Redesigning the Electric Grid for the Future

Redesigning the Electric Grid for the Future

Our electric grid is one of the most complicated systems that has ever been built. We have confidence that our electrical system is generally meeting the needs of people throughout the U.S. — unlike our electoral and election systems, which are beset by hackers, hanging chads and foreign interference. Nevertheless, new technologies such as solar, wind, battery storage, EVs, control systems and software present opportunities to improve the effectiveness and reduce costs throughout our electrical grid.

The traditional electric grid design depends on centralized power generation, sending power to customers in two stages: first over long distance high voltage transmission lines, and second over lower voltage local distribution lines. Power flowed from the generator to the customer using a top-down communication system. This centralized electrical grid, managed by public utilities, has served us well for over 100 years.

With rooftop solar, customers are generating their own power and sending the excess back to the grid (consumed by their neighbors). With batteries, customers can store their daytime-generated solar energy and use it at night, or use their batteries to meet peak power loads. And now, with the right software and communications, these local solar generators, batteries and control systems can be aggregated into a Virtual Power Plant, or VPP.

These new technologies are cheaper, more flexible, more reliable and cleaner than the traditional grid. But they function more as a network of billions of devices – similar to the way our telecommunications systems operate. Moreover, this combination of new grid technologies and a networked architecture is antithetical to the “top down” way that traditional utilities operate. Please listen to this week’s Energy Show to learn about the design of this networked electric grid of the future — and why the traditional utility business models must change as VPPs become more commonplace.

The Evolving Auto Industry

The Evolving Auto Industry

Remember the EV1 – GMs experimental foray into electric vehicles? Although the EV1 was a failure in terms of mass market sales, it captured the imagination of both car and environmental enthusiasts. Tesla’s leadership has proven that EVs can indeed be a marketable product. Now, virtually every automaker has a selection of practical EVs and longer-range hybrids.

I’m still a big fan of high performance gas engines; it amazes me that power outputs have tripled since the early 70s, while fuel economy has improved and engine longevity is in the 200k mile range. I’m also a big fan of plug-in hybrids that permit family long trips without detailed planning for a charging pit stop. Nevertheless, except for certain niche applications (high performance, long range and car nuts) the die is cast and the gas engine is passé. Virtually all automakers are planning manufacturing facilities to transition to a mostly EV/hybrid fleet in 10-20 years.

Ironically, at the same time customer preferences are transitioning towards EVs, customers are also buying more SUVs and crossovers — which generally have worse gas mileage than sedans (I like the fact that you can haul around a 60 cell solar panel in an SUV). In early 2018 Ford announced that they would no longer manufacture sedans, with the exception of the Mustang. Recently, GM announced similar plans to effectively abandon the sedan market and focus on SUVs crossovers and trucks.

With favorable government policies in almost every country, inexpensive solar and wind electricity, and the need to reduce worldwide carbon emissions, the shift wards EVs is inexorable. Please listen up to this week’s Energy Show for more about the reasons our grandchildren will all ride in EVs, and will probably never change the oil or a spark plug.

Clean Energy’s Prospects with the 2019 Congress

Clean Energy’s Prospects with the 2019 Congress

We’re starting to see the impact that the 2018 congressional elections had on clean energy. Although the House of Representatives is now in Democratic control, many of the energy policies of the Trump administration are likely to continue.

Starting at the top, President Trump is unlikely to change is viewpoints favoring fossil fuels and ignoring global warming. As one would expect, his cabinet officials leading the EPA, Interior and DOE will continue on their path of loosening regulations, increasing oil and gas drilling, and supporting nuclear technologies while rolling back CAFE standards. From a congressional standpoint we can expect much more proposed legislation for clean energy technologies, but since the Senate must also support these efforts and Trump may veto them, I do not expect any significant clean energy legislative victories. Nevertheless, the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives will continue to address risks from global warming — regardless of the prospects of success.

When it comes to state-level activities, the prospects for better solar and storage are much brighter. Seven states changed their gubernatorial party leadership, and all of these new governors campaigned in favor of clean energy. In fact, after president Trump’s disavowal of the Paris climate agreement, 16 states and Puerto Rico pledged to uphold the accord anyway and keep fighting climate change on their own.

While our country staggers drunkenly both forwards and backwards from a clean energy policy standpoint, the economics of clean energy continue to improve. Solar, wind, storage and energy efficiency continue to get cheaper, simpler and more integrated in our daily lives. At the end of the day, even bad policies are unlikely to counteract the incredibly positive economics of solar, wind and energy storage. Please tune in to this week’s Energy Show for the few glimmers of good news about our country’s transition to cheaper clean energy and be sure to check out the EPA Archives at www.RememberTheEPA.com.

Solar Innovation Lifecycle with Jamey Johnston

Solar Innovation Lifecycle with Jamey Johnston

According the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) there are about 70 million residential and commercial buildings in the US that are suitable for rooftop solar. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) estimates that there are about 1.6 million systems that have already been installed. So with less than 2 percent market penetration, we haven’t even scratched the surface. How long will it take for us to get to say, 10 million solar systems … or 35 million, about half the rooftop capacity in the U.S.?

Based on the concept of the technology adoption lifecycle, we can make some educated guesses. This concept addresses the rate at which new products are accepted by the market. Our guest on this week’s show is Jamie Johnston, Director at Vector Structural Engineering. Jamie is an industry thought leader and extremely passionate about solutions to the slow motion global warming train wreck. Vector provides residential and commercial solar certification letters for over a hundred companies in the U.S.(we use their services at Cinnamon Energy Systems).

Jamie will share with us his insights into where we stand on the solar adoption curve — and how long he believes it will take us to get to that 35 million installed capacity. Interestingly, some of the implications of greater solar market penetration is not just more rooftop solar, but the need for ancillary services among customers, such as maintenance and system replacement. Jamie will also share his thoughts as dedicated rooftop solar evolves into complete energy systems — including storage and integration with other building systems such as HVAC and car charging.

Is There a MicroGrid in Your Future

Is There a MicroGrid in Your Future


You know what they say: “Video killed the radio star.” Well I’m going out on a limb and adding video to this week’s podcast. But since my fans say I have a perfect face for radio, I’m not worried that this video podcast will affect my Arbitron ratings. Nevertheless, my guests on this video podcast are much more telegenic, so I encourage you to click through to this video link.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of organizing and moderating a panel discussion about microgrids for the MIT Club of Northern California. Basically, a microgrid is a combination of solar, batteries, inverters, software and control electronics that allow customers — both residential and commercial — to operate independently of the grid. Interest in microgrids is skyrocketing for two reasons. First, the grid is becoming less reliable, while at the same time our society is becoming more dependent on electricity. Second, time of use electric rates now peak in late afternoons and evenings, making it much more profitable to store daytime solar generation in a battery and using that energy during peak electric periods.

There are four factors limiting the growth of the microgrid industry:
1. The first is good energy policy that makes the economics of microgrids work for customers. Bernadette Del Chiaro, Executive Director of the California Solar Storage Association, joined us on this panel. Without a doubt, Bernadette is one of the best solar and battery policy experts in the entire country.
2. Next we need functional and affordable batteries. Peter Gibson, the head of North America Energy Storage Solutions for LG Chem, is the battery expert. LG Chem is one of the biggest battery manufacturers in the world. Their residential battery storage products are in such demand that they cannot make them fast enough.
3. Inverters are the heart of a microgrid. Lior Handelsman, Co-Founder of SolarEdge, shared his insights into the future of microgrids powered by smart inverters. In the way of background, SolarEdge is the inverter market leader, and has done a terrific job with software that is critical to successful microgrids.
4.Finally, cooperation from electric utilities is key to the widespread adoption of microgrids. New Community Choice Aggregation utilities have the potential to lead the way; the CEO of Peninsula Clean Energy, Jan Pepper, joined us. And I was especially happy to include another spice in our discussions.

Listen up to this Week’s Energy show to learn about how each of these industry leaders are working today to deliver migrogrids to both residential and commercial customers. Please click through to this video link for the entire MIT Microgrids panel discussion.

Manufacturing Solar in the US with Auxin Solar

Manufacturing Solar in the US with Auxin Solar


Attention U.S. Department of Commerce: your well-intentioned efforts to help the U.S. solar panel manufacturing industry are not working.

Even with 30%+ tariffs on imported solar panels and cells, the remaining U.S. manufacturers are struggling to stay competitive. The good news, as one would expect, is that there is strong demand for Made in the U.S.A. solar panels – both from ordinary consumers as well as government purchases. However, structural issues with the supply chain for solar components puts the remaining U.S. manufacturers at a substantial disadvantage.

The reasons for these supply chain challenges are simple. Basically, many of the key components that go into solar modules are not manufactured in the U.S., including wafers, cells, EVA and junction boxes. And many of the components that are indeed available in the U.S. — such as glass, backsheets and aluminum frames — are significantly less expensive at comparable quality levels if purchased from overseas suppliers. To make matters even worse, these essential imported solar components are subjected to additional tariffs when imported from certain countries. Essentially, we are shooting ourselves in our foot if we expect U.S. solar manufacturers to be competitive when 30%+ tariffs are applied to most of the major solar components.

A rational plan to make the U.S. competitive in solar manufacturing does not require government support. Instead, it requires government to get out of the way and set a long-term solar manufacturing policy. U.S. manufacturers would instantly be more competitive if they did not have to pay tariffs on imported solar components — particularly cells and aluminum solar frames. Once the U.S. solar manufacturing base is re-established and consistent, U.S. manufacturers could invest in domestic wafer, cell, junction box and other component manufacturing.

How are U.S. manufacturers coping with competitive global issues of cell production and purchasing, U.S. production costs, cell and panel tariffs, local and federal regulations, and shifting national policies? The best way to answer this question is to speak with one of the most experienced U.S. solar panel manufacturers. My guest on this week’s show is Mamun Rashid, COO of Auxin Solar, based in San Jose, California. Auxin manufactures high quality poly and mono solar panels for residential and commercial customers. They also do original equipment manufacturing for tier-1 manufacturers who have “made in the USA” requirements. Please listen up to this week’s Energy Show for Mamun’s perspective on the opportunity and challenges for companies manufacturing solar panels in the U.S.

Flow Batteries with Matt Harper from Avalon

Flow Batteries with Matt Harper from Avalon


It’s depressing that lithium batteries get almost all of the focus in the energy storage industry. Lithium batteries have a number of advantages, including high energy density, good longevity, declining costs and established integration with electronics, vehicles and stationary energy storage. Although ideal for residential and commercial storage applications, lithium ion chemistries are not great for long term and high capacity energy storage — which are the characteristics that many utility storage installations require.

Flow batteries have the potential to meet these utility storage application needs. Flow batteries use two tanks of liquid electrolyte, separated by a special membrane, that flows between the anode and the cathode within the battery cell. Energy is stored in this liquid electrolyte instead of as part of the electrode material in conventional batteries. The energy storage capacity of a flow battery is related to the amount of liquid electrolyte — bigger tanks provide greater storage capacity. The power output of a flow battery depends on the size of the anode and cathode electrodes in the battery cell.

Since their storage capacity is limited mostly by the size of the electrolyte tanks, flow batteries are great for grid-scale storage. They are also finding applications when sited alongside PV systems. Since the battery can absorb power in excess of what the grid or inverter can handle, inverters can be smaller — resulting in lower equipment costs and greater efficiency.

I heard about new flow battery technology from my friends at NexTracker. I was initially hesitant to learn about flow batteries – one could say I’m in a lithium rut waiting for the commercialization of dual lithium crystalline reactor technology for interstellar travel. But when I understood the real-world benefits of Avalon’s batteries when integrated with utility-scale tracker installations, I was convinced.

So on this week’s show we’re going with the flow. Our guest is Matt Harper, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of Avalon. I hope you tune in to this week’s Energy Show as Matt explains the technology behind flow batteries, practical applications, availability of electrolytes, and Matt’s view of how flow batteries have the potential to meet our long duration energy storage needs.

Utility Power Plant Economics

Utility Power Plant Economics

We have all seen those big power plants outside cities that provide power — historically from coal, oil and nuclear and now more recently, natural gas. These utility power plants have served us well for over a century. But technology is passing them by. These old central generation power plants are obsolete. They are more expensive than power generated by wind, solar and energy storage. Even some of the newest gas peaker plants under construction are destined to be obsolete within a decade. New power generating technologies – solar, wind, battery storage, distributed energy resources, virtual power plants, etc. — are steadily improving in terms of cost, duration and reliability.

Unfortunately, commercial and residential electricity customers are saddled with the costs of existing power plants, even ones that have been installed recently. Utilities pass their costs of power generation, transmission and distribution directly to ratepayers. Moreover, utilities are guaranteed a 10% profit based on their net assets. Although they do indeed care about reliability and safety, utilities actually make more money when they own a lot of assets (higher profits) and charge high prices for power (higher revenues).

These new clean, inexpensive power generation and storage technologies are turning the utility industry upside down. Commercial and residential customers can essentially purchase their own power plants for less money than utility-provided power. Listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we review the deteriorating economics of utility-based power plants, as well as the implications these new technologies are having on consumers throughout the United States.