Friday, January 04, 2013

Transforming roads to be more bike friendly

Impressive discussion of how/why cities can change their road infrastructure to be more bike friendly.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Nest learning thermostats now saving a whole lot of energy

Katie Fehrenbacher


Nest’s learning thermostats have collectively saved over 200 million kilowatt hours of energy since they were launched back in October 2011, says the startup. That’s about the equivalent amount of energy to power the Empire State building for four years, and which Nest says is a figure that blew their minds when they calculated it.

It’s unclear how many Nest thermostats there are out there, but a few months ago Nest said it had sold in the “hundreds of thousands” of units. But the reason Nest’s collective energy savings are so high after just a year, even with its initial sales volumes, is because the thermostats can save 20 to 30 percent in a home’s energy consumption. Per home, that’s a really high figure.

In comparison software energy leader Opower, which processes data from more than 50 million homes, says it’s saved over 1.6 billion kilowatt hours of energy, or enough energy to power the Empire State Building for more than 33 years. But Opower saves much smaller energy percentages per home — or on average about 1.5 to 3.5 percent reduction on an energy bill.

That’s why Nest is smaller and newer than Opower, but is still managing to wrack up the energy savings, too. It would be awesome if companies got really competitive over how much collective energy savings they could deliver — energy savings FTW!

Opower is looking to boost its per home energy savings. Paper reports, mailed to the utility customer, still play a substantial role in its service — of the 15 million homes that are fully connected into the Opower platform, 7 million of those are getting paper reports. Opower has newer products including a Facebook app and a smart thermostat service with Honeywell, which could make that savings number rise.

If you’ve forgotten Honeywell hit Nest with a lawsuit earlier this year. So Honeywell’s connection with Opower, is kindof like its technology answer to Nest. Maybe these two venture-backed energy startups are becoming a little more competitive, albeit from different angles. Opower sells its software service to utilities, while Nest sells its thermostats straight to consumers.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Who’s Watching? Privacy Concerns Persist as Smart Meters Roll Out

Christina Nunez
For National Geographic News
December 12, 2012
Energy consultant Craig Miller, who spends much of his time working to make the smart grid a reality, got a jolt when he mentioned his work to a new acquaintance. The man, who happened to be a lineman at a Pennsylvania utility, responded earnestly:  "Smart meters are a plot by Obama to spy on us."
The encounter was a disheartening sign of the challenge ahead for proponents of the smart grid, who say that the technology can help the industry meet power demand, fix problems faster, and help consumers lower their electricity bills. Advocates of such a 21st-century grid are learning that they need to take privacy concerns seriously. Though smart meters are not, in fact, a domestic espionage scheme, they do raise questions: In a world where households start talking with the power grid, what exactly will be revealed? And who will be listening? 
The term "smart grid" encompasses an array of technologies that can be implemented at various points along the line of transmission from power plant to electricity user, but for many consumers, it is symbolized by one thing: the smart meter.  A majority of U.S. states have begun deploying the wireless meters, which can send electricity usage information from a household back to the utility remotely at frequent intervals. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than 36 million smart meters were installed across the nation as of August 2012, covering about a quarter of all electrical customers. In the European Union, only 10 percent of households have smart meters but they are being deployed rapidly to meet an EU mandate that the technology reach 80 percent of households by 2020.
Because smart meters can provide real-time readings of household energy use instead of the familiar monthly figures most customers now see in their electric bills, the devices offer a new opportunity for consumers to learn more about their own power use and save money. But the ability to track a household's energy use multiple times a day also presents some unsettling possibilities. In theory, the information collected by smart meters could reveal how many people live in a home, their daily routines, changes in those routines, what types of electronic equipment are in the home, and other details. "It's not hard to imagine a divorce lawyer subpoenaing this information, an insurance company interpreting the data in a way that allows it to penalize customers, or criminals intercepting the information to plan a burglary," the private nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in a blog post about smart meters. 
The European Union's data protection watchdog warned earlier this year that smart meters, while bringing significant potential benefits, also could be used track whether families "are away on holiday or at work, if someone uses a specific medical device or a baby-monitor, how they like to spend their free time and so on." The European Data Protection Supervisor urged that member states provide the public with more information on how the data is being handled. 
A State-by-State Effort
As with many of the rules governing utility operations, regulations to address privacy concerns in the United States are currently embedded in a patchwork of state laws and public utility commission policy.  Most experts point to California as a leader: Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) adopted rules governing access to, and usage of, customer data. The state has also passed legislation that requires utilities to obtain the customer's consent for release of their information to any third party. The CPUC was involved in producing a comprehensive report on privacy with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that summarizes, often in chilling detail, the many ways in which privacy breaches could occur on the smart grid, and recommends best practices for preventing those breaches. "As Smart Grid implementations collect more granular, detailed, and potentially personal information, this information may reveal business activities, manufacturing procedures, and personal activities in a given location," the NIST report said.
George Arnold, national coordinator for smart grid interoperability at NIST, points out that many of these privacy and security issues have been dealt with in the health care and telecommunications sectors, for example. "Protecting the privacy of the information [on the smart grid] has been taken very seriously. . . . I think it's a good news story that policymakers recognize the importance, and both policy and technical tools are well in hand to deal with this," Arnold said. 
But no existing federal or state laws can be counted on to protect consumers' utility data as smart meters are rolled out across the country. At least one utility in California argued early on that it was subject to a number of existing laws that would address privacy concerns, according to Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which worked with the CPUC on its privacy framework. However, Dempsey's group found that no single law provided a clear answer regarding utility data, and that a new set of rules was necessary. "Almost every state has some kind of [privacy] law already," Dempsey said. "But the point is, those laws predate the smart grid, and they do not really account for the complexity of the smart-grid ecosystem."
With other states—including Colorado, Maine, and Texas—now formulating policy on smart meters, a consensus is emerging. Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum, which advocates for responsible handling of consumer data, says there is general agreement that utilities should have rules that govern how they can use smart meter data, and that a customer should be able to know and have access to the data being collected. Still, Polonetsky points out that as energy-saving applications and devices (such as the Nest wireless thermostat) proliferate, state privacy frameworks may have limited power. Utility sharing of data is restricted, but "some device that I buy and I activate may not be subject to utility regulations," Polonetsky said. His organization has introduced a privacy seal for companies that handle smart-grid data, with the goal of highlighting companies that are being proactive about privacy.
Resistance to smart meters in some areas, though confined to a small fraction of utility customers, has been vociferous enough that a handful of communities have declared moratoriums on installations. The city of Ojai, California, for example, declared such a moratorium in May, though it is effectively unenforceable. In Texas, one woman pulled a gun on a utility employee who was trying to install a smart meter. Beyond privacy issues, many smart-meter opponents cite fear of exposure to radio frequency waves, even though radio frequency exposure from smart meters falls "substantially below the protective limits set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the general public," according to a study from the Electric Power Research Institute, the nonprofit research organization funded by the electric power industry. 
Some states, including California and Maine, which has the highest penetration rate in the country for advanced meters, have allowed residents to opt out of smart-meter installation. So far, few customers have done so: In California, according to Chris Villarreal of the CPUC, the opt-out rate was less than half of one percent. The Texas Public Utility Commission is currently weighing whether or not to allow customers to opt out.
Miller, the energy consultant, has been working on a $68 million effort partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to implement smart-grid technology with rural electric cooperatives. He said many of the concerns about smart meter privacy run counter to how utilities actually operate. "The utilities go through all kinds of effort to reduce the amount of information they get," he said. "They see no advantage [in] collecting data with no operational value. If the data did not allow you [as a utility] to make a better decision about the operation of your grid, then there's no reason for a utility to collect it, and they won't."
High Ambitions, Low Public Awareness
Protecting homeowner data from interested outsiders will be crucial for the electric industry as it seeks customer buy-in on the smart grid, but the real challenge may lie in boosting the interest of homeowners themselves. "Our research shows that consumers generally overwhelmingly are unaware of the smart grid [and smart meters] and don't even know what those terms mean," said Patty Durand, executive director of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC), a nonprofit dedicated to consumer education about the smart grid.
In most cases, the utility notifies the customer that the smart meter is coming, swaps in the new meter, and recovers the cost of deployment through a slight rate adjustment, so a homeowner may have little involvement in the installation process. That decreases the likelihood that a homeowner will understand what the smart meter does or how it is beneficial. 
"For the longest time, the relationship between the utility and the customer has been, 'Here's the power and you can pay for it'," said Villarreal of the CPUC. "Now with smart grid and smart meters, we're asking the customers to get more involved and providing them with a lot more information, and now they're starting to ask questions."
Villarreal said that not all utilities have been quick to embrace a world that demands more of a dialogue with customers. In response to the notion of posting a privacy policy, one utility representative from another part of the country told him, " 'We don't want to do that, because we don't want customers calling us and asking us questions about it.' That's not a very proactive response to working with your customers. You're probably just raising the ire of customers more than solving the problem," he said.
California's public utilities have learned to employ robust communication strategies for smart-meter rollouts. San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) sent out at least five notifications to customers leading up to installations. "I think that really helped, because it wasn't like it was somebody knocking on the door," said Caroline Winn, SDG&E's vice president of customer services and chief customer privacy officer. "People weren't surprised to get the smart meter when we installed them."
While a combination of proactive communication and opt-out policies can help prevent customer confusion and minimize backlash against smart-meter rollouts, utilities have the long-term task of making sure that they add value for both customers and themselves. Some benefits involve little or no customer engagement: Smart meters can tell utilities, for example, when outages occur and help generate outage maps for customers (in the analog days, the utility didn't know about an outage unless a customer called).
Other aspects of smart meters involve more attention from a household. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which has installed 9.1 million smart meters across northern and central California at a total cost of $2.2 billion, has experimented with a variety of methods for getting customers more interested in their data. "We deploy reporting with your bill that shows you your usage compared to your neighbor's, and that's highly motivating for some people," said PG&E Chief Information Officer Karen Austin.
PG&E's other programs include rate incentives for energy conservation during peak times, text messages that alert customers when their electricity usage crosses into a new pricing tier, and participation in the Green Button Initiative, which allows people to download their energy-usage information in a standardized format. The goal is to create a level of engagement with energy-usage data among consumers that has barely existed before. Ultimately, the hope is that when consumers see how much energy they use, they can try to use less.
"The utilities have been challenged with not properly educating consumers and not understanding who their consumers are, because they've never had to," said Durand of the SGCC. "In the past, it's been a one-way relationship . . . but those days are over." 

Aldermen approve Emanuel's energy switch to Integrys from ComEd

Chicagoans could find out as soon as Thursday exactly how much they will pay for electricity under a plan approved Wednesday that switches about 1 million people to Integrys Energy Services.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel received unanimous City Council approval Wednesday to negotiate most details of the transaction.

Michael Negron, deputy chief of policy and strategic planning for the Emanuel administration, said Integrys, a sister company to Peoples Gas, is carefully timing its bulk electricity purchase in order to strike a good deal for Chicago. It could happen Thursday.

"Typically in this industry, when you lock down a rate it's for minutes or hours," he said. "We want to be in a position to get us the best possible prices."

The city hopes to be a model for other communities because its contract calls for consumer protections and elimination of power produced by burning coal.

"For protecting our residents and protecting our environment, we have taken, I think, a significant step, and one that's a model that other cities will look at," Emanuel said.

Integrys must deliver prices at or below what residents would have paid Commonwealth Edison through 2015 and cannot charge early termination fees to consumers who decide to seek alternative suppliers or deny service as a result of their credit history. Consumers can also opt out.

Emanuel has said consumers could see savings of about $150 per household through May 2015.

David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a Chicago-based consumer advocate, applauded the deal, which he said had "consumer protections that are stronger than we've seen in any other community."

ComEd, which will deliver electricity purchased by Integrys, will still be responsible for billing and fixing power outages.

An earlier plan to siphon a portion of consumer savings to invest in rooftop solar panels and energy efficiency upgrades in Chicago buildings didn't get out the door. Some critics said the plan would be akin to a hidden tax.

Mark Pruitt, of the Delta Institute, a consultant to the city on the issue, said Integrys is being encouraged to make investments in energy efficiency improvements as it hedges its Chicago portfolio.

Just as Integrys can purchase megawatts from power plants to increase its electricity supply, it can also fulfill its obligations by purchasing so-called negawatts, which decrease demand for power. For instance, rather than buying power from a natural gas plant, Integrys can pay a large manufacturer to power down at certain times to decrease electricity demand.

"The innovation can still continue as the contract begins," said Jack Darin, executive director of Sierra Club's Illinois chapter and a member of the advisory committee for the electricity deal.

Chicago is the largest city in the country eligible to adopt such a plan under state laws. Only Ohio and Illinois laws allow for such efforts, according to city officials. Hundreds of suburbs have adopted the electricity arrangement in recent years.,0,4748379.story

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Long Power Outages During Storms Like Hurricane Sandy Could Be Prevented

NEW YORK -- When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, it flooded electrical substations and knocked down trees, shutting off power for 8.2 millions customers.
While the electric companies got that number down to 4.45 million as of Thursday, it will be days or even weeks before all the region's residents can turn their lights on. New York's ConEd said Thursday that recovery would take until Nov. 11 for most, but could stretch on until the end of the month.
Does the restoration of the mid-Atlantic power grid have to take so achingly long? While the utility companies argued that they're working as hard as they possibly can, several experts said that America's power infrastructure could be more resilient -- even when tested by a once-in-a-century storm.
"The message from Sandy is that it has to be stronger," said James Hoecker, a lawyer who led the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under President Bill Clinton. Experts suggested various adjustments, such as underground cables, smart grid technology and tree trimming to make future outages end sooner.
Designing above-ground power lines to cope with more of a beating, and hardening critical infrastructure, could help. On the distribution side, most telephone poles and wires are not designed to withstand the 90-mile-per-hour winds that swept through New Jersey on Monday. That, said Otto Lynch, the energy representative for the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Committee on America’s Infrastructure, is a mistake.
"It is embarrassing to me that streetlights are supposed to be designed to a higher level of standard than distribution lines are," he told HuffPost. For perhaps $100 a pole, he argued, we could prevent a lot of downed electrical poles and powerless neighborhoods.
The transmission network, the part of the grid that moves power across state lines and has been implicated before in outages like the blackout of 2003, appears not to have been seriously tested by the storm because of its higher design standards.
But the grid could use some work, Lynch said. It was first built in the 1880s and many of its components are now more than 100 years old, designed for 50 years of life. If something like Hurricane Katrina, which was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall, had hit the New York-New Jersey area, transmission would certainly have been affected.
The solution? "It's called redundancy," Lynch said. "Basically what we need is more transmission lines." That will only occur if regulators and the public become more willing to allow those lines to be built even when they would not seemingly affect day-to-day electricity provision.
Another proposal: the comparatively unsexy but critical regulations around tree trimming. Downed limbs caused up to 90 percent of power disruptions for some utilities during Hurricane Sandy. Many states in the northeast, like Connecticut, have laws that require utility companies to submit ‘vegetation management’ plans, but these laws do not require tree trimming cycles or line clearance specifications.
A fix to the tree-trimming issue could be better training and assessment standards for determining which trees could pose a problem in a severe storm. A team at the International Society of Arboriculture is in the process of developing a qualification program for tree risk assessment and hopes it will launch next Spring.
Sharon Lilly, ISA’s educational goods and services director, hopes the program will be used by all sectors, including commercial, municipal and utility workers who are tasked with protecting the electric grid. Though programs like this could help improve the ability of utilities to identify potential risks, Lilly acknowledged that the issue will likely linger, if for no other reason than that people like trees. “I don’t think society is ready to remove all the large trees that could possibly strike a wire,” she said.
This summer, after a derecho -- an aggressive thunderstorm -- killed power for more than 1 million residents near Washington, the rallying cry was to move more electrical cables underground. A recent report commissioned by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley concluded that "selective undergrounding is an effective way to harden the grid."
The idea is that underground wires are less vulnerable to things like wind and fallen trees. Most opposition to undergrounding, as it's called, comes from cost, which could range from $6 to $20 million a mile. Lilly called it “the ultimate solution" that "the U.S. has been reluctant to invest in."
But almost all cables in downtown Manhattan, which is still dark, are already underground -- so what happened? "When you underground a line and it causes flooding, you get problems," Lynch said. "Undergrounding … is not the perfect solution."
While underground lines are less vulnerable, they can take longer to restore when they do fail (though ConEd said customers with underground service will have power as soon as this weekend).
What would make underground lines more resilient to flooding, said Virginia Tech professor Saifur Rahman, is moving buildings' connections to those cables -- cords, transformers and generators -- above flood level. "The cables are fine, but you connect them into your building's electrical circuit,," Rahman said. "Those connections … can never get wet."
The combination of underground cables with a rooftop connector is what kept Goldman Sachs lit up, Rahman said. Elevating such equipment in existing buildings would be pricey, he said, but fairly cheap in new ones. He said he hopes that the city will tweak its standards to require this practice for all buildings. But that's not quite what he saw happen in New Orleans. "They only moved the generator up in some cases," Rahman said. "This is the complacency we all live with."
One more idea is updating both transmission and distribution networks with so-called "smart grid" technology. The 2009 Recovery Act included some $4 billion for such technology with a wide range of aims: making it easier for solar and wind power generators to bring their product to market, making residential consumers' energy use more efficient, and improving the grid's reliability.
"The grid is in a state of transition and this is, I think, going to accelerate the transition, storms like this," said Peter Fox-Penner, principal of The Brattle Group, an energy consultancy.
Smart meters on the customers' side of the distribution network will help utilities determine when and to what extent people are going without power. When outages occur, electricity providers' control center maps are automatically updated.
Making the grid smarter could also open up what some environmentalists see as a holy grail of energy transformation, distributed power -- which means every house could have a solar panel on top. Fox-Penner said that could lessen the impact of distribution failures during severe weather events.
"No one thinks about the power grid as long as the lights turn on when you flip the switch, and that happens well over 99 percent of the time," said Fox-Penner. "But when it goes down, people start asking whether there's any better way to do it."

Utility pole shortage delays Sandy power restoration

By Jennifer Merritt of Reuters
Despite delivery of up to 1,500 of the specially-treated poles per day, some suppliers say they can't keep pace.

When some Westchester County, N.Y., residents called utility Consolidated Edison on Friday to find out why it was taking so long to restore power, they were told that it wasn't for lack of manpower or equipment.
It was poles ... utility poles.
Despite the caravans of power trucks in neighborhoods across the New York City area, a shortage of the specially-treated wooden poles used to string overhead power transmission lines and hold up transformers may be slowing the recovery.
Specialty pole suppliers like Cox Industries and Bridgewell Resources LLC are producing and trucking as many as 1,500 poles a day to customers in the Northeast since Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New Jersey coastline on Monday, flooding entire towns and leaving millions of homes in the dark. More than 3.5 million people remained without power as of Friday afternoon.
But in some cases, suppliers say they cannot keep up. Class 1 and 2 utility poles, which are the largest in diameter and among the most commonly-used in the Northeast, sold out fast and the orders are still coming, said Chris Slonaker, an East Coast sales manager for Bridgewell, which is based in Tigard, Oregon.
"The stock that was available at the time of the storm is all gone, and we are trying to replenish it," said Slonaker, whose company supplies power poles to Consolidated Edison Inc, Public Service Enterprise Group Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and several rural electric cooperatives.
ConEd, which still had about 500,000 customers without power as of Friday afternoon, would not immediately comment on why its customer service personnel had told some homeowners that utility pole supplies were a challenge. A spokeswoman said the biggest obstacles to restoring power to customers with overhead lines was impassable roads and thousands of downed power lines.
To complicate matters, because of high demand, stockpiles of the southern pine trees used to make the poles are in short supply at plants Bridgewell buys from. Trees are arriving at plants daily and several thousand poles are under construction now, Slonaker said.
They should be ready to ship to the Northeast by the middle of next week for a 900-mile trip that takes two to three days - which could mean another week - or more - without electricity and heat even as a cold snap settles into the area.
Most of the dozen or so plants Bridgewell buys utility poles from have been operating 24-hours a day since the storm. They usually operate only 8-hours a day during normal weather and 16-hours a day after most big weather events. Typically, Bridgewell ships 50 truckloads, each with about 30 poles, each day for one or two days after a storm. But Hurricane Sandy has led to an influx of orders far larger.
"Orders have continued at this pace," every day since Sandy struck on Monday, Slonaker said.
And even after producing the poles, Bridgewell is finding there are more orders than there were trucks. Hundreds of flatbed trucks that would normally deliver plywood and other supplies are being outfitted with wooden stakes so they can haul the 35-to-50-foot utility poles.
Orangeburg, South Carolina-based Cox Industries is sending upwards of 1,200 poles per day to warehouses in Hainesport, New Jersey and Hicksville, New York on Long Island from its production factories in the southeast, said Don Surrency, a sales manager at the company.
Surrency said Cox has not had trouble keeping up with orders to PSE&G, Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) or Verizon and is sending about 40 trucks per day, each loaded with 25 to 30 poles. But getting them to the right place hasn't been easy.
"There are other obstacles you don't typically see in storms," said Surrency.
Among them: The dense population, blocked or difficult to pass roadways - sometimes because of cars that have simply run out of gas, he said.
Truck drivers have, so far, not encountered the fuel shortages many residents in New York and New Jersey have experienced, Surrency and Slonaker said.
John Margaritis, a spokesman for PSE&G, the biggest power provider in New Jersey, said that supply of utility poles has not been an issue. The utility in hard-hit New Jersey still had 692,000 customers without power as of Friday afternoon.
LIPA did not return calls and emails for comment on Friday.
Before the storm, most of the utilities Bridgewell deals with had already ordered extra supplies of poles. But Slonaker says those ran out quickly.
"They were prepared, but this was bigger than expected," he said. "It's hard to prepare for this."

Can Hurricane Sandy Shed Light on Curbing Power Outages?

Marianne Lavelle
For National Geographic News
Published November 2, 2012
As Hurricane Sandy churned north and west over the Atlantic Ocean on its inexorable collision course with the U.S. East Coast, miles-long convoys of bucket trucks, aka cherry pickers, were already rumbling over interstate highways toward the anticipated strike zone, from as far away as Alabama and Texas.
It was well understood that the superstorm's harm would reach far beyond whatever wreckage it left in its path. Sandy's impact would spread far, wide, and quickly through the electric power grid—a vital lifeline that underpins every aspect of modern life, but one that is easily severed by falling trees and saltwater. Even before the storm hit, East Coast utilities summoned bucket trucks and work crews from the South and West, so they would be on hand to help repair downed power lines.
"It is virtually impossible to protect the system from a storm like Sandy," said Clark Gellings, a fellow at the industry's Electric Power Research Institute. Instead, he said, the industry focuses on a more achievable goal: "Can we do a better job at putting it all back together?"
By one measure, they did: Bucket-truck brigades enabled utilities to rapidly restore electricity to a large share of the 8.5 million homes and businesses in 16 states that lost power at the height of the storm.
Yet as of Friday morning, there were still nearly 3 million customers in New Jersey and New York without power, and 700,000 more in 11 states from Massachusetts to Virginia and as far west as Michigan.  New Yorkers were crowding Manhattan coffee shops to cop electric charges for their cell phones. New Jerseyites queued with red canisters outside gas stations to get fuel for their home generators—but gas was short too, in part because there was no electricity to power the pumps . Consolidated Edison, the New York utility that was dealing with the largest disruption in its history, was hoping to get the lights back on in Lower Manhattan by Saturday. That was a revised goal, after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared Con Ed's original timetable of two weeks "unacceptable."
On Thursday, as the U.S. Air Force began airlifting more utility trucks from California to New York, others too were questioning whether the bucket-brigade strategy was good enough. Many energy industry experts were viewing Sandy as a wake-up call: proof of the need for massive investment to make the electric power grid more resilient against such a disaster. Massoud Amin, director of the Technological Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota and a pioneer in grid research, notes that the East Coast power infrastructure is among the oldest in the nation. "That aging infrastructure is a marvel of 20th-century engineering," he said. "The question is how do we upgrade it for the 21st century?" 
Large Blessings, Small Margins
The electric system could count some successes in the wake of Sandy. Thirty-four nuclear power plants—one-third of the U.S. total—lay in the massive hurricane's path, and there were no meltdowns or other disasters.  The hurricane's landfall at Atlantic City was just 40 miles south of the nation's oldest nuclear power plant, Oyster Creek Generating Station; although the plant was offline for refueling, loss of power and flooding was a concern because of the need to keep the radioactive nuclear fuel from overheating. Oyster Creek shares the same design as Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, which suffered a catastrophic meltdown after the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. 
At Oyster Creek that didn't happen. The plant declared an "alert" for 36 hours when winds and heavy rains generated tides 6.8 feet above mean sea level at its water intake on the Forked River. But the water never rose high enough to impact the operation of plant equipment. When the electricity from the New Jersey grid went out, two locomotive-sized backup diesel generators started automatically and continued to power the crucial pumps that circulate cooling fluid through the reactor and the pool where spent fuel rods are stored. Cooling systems also continued to function at all three other nuclear reactors that experienced shutdowns—Indian Point and Nine Mile Point in New York, and Salem in New Jersey.
"This isn't the first time our plants have been through conditions like this," said Tom Kauffman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group. "We practice regularly and are continuously prepared."
Earlier this year, however, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered the industry to reassess both its flooding and seismic risks, in light of the Fukushima accident. David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Sandy underscores the wisdom of that decision.
"The Fukushima plant wasn't of appreciably lower quality or poorly constructed compared to the U.S. plants," Lochbaum said. "It was given a much more severe challenge. None of our reactors would have survived that either." If the water had risen another 21 inches at Oyster Creek, the plant's service pumps might have been submerged, according to NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan. That would have increased the risk of a loss-of-coolant disaster, although the plant had a back-up pump and the option of hosing the spent fuel with fire suppression system. In any case, it would be days until the cooling water would have been lost through evaporation.
Winds Versus Floods
In New York too, Hurricane Sandy drove home the point that the old benchmarks of risk might no longer apply. In one of the most dramatic videos captured the night the storm hit, a fireball burst over Manhattan's East Village when saltwater surged into one of Con Ed's substations. (Watch video below:)New York had never seen floodwaters higher than the 11-foot storm surge triggered by a hurricane in 1821. Con Ed had designed underground equipment at its voltage switching station to withstand a storm surge of 12.5 feet. But Sandy's waters reached 14 feet, flooding all of Lower Manhattan—and blowing up the substation. "Water and electricity don't mix, especially if you put salt in the water," said Gellings of EPRI.
Con Ed operates the world's largest underground electric distribution system, serving more than 3.3 million customers in New York City and neighboring Westchester County; more than 86 percent of its system is buried, including 94,000 miles of electric cables. Yet Sandy knocked out service to more than 900,000 of its customers.
Often, after storms that down overhead lines and cause widespread blackouts, public criticism of electric power companies centers around their resistance to making the investment in burying lines and other infrastructure to keep it safe from the wind. The damage that Sandy did to Con Ed proves that burying the systems is no fail-safe. To restore service, the utility is now pumping massive amounts of water out of the facilities, cleaning seawater from components, and drying, repairing, replacing, and inspecting equipment.
Though saltwater can be as damaging as wind, it may in the long run be easier to protect against. "You can make watertight compartments for the stuff that's underground," said Jeffrey Dagle, chief electrical engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "It's all a matter of money." To make such investments, utilities in the United States would need to gain approval from state regulators whose job is to keep unnecessary costs from being passed along to customers. But Sandy might change the perception of what's necessary. "The process of managing risk is informed by past events," said Dagle. "If something has never happened before, it's hard to convince regulators to fund a project to prevent it from happening. If Con Ed went to the regulators next week, it might be a different story."
Smart as Well as Tough
But many industry observers stress the electric power system needs more than stronger defenses—it needs to be smarter. "Smart meters," touted for their ability to help consumers monitor and curb their energy use, also allow utilities to pinpoint accurately where outages occur and respond quickly.
"Many people don't realize this, but not too long ago, the only way a utility knew there was an outage was if a customer called," said Gary Racliffe of ABB, a major supplier of smart-grid equipment to utilities in North America and elsewhere. An industry survey done last May found that one third of U.S. households, 36 million in all, have had smart meters installed. Unfortunately none were in the service areas of the major New York or New Jersey utilities. Smart meters are expected to be in half of all American homes by 2015.
But utilities will probably invest even more heavily in the coming years on smart systems to automate and modernize the distribution of electricity. One example is "self-healing" systems that can automatically detect a fault on the grid—say, when a tree falls on a power line—interrupt and isolate that fault within milliseconds, then reroute the power to an adjacent feeder line. While homes adjacent to the downed tree might have no power until the crew comes to remove it, most of the customers on the line have their power restored within minutes.
Amin argues that the U.S. power industry, in partnership with the government, should be making an investment of about $30 billion a year over the next 20 years to upgrade distribution systems. (Con Ed has been using $136 million in federal stimulus money for that purpose.) Not only would new technology make power systems more resilient to storms, but it also would make them more efficient and more able to integrate energy from renewable sources such as the wind and the sun. Smart-grid technology, Amin estimates, could reduce the costs of outages by about $49 billion per year, and by reducing energy use, save customers $20.4 billion a year. "The costs of upgrading are far below the benefits we get," he said. 
Like everyone else, Amin marveled at the reports of far-flung utility crews headed to the East Coast to help respond to Hurricane Sandy. "My hat goes off to them," he said. "But we can lessen the stress on them if we deploy a public-private partnership to make a smarter, stronger, more resilient grid and infrastructure. Not only can we do this, I am convinced we must do this. Secure and reliable operation of these networks is fundamental to national and international economy, security, and quality of life." 

Indy to Replace Entire Fleet With Electric, Hybrid

By RICK CALLAHAN Associated Press

Indianapolis wants to become the first major city to replace its entire fleet with electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in a move the mayor says is designed to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign-produced fuels, city officials said Tuesday.

Mayor Greg Ballard signed an executive order Tuesday mandating the city to replace its current sedans with electric vehicles. The city will also work with the private sector to phase in snow plows, fire trucks and other heavy vehicles that run on compressed natural gas, and it will ask automakers to develop a plug-in hybrid police car as one doesn't yet exist.

The city hopes to complete the switch by 2025.

Ballard, a retired Marine officer, hopes that in making the switch, Indianapolis will help the country reduce its dependence on foreign oil. City spokesman Marc Lotter said the mayor considers it an issue of national security.

"The United States' current transportation energy model, driven by oil, exacts an enormous cost financially and in terms of strategic leverage," Ballard, a retired Marine Officer and Gulf War veteran, said in a statement. "Our oil dependence in some cases places the fruits of our labor into the hands of dictators united against the people of the United States."

The city fleet includes 500 non-police vehicles, and the police car switch alone has the potential to save taxpayers $10 million a year in fuel costs, the statement from the mayor's office said.

Lotter did not provide an estimate on the cost of the change. The new vehicles will be purchased as older vehicles are retired. He said the city buys about 50 non-police vehicles every year.

"We are negotiating with the automakers and several international capital fleet firms to get the best deal possible for taxpayers," Lotter said.

City officials and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have researched the issue and found that no other major U.S. city has announced it will convert its entire fleet.

"From everything we know, we are the first city in the nation to take this step," Lotter said.

The Indianapolis area already has 200 charging stations, and Lotter said the city is working with private companies to develop more.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

3 utilities face $24.8m in fines for faulty response to Tropical Storm Irene and Halloween snowstorm

The state of Massachusetts has issued an unprecedented $24.8 million in fines against three utilities for their inadequate response to the power outages that plunged hundreds of thousands of people in the dark after Tropical Storm Irene and the Halloween snowstorm last year.

The state Department of Public Utilities said the money would be returned to customers of the utilities. National Grid has been ordered to pay $18.725 million; NStar has been ordered to pay $4.075 million; and Western Massachusetts Electric Company has been assessed $2 million.

The fines were the first ever levied by the DPU against utilities for their storm responses. NStar immediately said it would appeal the fine to the state Supreme Judicial Court.

“Regulated utilities must be accountable to the residents they serve. After conducting a thorough investigation, the Department of Public Utilities has done just that,” Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement.

“I trust this will encourage the utilities to refocus their efforts on preparation for and response to weather events in the future,’’ the governor said.

Werner Schweiger, president of NStar Electric, said, “We strongly disagree with the department and are disappointed that they have dismissed the tireless effort put forth by our employees to respond to customers after these historic storms.”

“The amount of devastation our system sustained last fall cannot be understated – with an estimated 80 percent of our overhead circuits damaged after Irene alone. We were essentially rebuilding the electric system as we restored power, and the penalties assessed today are simply not in line with the realities of getting the job done,” he said.

In a statement, National Grid said it had not yet decided whether to appeal the fine.
“We will need some time to evaluate the order fully to consider our options going forward,” the company said.

The company said it had made many changes to its emergency plans that were put into practice during superstorm Sandy and last month’s nor’easter.

Regulators said their findings were based on 16 public hearings, 13 evidentiary hearings, and more than 1,200 exhibits. They concluded that the utilities failed in their public safety duties during their response to local public safety officials regarding downed wires.

“As the number of serious weather events has risen dramatically in Massachusetts, it’s crucial for ratepayers to have electric service that is both safe and reliable,’’ Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan said in a statement.

The DPU found “systematic failures’’ in the National Grid response to the two storms, and ordered that the company hire an outside firm to review its practices and recommend new ways to respond to major storms.

National Grid “left local public safety officials standing by downed wires for as long as several days, had a seriously inadequate response for priority facilities like nursing homes and sewage treatment plants, and secured too few crews, too late,’’ officials said.

During Tropical Storm Irene, about half of NStar’s customers lost power, and the utility “performed reasonably under the circumstances,” the DPU concluded. But the department also found that the “company took far too long to respond to priority calls from public safety officials regarding downed wires and did a poor job of communicating with customers.’’

During the Halloween storm, the DPU said, NStar called customers to report their power had been restored, when, in fact, people were still in the dark.

Tropical Storm Irene did not hit Western Massachusetts, so the DPU focused on Western Massachusetts Electric Company’s response to the Halloween snowstorm. The DPU said WMECO was given credit for having “managed the storm well.’’

But WMECO, like the other utilities, did not respond fast enough to public safety officials when they reported downed power lines, the DPU found.

“The DPU understands that there will be many thousands of outages in bad storms like Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm. These will not be the last severe storms we see, and the public cannot expect that the utilities can prevent outages in events of this magnitude,” Ann Berwick, chair of the DPU, said in a statement.

“On the other hand,” she added, “public safety will remain our absolutely highest priority, and we will not tolerate inadequate responses to local public safety officials. Additionally, in this day and age, we expect competent communications with towns and customers alike.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said the fines sent a clear message that “customers deserve better.” Coakley’s office had recommended record penalties against the utilities and that the money be returned to customers.