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Blog Archive: March 2012

Electricity 2.0

Posted by John Martin at 10:30 AM, 03/20/2012
Notes on a fine talk delivered on March 7 by Mr. Jesse Berst, founder and chief analyst at for the 49th Annual Meeting of the economic development group for the Tri-Cities of Washington state (Pasco, Kennewick, Richland).

Originally, a quiet two-village agricultural shipping node at the convergences of the Yakima and Snake Rivers into the Columbia River, it was transformed into an advanced technology hub in the mid-20th Century as one of the centers of fuel development for America's nuclear program, creating the near-instant 3rd city of Richland to support the reactors on the Hanford Reservation.

As the arms race cooled after the 1950s, the research campus was diversified into a wider range of civilian and government pursuits and 'outsourced' to civilian operations management in the mid-1960s -- then and now contracted to the Battelle Institute, the world’s largest independent non-profit R&D organization. This became the "Pacific Northwest National Laboratory" of the Department of Energy that we know today.

As the newly -Tri- Cities area moved beyond military compound to embryonic industrial metropolis, a regional economic development group was formed in 1963, now known as the Tri-Cities Development Council or TRIDEC.

One natural extension for the National Lab involved the technical skills of large-scale regional electricity grids, being at the center of the vast Columbia Valley hydroelectric network started in parallel with the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Depression with construction continuing through the 1960s. Today, PNNL is renowned for it's testbed, simulators and extensive research into the latest intelligent, interactive and adaptive transmission and distribution infrastructures, popularly known as "smart grid".

Now on the cusp of the half-century mark for the Columbia hydro grid, and TRIDEC itself, the Annual Meeting presented a keynote address by Mr. Berst boldly titled "Electricity 2.0".

Sidebar: TRIDEC has a special-interest group for this sector called the Mid-Columbia Energy Initiative.   A presentation on cleantech open's 4th Northwest season was made to their monthly meeting on March 20 as well as to the TRIDEC Annual Meeting on the 7th.

In his Annual Meeting keynote, Mr. Berst noted something I've long thought but not written: that if you look back at middle-class town-life in America in the 1880s it was nearly identical in its physicality, to life during the Roman Empire.  All the variance from Rome to today has been mostly within the last 90-100 years and directly or indirectly due to electricity, whose delivery, management and pricing has remained virtually unchanged since before WW2. Berst opened with a picture of the entrance to Union Station in DC built in 1908 which put in marble one of those florid quotes to which the early 20th Century was prone -- but also reminding us what's at stake here: (since electrical resistance is a form of fire, we'll include the full engraving here) 

Fire: greatest of discoveries, enabling man to live in various climates, use many foods, and compel the forces of nature to do his work.
Electricity: carrier of light and power, devourer of time and space, bearer of human speech over land and sea, greatest servant of man, itself unknown.
Thou hast put all things under his feet.


Unlike almost any other segment of society from medicine to typewriters, phones, "mail", etc., today's electric power experience has remained virtually unchanged through all our living ancestors, Berst had a slide saying our grid was:

  • Invented in the Age of Edison
  • Designed in the Age of Eisenhower
  • Installed in the Age of Nixon

Power grids are massive, long-term creatures that we want to be stable, thus they shouldn't change much. But the industry consensus is that we're approaching a rare definitional reset. Such may be only required once-a-century, but that upgrade from Electricity 1.0 to Electricity 2.0 is happening now.   I like Mr. Berst calling it Electricity 2.0 rather than Grid 2.0, because, with discussions of new DC-loops in commercial campuses, ideal voltages for massive electric vehicle fleets, redesigning basic connections to accept two-way flows (if houses and farms contribute generation back to the grid) we really are re-imagining the whole idea of electricity. Berst has a good perspective on this, not least as being that rare native-son of the Richland power-engineering community, his parents having moved there in the early 1950s for his father to work on nuclear engineering at Hanford; they still live in retirement in the Tri-Cities. He is also a noted expert and analyst on the Grid, having authored two seminal reports in the early 000s on smart grid's economic opportunity for the Region titled "Poised for Profit".

He did not go into the myriad permutations or challenges of smart grid (as desert was already served), but noted that it shouldn't be so intimidating to us as a society considering that, not long ago, we had rotary-dial-party-line phones, rabbit-ears on our TVs, used carbon paper and posted cheques in the mail. We've moved to dramatically different usage-cases via the same basic elements devices and communications -- solid-state processing and addressable mesh-networks, both swathed in volumes of software to provide interactivity and adaptability.

As with so many things, the main problem is not technological, it's administrative and financial. Electric utilities are in the business of selling a product at a low price. Also, being seen as a basic social need, they are highly regulated. Thus, their whole mercantile ecosystem rewards selling as much as possible and spending as little as possible to do so reliably. Everything required by a more environmentally sustainable and flexible power system would have utilities spend more to sell less . In various ways both are often legally prohibited or restricted. This does not always require a burden on society. Berst noted that Californians, who bear some of the highest utility rates in North America, often have only median net utility charges because of the greater efficiencies in equipment and buildings installed in the State, through various combinations of standards, price signals, voluntary upgrades and some mandates. The challenge of "Electricity 1.0" was easier, because it simply involved "more of everything". Our 2.0 challenge will be to choreograph the economic signals and incentives so as to advance rather than retard the inevitable conversion to "less of everything". Mr. Berst noted that many other advanced and developing economies are moving agressively with smart grid development. It's arguable that given electricity's basic role in moving us beyond Roman lifestyles, America's dominance of the 20th Century stemmed in part from our leadership in its early decades in defining, standardizing, and early-adopting the terms and conditions of Electricity 1.0. The future may well favor those who seize the initiative of Electricity 2.0 before standards get locked in for the rest of the 21st Century.

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Military and Cleantech

Posted by John Martin at 12:30 PM, 03/20/2012


--> Interesting event in Seattle on the Ides of March (15th). A presentation regarding the opportunity for cleantech in military applications presented by a "new kid on the block" here in the Puget Sound -- a partner organization to the Natural Resources Defense Council called Environmental Entrepreneurs, colloquially known as E2.

Sidebar -- One of the founders of our cleantech open, Michael Santullo, is also a founding member of Environmental Entrepreneurs. And an executive at one of Seattle's few 'star' cleantech ventures, EnerG2's BizDev VP Mark Liffman, is the new Northwest chair for Environmental Entrepreneurs.

This E2 event was done in partnership with Climate Solutions. The co-founder of E2, Nicole Lederer, came up from San Francisco. She is now in charge of E2's federal advocacy operations and introduced the panel which included
  • TWO local congressmen
    • Jay Inslee of the 1st District, now running for Governor
    • Adam Smith of the 9th District, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee
      • even more important locally with the pending retirement of the 6th District's Norm Dicks
  • the lead for 'green' procurement at Naval Base Everett
  • a retired Navy SEAL now with a Seattle consultancy, Federal Green Solutions.
In her opening remarks E2's Lederer noted that despite gridlock not only in Congress on "energy policy", but increasingly in the civilian marketplace generally, America's military is mobilizing, and quite actively, to deploy advanced alternative-energy and green solutions. Despite doubts elsewhere in the public sector, the Department of Defense officially accepts the reality of global warming and tags it as a threat multiplier, because of potential infrastructure disruption and the attendant social unrest. The Navy is the lead service in going green and, later on, the SEAL -- James Marvin -- noted that, at raw minimum, if the Arctic Ocean melts, that's another whole ocean to worry about and one in a very strategic location requiring significant naval assets to patrol and protect. All else being equal, Navy life would be easier if it remained frozen and inhospitable like it is supposed to be!

Ms. Lederer noted 3 lessons that E2 has learned as it has ramped its engagement with the US Military.    First, DoD's energy objectives for national security are nearly synonymous with E2's objectives for energy, economic and environmental security. Second, of course, the Military has unequaled resources both financially, intellectually and logistically.

Third, she noted that the Military is blessed with many tools with which to work the problem including
  • they are the single most trusted institution in American society today
  • they have significant autonomy outside the morass of civilian government administrivia
  • they have a results-oriented execution-focused culture that is the envy of all organizations

I occassionally hear folks talk about cleantech, as they used to about nanotech, as "feeling like semiconductors in 1968". Pity its not semiconductors in 1988 because that's when chips really took off commercially. Back in 1968, semicon's maturation through early generations was largely done on the backs of high-urgency, high-return military programs.   For cleantech, despite a brief bubble of civilian commercial exuberance in the mid-000s, it may be that we're back to a model where it's the military that drives the cutting edge.

Indeed, Ms. Lederer opined that, given the massive demand from the military, the Department of Defense could effectively substitute for a national energy and climate policy serving as a market-driver and development partner for new American cleantech. Then, just as happened in earlier eras with semiconductors, RF engineering and ARPAnet, more cost-effective offspring of these products could transition into the broader commercial market offering meaningful growth in the civilian economy.

Congressman Smith noted that over ¾ of all the energy consumed by the Federal Government is consumed by the Defense Department, and that they spend nearly $20B annually just on energy.

Smith stated that the biggest challenge for alt-egy and DoD is "procurement", stating flatly (and with many audience nods) that "no one is harder to do business with than DoD".

For example, almost everything at DoD is purchased as if it were a tank or missle procurement -- detailed specs, hammered out OVER years and years AHEAD of actually delivery, and then almost never able to be modified. The equivalent in the personal-tech space would result in still taking 2012 deliveries of Pentium PCs with WindowsXP because of long-lead, long-term procurements.

Ray Smalling, the Utility and Energy Manager at Naval Station Everett said that laws require him to pay not 1¢ above market for renewables, which also limits flexibility and results in only 1% of NSE's energy being derived from renewables in 2011. Being limited to market price, he is also limited to contracts of less than 5 years. This was instituted to avoid 'monopolies', but an un-intended side-effect is to stymie renewables. If a totally new product, like biofuel is building a supply chain and infrastructure from scratch, large-cap financings often have 10 and 20 year terms, and can't be closed without assured markets in the latter decades of the term.

Still progress is being made, Smalling noted that a majority of new construction at NSE is being done to high-efficiency standards and that most buildings on-base have now been outfitted for real-time energy usage monitoring. Funding is always a scavenger hunt and currently they find must funding coming from
  • Naval Installations Command
  • ESIP (defin?)
  • Bonneville Power Administration
The retired SEAL James Marvin's consulting business is primarily to help explain the military and civilian sectors to each other. Over a range of comments his basic theme was that the military is taking an aggressively forward position on cleantech not out of any tree- or bear-hugging feelings, nor broader concerns about warm weather. Entrepreneurs who are environmental often have greater sensitivities, but they should not allow those to complicate or gum-up interactions with military procurement.

For military folks it's always ALL ABOUT THE MISSION. As noted above, even concern for a melted Arctic relates to mission over-extension and threat exposure. So, your green, sustainable product should be pitched as adding to operational flexiblity, the holy grail of all military.

Marvin noted that his own re-focus on environmental entrepreneurship came from his on-the-ground experience in Iraq, seeing the heavy logistical burden of supplying energy and removing waste streams from forward bases. He also experienced first-hand, what many have cited, that a significant number of casulities in Iraq were not forward combat, but in logistical conveys, most especially fuel convoys.

Marvin reflected Ms. Lederer's comments that, today, you are seeing real progress and active mobilization in the military around green, clean, sustainable and the rest.
  • biofuels introduced into maritime and aviation applications
  • EVs in non-tactical vehicular roles
  • solar and wind power being deployed in Afghanistan today
  • bases retrofitted for reduced energy footprint
  • hybrid-electric powertrains being introduced into the fleet
When Congressman (and candidate) Inslee spoke, he waxed poetic about the hybrid-electric tugboats being produced for the Navy at the J.M. Martinac Boatyard in Tacoma, as well as the biofuels of Targeted Growth and the energy storage chemistries at EnerG2, both based in Seattle and involved with the above applications.

Humorous aside -- Inslee mentioned having recently been in Boston and visiting the USS Constitution - "Old Ironsides" - which he noted was a 100% renewables-powered battleship.

The topic of military cleantech will only grow in the coming years. Further events are planned this Spring hereabouts, reflecting the oft-overlooked fact that the Puget Sound region now has the largest concentration of active military facilities, ex-Hawaii, west of the Rockies (what with all the base de-commissionings in California). So, if there is anywhere in the west that military cleantech will be a stimulus, it's here in WA.
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