A smart grid is an electrical grid that makes us of digital technology and advanced software to rapidly and efficiently manage the supply and demand of energy. What would the world look like if we had a smart grid today? Read on for answers to that question from experts in the fields of energy and cybersecurity. For a complete explanation of the terms “smart grid” and “cybersecurity”, read this article.
If we had a smart grid today…
“The national unemployment rate might be 0%,”
jokes Mike Reiter, a researcher of information technology security at UNC Chapel Hill. “Well, maybe not, but for computer scientists, it would definitely be very low.”
Reiter says that there would be a very high demand for not just software developers, but also software testers. He says testing the security of the smart grid would be a near endless job and that companies would be hiring as many testers as they could afford.
“When you have information as valuable as that found in a smart grid, we cannot afford to take chances,” says Reiter. “Every line of code in the system must be meticulously tested and inspected to insure good security.”
Reiter says that basic software testing can be done by non-computer scientists as well. He says that with the right training, even people without college degrees might be able to land jobs in software testing if the demand becomes high enough.
If we had a smart grid today…
“That might be a bit of a problem,” says Cynthia Sturton, a computer scientist at UNC Chapel Hill. “Because if we apply the computer security practices of today to the smart grid, it wouldn’t be enough.”
Sturton says that common security practices such as using a username and password to grant access to information have been a “weak link” in computer security for some time now. She says if we use security like that in the smart grid, we can expect to have power outages often.
“Using usernames and passwords for protection is something we have done for a very long time now and so it will be hard to replace,” says Sturton. “But if we don’t, systems like the smart grid may never become a reality.“
Sturton says that hacking into a system that has a username and password as the only security measure is almost too easy most of the time. She says that successful cyber attacks on large software companies in recent years have proven that our security standards need to be raised before a smart grid like system is possible.
If we had a smart grid today…
“It actually may not be that smart at all,” says Montek Singh, a hardware security researcher at UNC Chapel Hill. “Companies understand the limitations of computer security so they would likely be very conservative in their implementation of a smart grid.”
Singh says that the people who would manage the smart grid would play it safe and that they would likely start out with very simple features. Things like providing the consumer with a more advanced report of his energy use per month or malfunction detection in electricity meters.
“If we had one today, it would not be a full-fledged one,” says Singh. “Security issues must be carefully considered and having a completely smart grid would be very risky from that point of view.”
He says that the internet is a very dangerous place and that without more development in software and computer security, it would be wise to keep a smart grid dumb for the time being.
“People have their accounts on the internet hacked every day,” says Singh. “Can we really afford to have that happen with a smart grid?”
If we had a smart grid today…
“We would likely have many security issues,” says Stan Ahalt, a researcher of cybersecurity at UNC Chapel Hill. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it. The benefits that come from having an insecure smart grid would far outweigh the costs.”
Ahalt says that we cannot be afraid to take the risk of trying to implement a smart grid. He believes that we are desperately in need of a revolution and that being conservative will likely get us nowhere.
“Just because something is risky and just because something can lead to complications does not mean that it is not the right thing to do,” says Ahalt. “There will be costly breaches in security in the beginning but we will learn from those breaches and keep improving.”
Ahalt says that such risks are needed to have large advancements in the way we do things.
“For example, everyone knew that the installation of cell phone towers for larger coverage and better Internet access would lead to complications,” says Ahalt. “But how much does that matter now? Because of those network towers, we are capable of having the Internet in our hands.”
If we had a smart grid today…
“Things would be much better,” says Kyle Bradbury, managing director at Duke Energy Initiative were he creates models to help integrate renewables to the grid. “All aspects of energy from the perspective of the consumers and the perspective of the suppliers would be made better.”
Bradbury says that having a smart grid today would mean that we would have the infrastructure to allow for easy integration of various renewables into the grid. He says our grid would be more efficient and much cleaner.
“A smart grid is what we need for the modern world,” says Bradbury. “So having one today would be absolutely great.”
The way you power your computer, your lights and your car is likely to be radically different in the future. Coal is vanishing, wind turbines are popping up, and engineers everywhere are looking to revolutionize the system that brings electricity to you by creating a “smart grid.”
But concerns about the security of the computer networks critical to such a revolution still exist, says Bryan Lampley, en engineer at Hoffman Building technologies, speaking at a recent panel in Chapel Hill.
“Cybersecurity is huge,” said Lampley. “Lack of proper cybersecurity is one of the main reasons why we don’t already have a smart grid.”
Like many other experts in his field, Lampley expects the coming of a revolution in our electricity system to be highly dependent on the developments in cybersecurity.
So what is a smart grid?
The grid, which is a network of transmission lines, substations, and transformers, is what delivers electricity from power plants to private homes. Although considered an engineering marvel, many experts claim it to be an outdated system that needs to be made “smarter.”
Kyle Bradbury, managing director at Duke Energy Initiative is one of these experts. Bradbury works on creating models for the grid that help identify the best ways to integrate renewable sources like wind and solar.
“The grid that we have today is one that was designed for the past,” says Bradbury. “Technology has advanced greatly since its conception, and we need to use it to make the grid meet the needs of today’s consumers.”
He defines the smart grid as an evolved grid. “It is a system that manages the supply and demand of electricity in a way that is reliable, economic, and entirely sustainable.”
Bradbury says that for a grid to be “smart” it has to be built on an advanced infrastructure that allows easy integration of all forms of energy. More specifically, he says, “A smart grid needs to make use of digital technology to allow for fast communication between the energy providers and the energy consumers.”
For example, if the electricity meter in a consumer’s home were to malfunction, a smart grid would be able to detect this and notify the utilities so that proper action can be taken.
Or a smart grid may allow consumers to report their daily schedules. The grid may then adjust the energy in the cooling and heating systems of the home depending on the number of occupants it expects at any given time.
“It will have automation, better controls, computers, and big data that make it possible to respond quickly to our rapidly changing electricity demand,” says Bradbury.
What is cybersecurity?
Cybersecurity focuses on protecting computers, programs, networks, and data from unauthorized access and change. It is especially important in today’s technological world because governments, financial institutions, hospitals, and other businesses collect, store and process a great deal of confidential data digitally.
Lack of or poor implementations of such security can be absolutely devastating. Even established companies like Target have suffered greatly in recent data breaches because of careless network security design.
Mike Reiter, a researcher of information technology security at UNC Chapel Hill defines a secure system as one that is protected against misuse and interference.
“When a system is ‘secure’, it is entirely free to carry out its intended tasks,” says Reiter. “There are no external or even internal holes that could lead to its corruption or destruction.”
He says that what that means specifically will vary and that it is important to make sure the security of a system is well crafted to fit its needs.
“A ‘secure’ web browser and a ‘secure’ network are not the same because they are intended to do very different things,” says Reiter. “For that reason, security for any system, especially one as complex as a smart grid must be tailor fitted.”
How do the two intersect?
“For something like the smart grid to ever become a reality, we need good cybersecurity,” says Reiter. “It is as simple as that.”
Bradbury agrees and says that without good grid security, the system would be far more harmful than helpful.
“Hackers would tear the entire grid down within hours,” says Bradbury. “Both the consumers and the utilities would be at their mercy.”
He says that these attacks would come from not just individuals with malicious intent, but also from large companies and even governments. Given the right tools, hackers may be able to gain administrative access to centralized systems that control electricity in a smart grid.
“It is very frightening to think that power to a massive metropolis could be cut by a few well-designed cyber attacks,” says Bradbury. “But without the right protection, that could very well happen.”
A cyber attack is any attempt by an individual or group to damage or destroy a computer network or system.
Reiter says that digitizing the power grid means opening it up to anyone with a computer.
“So like any digital system or piece of software, the grid would become vulnerable to things like viruses, distributed attacks, and other forms of cyber attacks,” says Reiter.
Both Reiter and Bradbury, though optimistic about the possibility for such a modern and efficient grid, acknowledge that security concerns must be carefully considered and tested before deployment even on a small scale.
In order to have a grid that is capable of handling the electricity needs of the 21st century — a “smart” grid — we need to make sure that security concerns are addressed. Without good cybersecurity, a smart grid will be very difficult to realize.
Cybersecurity focuses on protecting computers, programs, networks, and data from unauthorized access and change. In a computer network, there are many different layers of security to prevent imposters from attacking.
The three main layers presented below will separate and explain the concept of cybersecurity with respect to the smart grid as the sum of its distinct parts.
For an explainer on cybersecurity and the smart grid, read this article.
Denial of service: What is it?
In order to understand cybersecurity, it is important to understand the concept of a denial of service (DoS). A denial of service attack is any attempt by an individual or group to make a machine or network resource unavailable to its intended users.
A distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) is when the attack source consists of more than one, usually thousands and sometimes millions of unique real or virtual computers.
An attack of this kind is analogous to a large group of people crowding and blocking the entry door to a department store. The crowd, which can be thought of as the attacking computers, prevents the customers, who can be thought of as the intended users, from going into the store.
A classic example of a denial of service attack is the one carried out by the hacker codenamed “Mafiaboy.” In 2000, Mafiaboy launched a massive distributed denial of service attack on Yahoo, the number one search engine website at the time. The attack overwhelmed the Yahoo servers and made the website inaccessible to users for an entire day.
Each of the following three layers are vulnerable to DoS or DDoS in their own way.
The physical layer: Not necessarily things that we can touch
This is the layer of wireless radio waves. For that reason, attacks on the “physical” layer are not physical in the normal sense, but physical in that they can be carried out by tampering with the physical properties of wireless waves within a large network. More specifically, an attacker can emit waves at the correct frequency to “jam” a wireless network which would in turn deny the intended users of the network service to it.
In a smart grid, wireless technologies will be widely used and so, it is very likely for jamming of this kind to be attempted in high frequency.
“Something that often goes under the radar in cybersecurity discussions is wireless jamming,” says Montek Singh, a researcher of hardware security at UNC Chapel Hill. “But in a smart grid, everything will be wireless so we need to build better security for this.”
Singh says that it is often the things we most neglect that come back to bite us. He says that if we plan to have a smart grid, we would have to tighten up security on all fronts.
The network layer: How the internet works
The internet is continually sending information from one piece of software to another. For example, the software on your smartphone is continually using your social media username and password to retrieve new updates from your friends. This layer is what holds all the connections needed for the internet to function properly.
Attacks on the network layer are performed by overloading a specific connection with signals from thousands and sometimes millions of computers. When this happens, the receiver is given more signals than it can process and so service is denied to those trying to use the connection as intended.
Most of the communication done in a smart grid will be done using the internet so having a secure network layer will be essential.
“Even as we speak, there are network attacks being carried out,” says Mike Reiter, a researcher of information technology security at UNC Chapel Hill. “It is a big problem and it will likely be even bigger if we have a smart grid someday.”
Reiter believes this layer to be the most vulnerable because of how massive it is.
“There are a countless number of connections on the internet and it is increasing by the thousands everyday” says Reiter. “The connections in something like a smart grid will targeted heavily by hackers.”
The application layer: Where small bugs create big problems
The application layer is the layer of the actual piece of software. Attacks here are made possible by careless software design.
“When people think cybersecurity, this is likely the first thing that they think of,” says Reiter. “Bugs in software that hackers exploit to create large problems.”
Reiter says this is where most the development will take place.
By this he means that improvements in cybersecuirty are likely to come from better software development. The other layers are fairly well established and unlikely to change . The software layer is the second most vulnerable and is constantly changing from software to software.
“In my experience, poor software design has been the main reason behind large computer security issues,” says Reiter. “The smart grid will be using lots of software so this is where most of the development will take place.”
Assistant Professor Jillian Dempsey of UNC-Chapel Hill can make fuel with two ingredients: water and sunlight.
Dempsey’s research team is studying solar fuel in order to store the energy given off by the sun in an efficient manner. Below, she discusses what her team hopes to accomplish in the coming years through their research.
(This interview has been edited for length.)
Lydia Odom: What sparked your interest in solar fuels?
Dr. Jillian Dempsey: When I was an undergraduate student I started doing research in a lab and that was one of the labs that was at the forefront of developing this technology. So I did research in this area when I was in college and I got really interested in it. When I went to graduate school I joined another lab where I could continue this research area. Then after that kept moving further and further into the field. It was just a really exciting area to be in as we think about the threats to our energy security and our global health. It’s a little scary to think about what happens if we don’t develop this technology, so that was a big motivating factor to go in this direction.
Odom: Can you explain, in layman’s terms, what you’re researching and what the goal behind your research is?
Dempsey: My research focuses on ways to capture solar energy and covert it into a stored form, specifically fuels. A lot of solar energy technologies that are currently available are things like solar photovoltaic, like solar panels. Those are great technologies, but obviously they could be a lot better because they’re expensive and their efficiency is not that great. But kind of a bigger challenge toward their widespread implementation is the storage. Solar panels generate electricity, but when the sun is not shining you’re not generating electricity, so how do you address that challenge?
My area of research is solar fuels, or artificial photosynthesis. What it is is using the energy of the sun to synthesize high energy density fuels. A great reason why it’s called artificial photosynthesis is because green plants are taking sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide and they’re using the energy from the sun to turn the carbon dioxide and the water into carbohydrates, or sugars, and oxygen. And when you generate these carbohydrates, that’s stored energy. So what we’re trying to do is something along those lines. We want to do a much simpler reaction, and instead of making sugars, which are complex molecules and require a PhD in organic chemistry to make, we want to do something simple like spitting water into hydrogen and oxygen … The splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen is a endergonic reaction, so you have to put energy in to do that reaction and then the products are essentially storing the energy of the sun. And if you were to take that hydrogen and combust it, you would release all the energy … So we’re just trying to close that loop there. If the energy in to make hydrogen comes from the sun, then when we combust hydrogen we get energy back out.
Odom: In what form is the fuel you’re making? Is it a gas?
Dempsey: If you use it to make hydrogen, you are making a gas. Now that’s a challenge, because we like liquid fuels. So there are ways to couple this reaction with carbon dioxide… If you take carbon dioxide along for the ride there you could make products like methane or methanol. … But knowing that hydrogen is probably going to be an important fuel, there are a lot of people who have developed new materials for hydrogen storage…in order to make hydrogen a viable fuel.
Odom: Have you found anything in your research so far that may lead to this being a viable fuel?
Dempsey: A lot of what my lab does is we study the very fundamental processes that are associated with building a device. So we’re not engineers, we have not built a device. But we think about how to make this process energy efficient. So imagine you are a catalyst and you take in sunlight. Now, sunlight has a certain energy, so every photon that hits the earth has a certain energy. We want to make sure we’re not wasting the energy that comes in in those photons. So what we’re trying to do is figure out ways that the catalysts won’t waste energy. We want to make sure that when they take the energy from that photon, they turn all the energy from that photon into fuel energy. We want to maximize that energy conversion process. We’re trying to work on the little details that make a big difference in the efficiency.
Odom: What are the main obstacles in scaling this up to be viable in the future?
Dempsey: A lot of the challenges with all solar technologies, this goes for the silicon solar panels we see now as well as the solar fuels, are the costs behind the materials that are needed to make these devices. One of the reasons we don’t see more solar panels is because of their high cost. And that comes from the materials needed and the processing for them. … A lot of what we have to do is figure out how to get cheaper materials, like nickel and iron, to behave like the expensive materials. Because not only are those materials expensive, part of the reason they’re expensive is because they are not very abundant on earth. They’re very rare materials. And they’re rare so their price goes up. But even if we had money, the fact that they’re rare means that we don’t even have enough of those materials on earth to fill the need.
Odom: What do you see as the main strength of this new technology, and why it might be able to overcome these obstacles?
Dempsey: There are a lot of advantages. It clearly addresses the storage issue. And also, because we’re making fuels, it addresses energy needs in the transportation sector. Another benefit of this technology is the fact that you don’t need to be on the electrical grid to utilize it. … In developing countries that don’t really have that electrical infrastructure but are rapidly becoming more and more developed and using more and more energy, this is a great opportunity for them. … And the last benefit I’ll note, is that you can start with saltwater or sewage waste water and make hydrogen. And then, when I release hydrogen though combustion or use hydrogen in a fuel cell, either way the product is clean water. So kind of the bonus is water purification.
Odom: Is there a time frame you see all of this happening in?
Dempsey: I would say maybe 15 to 20 years before this is something we’re seeing in the market. …People are being more optimistic than that and I am not as optimistic as other people, just because I’ve watched the process in 10 years very closely. So I know how far we can get in another 10 years, and that’s not enough.
Some critics find solar energy limiting, due to its bulkiness and intermittence. But revolutionary solar technology will challenge arguments against the use of solar as renewable energy. Look below for a list of existing solar technology and what it may become in the future.
Solar photovoltaic (PV)
The sparkly solar panels you see on the rooftops of homes are typically solar PV. These panels work by converting light into electricity, known as the PV effect. Silicon is the element most commonly used in solar PV due to its abundance on earth and relative affordability.
Alex Wilhelm, founder and president of United Solar Initiative, works to install solar PV in rural regions of Nicaragua. He recognizes the benefit of the off-grid nature of solar PV in low-income communities.
“Accompanied with battery storage, solar panels enable communities to remain sustainable off the grid and are the simplest form of renewable electricity to install,” he said.
As opposed to developing countries, solar PV will likely be concentrated at the utility and commercial level in more developed nations.
Thin film PV
As its name suggests, thin film PV is extremely thin—only one micron thick. To put that into perspective, human hair is about 75 microns. This makes thin film more lightweight and versatile than solar PV, and suitable for many surfaces, from rooftop shingles to clothing.
Thin film works similarly to solar PV, by converting photons into electricity. However, thin film cells can be made from three different elements: amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride, and copper indium gallium deselenide. Each of these elements has advantages and disadvantages and is being tested for viability.
3. Concentrated solar power (CSP)
Concentrated solar uses mirrors to direct sunlight to a central point, which heats a liquid and powers steam turbines to create electricity. These plants are large in size, which makes the desert a desirable location for them. Unfortunately, this technology has high upfront costs and requires access to water, which creates a catch-22 situation when locating plants in the desert.
The largest benefit of CSP is its ability to generate electricity overnight and store energy in the form of thermal energy.
Perovskite solar cells
This type of solar technology is made from a particular compound that is usually made out of lead or tin. Perovskite solar cells were first created in the early 2010s, but have already achieved efficiency on par with thin film.
Dr. Wei You, a chemistry professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, noted two main issues with perovskite: the use of lead to construct them and their stability. He said perovskite cells tend to get easily damaged by water, which is a big waste of money and energy. He thinks stability is their biggest barrier, and that their efficiency will likely remain at 21 percent going forward.
5. Organic solar cells
Organic PV aims to provide energy that is abundant on earth, and potentially cheaper than other solar solutions. This technology uses non-toxic light-absorbing materials (dyes) and plastics instead of elements like silicon, which are found in traditional PV.
This type of solar is attractive because of its ability to do things that silicon solar cells can’t, such as being integrated into transparent surfaces, like windows.
You has studied organic solar for over 10 years.
“From 2005 to 2012 we were able to push efficiency from 5 percent to 10 percent,” he said.
You’s research team has achieved organic solar cells with 12 percent efficiency. While this is only half as efficient as silicon, You is hopeful that the efficiency and longevity of organic solar will continue rising, and increase in market share in the next decade.
Unlike traditional solar cells, quantum dots have the ability to absorb light from non-visible parts of the light spectrum. This makes quantum dots capable of absorbing energy all day, which refutes the argument that solar energy only works when the sun is shining.
Another unique feature of quantum dots is its potential to become “spray-on,” which would allow nearly any surface to create solar energy. There is also potential for quantum dots to be the most efficient solar technology yet.
When Stephanie Kline returned from her deployment as a member of the United States Marine Corps, she was stunned.
She, along with 200,000 service members in the next five years, faced the reality of unemployment.
“It is terrifying. You don’t know where you’re going to have a job, how you’re going to get a job, what you’re going to do,” Kline said.
The transition from active duty to civilian life is not always welcoming, but the solar energy industry is working towards inclusion.
Pilot programs like Solar Ready Vets are working to train veterans in this industry during deployment. This would allow returning service members to join companies like Strata Solar as soon as they return home. This partnership produces mutual benefit—as veterans receive a smoother transition, the clean energy industry will continue to expand.
Why do veterans have trouble finding work upon returning home?
Veterans return home with a unique skillset for the workforce that is not always utilized.
Maria Barker, Director of Human Resources at Strata Solar, sees these fears on the company’s side of the interaction. The mindset of returning veterans are “Nobody wants to hire me, they want to pay me minimum wage, or they just think I’m a killer,” Barker explained. She said companies don’t realize veterans can actually be strong leaders.
Kimberly Williams, Executive Director for North Carolina for Military Employment (NC4ME), agreed with Barker.
“One percent of the nation’s population is in the military, and the other 99 percent of the population don’t understand what they do when they’re in the military,” Williams said.
This misunderstanding on both sides is preventing many of this nation’s veterans from attaining employment.
Why would veterans be interested in working for a solar energy company?
Energy is a huge part of the day-to-day operations in the military. Kline learned first-hand that you can’t do anything without it. Veterans come home from deployment and realize the catastrophes that could have been avoided by solving energy problems.
Veterans start to question if every spill, leak, fire, or shortage was necessary. Could they have been avoided by paying more attention to energy? Everyone comes home with at least one way to finish the sentence, “Energy is something I might be interested in because…” Kline explained.
When they are connected to solar energy through an employment program, the connection lasts.
“When you can find a job and you can tap into your skill set, you get to work on a team made up of primarily veterans, and you can demonstrate your value in a company in a very tangible way, that becomes a huge part of having a meaningful relationship and create that retention in the workforce,” Kline said.
Strata Solar’s Maria Barker promises veterans that they will not be confined to fieldwork.
“I think the initial response is ‘will I just be in the field?’ But we have vets in the office, in our HR department, in our legal department, on our leadership team. You can wear multiple hats like everyone else does in our organization,” Barker said.
Barker proposed that the most important thing for veterans to realize is that in the solar industry “They can actually come out and have a true purpose. And that makes them truly proud.”
What companies are out there to connect veterans with clean energy jobs?
North Carolina for Military Employment (NC4ME) was started to get veterans employed both on the state level and on the national level. Williams says that there will be 78,000 transitioning service members in the next three years.
NC4ME is in place to solve two problems: “Big companies understand the value of hiring veterans, but they don’t know how to connect to a service member,” said Williams. “The bigger problem is that 75% of these transitioning service members are going to work for small- or medium-sized business, and those are the people who don’t understand the value of hiring veterans.”
Williams and NC4ME work to solve these problems by bringing the companies like Strata Solar to the actual veterans. This program’s connection process has a 50% success rate.
“As an employer, for every two people I interview I am going to hire one. That just blows me away,” Williams said.
Since its kickoff, NC4ME has placed over 500 service members with jobs. Then it is up to the individual solar companies to continue the success.
Why is the solar energy industry recruiting veterans for work?
Maria Barker realized that Strata Solar was missing a big skillset when building their solar farms. She turned to veterans when she was in need of leadership to fill this gap.
“They are hard workers, that goes without saying. They are passionate, they are great leaders, you put a challenge in front of them and they are not going to fail. They are going to motivate their team,” Barker said. “They have taught us how to be a better team member, and then helped us to realize how to come together as a team.”
As a veteran, Stephanie Kline couldn’t agree more. “We make phenomenal business sense. The major thing that we get out of the military is that we are trained to learn in a specific way. We are very tactical. We can transfer that to any type of technical skill, and make that process work.”
To Williams, there is no reason not to hire veterans. “Service men stay on their jobs twice as long as their peers that don’t have military experience,” Williams said.
Are other clean energy industries also looking to hire veterans?
Currently, no. “The timing was really right for solar, but there is no reason why other companies cant kick-start this,” said Kline. “Clean energy is a great opportunity for veterans. It is a great matchup of skills, of interests, of the ability to withstand the elements.”
What is the best way to grow the employment of veterans in this industry?
“It takes the military to be very interested in these issues, it takes the transitioning service members to want more options, it takes companies within the community to say ‘We want to hire vets, we know we can hire vets, we need help doing that’…We need that pipeline,” said Kline of the Department of Energy.
Barker of Strata Solar added that “It is a matter of trusting that mutual relationship of back and forth, giving them the skills that they need, opening up the door to opportunity, while also giving them back the proper feedback of an employer because they need to know that you’re listening to them and you are there for them.”
“They just need to believe that you believe in them,” Barker said.
A Day in the Life: A Veteran Employed at Strata Solar
Strata Solar is a solar provider committed to clean energy and workforce development. The company has reinvented the hiring process by targeting a workforce they believe to have the strongest technical and leadership skills. They have turned to veterans.
Harrell Watts is the Senior Human Resources Recruiter at Strata Solar, and a veteran himself. Below is some information Watts shared about his role in the clean energy industry.
Where and when did you serve?
I served during the Vietnam era. I went into the United States Marine Corps in 1972 and got out in early 1976.
Upon returning home, did you know where you wanted to work?
Yes, when I first entered the Marine Corps I was technically a college drop out. I had promised my mother that I would eventually finish school, so my first priority upon getting out of the Marine Corps was to return to Central Michigan University and complete my degree.
How easy was it for you to find a job as a veteran? Did you sell yourself as a veteran or as a college graduate?
I was actually recruited out of college for a job, so finding a job was not too difficult for me. I went into sales, actually. My degree was in Speech Pathology. Back in those days we had a major and a minor, and my minor was in Education. So I am a teacher, heavily into the sciences. Also I was a speech pathologist, but I never actually went into that line of work. I was more focused on the jobs in sales right after college.
How and when did you find out about Strata Solar?
I found out about Strata Solar around this time last year. They were having a job fair in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and it was rather interesting how I found out about it. I used to go to the library to do research. Interestingly enough it was mostly on being green. There was a young man who came into the library on the day I was in there, and he said that this company named Strata Solar was looking for people. He said they were going to have a job fair over at the Holiday Inn the following day, and he was just letting people know.
At the time I wasn’t really looking for a job, but I thought, “well if it’s a solar company, and it’s a green company, then I would like to find out what they’re all about.” So I just went to the job fair.
What roles have you played at Strata Solar?
I have played the role of a Corporate Recruiter. But that role in and of itself has actually developed. I was one of the people that went to the job fairs. So in the fall we went to a few of them. What we found in our travels was that there were times that we wished we had more background information about the areas that we were going to, in order to conduct the job fairs.
So they asked me if I would go out and look at the area, look at the hotels in the area, look at venues for job fairs, and things of that nature. I started doing that and it evolved. So now I still that, but I also do “et. all” work. Which means whatever my boss needs me to do, I’m there.
What are some examples of your “et. all” work at Strata Solar?
For example, I just did a project for Strata Solar Construction Employees, where I found out who all of the people in the company are and where they’re located and put it all in a spreadsheet. I’ve also written a code of ethics. It has not been taken up by the company just yet, but they’re still looking at the one I wrote.
What is your favorite thing about you role in the company?
Strata is a growing company. They are in the position right now to expand, and we are expanding very rapidly. In doing so, we are coming up with a number of different processes to help the company grow.
We used to refer military background them as SOP’s, or Standard Operating Procedures. Strata is at a position right now where they growing so rapidly, that a number of SOP’s are not in place. So we are helping to place them down in the HR department, and put together a lot of processes to help the company and the workforce grow.
Why are people with a military background a logical choice for Strata Solar when hiring?
I think the most important thing is that the average military individual is very disciplined. They also understand what is referred to as a chain of command. In doing so, it makes it easier for a company to instruct these guys on what to do out on the field or in the office. We have a protocol that is usually followed, and they need to follow this protocol and processes in order to make something work.
When you are hiring military personnel, what role are they coming in to fill?
Well we are actually hiring for all lines. We target a lot of military personnel for the outside fieldwork. For example, a job like a construction manager, because most of the people coming out of the military that we target have the experience of managing other individuals. When you need to build a solar farm, you have to have guys who understand how to manage people out in the field.
Are these commitments long-term or short-term?
These are long-term commitments.
Why do you enjoy working for Strata Solar?
Strata as a company is an excellent company to work for. I say that because they really care about their employees. They are working very hard to try to make a good life for their employees, in terms of benefits and salaries and things in that nature. But they are also getting to that point where they are looking to their employees at people, rather than numbers that are just out there
Why do you think other veterans enjoy working for Strata Solar?
When you take the military into account, a lot of these guys do all the right things. But in the military you’re always looking to get some type of advancement. That is what Strata is also doing. They are taking people, for example, who come in as a construction lead or a foreman, and then they are moving them up to the next levels, like site superintendents and construction managers. I think that that is going to not only help the company grow, but it will solidify the company with a lot of good people who feel like there is some loyalty coming from the company, and being military in their background, they are going to give that loyalty back.
Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Its demand with humans will never be lost, from toasters to rollercoasters. But energy technologies and companies prove much more mortal. I cover some of the struggling technologies in another article.
In the green fuel sector, the failure of certain companies can be a political bomb. Solyndra, the first profile, is a dirty word nowadays. An observer of the fall of Fisker, our second profile, was most worried about the fallout to other electric vehicles (EVs).
And then some believe that, at least in popular energies, we should allow failure to weed out the losers.
Let’s take a look at some of the newsworthy crashes in renewable energy business and what they told us.
Tech: CIGs Solar Thin Film
Leaders: Brian Harrison, CEO & Bill Stover, CFO
Solyndra is the elephant in the room. It’s usually the first example anti-renewable critics take up, and for an obvious reason. It received a $535 million loan as part of the stimulus, which aided green tech.
It started in 2005, received aid in 2009, and got visited by Pres. Obama. The controversy in hindsight was whether the rifts were starting to appear early on.
The CEO’s lawyer Miles Ehrlich blames China for making their competitor technology, traditional silicon solar cells, cheaper. While Bill Bathe, chief executive of U.S. Energy Services, sees it as something inherent to the age of the industry.
“There used to be 50 car companies in this country, but very few survived,” said Bathe to the Los Angeles Times. “For consumers, this is an exciting time, but for investors, this is still a very high-risk stage. You may hit a home run or be part of the experiment that delivers no payout.”
Others see it as intrinsic to the tubular design of their product, which may allow wind to pass through and snow fall off, but has other disadvantages.
“It was really a stupid idea when you got down to it,” Brad Ives, Vice Chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill’s Finance and Administration office, said. “The key thing with solar cells is you want the most surface area exposed to the sun. And with the cylinder, you weren’t directly gathering the sun because it was wrapped around a pipe, you had to have a mirror to reflect the sun. Rolling stuff out flat and making it cheaply was a lot better.”
Or maybe it failed spectacularly because it wasn’t allowed to fail before. The presidential administration wanted it to be a representative success, and the DoE extended a loan in late 2010. (More about these developments at The Washington Post during and after the fall.)
The good news for solar industry overall is that Solyndra was unusual. In technology and business certainly, in politics perhaps, but the verdicts differ. The FBI’s four-year investigation puts blame primarily on the company, no individuals named or charges brought. But others suspect more foul play from politicians.
“The actions of certain Solyndra officials were, at best, reckless and irresponsible or, at worst, an orchestrated effort to knowingly and intentionally deceive and mislead the Department,” the Office of Inspector General said.
Solyndra’s fall may reflect some of the issues with so-called cutting-edge technology, in conception and deployment. It may reflect the fault in ignoring the possibility of natural failure of these technologies. The FBI report and others point more towards human failures: greed and deceit.
Fisker’s fatal flaw was its manufacturing. To keep costs down, they wanted to use “off-the-shelf” parts in its cars. But this cobbling together meant reliance upon and forced adaptation to its suppliers.
This is the opposite of the more successful approach of Tesla. Tesla breeds research, development, and patents from within. Sometimes they even sell it off.
But compare it to one of its suppliers, A123, maker of lithium phosphate batteries originally for electric cars. Solyndra 2.0, some where calling it when it too went bankrupt.
“There was accompany called A123 that everybody thought was incredible, it was poised to go public and it collapsed right at the end after having several hundred million dollars put into it,” said Ives. “A123 ended up being a cost issue with some technical problem. The batteries weren’t quite as good as they thought they were going to be and they cost too much.”
So what saved it?
Chinese company Wanxiang Group bought A123 but passed on Fisker. The company now also provides batteries to utilities and power plants. These deals are in California as well as Japan, China, and Spain. They are rebuilding their car batteries too, more in hybrids now.
An extensive review of its rebound can be found on Slate.
A123 was able to repurpose its technology and continue to take advantage of environmental limits.
Even without its leadership, Fisker’s business model and design was not worth saving.
Let’s start with the science. Their key was “catalytic cracking” to break down wood and make cellusolic biofuel, meaning from inedible parts of plants. This is straight hydrocarbons, foreign from ethanol.
But when KiOR went public, possible yield was greatly overstated—and before fuel was being made. The CEO at the time warned management, and left.
Multiple people on the inside grew concerned, unlike with Solyndra. However, they were not heard. The CEO in 2011 was one, and left from being ignored. A hired engineer filed a whistleblower complaint, which was dismissed. Even the chemical engineer who had brought catalytic cracking to Khosla knew something was wrong.
“Vinod is a very visionary man,” O’Connor said about Khosla to Fortune Magazine. “Maybe too visionary.”
Combined with yields a third of promised, there were technical problems in the factory. Neither issue was resolved. Unable to find a buyer, KiOR closed.
Biofuels have not been doing well in the US. The valley of death between startup and commercialization has claimed far more than investors and even the EPA have expected. Oil prices at a low and less-than-friendly environmental policies do not help.
Some, like Fortune Magazine, see this failure rooted in Khosla’s ego. The governor of Mississippi, where the factory was located, sees their bankruptcy claims as near criminal. A class action lawsuit** does charge it as criminal.
Lack of transparency seems to have been the real killer here, for whatever reasons. One may also fault the very investment in biofuels. Whether this industry itself will continue is a question up in the air.
Failure: Peabody Energy
Leaders: Glenn L. Kellow, CEO and president
This failure is a little different. The company is over a hundred years old, and filed for bankruptcy two weeks ago. It isn’t just a coal company—it’s America’s top coal company.
A quarter of coal companies in the US are currently in bankruptcy. The next-best filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
Peabody Energy says they will continue to operate and then rebound*, which worries many about continued pollution for cents per carbon ton emitted. But their problems—natural gas competition, green energy regulations, and a weaker Chinese market—don’t look temporary.
There are more articles at Desmog and The Washington Post about the company’s failure. But it seems indicative of a larger failure: the failure of a fuel.
Solyndra, Fisker, and KiOR were failures, but their industries will probably go on. Peabody’s failure is the symbol of a dying giant. It may be hard as an investor to find the right bet in the renewables field, but the field itself will continue to grow. Business learn from scandals and closings and the clean fuel industry evolves.
Everyone has had that moment on campus where they notice something new and wonder, “Has that always been here?” Or maybe you even walk by these things every day and have never stopped to think twice about them.
“Students pay a $4 fee called the green fee as part of their tuition,” said Charlie Egan. Egan is co-chair of UNC’s Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, RESPC. RESPC uses this money to fund different renewable energy projects around campus.
“We have a bunch of projects happening in parallel,” Egan said. “At any point in time we probably have between five and ten projects going on.”
Starting in Here are five things from your daily walk to class that were funded by RESPC.
These umbrellas are more than just a good way to avoid the sun. They have power outlets located at their base if you ever need to charge something. The solar panels on top provide the electricity that you can use to power your phone.
The new solar panels being added to the Edible Campus will be even more powerful. The Edible Campus is a landscaping project at UNC that will grow fresh food at different campus locations.
The panels will be located in the garden at Davis library. They will have enough power to charge your laptop. Meanwhile, you can sit and enjoy a snack from the garden.
Solar Panel Trashcans
These trash cans and recycling bins also have solar panels on top. The solar panels provide the energy needed to send real-time data for when they need to be be emptied.
Egan said that they also compact the trash.
“Both these processes save energy from the collection process because the trash will need to be collected less frequently.”
Morrison Solar Thermal Collectors
The solar thermal panels on top of Morrison Residence Hall were added when Morrison was renovated in 2005. The panels absorb solar radiation and use it to heat the water in the building.
This was the first project ever funded by RESPC.
Staircase at the Bell Tower Parking Deck
The solar panels on top of the parking lot provide the electricity needed to power the lights in the staircase at night.
If you have walked around Chapel Hill at night, chances are you have seen the P2P Express. The P2P is UNC’s free night bus that operates between Franklin Street and the residence halls between 7 p.m. and 4 a.m.
But the effort to conserve water didn’t stop when the drought ended.
UNC made the campus theme “Water in Our World” from 2012-2014. Many projects were geared towards water research or water conservation plans.
And the efforts don’t stop there either.
“Chancellor Folt has embraced the sustainability plan. Expect to hear her talking about the Triple Zero Plan soon,” said Kristin Blank-White.
Blank-White is the Research and Outreach Manager in UNC’s sustainability office. She says the plan, which is expected to be released soon, will advocate for UNC having water neutrality: zero net energy, zero waste, zero greenhouse gas emissions.
UNC will work to reuse water as much as possible so it can be resilient in times of drought.
“UNC does a really good job of using reclaimed water,” said Dr. Amy Cooke. Dr. Cooke, an environmental studies professor at UNC, teaches a course called Water and Human Rights. She says not everywhere in the state is as good at reusing water as UNC is.
“This is actually unusual in North Carolina. What seems normal here is not normal everywhere.”
Waste-to-energy is an innovative way to think about waste management and energy diversification. Ranjith Annepu, founder of the nonprofit ‘be Waste Wise,’ commented on how public perception of this energy source could be altered.
“I think change comes with new generations and increased availability of information and public dialogue,” Annepu said.
The following waste-to-energy facilities generate energy from municipal solid waste, the kind we throw away in our garbage cans every day. Not only are these power plants utilizing this resource, they’re doing it in style.
Sysav South Scania waste-to-energy facility in Malmö, Sweden
This waste-to-energy plant is the most energy efficient plant in Sweden and one of the most carbon-friendly plants in Europe.
The plant creates electricity and heat with waste from 500,000 citizens, and it’s used to sort, store, and recycle waste. The facility processes household, commercial, and hazardous wastes.
Waste-to-energy facility in Shenzhen, China
China plans to build the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant in the world, with construction set to end in 2020.
The facility will turn a third of Shenzhen’s trash into energy, processing 5,000 tons a day. The plant hopes to combat the large landfills and illegal dumps building up in the area.
The plant’s best feature is on-site renewable energy generation. Two-thirds of the facilities large rooftop will be covered in photovoltaic solar panels.
The facility will also feature a landscaped park and ramped walkway. The walkway offers visitors a look at the inside of the facility and access to a rooftop viewing platform.
Spittelau Incineration Plant
Built in 1971, a fire ironically destroyed major sections of the plant in 1987. When it was rebuilt, the new Spittelau was designed by environmentalist and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser as a work of art.
The plant now stands as a Viennese landmark, featuring an abstractly painted building, golden ball on its chimney, and green roof. By providing district heating and electricity to Vienna, the plant heats more than 60,000 households a year.
Waste-to-energy facility in Copenhagen, Denmark
If you ever take a trip to Copenhagen in the winter months, make sure to go skiing: on top of this waste-to-energy facility.
Due to finish construction in 2017, skiers at this site will be skiing on the roof of the energy plant. And that’s not all the facility features.
For every ton of CO2 burned, the power plant will emit a giant ring of steam into the sky. The smoke rings are a completely non-toxic representation of the toxic CO2 it emits.
This serves as a visible reminder of the plant’s environmental footprint and a tangible measurement of citizens’ waste habits. As citizens become more conscious of their waste habits and recycle, they will see less rings.