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This Year, Vote for an Energy Revolution

Photo by Theresa Thompson. http://bit.ly/1XZUoC7
Photo by Theresa Thompson

Primary season is in full swing. The general election is coming up in November, and North Carolina has already finished round one of its two primaries.

Climate change is a hot topic among candidates, and is proving to be an increasingly divisive issue. Opinions range from complete denial to climate change as the most pressing issue of our time.

The direction the US will take in mitigating the issue will be largely determined by our elected officials. Policy will be an important factor in fueling a switch to renewable energy production.

Here’s why you should know candidates’ stances before voting.

Climate change is real and caused by humans

More than 97 percent of climate scientists agree that humans are contributing to climate change.

Every year in the 2000s has made the list of the 16 hottest years on record. Along with that, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have exceeded 400 parts per million. Historically, carbon dioxide levels have fluctuated but never exceeded 300 parts per million until now.

There are numerous other statistics pointing towards the reality of climate change. The bottom line is that the experts agree that it is a problem and we need to fix it.

A big problem that needs a big solution

In 2015, 195 countries came together in Paris to form the 2015 Paris Agreement.  The agreement set a goal to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan set a goal of a 32 percent emissions reduction by 2030.

The Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement gave the US tough goals that will require innovative and comprehensive solutions.

The electric industry is one of many targets. Electricity production in the U.S. is responsible for 31 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal power plants are responsible for a significant portion of US emissions. Coal-burning power plants today only generate 39 percent of the nation’s electricity but produce 77 percent of the sector’s emissions.

But individuals have little opportunity to demand change in such a large industry.

In the electric industry, there are groundbreaking technologies that have the potential to take over coal’s production while cutting emissions. These technologies include renewables like wind and solar, battery storage and high-efficiency transmission lines.

The industries for these new products are growing and costs are dropping. Proper government incentives can motivate utilities to replace coal plants with newer, cleaner production facilities.

Market forces alone won’t mitigate climate change

Renewable energy technologies are reaching large enough scales to grow without government assistance. While very good news for the renewable energy industry, it still isn’t enough.

The goals set by experts in order to mitigate climate change require vast changes in the coming decades. The market for renewables is growing, but not fast enough to quickly and effectively minimize pollution.

NC General Assembly Representative Graig Meyer said that markets need government support to effectively combat climate change.

“We really only have two sectors that can do this—government and private markets,” Meyer said. “The markets do not have an incentive to do this because the short term costs limit profits. So the government has to step in.”

NC Representative Verla Insko said something similar.

“The market’s not a perfect solution for this kind of problem,” she said. “The role of government is to provide solutions that the market can’t.”

Subsidies and tax credits can provide a multitude of benefits

Along with emissions reductions, government policies promoting renewable energy can work wonders for the economy. There are jobs being created in production, assembly, maintenance, and all other aspects of renewables. Plus, all of the jobs can be created here in the US.

For example, in North Carolina, there are more than 188 companies employing around 6,000 people in the solar industry.

Meyer said that environmental government policy can promote economic development.

“All across North Carolina we see solar farms producing income for rural landowners,” he said. “Companies developing new technologies are creating employment growth.”

Germany is an example of successful environmental policy.  The Germans enacted strict legislation targeting carbon emissions.  Their laws resulted in reduced carbon emissions as well as job and business growth.

Andreas von Schoenberg, a German environmental consultant, said there are 170,000 German clean technology businesses.  These businesses collectively employ 900,000 people, in a country a quarter the size of the US.

Von Schoenberg said that Germany’s environmental policy created the necessary environment for the clean technology industry to thrive.

 

The American Dream and Driving in the 21st Century

American culture has had a long love affair with the car. It symbolizes freedom, independence, success, leisure, and even machismo—think the Great Gatsby. It is one of the fixtures of the American dream.

“When I think of America, when I think of this country, and we see the car commercials that we see on TV, it’s selling this dream of car ownership and independence and autonomy,” John Richardson, planning manager for sustainability for Chapel Hill, said. “How do those values stack up against the alternative?”

“Part of the reason why the American landscape looks the way it does is because is because we made decisions that favor cars over other forms of travel,” Heather Brutz, Clean Transportation Specialist of NC State’s Clean Energy Technology Center, added.

But driving is being reinvented.

The most imminent change is the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).

Ideal Electric Car Co. advertisement 1911. US Public Domain.
Ideal Electric Car Co. advertisement 1911. US Public Domain.

“Electric vehicles have actually been around since the twentieth century, but they were never mass-produced,” Richardson said. “[The technology] has obviously gotten so much better.”

The EV industry has been growing every year despite failing to reach Pres. Obama’s hopes. Every automaker is racing to cheapen and strengthen their models. General Motors, Tesla, and others seem to have reached the tipping point: a car that costs at most $35,000 and gets at least 200 miles of range per charge.

It isn’t just the car itself, though. From Google’s hyped attempts at autonomous driving to the light rail, the transportation landscape is changing. What does that mean for the American lifestyle?

Here are a few of the ways in which EVs will transform America—and a few ways it will fit right in.

How Much Driving, and Where? 

There is going to be less driving, period. The US’s consumption of cars peaked in 2000. Though there has been an increase in buying this last year, the trend is towards less investment. Why? Probably a combination of financial insecurity and cultural shifts.

For example, the Complete Street movement campaigns for public transport, bikes, pedestrians, and cars to share roads.

A critical factor in the success of EVs is expanded range. This means beyond cities. Charging stations are, for now, rare and time-draining. Level 2 chargers take 3-6 hours for a full charge, while rarer DC fast chargers take a half hour.

But, these changes are not necessarily destructive.

A more walkable, bike-able city is very traditional. Europe, from London’s vast tube system to Amsterdam’s bike lanes, links cultural experience to not driving.

As for public transport, green movements have always backed it; does this new option of green ownership hurt that?

Brutz saw electric, autonomous, and/or shared cars as a supplement, not competitor, to public transport.

“They help solve what they call the Last Mile Problem,” she said. “The bus or train gets you from point A to point B. You don’t live at point A and you’re not going exactly to point B. You are 1.5 miles away from point A and 1.8 miles away from point B. How do you go and solve that last mile problem? Things like Uber can be amazing at solving that.”

As for the range, the Great American Road Trip is not off limits. Firstly, charging stations are getting faster and more plentiful. Secondly, them being slow and few has its advantages to developers who install them.

“Attracting customers is a big deal,” Brutz said. “For example, if you are a hotel that has an electric charger and someone is doing a cross-country trip with an electric vehicle, they will actively seek out hotels where they can charge overnight.”

Towns can use this too.

“I have heard of towns and places that were putting in chargers specifically with hopes that the people who are travelling along would stop, eat lunch at the restaurants, charge their electric vehicle, and then keep on going,” Brutz said, and added that Rocky Mount, NC was one town with such an economic tool.

 

Sounder in Body

The hybrids were the first to change over. Richardson compared this transition to TVs that took both video cassettes and DVDs.

“We’re in that transition period right now. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the batteries and recharging speeds and all that get us to a place where the EV doesn’t become much of a thought,” he said.

The engine is currently the heart of a car. An electric car has a battery, but the complete re-imagining of what a vehicle can be has opened up new methods. It’s more than fewer explosions in action movies.

“Nearly everything changes when you opt for a fundamentally different power train,” Alex Davies of Wired said when reviewing GM’s new Volt. “The engineers didn’t have established tests to follow.”

We already expect our cars to be able to power our AC, play music, and even call home. With a battery-powered car, this power transfer is more intuitive. Smart cars—those with a degree of autonomous driving—will certainly be compatible with EVs. Apple, for example, has long-term plans to incorporate autonomy but plans its EV named “Titan” to be ready in 2019.

More reinventions include using lightweight and/or printed material for car frames and using braking to power the car further.

 

Safer in Mind

Car manufacturers are ready to really put the “auto” into “automobiles.”

Despite Google’s recent, high-profile crash of its self-driving car (at 2 mph), the march onward seems inevitable. Ten major automakers just agreed to have automatic emergency braking systems in nearly all American cars by 2022. Uber is eyeing self-driving cars for a 24-hour, driver-free business model.

This appears to be the most revolutionary change coming. What is a car without a driver?

But the rise in safety predicts thousands of lives saved yearly. And while taking autonomy away from some, it gives it to others; the blind, the elderly, the young, and the unlicensed.

It is also important to note that no self-driving car so far is without overrides; nor are they predicted to become a monopoly, even if they make the norm. The driver has a choice.

 

The Cool Factor

Tesla Model S (left) and Smart ED (right) charging in Amsterdam; Picture by Ludhiana E. Moreira Sales and Mario Duran (Mariordo)
Tesla Model S (left) and Smart ED (right) charging in Amsterdam; Picture by Ludhiana E. Moreira Sales and Mario Duran (Mariordo)

“Most people currently purchase EVs to make an environmental statement, rather than for economic reasons,” said Jessica Robinson of UNC Chapel Hill’s renewable energy special projects committee.

“Some people want a car that looks different because they want to look like they’re making the eco-friendly choice. So they don’t want their car to look like everyone else’s,” Brutz agreed.

There will be new values attached to what car you own. As prized as vintage cars are, they do not do well on the green side of things. But just imagine a “Pimp My Ride” where car frames were fitted to new power trains.

But, all the cool criterion apply still.

Brutz says the real difference is in the power train, and automakers can adapt according to fashion.

“They’re probably going to want to appeal to different sorts of customers. Do you want to have something that’s just a little bit quirky? Do you want to have something that’s luxurious? Do you want something that’s just like a regular car that kind of blends in with the crowd? And I think there are different consumers that would want all of those,” she said.

If you want a luxurious status symbol, you can count on Tesla, who opened the previously mentioned “cool” doors way back in 2006 with its Roadster. Initial reviews, such as this one by the New York Times, agreed this green machine had “a dollop of Bruce Wayne and a generous helping of James Bond.”

Or you could go the more flamboyant route, as BMW’s i3 and a few others embrace.

Either way, there will be diversity. This green machine will be for everyone who can afford it.

And as to that, the US government has weighed in with a $7,500 carrot for customers and stick for the industry. Purchases are subsidized to the tune of thousands of dollars (the carrot). Emissions standards are threatening and public opinion enticing automakers to produce more affordable EVs. The electric car will be available to the middle class, for one way or another.

 

The Green Factor

Brazilian charging station, powered by solar.
Brazilian charging station, powered by solar.

Green cars and their advocates prefer green energy, “the electric elephant,” as the BBC has called it. That can be tricky, especially in fossil fuel-dominated USA.

Brutz knows that the use of EVs will encourage the adoption of renewable energy, and not just from environmentalism.

“There are people who talk about having much larger fleets of electric vehicles and essentially having them going to serve as storage for some of the renewable energy during those off-peak hours when it’s otherwise not being used, as a way of basically increasing the percentage of our energy being used from renewable sources,” she said. More on that is continued in the next segment.

“Personally I think renewable energy—specifically solar—should be incorporated with EV charging stations,” Robinson said. But, “There are concerns that the current electrical grid could not handle the load from EVs if there is a massive widespread adoption. Imagine thousands of vehicle owners returning home from work and plugging their vehicle into the grid on top of turning on air conditioning, running their dishwasher, turning on lights, etcetera, simultaneously. There could potentially be blackouts.”

Therefore, widespread adoption of EVs could change the very electric grid, as well as electricity generators.

There will be a cultural change to be more conscious of what energy is used, how much, and from where.

“There is continued interest in these vehicles despite the fact we’re seeing gas prices go down,” Richardson said. This implies motives beyond financial.

But most of the changes will occur behind the scenes. Green industry is working hard to keep things simple for the consumer. Plugging into a charging station is intuitive as pumping gas or charging your phone. The grid will stay as invisible as before, but with a security of mind for the conscious user.

 

Own a Car, Own a Business

Nissan LEAF charging at the Freedom Station in Houston, TX. This is an eVgo Network station with both Level 2 and DC fast chargers. Picture by EVGo Network and Mariordo
Nissan LEAF charging at the Freedom Station in Houston, TX. This is an eVgo Network station with both Level 2 and DC fast chargers. Picture by EVGo Network and Mariordo

Instead of car ownership being seen as a right or requirement of being an American over the age of 16, it will be come a privilege and/or business.

Consider the new shared economy, with Air BnB and Uber as two successful examples. Empty space and unused time for an expensive purchase like a house or car is financially wasteful. Zipcar is the major company betting on quick and easy car rentals taking off.

EVs offer an even more unusual financial possibility; selling electricity back to the grid. This would pair well with more renewable energy (often a fluctuating supply), as mentioned previously.

“As we’re having more electric vehicles, we’re having basically a lot more powerful batteries that are plugged into the grid, generally overnight. And so what some people who are kind of like futurists are thinking about is essentially, like, one of the challenges of implementing large scale renewable energy is energy storage,” Brutz said.

But while this may sound radically new, it is very much in the spirit of the American dream. By buying this status symbol and tool of freedom, you open up the possibility of managing a one-person business.

When you rent a car, you will have freedom at your fingertips without the long-term burden. When you rent a car to others, you will be making the most of your once unused time to generate profit. When selling energy back to the grid, you would even have the choice of when and how it is sold. In this future, you are consumer and boss. What could be more American dreamy?

 

Conclusion

“It’s not necessarily a gigantic cultural shift,” Brutz said.

Sometimes it’s as UNC-Charlotte having maintenance workers give up pick-up trucks for golf cart-like GEMs (global electric motorcars).

“That’s the sort of cultural shift I’m seeing [here]. People saying, Okay, it’s okay for me to not have a regular vehicle that’s just mine. I’m going to use this other one on a relevant basis,” Brutz said.

Though it may take decades to get old cars off the road, and subsidies and PR to incentivize individual buyers, EVs are coming. Consumers and automobile aficionados should not mourn the passing of the old American car, however. In many ways, EVs improve and complete the concept of the car as a tool of freedom, status, and self-expression.

And if you still don’t like EVs, ride-sharing, or autonomous cars? You don’t have to buy them. It’s your choice, but that choice is made from increasing options. And that’s the American way.

Cities are Thinking Differently

About 54 percent of the global population lived in cities in 2014, and that number is only going up. Cities haven’t had the best relationship with the environment up to this point. Carbon emissions, runoff pollution, and the destruction of natural areas are growing concerns.

A growing society needs to consider ways to minimize these impacts for the sake of public health and longevity. There is this idea of a smart city – using more information to make better decisions – that may be the solution.

What exactly is a “smart city”?

The idea of a smart city has been brewing for some time, but its terminology has only been gaining traction in the last few years. Loosely defining the concept helped to unite people with similar objectives, without restricting its possibilities.

“There are probably 50 different definitions,” said Steven Wysmuller of IBM’s Analytics team.

“Folks knew there were challenges they were facing and trying to put it in context of a term, such as smarter cities, was a way to start to unravel those challenges,” Wysmuller said. “To really start engaging the right folks, whether it’s the citizens in the community to government elected officials, to private industry that had solutions but needed an outlet to figure out where to go with them.”

The fundamental definition of a smart city is to use less energy and water, encourage people to engage more with their communities, and improve public health.

One of the basic ideas of smart cities is that there is no one-size-fits-all plan for all cities. Cities are unique in the landscape they are set in, the climate they experience, and the infrastructure they contain. Smart cities can include a range of technology to help people make decisions.

What are some of these technologies associated with smart cities?

These “smart” technologies are concerned with the efficiency of electricity, water, waste, and transportation. Think of finding a parking spot immediately with a phone app instead of driving around for 15 minutes. Again, the aim is to reduce the amount of energy used while increasing the quality of life.

Information, like smart parking, is going to come largely from the Internet of Things (IoT). This is the information that is shared between systems and machines, as opposed to being shared by a person. An example of this would be a home thermostat communicating with a cell phone app that allows for remotely controlling temperature settings.

December 19, 2011- Kevin Donovan uses an app on his iPhone to connect to his thermostat in his town home. town home. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

Gathering more data about usage means that people can better understand the peaks and falls in their utility bills. They can then make adjustments to decrease their bill and the amount of energy used. Simple behavioral changes, like gradually cooling a house rather than immediately cranking the AC, make for big efficiency increases.

What might a day in an ideal smart city look like?

It’s Monday morning in the office, and a smart thermostat gradually starts bringing the temperature up.

As you leave for work, your home temperature decreases to significantly reduce the energy that would’ve been used.

You are running late, but you are able to use an app on your phone with real-time traffic data. This finds the quickest alternate route, which is already being implemented in Amsterdam. This saves time, money, and reduces emissions from vehicles.

The restaurant down the street cuts down on energy costs by installing solar panels. They pass on the benefits of those savings to their customers by buying locally sourced food.

The office building holds large conferences, meaning water consumption spikes. The building is equipped to recycle storm water, reducing costs and energy associated with water distribution.

On the way home, LED street lights come on as your car gets close. When there are no commuters, the lights turn off.

There are possibilities for innovation in many daily activities, without compromising people’s lifestyles.

Where do smart cities exist?

Smart cities can be built from scratch or can come from advancements to technology and infrastructure in existing cities. The important thing to note is that becoming a smart city is a process that doesn’t end. A smart city continues to innovate into the future.

San Jose, California is one of the cities leading the way to becoming “smart” in the United States. Using the IoT and new sensors, the city gets real-time data on air quality. This information can help policy makers and citizens make changes to increase the quality of life.

The number of “smart” cities is sure to grow in the future, each one being unique. Government agencies, like the Department of Transportation, are starting to praise cities that are thinking more about the future. The Smart City Challenge allows cities to compete for federal funding to implement their innovative ideas for transportation.

Sounds great, but what are some of the challenges to implementation?

There are some major obstacles to overcome before a smart city revolution takes place. The integration of new technology and knowledge into communities is likely one of the most difficult hurdles to surpass. Technology disparity still exists in surprising numbers across America, especially for minorities and low income citizens.

It’s not just the some folks don’t own a smart phone. In 2014, the United States Census Bureau found that 25 million households in the country were without regular internet access.

The success of a smart city relies on not just the compliance of citizens, but more importantly their engagement. The value of smart technology will not be realized if people don’t know how to interact with the new information.

“There is a big gap between the technology out there and the users who can use it and what they can get out of it,” said Amy Aussieker, the executive director of Envision Charlotte. “It’s still a matter of it’s an enormous amount of data and it’s also educating people on how to use that data and then making decisions.”

Once technology is equally distributed, the educational element takes shape in a couple different ways. Citizens need a comprehensive explanation as to what is changing and if it will change their daily lives. This isn’t the kind of thing to be taught in a textbook.

The way to inform the public is to engage them and elicit collaboration. Businesses, government organizations, nonprofits, and your next door neighbor should all be talking about what it means to live healthier and happier.

Equally as important is an education of why changes are being made. People need to understand the big picture – the environment is suffering, but we can likely mediate the causes over time. Changes in behavior will likely come from a population that is informed and passionate about the well-being of their planet.

January 24, 2013 - Len Nagy and his children Sofia, 8, and Alexander 6, learn about renewable energy at an interactive display the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Visitor Center. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

The overarching theme here is collaboration and acknowledgment of how one person’s actions can affect an entire community.

“It has everything to do with the human interaction,” says Bruce Clark, the digital inclusion project manager in Charlotte. “Particularly when we think about getting things done across multi-organizations with different interests and what not. There’s an element of storytelling that’s really important in all of this.”

Friend or Foe: Big Players and the Renewable Industry

Many businesses are capitalizing on a growing clean tech opportunity in North Carolina- renewable companies, city developers, and venture capitalists. Large energy providers are often left out of the picture, perhaps as they’re perceived as heavily invested in fossil fuels. However, this may not be the case with the coming energy transformation.

Below, two Duke Energy representatives provide insight on Duke’s sustainability efforts. Elizabeth Bennett is a manager of the Distributed Energy Resources Group, and Hilary Davidson is Duke Energy’s Director of Sustainability and Community Affairs. Both shared their perspective on the role of sustainability in energy supply.

This Q&A explores the challenges and opportunities that renewables present for Duke Energy. The representatives also discuss Duke’s future plans to expand its sustainability efforts, bringing awareness to shifts in the energy market. (These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Q: What trends do you see in renewable energy policy and the growth of big businesses? Do you have any insight on the future nature of the renewable industry ten years from now?

Elizabeth Bennett: I think questions about policy incentives are going to become less and less important because the economics is working.

Now it’s working differently for different customers. I know Duke would like to get to a point where we are able to connect customers with affordable solar options — and by customers I mean your big-box retailers but also your residential customers.

If you look over the border on what we’re doing in South Carolina, there’s a good example. Through legislation we have a way to invest and provide customers options for solar engagement. And we’ve rolled out a rebate program for rooftop and ground-mount installation on customer properties.

We’re also going to be rolling out a shared solar program. So for folks that live in apartment complexes, or that might not have a roof that’s conducive with solar, or that might not want to deal with the operations or a homeowner’s association that doesn’t like solar on the roof, then they can participate in the shared solar concept, or community solar.

So those are the kinds of things we at Duke would like to be able to invest in and provide for customers in the future. And I think there is going to be a pathway to do that. Now every state will be a little different, and that’s where policy comes in.

I would be careful not to look at a tax crediting expiring and say, ‘It’s the end of solar.’ And I think some people did, but it’s not slowing anything down. And especially with the federal government’s decision in the end to extend the ITC — that was significant. And I don’t think that’s being talked about enough.

And the only other thing I’ll say, and it’s somewhat obvious sometimes — a lot of people tend to forget that North Carolina ranked number two last year in terms of solar growth. And we are really proud to have been part of that.

Last year we constructed four large-scale solar facilities totaling 141 megawatts, and late last year we announced another 75 megawatts. And so our pace isn’t slowing down.

And I think as we look towards the future, if there’s anything to take away, it’s that we believe the utility has a big role to play in investing in solar and other renewable resources: bringing those to customers in an affordable and a reliable way, and growing them as part of our portfolio, but also balancing with the other resources we have and the other demands we have on the system.

Q: Why does sustainability make sense for Duke?

Hilary Davidson: It makes so much sense. It makes sense socially, economically, and environmentally. People always think, oh, it’s going to cost money to do sustainability things.

It really is all about long-term— making good business decisions that are good for the environment and good for people. It really saves you money.

One of the key things we really encourage folks internally— when we talk about sustainability, you start thinking differently when you think about conserving those resources. (Employees) think of new processes, they get very efficient, and they come up with new ideas. We have saved millions of dollars with employees with new innovative approaches of how they do their job.

And we have a group we call the Sustainability Corps, we kind of named it after the Peace Corps. And it has been really fun. So they have gotten energized and really saved so much money through their projects.

So you can reduce emissions or water and also costs and your budget. We quit tracking the numbers because it’s so embedded now because it’s so much a part of the culture.

Q: How much of these sustainability efforts are a reaction to the growing environmental movement and pressure from your customers for more responsible practices? Does this make your efforts relatively recent?

Davidson: We’ve been doing this a long time. I would say it’s not a reaction for us, and I can say that so passionately.

I’ve been doing this for 30 years at Duke. I helped write the first environmental report, and that was in 1993. Duke created the first environmental science center of all of the utilities in the 1970s.

So they’ve had a huge environmental focus for a long time. So that first external environmental report was kind of unique for utilities. That was not something that was typically done way back when.

So the whole movement changed. It was environmental for a while, and then social responsibility started, and then the name sustainability actually formalized — we formalized a corporate sustainability office in 2008. So we formalized the name at a certain point, but it’d been there in one form or fashion.

One of the things I’d like to say, you know, J.B. Duke, the founder of Duke Energy, started the Duke Endowment, and this was back in the 1920s. When he started the power company, he said, hey if I’m going to make money from this industry, I’m going to also give money and philanthropy back to the Carolinas and the community, which to me is sustainability.

So he started the Duke Endowment, which today is one of the hugest endowments, and it gives money to the Carolinas. To me, the foresight of that is just part of that whole philosophy.

Q: What opportunities and challenges have renewables presented to Duke?

Davidson: I think it has been another great asset to add to our diverse fuel mix. I think having diverse fuel options is our biggest asset and will continue to be our biggest asset in the future.

I think we always want to have a diverse fuel supply. We don’t ever want to go a single source of anything. I think just like a diverse stock portfolio, it keeps you healthy, and serves you well over time, so should a diverse fuel portfolio.

I’ve been in the industry long enough to see — I was around when gas prices went sky-rocketing, I was standing at gas lines in the 70s to fill up my gas tank, I’ve been around when Chernobyl happened, when Fukushima happened, I’ve been around when natural gas prices spiked. I’ve been around now with the shale-gas revolution, with how cheap gas is now.

You know, solar is fantastic. But I don’t know, something could happen with solar that we don’t even know yet. Sometimes we think everything is glorious, and sometimes things happen. So I guess keeping all options on the table is good.

The challenge of renewables for now, I would say, is storage. And from what I understand right now, the storage technology is not totally there yet, and also there is the expense of it. The sooner we can get there at an affordable rate is awesome. Understand we own about 15 percent of the utility-scale storage in the United States right now.

The other thing with the challenge with renewables is that it doesn’t always match the peak. And I think people don’t always understand that, it’s not always there at the right time. It’s intermittent, and that’s an issue as well.

Q: A quote from Duke’s 2014 sustainability report- “closing 40 coal-fired generating units… We’ve also invested more than $4 billion in wind and solar facilities and, in 2014, we committed $500 million to expand solar energy in North Carolina.” Oftentimes, there is a negative perception surrounding Duke because a large percentage of your generation is from coal. Their comment might be you could do better to invest more in renewables and efficiency. What would be your response to that?

Davidson: I guess what I would say to those people is please consider the entire population in North Carolina and the needs of your neighbors in this state.

Our customer base is not a high-income customer base. Those people cannot afford to have all of that power shut down and do really expensive renewables. You can’t just transition and shut everything down and pay off-site prices right now.

That wouldn’t make economic sense. Just like anything you need to transition. The path you are on is transitioning to a lower-carbon economy and future.

And that is the pathway underway; and you do it sensibly, and in a way that is not hurting people. You do it in a smart and economic way as those prices come down and as technologies come up.

One of the things with Duke — our stakeholders are everybody. So they’re all at complete different ends of the spectrum, and at the end of the day we have to keep those lights on for everybody.

We respect all of the different viewpoints that there are, truly. We do have the extreme activist end of things, where they want everything totally green right now. If you look at the entire population it’s actually not a high percentage of what most of customers actually want.

Most of our customers say, we really want an affordable bill because we’re just trying to survive, and I need to stay in business in this state. So there are some heavy social issues that are going on. And that’s obviously very critical.

There are health issues, there’s social issues, education issues, which is all part of sustainability. Those are equally important as the environmental and green part of it. And so that’s what you have to think about.

Really when you think triple bottom line, you need to be thinking of all of those in the long-term, and not doing a drastic reaction to just one component of it and sacrificing other things. People might not like you, and you might get beat up for it. But you still need to do the right thing to make sure no one is getting hurt in the long-run.

4 Ways Computer Scientists Could Revolutionize the Fight Against Climate Change

There may be no one more excited about the role of computer science in energy than managing director at Duke Energy Initiative Kyle Bradbury.

“We have never seen such a major surge in the amount of data,” said Bradbury in a recent interview. “Soon, there will be very little that we can’t do with computer science.”

The Duke Energy Initiative works on fostering interdisciplinary collaboration for the development of cleaner energy systems. There, Bradbury works with computer scientists on data analytics and specializes in developing systems that learn with time.

Bradbury claims himself to be one of the few that are very optimistic about the future of energy and technology. But even he believes that considerable work in energy software is needed before it’s ready to save the planet. He sees this work being needed not only in the algorithms he designs, but also in the larger software industry.

“There is plenty of work to be done,” said Bradbury. “If you’re a computer scientist looking to develop for energy, you’ll have your hands full for a while.”

The list below outlines the four main ways that computer scientists can help fight climate change. It has been compiled using insights from energy systems and software researchers like Bradbury.

1. Develop Software for the Public Education of Energy Consumption

Bradbury is not the only one who sees room for improvement in energy related software. Dr. Ramesh Shankar is an energy researcher at EPIC, an organization focused on modernizing the grid. He believes informative software – software for informing the public — to be the biggest opportunity for computer scientists.

Shankar believes making electricity consumers aware of their responsibilities to be key in transitioning to a cleaner future. He also encourages smartphone application makers to take his ideas and develop educational apps for energy. In a recent interview, he mentioned the following:

  1. An app that shows typical household consumption of electricity on a monthly basis.
  2. An app dashboard for what the greenhouse gas emission impact is on a daily basis segmented by county, state, and nation
  3. An app that provides small actionable steps for electricity consumers and ways to track them.
  4. An app that shows the impact each individual can have if they use less energy or use more renewable energy.

Both Bradbury and Shankar expect a lot of change in the coming years. But unlike Bradbury, Shankar sees this change coming primarily from the consumers of electricity.

2. Develop More Robust Decision Making and Predictive Software Using Machine Learning

Software designed to identify trends in data to help make decisions can be classified as predictive and decision making software.

When asked about his thoughts on the current standing of such software, Bradbury laughed.

“Predictive decision making software may be the most scrutinized thing in energy today,” said Bradbury. “Virtually all aspects of it can be improved because of the complexity of the things it tries to model.”

He said that this same complexity is what makes creating the perfect predictive software practically impossible. Bradbury believes that pursuing such a goal is foolish and that developers will have better luck if they choose a more clever path.

“It’s impossible to account for all the variables in an electric grid, the climate, or any system for that matter, ” said Bradbury. “That’s why we need to create software that can evolve. We need software that can learn by itself.”

Thanks to massive data sets on the internet, he said machine learning – systems that learn automatically — will be absolutely essential to success.

“Researchers and engineers have done great work till now with predictive software,” said Bradbury. “But now we need more. More visualization software, better performance, and more use of energy data in helping systems learn.”

3. Help Develop More Customized Software for Collaborative Multi-disciplinary Research

Bryan Lampley, an engineer at Hoffman Building Technologies said, “Not a single one of us is smarter than every single one of us.”

Lampley believes that the fate of the energy sector lies in how well we can work together on big issues. He said that without insights from various disciplines, progress will be very slow – something, according to him we cannot afford.

Bradbury agrees.

“Climate modeling is a computationally intensive process that requires vast data sets and complex physical atmospheric models to accurately understand the factors that lead to changes in climate,” said Bradbury. “These require strong numerical programmers to work together with atmospheric scientists to produce these insights.”

Bradbury said that while current software for collaborative research is available, customized software is in high demand. He says that without a custom multi-disciplinary research platform, modeling something like climate would be next to impossible.

“It is just too difficult, and too complex,” said Bradbury. “Specialized software that takes into account what the researchers want will help make the process far more efficient.”

He said that this is true for all collaborative research in the field of energy. Bradbury mentioned collaboration between computer science and economics as another example.

“These predictive and prescriptive models will require detail-oriented programmers to work with people knowledge of economics and policy to help produce accurate decision-making tools,” said Bradbury. “Good software for research will allow them to do this efficiently.”

4. Help Improve Cybersecurity in Large Company Networks

Lampley said that lack of proper cybersecurity is huge in preventing large, connected networks from taking off. He believes that the risk for hacking is too great right now.

“Cybersecurity is 100% on the forefront of all of these companies’ minds” said Lampley when asked about the potential for hacking in large company networks. “They definitely don’t want all of their private sensor data exposed to the internet. Would you?”

He said someone could hack in and cut all the power off for an energy company.

“This is absolutely something that simply has to be addressed.” said Lampley. “We have got to have some security when it comes to large connected networks.”

Keith Dickerson, manager of smart infrastructure at Schneider Electric agrees and said “this is a very contested topic and we need more computer scientists working on this issue.” He says that without it, data open to the public would be far more harmful than useful because of hackers with malicious intent.

 

 

5 Things You Must Know About the Internet of Things

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The Internet of Things works as a series of interconnected devices. Everything with a power switch will become a part of the internet. We see communication between cars and appliances, power tools and mp3 players, and alarm clocks and coffee pots – everything becomes connected.

There are plenty of buzzwords in today’s society, but “the internet of things” isn’t one of them. It should be.

The internet of things (IoT) has been a long time coming, it’s here, and it’s growing. It already affects you in ways you might not even know, and it won’t stop. Here is a list of the five things you must know to be an informed member and user of IoT.

1. What is it?                                                                                                             

Kellan Dickens from General Electric says “IoT is a toolkit.”

Brian Dalgetty from IBM says “IoT is just the digitization of the physical world.”

Aleksandar Vukojevic from Duke Energy says “it’s just a bunch of sensors and data.”

If you ask a room of 20 people what IoT is, you’ll get 20 different answers – that’s the unfortunate truth. Plain and simple, IoT is connection between devices.

The devices have sensors in them which allow for a number of tasks. The sensors can measure and provide data about the device. The sensors can also allow for a device to be remotely accessible.

For example, a laundry machine could measure how much water is being used, and at what cost during that time. To conserve resources on a busy night, you could remotely set the machine to wash from work on a smartphone.

Access to the devices’ data coming in from IoT is extremely important too. With this information, individuals can connect to larger circles. In terms of energy, there could be a neighborhood competition to see who uses the least.

Access to the data can also help optimize operations everywhere, increase efficiency, and decrease resource usage. Users will better understand their surroundings, and they can manage their current information more effectively.

2. How does it work?

IoT is enabled by connections between the devices, or machines. The connections between machines are called M2M connections (machine to machine). Information can be sent almost anywhere. If two devices are working together, they may have direct communication between them. Or appliances and electrical systems can send information to a database, or a company’s website.

The information itself may vary in complexity. Some communication could be tiny, like a phone alarm sending a single message to the coffee pot to brew. Other communications could be massive in size and importance, like last month’s fuel efficiency in a vehicle. It’s all about getting devices and data together and facilitating problem solving.

3. Who does it affect?

Everyone.

That is the short answer, and for once the short answer is completely correct. IoT will have its hand in the pocket of every active member of society. From homeowners to college students to entrepreneurs and CEO’s, IoT will change the game.

4. Why is it good?

The executive director of Envision Charlotte, Amy Aussieker, describes the potential for IoT as “a bottomless pit.” There is no doubt about the limitless possibilities in IoT, but the goal is simple. IoT aims to make life easier and enable us to work smarter, not harder.

A weather- and traffic-integrated GPS could allow us more time with the family instead of on the road. IoT can also save us money on our electricity and water bills. We will know our consumption patterns, and be able to change what we want, use less, and be charged less.

Knowledge is power. The physical world becomes digital with IoT. This lets us plug everything into a virtual calculator that, with some working knowledge, can spit out real-life solutions.

5. What are the risks?

With anything so huge and promising, there are comparable risks. IoT involves the creation of lots and lots of data. How to work through all this information and store it and format it usefully will be a challenge in itself.

The quantity of data also poses threats to privacy and security. Individuals and groups may have issues with their data being made public, and see it as an invasion of privacy.

“I don’t care if my neighbor sees how much water my dishwasher uses, but the government probably doesn’t want the world knowing how much money was spent on particular projects here and there,” says Bryan Lampley from Hoffman Building Technologies.

With this privacy threat, it’s easy to worry about the security of data designed to be private from the beginning.

The Internet of Things has come. Know the basics, and you’re ready to go back into the world as an informed member and user of IoT.

Deregulation Decrypted: a “Greener” energy approach

The word “deregulation” has been thrown around a lot in the past few years in the context of energy and utilities.  There has been much talk about what deregulation of the energy grid would mean for utilities, for renewables and for stockholders.

Yet little has been said about what deregulation means to average citizens and energy consumers.

Here is a run-down of the current discussion surrounding deregulation and how it pertains to you, an average energy user, and especially to your bottom line.

  1. What is Deregulation?

Deregulation is the process of removing regulations in an economic sphere; in this case, the economy of energy.  It is a daunting term for a simple concept: greater competition and access to multiple types of energy.  It represents an end to the old regime of utilities-dominated energy markets.  Deregulation has already spread through most of Europe, including all 15 EU original member states, and is now entering the US as well.

It is often discussed alongside renewable energy. This is because deregulation allows energy producers outside of major utilities to enter the energy market.  No matter which renewables are thriving in an area, they need access to the energy grid to be marketed and delivered to consumers.

Even without introduction of renewables, it could offer greater freedom of choice and lower prices for energy.

2.  What will deregulation change?

Most markets usually discourage monopolization, but the energy market is another story.

“Whenever you have a terribly capital-intensive industry, historically, the solution has been to grant a monopoly to an operator and then regulate their prices,” said Wayne Harris, the Director at the Elizabeth City, Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission.

In North Carolina, this is the way our current energy market functions and has functioned since the 1930’s.

This system of natural monopolies allows for one major energy producer per local area.  In the infancy of the US energy industry, utilities helped to combine the patchwork of producers and simplify the grid.  While simpler, now regulation leaves energy consumers with little-to-no choice in their electricity provider.

Deregulation combats this monopoly power of utilities, opening up the energy market.  This allows for greater total energy production and greater choice for consumers.

It also paves the way for renewable energy to enter the market.

Renewables have often been accused of destabilizing the energy grid.  In reality, they can contribute to greater market health and stability by adding more options for sources of energy production.

Craig Poff, a Director of Business Development for Iberdrola Renewables, described this as a game of musical chairs:

“Just like in an investment portfolio, you want diversity.  It helps you not lose your seat when the music stops.”

3.  How does it work?

Deregulation usually works through a reverse auction, in which energy producers offer to sell their energy at a the lowest price, or bid.

Independent agencies then buy enough energy to suit the daily demand, starting with the lowest offered bid.  The highest bid accepted for the day is then the price that every producer is paid.  The process begins again the next day.

This energy is then distributed, usually by established utilities or system operators, along the  existing infrastructure to consumers.

In a fully deregulated system, the function of utilities switches from primary producer to energy purchaser and distributor.  The basic logistics of energy transmission don’t change much—just the source.

While your usual utility is still responsible for delivering your electricity, they are no longer responsible for setting the price.  Depending on the type of arrangement, consumers could be billed through a utility or directly by a supplier.

Since the essential infrastructure remains the same, there is little chance of energy shortages or the mass blackouts often rumored to accompany deregulation.

4.  Price Volatility? How to choose the plan that’s best for your wallet

The price of producing energy is not constant and could become more complicated with multiple players.  There are a variety of rate plans available to address such price volatility and ensure consumers stay in the black.

The two main types of plans are variable rate and fixed rate plans.

Variable rate plans change with market prices.  This means that consumers pay the current going rate for electricity.  This plan is most beneficial when energy rates are stable and low or expected to decrease.

A fixed rate plan allows customers to pay a set price for their energy over a set time period.  These types of plans offer protection from highly changeable markets.  Consumers are unaffected by any sudden price increases or drops.

What’s more, the long-term costs of renewables may be more predictable than conventional fossil fuels.  While deregulation has a chance for price volatility, it offers the chance to choose renewables–which have lower fuel volatility.  Though they have a higher upfront cost, once running, renewable sources like solar and wind can produce produce electricity at little to no cost.

Poff cited this as the reason why Iberdrola has been able to guarantee consumers a fixed price.

“Nobody knows what gas is going to be in 20 years,” said Poff.  “Where I know with 100% certainty the cost of wind in 20 years- its still zero.”

5.  Why Deregulation? Conflicting Economic Ideologies

Deregulation is rooted in basic economic theory: more competition in a market drives prices down for consumers.  Poff said rates would go down with the removal of energy monopolies.

“You find this across the US where energy markets have been deregulated and consumers are given choice; the suppliers are forced to compete,” Poff said. “And electrons are not unique, they don’t have special features. And so its all about cost.”

Aside from lowered cost, many people believe that competition from multiple producers will also foster innovation and improved efficiency.  Outdated utilities, stripped of their monopoly, would be forced to get with the times to stay technologically current and competitive.

In short: a win-win for energy consumers and the environment.

The opposing side contests that deregulation in theory and practice are two different beasts, citing increased and variable rates rather than reduced cost for consumers.

Seventeen states in the US to date have currently deregulated energy sectors and have met with mixed success.  While deregulation offers customers more choices as predicted, prices have not been so predictable.

6.  The Opposition: Why many fear price hikes may accompany deregulation

In abolishing the old utilities system, deregulation also removes the price cap placed on energy producers set by utilities commissions. According to economic theory, competition should drive prices down, yet just the opposite has happened in some cases.

During times of high energy demand, producers in states like California and Montana have been caught gouging consumers.  The Enron Scandal of California created a particularly bad name for deregulation.  Dr. Greg Gangi, the head of the Institute for the Environment at UNC Chapel Hill said that this was an isolated case, due to rapid pace and poor planning.

However, many still associate deregulation with the rolling blackouts and price hikes that plagued California in the early 2000s.  Such events have left consumers wondering if deregulation is really the best thing for their wallets.

Richard Schuler, a professor of economics and engineering at Cornell University offered an altered version of the economic theory in an article on deregulation in California.  While competition does drive down prices, he argued that greater numbers do not necessarily increase competition.  According to Schuler, a market’s competitiveness is measured by how strongly producers are incentivized to lower prices.

The energy market is unique in that demand is almost constant, despite costs.  Our world is electric.  This ensures that producers’ energy will be bought no matter what the price.

However, prices aren’t necessarily expected to lower under current utilities.

“They have very little incentive to do deals that would ultimately reduce cost,” Poff said of utilities under regulated systems.  “Every time they spend a dollar, they are guaranteed by law a set rate of return on that dollar.  So they have no interest in cutting cost.”

7.  The Affirmative: Evidence of deregulation at its best

On the other hand, deregulation has met with much success in other countries.  This is especially true in Germany, where deregulation has ruled for far longer than in the US.  In a recent talk on the German energy system, Andreas Von Schoenberg catalogued Germany’s successes.

“We have gone from 3 to 30% renewables from the 1990’s to the present without any major changes to the energy grid,” said Von Schoenberg.

In Germany, deregulation has not only given consumers freedom of choice, but new economic opportunities as well. The largest support for renewable energy in Germany comes from a base of farmers.  Through enabling legislation, such as feed-in-tariffs, they were able to produce energy along with crops and diversify their income.

Many economically-minded environmentalists like  Harris advocate for coupling deregulation with a feed-in tariff, carbon tax or some other check on utilities.

“I personally would like to see a carbon tax.  I think the science is pretty irrefutable,” Harris said.

This strategy would allow for deregulation in a way that turns the market over to citizens and allows them maximum benefit.  Legislation such as carbon taxes favor renewable energies and would help to facilitate their introduction to the energy market, giving consumers more choice.  Though renewables may be doing just fine without any help.

“I think a carbon tax would certainly be a lot safer for the planet and accelerate things faster, but I’m somewhat encouraged by the speed of the deployment without it,” said Harris.

This is true for most of the current renewables in NC, which are large-scale.  However, to see the kinds of small scale residential energy production of Germany, we would likely need similar legislation.

8.  The bottom line

As evident from Germany and other world leaders, energy is trending towards renewable sources.  While deregulation represents a departure from the tried and true methods of the past, it also represents an opportunity for improvement.  Additionally, it is becoming increasingly costly to resist green energy.

“Twenty years ago, wind power was about 3 times as expensive as conventionally generated electricity, and today without a subsidy, its cheaper than most fossil fuel generated electricity. And it keeps getting better,” said Harris.

Though the path of deregulation may not be the smoothest, it is clear that renewable energy will continue to grow in importance.  It may also grow to be the most affordable, greening the energy sector and consumer’s wallets.

Energy Sources: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“Climate change is real, it is happening right now,” said Leonardo DiCaprio during his politically charged acceptance speech at the Oscars Sunday night.

Whether or not you believe in man-made climate change, there is no arguing that the energy landscape is changing – and quickly. Here’s what’s good, the bad, and the ugly about the main sources of energy in the United States today.

 

Coal:

The Good: The infrastructure is already in place. It is estimated that the United States alone produced about 900 million tons in 2015. The United States has five major regions that produce coal and in 2013, there were about 80,400 people employed in the coal industry. In other parts of the world, coal is just as important.

“It’s still one of the cheapest sources across many parts of the world,” said Brian Park, a US Energy Information Administration coal expert. “Some parts are still heavily dependent on coal.”

The Bad: The price of coal is projected to increase. Meanwhile, coal production is falling, with the amount of coal produced in 2015 10% lower than the amount produced in 2014, and the lowest level its been since 1986.

The Ugly: 65% of the coal mined in the US comes from surface or strip mines, which change landscapes and pollute rivers and water sources. The rest come from underground mines, which produce the potent greenhouse gas methane. In 2013, underground mines formed about 9% of total US methane emissions. Mining it isn’t even the worst part. In 2014, coal accounted for 76% of carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation. Coal combustion also emits sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and ash. All of these emissions have negative impacts on air quality and human health.

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Photo by: camilla.mc

 

Oil:

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Photo by: Eric Chan

The Good: The industry is developed, with petroleum products accounting for about 34% of the energy consumed worldwide. Petroleum can be used to make many different products, including gas, waxes, and asphalt.

The Bad: Oil prices are unreliable, because they are determined by global supply and demand. The supply of oil is largely determined by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), who have close to three-fourths of the estimated world crude oil reserves. These regions have a history of political instability, leading to price instability.

The Ugly: Mining for oil is notoriously dangerous for ecosystems, both in water and on land. Oil spills, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska or the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have disastrous consequences that take years to fix.

 

Natural Gas:

The Good: As of 2014, the US has a projected 389 trillion cubic feet of natural gas both onshore and offshore. Using this resource of natural gas drives down the price of energy.

“The one really big thing we’re seeing is that power generation is starting to come more and more from natural gas,” said Katherine Teller, a US Energy Information Administration expert. She attributes this to more coal plants being retired, and the increased supply of natural gas and efficiency of miners.

The Bad: Natural gas is concentrated in specific areas, and must be transported to many places. In more than half the states in the US, natural gas consumers depend on interstate pipeline systems for their natural gas supply. Natural gas is highly flammable, which makes transportation dangerous.

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Photo by: Tod Baker

The Ugly: Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is a highly disputed mining method of natural gas; fracking has been accused of wasting and contaminating water and causing small earthquakes. While it burns cleaner than most fossil fuels, natural gas is mainly methane and emits carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other polluting compounds. Natural gas leaks were the source of 29% of total US methane emissions and one of the largest man-made greenhouse gas disasters.

 

Nuclear:

The Good: Nuclear power plants are used more intensively than coal or natural gas, as they use more capacity to generate electricity than other power plants. In 2014 in the US, the nuclear share of electricity generating capacity was 9%, while the share of total electricity generation was 19%. Nuclear has been consistently maintaining a share of about 20% of total US electricity output since 1990.

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Photo by: Tobin

The Bad: Nuclear reactors and power plants are dangerous if strict safety protocols are not followed. As shown in the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents, hazards run high with nuclear energy.

The Ugly: Nuclear power creates large amounts of radioactive waste that remain dangerous to human health for thousands of years. This makes disposal difficult, as waste must be stored safely. In addition, mining and refining uranium, and creating reactor fuel, requires large amounts of energy.

 

Renewable and Alternative Energies:

The Good: There are many different types of renewable energy sources. The main five are biomass, hydropower, geothermal, wind and solar. This makes energy more reliable, because if one type fails, there are many others to count on. In addition, non-biomass renewable sources do not directly emit greenhouse gases, making them good for the environment. In 2014, about 13% of US electricity was generated from renewable sources, a number that is expected to grow.

The Bad: Renewables may not always be available depending on weather patterns. Cloudy days reduce solar installation generation, less windy days reduce wind power generation and hydropower is affected by droughts. Storage technologies are being developed to account for this, but they’ve got a long way to go.

The Ugly: The aesthetics of different types of renewables have been widely resisted. Many communities do not want to look at windmills or solar panels in their backyards. Hydropower dams may damage ecology and affect flow of rivers. Some wind turbines cause bird and bat deaths.

 

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Photo by: Mariano Mantel