Exelon PowerLabs

In My View: Off the Grid! Off the Grid!

By Gerald B. Sheblé

Last One Off Pays Stranded Costs!

Once upon a time, getting off the grid usually meant isolationists and survivalists trying to live without any kind of interaction with society. Today it is better understood this is an all-encompassing issue for all of society. Recently, movie stars like Daryl Hannah, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carmen Diaz, Gwyneth Paltrow, Brad Pitt, and others have made it fashionable to be off the grid. Ed Begley Jr.’s off the grid TV show demonstrated the feasibility and benefits of being off the grid.

Sidney’s Plan

Now Sydney, Australia, and other major cities in the world want to get off the grid. The city of Sydney has an all-encompassing plan to get off the grid. First, the sewer system includes a biofuel facility to power a microturbine. Second, the treated water is run through a pipe just like a microhydro power plant on its way to the sea. Third, trigeneration power plants use natural gas to provide combined heat and power. Fourth, solar cells are being installed on all rooftops. Fifth, heat pumps are joined to a central cooling and heating thermal reservoir to shift the demand from high cost periods to lower cost periods and to reduce the peak capacity requirements. All water heaters are to be replaced with heat pump water heaters. The use of “bore” (ground) water is available for water-based heat pumps. The end goal is to get off the grid and reduce electrical demand by 40%! The carbon emission reduction goal is 30%! The cost reduction goal is 50%! All of these new resources are being integrated as a microgrid that is to be disconnected from the grid.

Now Sydney, Australia, and other major cities in the world want to get off the grid.

Several U.S. universities are envisioning the same strategy to reduce the costs of education by reducing their utility bills. The central power plants of many U.S. land grant universities are the core of a microgrid concept to be energy self-sufficient. The use of solar cells and thermal cells to capture the sun’s energy for storage is not new. Even Alabama Power’s headquarters uses thermal storage to reduce the cost of air conditioning. Water-based heat pumps are a natural replacement for air-based heat pumps to shift the thermal demand from the energy surplus periods to the energy deficient periods. Add on the use of natural gas trigeneration microturbines that can even run on biofuel is an added resource to get off the grid. The recent development of parking garages as pumped hydro facilities is another way to get the city off the grid by providing energy storage of renewable energy over a daily or weekly basis.

The design of the new Tyree Energy Technologies Building (TEB) at the University of New South Wales in Australia was designed to reduce heating from summer sun and heat loss from winter winds, to employ a trigeneration gas microturbine, thermal cells, a terracotta façade, and solar cells to provide electricity for the solar cell factory inside the building. It was announced that the TEB would be expanded to be a virtual power plant using the solar cells, the trigenertion unit, and the batteries in the basement as a university-based laboratory and demonstration project.

Back in the USA

Even the U.S. Department of Defense is making plans to get off the grid. The last blackout in the southwest United States demonstrated how dependent the U.S. Navy is on the transmission grid. The outage reduced services for several hours as even local generators could not fill the gap. Given the military’s desire to install a base anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice, renewable energy seems to fill the void for energy resources that can be transported and assembled quickly. It is best to implement self-sufficient systems at home first before going overseas to deploy them. Energy storage is still a key component that is open to deployment.

It was unheard of in the past for mainstream entities to get off the grid. The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) was a prime example of the situation for getting off the grid. Their palatial home was located high in the Rocky Mountains where it was far too expensive to build a distribution line due to winter weather conditions. So instead, RMI used solar cells, biofuels, Chinese submarine batteries, and thermal storage to make life at the high altitude retreat comfortable.

The German government is now rushing to install hydrogen gas stations to fuel the Honda FX (hydrogen fuel cell) hybrid car to get off the petrol grid. Hydrogen is to be made locally from water and renewable generation resources, bottled in a small tank, and the tank substituted for a spent tank instead of filling up the tank. The same system can provide energy storage for off-the-grid applications to provide energy at any time of day during the week.

Two housing developments within the United States, one in Colorado and one in North Carolina, are designed to be off the grid. Solar cells and wind generators are the prime resources to produce hydrogen. Biofuels from the digestion of sewage are another resource to provide basic energy needs. The surplus hydrogen is then available for the cars to provide local transportation.

It is interesting that all of this is happening as the local New South Wales (NSW) Australian utilities are being organized for privatization. Is the inelastic customer showing elasticity beyond any purchaser’s nightmare?

Portugal saw a unique situation in 2009 when an ocean storm came ashore. The only generation producing electric energy was the wind generators. The hydro system was pumping water upstream to store the excess energy. The resulting fuel adjustment was negative, but what company would not want to see the major manufacturing costs reduced instead of increasing? Now this is a great turn for company economists and strategists to plan factory expansions!

What If?

What if midwestern cities could get off the grid? What if mountain top cities could get off the grid? What if Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago followed suit? What changes in tariffs could keep the present companies above water?

It was only a decade ago that Dairyland Cooperative was installing cow sewage-based biofuel gas turbines. Los Angeles Department of Public Works was installing fuel cells based on methane production from human sewage treatment. Stanford was touting the use of eucalyptus trees for biofuel instead of corn. Small mirror systems are flashing water to turn microturbines on building tops.

The price of natural gas is at a historic low. If the price were to drop more, would not everyone want a microturbine? Would this be the precursor to a hydrogen economy?

The home I rented in Raleigh, North Carolina, included a natural gas microturbine that could provide most of the home’s electrical demand as well as the heat during the winter. A microprocessor was available to turn the unit on, isolate the home from the grid, and run on natural gas whenever the economic price signals showed that costs could be reduced. Why was this resource added by the builder? This option provided the home buyer a choice in obtaining energy as a more efficient combined heat and power at a lower cost when economic prices changed.

Is this the new model for a distribution company? Did any of the distribution companies, transmission companies, or generation companies see this coming? Maybe it should be so. Microgrids connected by transmission and remote generation would provide the backup as these systems are deployed, tested, and verified. Then reliability could be addressed by staying connected to the grid as a backup or as an alternative customer of the surplus generation.

What would this new distribution company be called? Let us see: ESCO, gone as a stereotype; EMCO, gone as a stereotype; LSE, gone as too dry for marketing; DISCO, too much like Travolta dancing in an old movie, oh my! Have we run out of acronyms?

What Consumers Want

Customers have a new slogan song for utilities: “50 Ways to Leave Your UtilCo.” When will the utility corporations understand that the consumers drive the business? The customers have a limited budget, a desire to be carbon neutral, a desire to be serviced locally, and a desire to have a say in the future environment for their families and their children’s families. Ignoring the customer’s wants and needs is the surest way to lose market share, indeed to go out of business, even in an industry that is part of the basic infrastructure that is needed for society to function.