On July 30, 2008 Pacific Gas and Electric annnounced a plan to deploy smart meters and an enhanced electric grid by 2012. What does this mean for the future of power?
For over half a century our electricity usage has been accounted for in the most basic way. We flip on a switch, and our electric meter starts turning. Each time we use our electricity, we really have no idea how much electricity we are using at any given time. The wheel turns, and no one is home.
Suddenly there has been a convergence of technology and resources around that little round meter that you never really look at. Utilities want to know more about your power usage, and when you use it the most. They also want to inform you of the same information, so you can reduce your energy usage during times of peak energy demand. New forms of rate pricing will replace the dumb system we have now. Use less energy when those power companies are scambling to meet demand and you may be rewarded. Three advanced residential rate options on your bill will include hourly pricing, critical peak pricing and critical peak rebates, according to www.Metering.com. Basically you will be rewarded for how well you govern your consumption.
Realizing that it is difficult to watch your energy usage without the proper tools, technology companies such as Comverge are figuring out ways for you to remotely control the thermostat in your house. Other companies are working on technology that can inform you of a good time to do your laundry, such as off peak hours when it will be cheaper.
Most of us have read about peak oil production in which the ability to extract oil reaches a growth plateau and fails to keep pace with accelerating demand. The result could be managing a ‘peak and plateau’ scenario as we gradually shift away from oil, or a ‘peak and collapse’ scenario as the world economy stumbles and cannot adjust to a more rapid decline in production.
But what about the implications of ‘peak oil demand’ from energy consumers? And how might it change the future of the transportation industry?
This notion of ‘peak demand’ is supported by a new report from leading energy-sector forecast firm CERA titled ‘Dawn of a New Age: Global Energy Scenarios for Strategic Decision Making- The Energy Future to 2030’.
CERA suggests that because of high energy costs the US could reach ‘peak gasoline demand’ in the next ten to fifteen years, and possibly plateau as early as 2010. As our vehicles become more efficient and we change behavior, our demand for gasoline will plateau.
CERA’s forecast of ‘peak demand’ is a game changing concept because it shows the transportation industry the ceiling of its growth opportunities in the world’s largest economy. It also forces drastic changes to enable more growth around a new platform as we electrify the world’s transportation sector.
If peak production is our biggest challenge, ‘peak demand’ might be our best incentive for innovation! (Continued)
On July 28th the ever-expanding, ever-hip, almost ubiquitous
Virgin revealed the WhiteKnightTwo—a carrier ship that will ferry
the still veiled SpaceShipTwo on its sub-orbital, space tourism
flights. SpaceShipTwo will be the first ship of the new
Virgin Galactic—Virgins’ latest step on it’s quest for universal
Ferried by WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo will be the first ever
space tourism craft. It will be capable of carrying six
passengers and two pilots into a sub-orbit around the earth to see
space, the Earth, and experience weightlessness.
WhiteKnightTwo Will be able to support up to four daily space
flights and operate during both day and night.
The fist flight of WhiteKnightTwo with SpaceShipTwo and
passengers is expected to take place in Early 2010 and the BBC
reports there are already 250 people have paid $200,000 to be
on the first flights. Before you grab your wallet, remember
that each flight will remain at it’s top altitude of about 60 miles
above the Earth’s surface for only about 6
For 80-year-old Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens the
answer is blowin’ in the wind.
When you imagine of the future of U.S. energy, chances are the
you don’t think of 80-year-old Texas Oil tycoons. At least
you didn’t until T. Boone Pickens began campaigning for the
The Pickens Plan just a few weeks ago.
With oil prices heading towards $5 a gallon in the midst of a
recession, an administration change on the horizon and the
clean-tech debate drawing a great deal of attention and even more
capital, the U.S. sorely needs a high profile spokesperson for
energy policy change. So is Pickens our guy? And is the
timing finally right for some serious energy policy change?
The Pickens Plan calls for a reduction in U.S. use of
foreign oil by 38% in 10 years by greatly expanding wind
power in the center of the country to be used towards electricity
production, thus freeing up natural gas reserves to be used for
transportation. 22% of U.S.
electrical generation comes from natural gas. The plan argues
that if the current 1% (48 billion kWh)
of power converted from wind can be expanded to 20% (960 billion
kWh) then the more than 6.2 trillion cubic feet of natural
gas used annually to produce electricity could be used for transportation starting
with industry vehicles like trucks and buses. Furthermore,
unlike oil, natural domestic gas production can increase and
actually did see a 9% rise
from 2007 to 2008. U.S. natural gas reserves are twice
But why has Pickens chosen to promote his plan at this exact
moment? U.S. dependence on foreign oil has been an issue for
at least 20 years and it’s not as if the other selling points of
his plan—lower CO2 emissions of natural
gas, the need to expand renewable energy infrastructure, and the
potential of wind power in the U.S.—are new to the political
landscape. Environmentalists and many Democrats have been
shouting these points for years. The only thing new to these
ideas is that
Pickens is promoting them. Atop in all, Pickens is a
particularly unlikely renewable energy spokesperson. Besides
being a billionaire oil tycoon, he has been an outspoken supporter
of the Republican party and contributed $5.5 million to help defeat John Kerry elect
George W. Bush in 2004.
Bucky Fuller (1895-1983) is widely recognized as one of the
world’s great modern visionaries of the 20th century. He was a
natural Futurist, not because of his intellect, but his wisdom to
challenge widely held assumptions from the world around him.
He blended his skills as a writer, thinker, and engineer into a
concept he called “Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science.”
Bucky believed that the essence of human life on the planet is to
solve problems and continue expanding our awareness and views of
what is possible.
Our best strategy for addressing problems of the 21st century
might be to revisit the core principles of his philosophy related
to design, shape and energy. If the Whitney curators, are correct,
Bucky Fuller might turn out to be one of the most influential
thinkers of not one, but two centuries.
Because they are investing in the future design of catalysts!
And their strategy is to innovate at the nanoscale.
The Beginning of Nano
Physicist Richard Feynman is often credited with launching the
‘nanoscale’ era of engineering with his famous lecture ‘Plenty of
Room at the Bottom’ at Caltech in 1959. Feynman
described our future ability to manipulate individual atoms and
eventually create complex mechanical structures made of the
Fifty years after Feynman’s lecture, researchers and startups
are making significant progress in designing nanoscale structured
materials that will have an enormous impact on all aspects of the
energy industry from production, to storage to end use
What is disruptive about catalysts?
Simply put, catalysts help us get more output with less energy
input. Catalysts speed up the reaction of photo-, chemical and
electrochemical changes in everything from batteries, fuel cells,
and solar cells, to the refining of coal, gasoline, diesel, and
natural gas, and the production of hydrogen and biofuels. Catalysts
also help to reduce the energy required to create plastics,
biomaterials, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizer.
The rules of the energy industry game are being re-written by
companies designing synthetic metal and carbon-based catalysts that
change our notions of what is possible in the years ahead. Other
companies are attempting to harness, or mimic, naturally occurring
bio-catalysts that gracefully manipulate energy in all living
things from algae/bacteria to plants to human beings.
Catalysts are the silent work horses of our modern world but you
seldom, if ever, hear or see the word mentioned in mainstream
conversations about energy. Yet they hold the key to unlocking
human potential without draining the planet’s resources. Catalysts
can help realize the vision of a world powered by cheap, abundant,
clean energy. (Continued)
Lucky for us the sun is a wonderful source of clean energy. Its
rays can be harnessed and transformed into electricity using
semi-conductor-based solar cells that power homes, buildings, and
even transportation. Researchers have spent decades trying to
refine this process.
Recently, MIT researchers have made a
significant mark in this endeavor. Associate Professor Marc A.
Baldo, leader of the project, and a team of four graduate students
of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science,
have constructed a cost-efficient solar concentrator device based
on a failed 1970s model that uses glass and dye. In practical
terms, the concentrator device is a high-efficiency window.
Currently, solar concentrators on the market track the sun’s
rays using large mobile mirrors that are both expensive to arrange
and to maintain. Furthermore, Baldo explains, the solar cells that
house these concentrators must be cooled, thus the entire assembly
Baldo’s new solar concentrator increases the amount of usable
energy by a factor of 40, all while cutting costs by reducing the
amount of solar cell, which because its base is silicon is rather
The device consists of glass coated with a mixture of relatively
inexpensive dyes that absorbs the light and re-emits it on a new
wavelength into the glass to be collected by the solar cells, which
are located on the edges of the glass.
Baldo says the 1970s model failed in two ways: the collected
light was absorbed before it reached the edges of the glass and the
dyes were unstable.
Using optical techniques developed for lasers and other diodes,
the MIT engineers found the perfect ratio
of dyes that would allow the light that is absorbed and emitted to
travel a longer distance before reaching the solar cells.
In his bold speech calling to transform the energy industry, Al Gore forgot to say one of the most important words of the 21st century – biology. He forgot to mention that if we wanted to ‘grow’ energy, carbon could become a profitable feedstock rather than an economic and environmental liability.
Gore is now calling on America to launch a major Apollo-style program to ‘decarbonize’ the electricity sector by 2018 using renewables, geothermal and carbon sequestration efforts. He imagines a world beyond ‘fossil fuels’, but might be overlooking our greatest potential investment in the energy sector – tapping biological systems that ‘eat’ carbon and ‘grow’ energy resources such as biofuels (for transportation) and hydrogen (for electricity generation).
What is possible by 2018? Within a decade we could transform the role of carbon into a profitable feedstock for clean, abundant energy by tapping the power of biology.
The phrase ‘fossil fuels’ is misleading. Coal and oil are not ancient bones or animal matter, rather they are ancient plant life and microorganisms that locked up hydrogen and carbon molecules using the power of the sun. Coal and oil are bioenergy resources. And rather than extract ancient bioenergy from the ground, we can grow the same hydrocarbon chains ourselves without adding new carbon to the atmosphere. (cont.)
Are we due for a massive cyclical U.S. crisis that finally
spurs institutional change? A regular revolution not tied to the
accelerating curves driving so much growth and innovation?
In large nations big spurts of institutional change tend to
occur every four generations (roughly every 88 years, 1 generation
= 22 years) when economic resources trapped by out-dated,
inefficient systems are shifted over to efficient new systems once
societies reach a cyclical tipping point for change. Generational theorists Strauss and Howe
call this tipping point a fourth
turning, a point in time where social power shifts to the
generations too young to have witnessed the previous correction.
They liken this pattern to a forest growth cycle: 1) new saplings
take root, 2) the forest grows tall, 3) dead branches fall and
choke off new species, 4) lightning strikes, the brambles burn and
new saplings are free to grow—repeat.
As seen widely in biology, this sort of change is called
Equilibrium, which contrasts with the gradual evolution that
many scientists intuitively believed to be true but ultimately was
not supported by research nor the fossil record. Similarly, the
historical record shows that the United States has regularly
experienced punctuated social crises, aka fourth turnings,
stretching all the way back to its roots in England. And just like
all of the scientists that deny punctuated evolution/development,
there is a huge % of the population that does not intuitively
believe another fourth turning will occur because they have not
encountered the historical evidence and are used to a relatively
stable socio-economic situation. (Ironically, this blindness seems
to be built into the very fabric of our social system and may
result in more efficient growth when looked at from the broader
context of inter-meshed life systems on our planet.)
Like it or not, cyclical crises pegged to
human generations are real and
should be considered when evaluating the future, right
alongside accelerating change. So the questions we need to ask are
1) “When will the next fourth turning begin?”, 2) “Are there any
dynamics that might break or trump the pattern of punctuated
national change every 88 years?”
A Likely Fourth Turning Scenario
79 years ago, on October 24, 1929, the Great Wall
Street Crash sparked the Great Depression and the last U.S.
turning. What followed was the New Deal Era, WWII, the transformation of most U.S. socio-economic
sectors and ultimately the birth of what we now refer to as “The
79 years later the U.S. economy is facing a variety of problems
that could spark a down-turn and a new fourth turning. (cont.)
Energy is the life-blood of America – it affects our economy,
standard of living and national security. Our prime energy source,
oil, is a product we can no longer afford. Four-to-five dollar per
gallon gas prices, air pollution, and global warming has brought us
to the point where we must find a better energy source.
Experts predict that by 2030, new energy technologies described
below could drastically cut our oil consumption, and slash reliance
on electricity-producing fossil fuels like coal and natural gas
almost entirely. Added to our portfolio of existing nuclear and
hydroelectric power, these new energy sources could virtually
eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels to run our homes and
Bio-fuels – in the nation’s heartland, scientists are working to
turn agricultural waste or ‘biomass’ such as switchgrass, wheat
straw, cornstalks and miscanthus into a fuel called cellulosic
ethanol that could be produced commercially. Department of Energy
(DOE) officials believe that by 2030, bio-fuels could meet 30
percent of our transportation fuel needs.
Hydrogen – this new technology stores energy more effectively
than batteries, burns twice as efficiently in a fuel cell as
gasoline does in an internal combustion engine and leaves only
water. It’s plentiful, clean, and capable of powering cars, homes
and factories. The DOE predicts an
all-hydrogen vehicle could become price effective by 2020; and by
2030, this renewable non-polluting energy could power ten percent
of our cars, homes and factories; by 2050, 50 percent. (cont.)
With crude oil hovering at an all-time high of $130/gallon
people all over the globe are feeling the pain and starting to
react in different ways.
Some are finally choosing to drive less frequently.
that “compared with March a year earlier, Americans drove an
estimated 4.3 percent less—that’s 11 billion fewer miles, the
DOT’s Federal Highway Administration said
Monday, calling it ‘the sharpest yearly drop for any month in
In Europe, where environmental taxes roughly double the cost of
gas, groups of French and British workers are demanding public
staging protests .
A few particularly pinched and pro-active folks in rural regions
are shifting around their work week and travel schedule. According
Wall Street Journal “a handful of small towns and community
colleges are switching to four-day workweeks in an effort to help
employees cope with the rising gasoline prices, and could soon be
joined by some larger local governments.”
The economy is a funny thing. As oil prices, and commodity
prices in general, have gone wild in the past year or so, there are
many interesting ripple effects. Some are obvious and quantifiable,
such as the increase in venture capital investment into
green/alternative energy sources and plummeting SUV sales. But here is a micro-trend that could gain
some traction if oil prices continue to rise. A farmer in Indiana
installed a drill on his property that produces about 3 barrels of
oil a day – worth almost $400 dollars at today’s price of about
Of course you have to have oil in your backyard to actually make
this work – but if oil ever gets to be the same price as gold –
then we’ll really see a trend in backyard prospecting.