton-exchange membrane cell originally developed by General Electric for NASA, are already driving a major shift in the automotive industry. Last year, Bill Ford, chair of the Ford Motor Company, declared: "I believe fuel cells will finally end the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine." DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and Ballard Power Systems have already invested a billion dollars toward developing road-ready cells, and General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and Mitsubishi have thrown their own billion into the pot. All the major automakers have fuel-cell or hybrid cell/internal combustion vehicles in the pipeline, with cars from Toyota and Honda due on the street in two years. (Both companies already have hybrid electric/gas vehicles - the Prius and the Insight - on the market.)
Turning every car into a roll-your-own generator is just part of a larger shift. Passive energy users are becoming freelance energy producers.Turning every car into a roll-your-own generator is just one potential expression of the most radical shift in the emerging business model for energy vending profiled in EPRI's Roadmap: the transformation of passive energy users into freelance energy producers, paralleling developments in interactive media, peer-to-peer file sharing, and self-governance. By increasing a sense of ownership in the means of energy production and delivering immediate financial rewards, this power-to-the-people model may prove to be a more potent incentive to smarter energy use than the familiar pleas to save the planet.
Other benefits to a DIY strategy may emerge that are not immediately apparent. As our homes, offices, and public buildings are optimized to more efficiently capture the macrogeneration of sun and wind, and waste less energy, slow changes will be worked on the layout of our cities. David Nye, author of Consuming Power and Electrifying America - two chronicles of how energy infrastructure affects American culture and society - says he believes that adopting the bricolage of technologies and strategies described in EPRI's Roadmap would result in an architectural aesthetic more rooted in the nuances of place.
"American cities will look less alike in a couple of decades than they do now," he says. "The windy upper Midwest urban skyline, for example, could include quite a few windmills, while Arizona cities ought to be using solar power and designing their structures to make the most of that climate."
EPRI's Brent Barker paints a scenario in which cars become the roaming palmtops of the Energy Web, plugging into the grid when they need to recharge - or selling power back, at a profit, when the grid needs it. "If you add up the horsepower of all the machines and engines in US factories, businesses, farms, power plants, mines, ships, aircraft, railroads, and automobiles," Barker says, "you find that 95 percent of the power capacity in our country resides in automobiles, with only about 2 percent in electric power plants." With interfaces for absorbing and distributing the output of this new energy resource added to the grid, he suggests, you could power your home or office with the gas or hydrogen fuel cells in your car, and even help out the local mall during periods of peak demand by jacking into an outlet in the parking lot. Then the bargaining would begin.
"The microprocessor in your car could negotiate with bulk-power trading tigers like Dynegy or Enron to buy power if you needed it," he says, "or to sell power when the price is right. If the price wasn't right, your microprocessor could call all the other microprocessors in the area to negotiate a better deal."
Barker isn't the only one thinking along these lines. Ferdinand Panik, the head of DaimlerChrysler's fuel-cell program, is right there with him, The Economist reported in February. With widespread micropower generation and advanced methods for energy storage in place - such as "reversible" fuel cells, supercapacitors, and flywheels - DIY power providers will be able to aid in stabilizing the entire infrastructure from the bottom up.
Call it net metering writ large. Utilities in 30 states allow custoåmers who generate their own power to sell electricity back to the grid. In March, Senate Democrats introduced a bill that directs energy suppliers to provide net-metering capabilities to all customers with onsite generators that run on renewable sources.
To accommodate these volleys of new transactions, however, the physical structure of the network itself will have to change. The assumption that power flows in one direction only - from the faraway coal plant to the holes in your wall - is deeply embedded in the relays of the existing network. Influxes of power from unexpected sources can even endanger utility personnel. New interfaces for integrating micropower resources into the grid must be developed by industry standards groups like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the thicket of regulatory barriers against running micropower generators "in parallel" with the grid must be trimmed back. ("Making Connections," a DOE report on the regulatory barriers to integrating micropower into the grid, is available at www.eren.doe.gov/distributedpower/barriersreport.) Working with the IEEE, EPRI is helping to accelerate the process of setting the new interface standards from eight years to two; they may even be completed by the end of this year.
As a commodity, electricity is unique in one overwhelming sense - it's very difficult to stockpile, so supply must be orchestrated to meet demand with split-second precision. Electrons do not behave in an orderly fashion, like cars getting onto a highway, traveling to their appointed exit, and filing off. The grid is more like a system of canals. Power plants pump energy into the canals, it sluices around, and then substations draw it off and siphon it to the customer. A single power transaction sends eddies of electricity through the grid. With the deregulation of the industry enabling new power plays like the wholesale trading of bulk electricity, the number of transactions has soared more than tenfold. Trying to precisely manage activity on the grid with electromechanical relays has become the art of narrowly averting disaster.
Tapping the new fleet of energy resources will require something that is already hard to come by for system operators - the ability to tell power where to go. FACTS (flexible AC transmission system), a breed of solid-state devices developed by EPRI and Westinghouse that was 20 years in the making, promises to give transmission companies and system operators the capacity to deliver measured quantities of power to specified areas of the grid. In the real-time interactive energy marketplace, technologies like FACTS will allow system operators to send power along "transactional pathways," rather than just down the paths of least resistance.
Utilities have employed computers to monitor grid activity since the earliest days of IT. Even with the current generation of supercomputers, however, managing load flow is a tricky business.
One particularly vexing challenge is minimizing power bottlenecks and "loop flows." As more transmission networks are linked together into huge service areas, electricity meanders around, leaving and reentering areas of the grid. This creates congestion that drives up prices, sets the stage for cascading outages, and wastes tremendous amounts of energy, as power looping through the system bleeds off as heat. In June of 1998, loop flows and grid congestion caused by two weak links on a grid in the Midwest contributed to horrendous spikes in spot-market prices, which jumped from $25 to $7,500 per megawatt-hour. A month later, another heat wave exploded spot prices up to $9,999 per megawatt-hour - where the prices maxed out because software could accommodate only four digits. In the next few years, EPRI predicts, more and more electromechanical switches (like the relay in Ontario that caused the 1965 blackout) will be replaced by solid-state devices like FACTS.
Think of FACTS controllers as routers for the Energy Web. The technology grew out of research conducted for Reagan's original Star Wars program, and may turn out to be the most practical benefit to come out of the $60 billion spent on that quest. Developed by EPRI systems designer Narain Hingorani (who has since left the institute), the solid-state system was adapted from silicon storage devices designed to fire 1,000-megawatt laser cannons. American Electric Power brought the first FACTS unified power flow controller online in Kentucky in 1998, and nine other utilities currently use it. Additional solid-state power controllers are proliferating throughout the energy network. One problem with such devices is that they're expensive. New semiconductor materials like silicon carbide, gallium nitride, and thin-film diamond should make them more affordable.
Another critical challenge facing the architects of the next grid is how to deal with the heat caused by electrical resistance. The carrying capacity of transmission cables depends on how hot they can get. FACTS devices give operators some leeway by allowing them to fine-tune capacity, but the best way to handle millions of new transactions would be to swap in new cables that have zero electrical resistance. At a test installation in Detroit this summer, Detroit Edison is replacing copper cables with ones made of high-temperature superconductive (HTS) ceramic. Since HTS cables can carry more voltage, one installation does the job of three standard cables of the same diameter, so switching to HTS doesn't require more basic excavation, and leaves more room in the trenches for fiber-optic pipes - or more gas lines to keep millions of backyard microturbines spinning.
If the industrialized world still consisted only of lightbulbs, simple motors, and electric toothbrushes, the existing level of electrical service, minus rolling blackouts, might be sufficient.
In utility-speak, today's grids provide "three-nines" reliability - power reliably delivered 99.9 percent of the time, which translates into hours of sags and spikes per year, distributed intermittently over periods lasting nanoseconds to minutes. But feeding three-nines power to today's warp-speed CPUs is like dumping crude oil into a Porsche. That's why the spaces under our desks, and the insides of our laptops, are cluttered with such power-conditioning devices as transformers and surge suppressors, which devote a significant percentage of our energy supply to warming up the furniture.
The high-end energy product of the future may be what EPRI chief Kurt Yeager calls perfect electricity - uninterrupted quantities of power at levels of reliability reaching 99.9999999 (nine-nines). Among the end users who will be most appreciative of nine-nines power will be server farms, chip fabs, medical facilities, stock exchanges, and credit card processing centers. But any plant that uses so-called continuous-process manufacturing - from textile mills and newspaper printers to drug manufacturers - will be a likely candidate.
There's another thing about all that digital equipment. Microprocessors, and most other modern electric appliances, actually run on direct current, though utilities have been shipping alternating current down the pipes since Nikola Tesla demonstrated that Edison's DC couldn't be exported cheaply over long distances. A lot of the hardware in our hardware is there just to invert AC to DC and back again, wasting even more precious energy. Wind turbines and photovoltaics pump out DC - albeit in unpredictable quantities. Hooking renewable resources up to cutting-edge energy-storage systems like Regenesys makes for green, direct-to-digital power. The Bonneville Power Administration is working on what it calls the virtual green extension cord to make renewable resources more digital-friendly at one end, more grid-friendly at the other.
EPRI foresees the popularity of DC microgrids: high-nines islands in the choppy seas of imperfect electricity. These microgrids could be one of the amenities available in "premium-power parks," along with fast Net connections and other services. Such parks already exist. UC Irvine teamed up with the Southern California Gas Company and Southern California Edison to build one, specifically as a "living laboratory" to incubate technologies and business models for the next grid. EPRI sees these islands expanding to provide super-reliable, digital-ready power to urban centers.
New high-voltage DC applications developed by the institute are also serving to make good interfaces between grids. HVDC bridges can act as filters, allowing previously incompatible systems to be linked together, and preventing power disturbances on either side from propagating to the other. Last summer, EPRI opened a link between grids in Texas and Mexico - a small step toward the global network of energy envisioned by Buckminster Fuller as "the final goal of the World Game."
Last summer, EPRI opened a link between grids in Texas and Mexico - a small step toward the global network of energy envisioned by Buckminster Fuller.You can recognize the emergence of the energy network of the future in a trickle of technologies swelling into a flood.
At Oracle, energy-use managers carry pagers that alert them if demand is nearing overload, which allows them to notch back nonessential usage, or bring backup systems online. In May, Puget Sound Energy in Washington began offering residential customers discount power at night and on weekends by installing smart meters that transmit time-stamped reports to the utility across a wireless network. Aladn, a product introduced last year, allows individuals to monitor and tweak the energy consumption of home devices like lights, kitchen appliances, and air conditioners from any Web browser. Sage Systems is marketing the software to utilities by bragging that its product gives them the power to "shed load instantly" by "setting back a few thousand customers' thermostats by 2 degrees ... [with] a single command over the Internet."
New business models for providing electricity and integrated energy services are emerging all over the world with astonishing speed. In Italy, a utility is wiring millions of houses to accommodate networks made by Echelon, a US company that will let you control home-energy use from your mobile phone Web browser. In Denmark, a utility sold its customers more efficient refrigerators to reduce energy consumption over the long haul. Instead of shelling out more every month for wasted electricity, customers paid off the new refrigerator, yielding an environmental payoff as well.
Even before digital networks and the grid find more ways to talk to each other, the Internet is having unexpected effects on patterns of energy use. It has become commonplace to frame the Web as the biggest energy hog around. In an often-quoted Forbes article published in 1999, Peter Huber declared, "Somewhere in America, a lump of coal is burned every time a book is ordered online ... a billion PCs on the Web represent an electricity demand equal to the total capacity of the US today." Two new studies, however, suggest the contrary: that the Net could turn out to be a powerful mechanism for reducing "energy intensity" - the amount of energy expended per dollar of GNP. A study commissioned last year by the DOE at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (enduse.lbl.gov/Projects/InfoTech.html) and a 1999 study by the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions (www.cool-companies.org/energy) indicate that by streamlining supply chains, enabling telecommuting, and reducing trips to the mall, the net effect of the Net may be to increase energy efficiency and significantly cut carbon emissions.
More surprises are in store. Last year, Steve Hauser at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory started waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about what was wrong with the existing energy networks. Before coming to PNNL, he had worked at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for eight years, diligently ramping up the effectiveness of solar systems, hybrid electric vehicles, and other elements of the greener energy portfolio. He watched the efficiency curves go up, and the prices per kilowatt ease down. But something wasn't happening. "The technology worked," he recalls, "but the markets weren't absorbing it. I thought, 'There's something fundamentally broken here. What is it?'"
Over at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a researcher named Marilyn Brown was pondering similar questions. Brown is part of a team that prepared a report called "Scenarios for a Clean Energy Future" (www.ornl.gov/ORNL/Energy_Eff/CEF.htm) at the request of the DOE. She lamented the fact that industry restructuring had stripped out one of the few feedback loops between utilities and customers that energy-efficiency advocates had fought for years to obtain: demand-side management. DSM is the practice of utilities negotiating with their customers to notch back demand during peak hours, and generally offering education and tools for more efficient ways of using energy.
It may sound odd - an industry convincing customers to buy less of its product - but because spot-market prices fluctuate wildly, it's often cheaper for a utility to reduce supply to customers who have previously agreed to such a curtailment than it is to keep pumping out the power and riding the market. In energy-modeling studies Brown designed at Oak Ridge, she found that DSM and energy-efficiency initiatives - which had taken off in the early '90s, then nearly evaporated when the market heated up under deregulation - had worked splendidly.
Those twirling dials on the meter in your basement are a classic example of an interface that displays information where you can't act on it. By contrast, the defining characteristic of business models that have prospered in the digital age, Alan Greenspan told Congress in 1999, has been innovation that enables providers to "detect and respond to finely calibrated nuances in consumer demand." Without those feedback loops hardwired into the grid, observes researcher Terry Oliver at the Bonneville National Lab, the entire electrical infrastructure will remain a leaky bucket. "I gradually realized that pouring more energy, of a different kind, into a leaky bucket wasn't going to make a difference," he told me. "You have to fix the bucket."
Now researchers like Oliver, Steve Hauser, and Mike Hoffman at Bonneville (where the term Energy Web was coined) are finding ways to embed real-time information about the cost of power, and methods for automating demand-side management, throughout the energy supply chain. Imagine an air conditioner that receives constantly updated market signals about the price of electricity on the grid and knows what the other air conditioners in the vicinity are doing. By easing down demand when energy is expensive (or when less green power is available), such devices could collaborate with all the other smart appliances in the neighborhood to lighten the load - or crank up micropower reserves - when the grid is peaking out.
Expand this model to include anything that uses electricity and doesn't need to be maintained at a constant demand level to get the job done - such as water heaters, fans, thermostats, and the huge banks of lights in warehouses and malls. Minor fluctuations in the operation of these systems, says Marilyn Brown, will be undetectable to users: no cold showers. Now envision millions of cheap Band-Aid-sized sensors (such as those in development at 3M) fastened everywhere, feeding the network data about temperature, light, and moisture - a rich, fine-grained datastream about the state of the world in any given instant.
For the past few months, Hauser and his team at the Pacific Northwest National Lab, and Hoffman and his crew at Bonneville, have been negotiating with appliance manufacturers like Whirlpool to find new ways to embed connections to this network in their products.
None of these appliances and sensors would have to be very intelligent on their own, and few of the transactions would have to go through a central authority, such as the utility, for the performance and resilience of the whole system to improve. But every node in the network would have to be awake, responsive, flexible, and, most important, interconnected with everything else. A distributed network. An Energy Web.
Where EPRI parts ways with its critics is partly in how to fix the bucket, and partly in what to put in it.
The institute's ties to the industry put it at odds with those who believe the continued existence of huge central-generation plants is at the heart of the problem. Karl Rábago of the Rocky Mountain Institute participated in the original brainstorming sessions at EPRI. Although he believes the Roadmap is "a legitimate effort to get ahold of the future," he says that discussions were constrained by EPRI's role as the utilities' own think tank. Rábago maintains that the Roadmap doesn't focus nearly enough on energy efficiency and DSM. And "imagining a future without nuclear - that wasn't even up for consideration," he says.
Since its inception, EPRI has argued that nuclear power will play a central role in the energy mix of the future. Founding director Chauncey Starr, who still comes to work at the institute nearly every day, was one of the first architects of civilian nuclear power after World War II. In the early '70s, EPRI was a proponent of liquid metal fast breeder reactors as potential sources of cheap, unlimited electricity. Now spokespeople for the institute point to France, where 70 percent of energy needs are met by nuclear, as proof that well-designed nukes, properly managed, can be incorporated into an environmentally sustainable infrastructure.
The Homer Simpson-proof nuke of the future, EPRI says, will be the pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR), fueled by .5-mm uranium oxide granules sealed in tennis-ball-sized "pebbles" made of graphite and silicon carbide steel. PBMRs are smaller than conventional reactors, and can be up and running in a couple of years. "They're walk-away safe," an institute spokesperson says breezily. "If something goes wrong, the operators can go out for coffee while they figure out what to do." Exelon, which generates a significant portion of the nuclear power in the US, and South Africa's national utility, ESKOM, have already planted stakes to build a PBMR in South Africa by 2005. Last March, an Exelon executive told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that his company plans to roll out "a number of PBMRs" in the US, pending Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval.
Whether PBMRs prove to be "walk-away safe" or not, it will still take a significant amount of breakthrough R&D - and industry public relations - to address the perennial problem of where to stash the reactors' spent fuel, which has a half-life as extended as any radioactive material: that is, up to 20 times longer than any man-made structure has stood on Earth.
EPRI's optimism about this "nuclear revival" should resonate well with the current administration. A week before Exelon appeared before the subcommittee, Vice President Dick Cheney enthused on the cable-TV talk show Hardball, "If you want to do something about carbon-dioxide emissions, then you ought to build nuclear power plants, because they don't emit any." The new federal energy strategy puts building new reactors near the top of its agenda, though the president's 2001 budget cut funding for increasing reactor safety and scrutinizing the economics of nuclear power.
A commitment to R&D that enables long-range strategies to reinvent the energy system will require innovative policymaking up to the federal level, says M. Granger Morgan, head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. While he believes tax credits for corporate support of consortia like EPRI would help, he favors an even stronger prescription: a federal mandate requiring a very modest contribution to basic energy research (perhaps .0033 cents per kilowatt-hour, which would generate a billion dollars a year) as part of the cost of doing business.
Until the new energy networks are in place, the fastest, cheapest, and cleanest way of tapping more power is all around us: increasing energy efficiency. The administration's budget, however, called for a 37 percent cut in overall R&D for energy efficiency, while slashing the Federal Energy Management Program - which maximizes energy savings in the government's own buildings - by nearly half. Funding for the Electric Energy Systems and Storage programs - which examine the potentials of distributed generation, integration of real-time controls on the grid, energy storage, and superconductor research - shrunk from $52 million to $34 million. Renewable-resource research was cut by a third.
"These are huge cuts in areas of government that develop new, more efficient technology at our national labs, which certainly sends the wrong signal to the marketplace," says Mark Hopkins of the Alliance to Save Energy, a bipartisan coalition that encourages energy-efficiency investments. He added, "The mining and oil interests have huge megaphones up on the Hill. The White House is turning them up."
When I asked an employee at another national laboratory, who would not speak on the record, if the energy researchers he knew shared his concern about the direction of policy under the new administration, he said, "Only everyone I know, and everyone I talk to. There's tremendous consensus. The only saving grace is, it might only be for four more years."
"Electricity occupies the twilight zone between the world of spirit and the world of matter" - a world ever more managed from the demand side.EPRI's Steve Gehl has been out pounding on boardroom doors and congressional staffers' offices for months now, evangelizing the institute's plan for fixing the bucket, with mixed results. In the Netherlands, the Ministry of Economic Affairs has asked EPRI to develop a road map for the Dutch energy industry. Gehl's contacts at the DOE are concerned that the new federal policy emphasizes the extension of existing technologies, at the expense of the fundamental research required to reach the Roadmap's goals. "You need to do a fair amount of heavy lifting to get people interested in strategic planning," he acknowledges. "But it's clear that sustainable Rome was not developed in a day. We're in it for the long haul."
This summer, EPRI will launch a nonprofit affiliate called the Electricity Innovation Institute to match funds from public and private sources for research teams working on breakthrough R&D. Former US Deputy Secretary of Energy T. J. Glauthier will lead this new organization, and the majority of its board will be drawn from outside the utilities. Part of the task ahead for the new group will be convincing decisionmakers in the industry and in the public sector that funding research into exploring radical new energy pathways, and ending power poverty in developing nations, is worth more than a fraction of the investment we're about to pour into building additional coal and nuclear plants and stringing more wire.
The past 30 years have brought some of the best minds in the energy industry to an outlook surprisingly in accord with one of its outspoken critics, economist E. F. Schumacher, who declared in 1973 that the problem with the utilities was that they treat limited natural resources, like fossil fuels, as income rather than as capital. "If we recognized these resources as capital," he wrote in Small Is Beautiful, "we should be concerned with conservation; we should do everything in our power to minimize their current rate of use; we might be saying ... that the money obtained from the realization of ... these irreplaceable assets ... must be placed into a special fund to be devoted exclusively to the evolution of production methods and patterns of living which do not depend on fossil fuels at all, or depend on them only to a very slight extent."
Schumacher might have appreciated the respect for appropriate scale in Chauncey Starr's response when I asked him what made him proud of the legacy he built at EPRI. He replied that it isn't any particular technological breakthrough or study, it's the way the institute works: "We try to be tremendously efficient and reliable, always open to the public, and ambitious within our means."
There seems to be something slightly intoxicating about electricity, because predictions about its future often have the whiff of an author tipsy on one form of juice or other. In 1913, a man named Elbert Hubbard invited those who were "engaged in the business of harnessing electricity" to join a fraternal organization called the Jovians. (Thomas Edison, Samuel Insull, and George Westinghouse all joined.) Electricity occupies the twilight zone between the world of spirit and the world of matter," Hubbard wrote. "Electricians are all proud of their business. They should be. God is the Great Electrician."
It could be that some of the hopes that gave birth to the nuclear industry - of building an unlimited utopia of electricity that would be "too cheap to meter," of actions taken with the consequences long deferred - were the intoxicated dreams of a young soul. Perhaps old souls dream of networks that function the way the distributed systems designed by the Great Electrician do: smart at the top but smarter at the bottom, self-regulated by millions of feedback loops, and minutely aware of the world around them - efficient, reliable, always open, and ambitious within their means.
Contributing editor Steve Silberman (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote about digital paper in Wired 9.04.
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