Taking Stock

Figuring it out and backing what matters

The Greater Grid

You pretty much can’t avoid the headlines today heralding major new deployments of clean energy:

US Solar and Wind Power Production Soars in 2022: California and Texas Lead the Charge

Massive new wind center opens operations in Oklahoma

Clean energy investment is extending its lead over fossil fuels, boosted by energy security strengths

Climate change demands that we decarbonize our energy system. And to decarbonize our transportation we need to continue the migration to electric vehicles. That will require us to produce enough energy to charge all our vehicles. But the transition to cheaper, cleaner power involves more than carbon-free power generation. We also must transform and upgrade the grid. In fact, there is no point in creating miraculous amounts of cheap green energy but not updating, supplementing, and transforming the grid. Without it, renewable power will lead to stability and reliability issues.

Oil and gas interests and others that for various reasons cling to fossil fuels have jumped on this truth. In Texas, there are efforts to block further development of renewables based on the logic that because clean energy requires a new grid we should just deploy new dirty sources of energy onto our existing aging and decaying infrastructure. Never mind that regardless of the kind of energy we move to, we will need to invest heavily in expanding and upgrading the grid.

The old grid is inherently mechanical. Enormous spinning turbines are used to moderate and stabilize the flow of energy. As a result, it is slow, inflexible, immovable, and dependent on highly centralized resources. The new, transformed grid is purely electrical. Moderated and stabilized with batteries and inverters, it’s incredibly adaptable, easily modified, and can incorporate and take advantage of a wide range of distributed resources.

Defenders of the old grid emphasize the need for “dispatchable” energy. Dispatchable energy refers to sources of electricity that can be used on demand and dispatched at the request of power grid operators, according to market needs. In other words, dispatchable energy sources can be turned on or off, ramped up or down, depending on the energy demand. The old grid and incumbent technologies developed around coal, oil, and gas extraction took fossil fuels and made them dispatchable.

It’s true that by themselves, solar and wind are not dispatchable. The wind does not always blow. Night happens. But paired with batteries for long-duration storage, renewable energy is completely dispatchable. Batteries also help stabilize the grid; coupled with inverters and digital control, they produce and maintain power at a constant frequency without the need for huge spinning turbines.

We will inevitably make this transformation of the grid. The clean energy is now cheaper than building new fossil fuel plants. Not to mention the upgraded, electronic, digitally-controlled grid is required to support the shift to electric vehicles and allows us to be more efficient and better at everything we do from data centers to manufacturing to air conditioning our houses. We are moving from a system of central production and one-way distribution to one that dynamically moves power throughout a network of distributed and constantly changing sources and uses of electrical energy.

The transition has already begun. Over the last several years, utilities have rolled out programs that help control demand for power when it likely exceeds supply; temporally turning down or shutting off non-critical HVAC, lighting or industrial processes. Most utilities have also put in place financial incentives with variable tariffs based on production and demand cycles. And net-metering has taken power back to the grid from rooftop solar systems.

The next generation of the grid will provide even more sophisticated control of distributed power sources and consumption of power: accommodating and optimizing power sources – wind, solar, and hydro — when they are available; charging stationary storage and EVs when power is most available; drawing from stored energy as needed; and, dynamically throttling demand of commercial and residential users that have flexibility in their usage. We will extend our systems for transportation, industrial production, and support for infrastructure (like computing, lighting and HVAC) to include the production and distribution of power. This will provide an added dimension that enables us to both optimize and innovate our processes.

The energy transformation will tap more abundant supplies of fuel, at a lower cost, without the carbon emissions of fossil fuels. And the grid transformation will result in capabilities that set the stage for an innovation cycle like the one which we experienced with the Internet. The Internet was originally created to improve communication among researchers. It led to a transformation of all communication, and the additional capability unleashed a torrent of innovation across every aspect of how we live, work, and play. The energy transformation–the electrification, digitization, and abundance of cheap power–sets the stage for innovation that will similarly impact every aspect of our lives.

Too Much Solar

We have reached a fantastic milestone – on sunny days in California, we produce more solar power than the state’s customers can consume. And there’s a lot more solar coming. Solar is now the cheapest form of energy you can put on the grid.

As a long-time champion of solar energy (my first start-up was in solar power) I feel like this cause for celebration. Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for the innovations in technology, the important policies that nudged us in this direction, and the way Californians have embraced green energy.

But generating more electricity than we can use creates problems. Not only do we waste electricity that should be used in some productive way, but it makes our power grid unstable.

There’s an easy solution. Store the extra energy so it can be used when the sun is not shining. Typically, peak demand is at the beginning and end of the day. And peak solar generation is in the middle of the day. If we store the excess mid-day solar energy, we can use it during the demand peaks.

Storing energy that can be used for more than 4 hours is referred to as Long Duration Storage. There are technologies now being commercialized at scale that do this well. Grid Scale Flow Batteries can store 100s of MWhs and discharge on demand as needed.

We’ve spent decades pushing for a solar energy future. We are now on the cusp of making that a reality. To do it, we now need to embrace Battery Storage with the same zeal (and investment) that we have for photovoltaic panels.

A powerful tipping Point

I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I remember the day vividly. My family bought a 28” color TV to replace our old 24” black and white one that sat prominently at the front of our living room. Our new TV was an impressive piece of glass with an almost square screen. I specifically remember my dad telling me, “this is the last tube television we would ever buy.” This is because “soon” all TVs would have flat screens.

Every year for the next 20 years, I heard that “soon” flat screens would be in every living room. Then, suddenly, it happened. Christmas season came and we were bombarded with ads for cheap flat screens. Suddenly, you couldn’t find a tube TV anywhere; RIP Sony Trinitron.

Cost ultimately drives any technology transition, regardless of how much people may “want” the new, new thing. All technology develops on an “S” curve. As we traverse the “S” curve, the cost get cheaper “slowly” and then “all of the sudden”. We experience a tipping point when the resultant costs get cheap enough. That tipping point is here for renewable energy.

Suddenly, renewables–solar, wind, and storage–are the cheapest energy available. Clean energy will now be the only power we put on the grid. But what about all the power generation infrastructure already in place that currently relies on carbon-based power – Coal Plants, Gas Plants, Transmission, etc.?? With the economics so strongly in favor of renewables, there will be relentless pressure to retire older sources and upgrade the transmission grid to accommodate the distribution and management of renewable power sources.

A lot of people think that without government subsidies, renewable energy is more expensive. It’s not true. Even without subsidies, renewables are cheaper. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) calculates that Solar and Wind are more than 25% cheaper than gas and coal without subsidies. That’s thanks to years and years of continuous innovation, and we owe the green energy sector our gratitude.

Subsidies are needed to help with the upfront costs of deploying new capacity. Current clean energy subsidies come in the form of incentives for capital costs. In decades past, similar subsidies were provided to encourage investment in infrastructure for Coal and Gas to ensure we had enough electricity every time we flipped a switch. To speed the transition to cheaper, cleaner energy, it makes good economic sense to subsidize the capital costs required to support renewables. Our current infrastructure (power plants and transmission lines) is aging and requires significant investment regardless of our transition to clean energy. Investing in new renewable power generation makes a lot more sense than propping up the old now more expensive technology. Targeted subsidies can help overcome the inertia of our current system and counter incumbent vested interests.

The last piece of the renewable puzzle is long-duration energy storage; technology that can store the excess power generated when the sun is shining and use it when it is not. Long duration storage – batteries, pumped hydro, and other technologies – have become commercially viable and available. The cost of storage is included in the EIA calculations that confirm the cost advantages of renewables.

We are now at the tipping point for renewable energy. Just like we no longer watch TV through a cathode ray tube, we will soon, suddenly, find ourselves flipping the light switch and not have a carbon-generated watt on the line.

Reinvent San Francisco

I grew up here. After living away, I returned. I came back for the same reasons most people I know are here: opportunity is here; family is here, history is here, friends are here, work is here, and culture is here.

San Francisco has always been a magnet for seekers. It has attracted the smart, driven and innovative. San Francisco has always been reinventing…it has alway been reinventing itself.

The News is full of stories on the people who are moving away because it is cheaper elsewhere: less taxes, cheaper housing costs, lower cost of living. My knee jerk reaction is “good riddance to the selfish and greedy”. But it’s not about greed and selfishness, it’s about personal priorities. If your top priority is minimizing the costs you incur in life, San Francisco is not for you. People who prioritize opportunity, family, history, friends, work, and culture may find this home. They will work to create the next San Francisco. I count myself among them. Let’s reinvent it.

Why A blog?

Taking Stock is my blog. 

Why am I writing a blog? It’s to help me think deeply about the things I find important. It’s certainly a crazy time. More is changing all at once than I’ve ever experienced. What will it look like as we enter a post Covid, post Trump, post carbon, post white male world? The Trump election demonstrated that it will be what ever we want it to be. What we pay attention to. What we buy. What we vote for. Regardless of whether we appreciate it, we’ve moved from a material economy to an attention economy. Now more than ever, I feel it’s important to think things through. It’s important to be part of the discussion. This blog will help me do that. 

We all need to adapt to the attention economy. Everything is designed to capture, hold and capitalize our attention: social media, advertising, political discourse, news sources, entertainment. Each has a vested interest in our attention. I don’t want to fall victim to these tractor beams. I wish to be part of a productive discussion about how to make our world better. 

Taking Stock is about expressing my strong beliefs loosely held. The theme of this blog follows both meanings of the phrase. Taking stock of assets, strengths and capabilities. In creating the new normal we need to capitalize on our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses. But I’m also taking stock as in placing bets. Putting time and and money into the activities and efforts I believe will make a difference.