In Greening the Grid, Knowledge is Power

When it comes to understanding the environmental impact of our personal choices, the EPA’s model of rating car fuel efficiency is a good lead to follow. Greenhouse gas emissions are tied to how much fuel is burned, and we all know how much gas our car burns thanks to the omnipresent MPG ratings. Many models of cars have embraced the digital age and now interactively let you know how your driving affects fuel economy by keeping track of your true MPG. This level of information has enabled the current generation of drivers to understand their impact and, should they care to, adjust their driving accordingly.

But when it comes to tracking the emissions of the power plants that are a magnitude larger than our little 4-cylinder, we are still largely in the Mesozoic Era.

The United States is only surpassed by China in CO2 emissions, as highlighted in the recent Pike Research report Carbon Management Software and Services, which forecasts that managing CO2 will become a $2.4 billion industry in 2017.

It is easy for those of us who come from the IT industry to scoff at the power industry, which is replete with proprietary handcrafted networks and databases that even within a single location don’t talk to each other, let alone to the outside world. The coming smart grid is largely focused on bringing the power industry up to the level of technology that the financial, information, and telecommunications networks achieved at least a decade ago.

It’s not that grid operators don’t have some elements of live data-sharing down. The same “five 9s” focus on reliability has been used for generations to regionally balance power generation and demand with a precision that would give a network operations center manager goose bumps. Every hair dryer or cell phone that gets plugged in has to be matched to generation, and remarkably, the grid works smoothly nearly all the time. The perpetual need to locate and pay for additional power prompted grid operators to engineer a Wall Street-like trading market that includes a day-ahead market, as well as up to the second pricing and reconciliation technology that pulls in power from hundreds of miles away through the marginal power market.

But when it comes to tracking the emissions that are produced during the generation of power, the industry has a blind spot. Most requirements for tracking CO2, NOx, particulates, and other emissions at generation facilities apply on an annual basis, without regard to the amount of power produced. There’s very little data anywhere on emissions on an hourly or daily basis. Regulatory folks I’ve spoken with were lacking information and surprised that I asked the question about correlating emissions to the power produced.

Counting the CO2 per megawatt hour would be a great place to start to understand grid efficiency. If ongoing data about each generation facility were collected, we would have a baseline for understanding the true carbon footprint of our generation mix. The next step would be to integrate the emissions data with the purchases of electricity on the marginal power market to create an hour-by-hour profile of how green the power grid really is.

To my knowledge, agencies such as FERC, the EPA, and the ISO operators don’t routinely ask for this level of fuel efficiency, so there is no financial or other reason for the data to be collected by power producers. One motivation to start doing so would be to better understand the carbon impact of newly arriving electric vehicles. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory this week released a report that looked at how EVs could be used to balance expanding wind generation mix. But how clean or dirty is the rest of the grid at night when vehicles are likely to be charged? It’s about time we found out.

Article by John Gartner, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.

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One comment on “In Greening the Grid, Knowledge is Power

Clearly, smart grid technologies will have to be part of the energy mix going forward, but without genuinely clean technologies such as photovoltaic cells we will not be able to transition to a post-carbon energy economy.

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