Can the lights be kept on with distributed generation? 2015 U.S. House hearing on a reliable electric system

[ Corporate speakers testify – could they have any self-interest, hope for government grants?  Since Congress often asks the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to write unbiased papers on topics,  why didn’t NAS and National Laboratory scientists speak? Corporations are selling a product, and likely to exaggerate what their product can do.

The most interesting testimony is from Dean Kamen, who is “selling” his company’s Stirling engine generator to congress as a way to decentralize the grid by using them for distributed power from natural gas or oil.  Well, that doesn’t solve the finite fossil fuel problem.  It’s spun as a way to balance renewables, but I doubt that this can be done yet – the technology to manage hundreds of thousands of stirling engines, solar panels, and other distributed devices doesn’t exist, nor the math, algorithms, or computers to attempt to do so.  Nor can we revolutionize the grid quickly, because deregulation has forced every player into strictly and narrowly defined roles (i.e. just generation, just distribution, just selling electricity, etc). And if we did decentralize – would there be enough fossil fuels left to power all of them, or just those in the 11 energy producing states?

The advantage of a distributed system is that cyber-attacks, natural disasters, and power outages could be kept within a much smaller area and after a natural disaster, neighborhoods would still have power because they use underground natural gas lines, less likely to be damaged than overhead power lines, and they can also run on gasoline, propane, and other fossil fuels.

A distributed system like this would waste a lot less fuel than our huge centralized natural gas and coal power plants in which two-thirds of the energy generated is lost as heat, and up to 10% more power over power lines.

Meanwhile, electric vehicles are creating a new demand for power equal to an entire home.  That will require even more natural gas and coal power plants that waste most of their fuel as heat.  Since we are likely within 20 years of peak natural gas and peak coal, this means dozens of new import Liquefied Natural gas facilities along our coasts that are potential terrorist targets and continued dependency on other nations with natural gas, and wars over not just oil but natural gas as well.

Whether centralized or decentralized, the electric grid mainly runs on fossil fuels, which are finite.  My own guess is that as the electric grid becomes increasingly unreliable, whether from cyber-attack, natural disasters, lack of hydropower, coal, or natural gas, or breakdowns from lack of maintenance, the richest 10% of Americans will buy a generator, which is how the wealthy cope now in the third world, and invest in more insulation.  The bottom 90% of Americans won’t be able to afford to do this, and will turn to wood to heat and cook with.  Already 10% of American homes use wood for heat, so that will lead to unsustainable cutting of forests.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

House 114-18. March 4, 2015. The 21st Century electricity challenge: ensuring a secure, reliable, and modern electricity system. U.S. House hearing.  116 pages.

Excerpts (with some alterations and cuts to make the testimony clearer):

ED WHITFIELD, KENTUCKYMr Patel, you said “Customer adoption of electric vehicles is creating new demand for power, each vehicle equivalent to an entire home while charging, requiring new utility demand control measures to avert overloading of existing infrastructure. Please provide the study or data which you are using as a basis for your statement that electric vehicles are creating new demand for power equivalent to an entire home.

Naimish Patel, CEO, Gridco Systems.  Various sources of data are available to support my statement that electric vehicles are creating new demand for power, equivalent to an entire home.  One such source is a December 2014 ARRA report produced by the U.S. Department of Energy titled: “Evaluating electric vehicle charging impacts and customer charging behaviors: Experiences from six smart grid investment grant projects”  at  On page iv of the report, in the Grid Impacts section of Table 1. Summary of Key Project Experiences, it is noted that “The average power demand to charge most vehicles was 3-6 kilowatts, which is roughly equivalent to powering a small, residential air conditioning unit.” It is also noted in the same section that “…depending on the model, the load from one electric vehicle model can be as much as 19 kilowatts, which is more than the load for most large, single-family homes.


  • The most common type of charger is a portable 120-volt special charging cord, referred to as AC Level 1 charging, which typically provides 3-5 miles of range per hour of charge. Depending on the size of the battery, and the initial state of charge, this could take 8 to 20 hours to fully charge a depleted battery.
  • Some makes and models — particularly all-electric vehicles or those with larger battery packs — may take about 20 to 60 hours to charge a fully depleted battery at 120 volts. While 120-volt charging is relatively slow, it can often be accomplished with little to no additional cost or installation work if an outlet is already available at home.
  • Users can cut charging times significantly by installing AC Le vel 2, 240-volt charging stations. However, these sy stems can add $600-$3,600 to the cost of in-home charging, depending on the availability of power in the electric panel. Typically, installations require permits and licensed electricians.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

USDOE. December 2014. Evaluating electric vehicle charging impacts and customer charging behaviors – experiences from six smart grid investment grant projects. United States Department of Energy, electricity delivery and energy reliability.

ED WHITFIELD, KENTUCKY. The U.S. was the first nation to electrify, and our system of generation, transmission, distribution and related communications remains the best in the world. Nonetheless, new challenges are emerging, as are opportunities to modernize and improve the electric grid. The challenges are significant:

  • much of our grid is outdated
  • coal-fired generation facilities are shutting down at an alarming rate
  • reserve margins are inadequate in several regions
  • intermittent and remote renewable capacity is coming online
  • cyber threats pose a growing concern

While encouraging technology and innovation in the electricity sector should be a priority, policies must ensure that new grid-related products do no leave the grid more exposed or compromise customer information and privacy.

DEAN KAMEN, Founder and President, DEKA Research and Development Corporation.

In the 1880s there was these guys Edison and Tesla, who gave us big centralized plans, …now it is 150-year- old architecture. What do we know about it? Is it ready for disruption? Well, it is old, it is inefficient, it is unreliable, it is expensive, and it is dirty.

Quick facts about what the grid is today. We have about 1 terawatt, 1,000 gigawatts, of production capacity at an average of $1 a watt to produce. That is $1 trillion in generation assets.  More than half of it is 30 years old, and if you only replace the stuff that is that old at $1 a watt, it will cost $500 billion. Once you make that energy, you have to move it. High voltage transmission lines cost about $1 million a mile, and oops, sometimes they are not quite what we would like them to be. And 70% of those lines are 25 years old or more, and there are 280,000 miles of that high voltage lines, another $200 billion to replace.

Then you have the low voltage lines in all your neighborhoods–wires hanging on wooden poles. What could possibly go wrong? So these are a real deal, only $140,000 a mile, and there are 2.2 million miles and half of them are over 30 years old. And if you just replace just the old stuff, that’s another $150 billion. And then, of course, you have the annual capital cost of that infrastructure, which is $90 billion now to keep this architecture operating.

Everybody I know loves solar panels. So how do you catalyze more people to do this? Well, the more you put solar panels up without doing something else, you are actually hurting the grid because they add instability…

You have to do something that can catalyze this stuff to happen in a way that helps everybody, including the people supplying the power.  New technologies bring new opportunities, but they also sometimes bring problems, especially to stranded infrastructure.

From a practical point of view, the entire system that has ran for 150 years was premised on the generating company only making money by selling more power, so there is no encouragement to save.

I don’t think regulators understand that those big power plants are very good at producing a constant amount of power and it can take hours and hours to bring those big boilers up. When you start putting transient capability [like solar power] online –what happens when that cloud goes by and suddenly a couple of hundred megawatts that was there goes away, or when wind stops, you are asking that big tired grid you were trying to avoid paying their bill an hour ago, suddenly you are desperate for more power. They have a tougher time reacting and keeping a stable grid with these other systems online than they had before, and they are making less money.

In the case of Germany, the instability from a pure technology point of view, not an economic or financial point of view, but the instability induced in their large systems by all these new transient systems is making life difficult, causing a reliability issue and a security issue. And I think we should avoid that in this country.

I think we could make generators that use the largest buried infrastructure in the country – natural gas — that we don’t need $100 million a mile for. Plus many buildings have buried tanks with oil, propane. If our device could be moved close to where it is needed, but still on the energy producer’s side of that equation, yet just outside the meter, then the energy producers could have millions of these small devices that they own and operate, because grandma doesn’t want to become her own utility company because she has a solar panel, but if the utility companies and energy providers could compete with each other to have small units that are so close to the loads, they still get the full advantage of being a supplier of energy, except with just millions of little plants, they can avoid needing transmission lines, distribution lines, substations, et cetera, that everybody is talking about being expensive, unreliable, and subject to issues.

DAVID B. MCKINLEY, WEST VIRGINIA. I thought that the hearing was the ensuring a secure, reliable and modern electric system, and we were going to be talking a lot more about the grid, and I have gotten more confused as I have heard all this discussion. I am an engineer. I have heard very professorial comments, very in-depth, your white papers that you have all developed about this topic, but I wonder whether or not we have been able to reach America with the story, because we have been talking about source agnostic architecture. We have even heard about balkanizing. We have heard about platforms, we have talked about polar vortexes. Mr. Kamen, you were about as close to talking to the American public as I have seen in this panel. One thing I have learned in Congress in my 4 years here, that we have trouble when we are confronted with more than one option, and I haven’t heard the option.

I have heard seven or eight different themes of where we should go, and I am really trying to get to a point with the grid of a consensus on where we should go to develop grid reliability, because what we have not talked about is the public’s resistance. The public doesn’t want high-tension lines over their property, in their back yard’. We haven’t talked about electromagnetic pulse, the threat to our grid reliability with that, because we know that is a serious challenge. We have talked about the fact that we can shut off someone else’s grid in another country, and they can shut off our grid. There was some mention about the EPA regulations and shutting down some of our powerhouses that when we had this polar vortex, that we came within 700 megawatts of having a brown-out last winter. That is really threatening.   And then the option of the age issue, I would like for you to just explain in terms that we don’t use here in the beltway for Mildred Schmidt to understand, what does that have to do with age because we have waterlines and sewer lines, and buildings and roads and bridges that are far older than 25 years old. Why should I be worried about electric grid power lines being 25 years old? I would like to hear, is there a consensus of where we should go, where Congress should be putting its first priority in getting greater reliance or dependability, or are we just kind of talking abstract again? Is there a consensus?

Mr. KAMEN. We call it coopertition. We believe that if you apply technologies properly, everybody can win as they compete because the public gets the best that way. And I think what you have heard from everybody is the grid is getting older, it is getting, for various reasons — the environment, terrorism, cyber-attacks — more fragile.

You are hearing a lot of people adding a lot of new technologies.  Where there is a consensus should be that you have to get all the people that provide the net result to the public working together so that you don’t create an if-I-win-you-lose situation.

And the energy providers, the transmission or the generation—for instance, our partner for our little box is a major generator, NRG, yet they are now becoming one of the biggest suppliers of solar panels, and working with us on these small distributed boxes. In one perverse way, you could say they are undermining their core business, but, you know, like they always say, the railroads went away because they thought they were in the train business, not the transportation business.

And to your point, the public doesn’t care about CDMA and TDMA and Time Division—they care about a cell phone being more convenient than a landline. So if the public could have a simple appliance put into their home that already used infrastructure that we have great confidence in, because it is buried under the ground, like gas lines, like their oil, like their propane, and it could be made to work in parallel with solar and wind and the grid, because it sits at the intersection of all those things, somebody with an appliance like that would say, my costs went down because the waste heat from this thing is now my water system and my furnace, and I have more security and reliability because it is distributed, like getting a back-up generator free.  And the people that run the grid and all the other systems win as well because it deals with transient problems, is compatible with solar panels, is compatible with batteries, and is compatible with the big producers.

[  Mr. Kamen has made the case for distributed generation above,, but as Mr. Ivy points out below, there is a need for the opposite – states will need to run lines over a wider area to cope with the instability of variable power to balance it. Texas is an island of power (ERCOT) but in the future if wind penetration reaches 30% or more, not a big enough island to cope with that much variablity ]

Mr. IVY. As renewable energy gets to be much more prolific in our industry, our ability to offload the variability is a way to help manage the system reliability. If any one of us believes that we are going to get up to 30, 40, 50 percent penetration and manage it all on our own, we are not drinking the right Kool-Aid. So I think it is very important that we start looking at [running lines from Texas to other states]. It is almost blasphemy to say that you are going to build transmission outside the State, but you may well get to the point where that needs to be the thing that you do just to be able to help manage the variability.

Thomas Siebel, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, C3 Energy.  You have an 800-pound gorilla in the room here:  the cybersecurity problem. This is an opportunity where the Federal Government can play a role.  The fact is any hostile government, or just 10 smart engineers from UC Berkeley,   could bring down the grid from Boston to New York in 4 days.   And if you bring in the leadership from Homeland Security, DHS, in here  what they will say is before we really do something about this, we are going to have the equivalent of 9/11. And then we will get serious and spend $100 billion a year on it.

DAVID  LOEBSACK, IOWA.   I am thinking in terms of a regulatory framework, to make sure that we integrate some of these things into the generation and provision of power to folks, because it was mentioned that we have to have the right regulatory framework, right policy, right regulatory approach. What is that approach?

Paul Nahi, Chief Executive Officer, Enphase Energy. I completely agree with Mr. Kamen that the right answer is distributor generation. In terms of the regulatory and policy changes that need to be adopted for that, we have to recognize that the potential for an adverse relationship between the renewable energy companies and the utilities exists. It doesn’t have to.  There are ways these companies can work together, there are ways that we can help the utilities adopt to a business model that would provide for more distributed generation. Right now, most of the distributed generation, not all but most, is done by third-party companies. There is no reason why the utilities themselves can’t take a greater ownership and greater responsibility for putting on more of that distributed generation.

BILL JOHNSON, OHIO. Mr. Atkinson, your testimony suggests that the grid of the future will enable electrons to flow into or even multiple directions. Why is having flexibility in power flows significant, and how can advanced grid technologies facilitate this?

Michael Atkinson, President, Alstom Grid, Inc., on Behalf of GridWise Alliance. In the traditional hub and spoke that was mentioned before, you have an outage upstream, everybody downstream is out of power. When you have multiple directional flow, you get a chance to re-switch your system, reconfigure your grid on the fly, thus allowing, all or some of the people to be brought back up immediately and not suffer that outage. The technologies today exist to do this and continue to get better, the algorithms continue to improve.

Mr. JOHNSON.  As a chief information officer for a global manufacturing company, I had to be concerned we had steady power. A lot of folks don’t realize in today’s high-tech arena what a power outage, a power surge, and constantly changing power parameters do to solid state circuitry. It wreaks havoc.

Joel Ivy, General Manager, Lakeland Electric, on Behalf of American Public Power Association.  If there is an outage somewhere in the field in the original hub and spoke method, you are out if you are downstream of that. There are high-speed switches that are sensing where these short-circuits are in the system, and talking to each other to try to figure out how to isolate it. And then the goal is to have an outage isolated to the smallest area that you can possibly have it in. So then that allows us to dispatch somebody straight to where the problem is, because normally it is lightning, it is trees, it is an animal, something that can be cleared up very quickly, we can get the lights back on very, very quickly.

MARK WAYNE MULLIN, OKLAHOMA. Mr. Kamen, you made a point in your written testimony that more than 50% of the generating capacity in the U.S. is 30 years old, and that 70% of the 280,000 miles of transmission line is more than 25 years old. What do you feel your company, as well as other companies like yours bring to the table in addressing this issue?

Mr. KAMEN. I think that like with a used car, you reach a point where it is cheaper to buy a new one than to keep fixing the old one.  If the proper incentives were put before the people that produce the energy, transmit the energy, distribute the energy, supply it to the end user, if they had a clean piece of paper and could invest their money in alternatives to fix the problems you’ve heard about  There are only a few plants that are hub and spoke, easy to take down, and it is very hard to make them self-healing. But if you could have thousands and thousands of small, locally operated and controlled units close to where you need the electricity and that you can also use their waste heat, you would get as a bonus to replace furnaces and heat water, you would be much safer against anybody taking one [centralized electric] system down. It might require more sophisticated controls and interaction, but as we have heard, that is becoming easier and easier. So if you could create a system instead of taking these very, very old systems, which they sort of have no other choice but to keep up and operating, and allow them to transition to a new alternative technology, they would do better.

Mr. MULLIN. What is keeping the companies from being able to do this?

Mr. KAMEN. From my understanding, when I have talked to people that do generation, that do transmission, it is a—it boggles my mind,… I have heard CEOs of major energy-related companies say I am not allowed to do transmission, I [am only allowed to] generate, or I am not allowed to generate, I [can only] do transmission. I can’t put your box somewhere there.

MORGAN GRIFFITH, VIRGINIA. I live on a cul-de-sac with 13 houses, [so how would your generators work in my neighborhood?]

Mr. KAMEN. The average American home consumes less than 2 kilowatts. So I would put a cluster of four 10 kilowatt units on a pad to handle your neighborhood. If one of them went down, there is enough redundancy for the other three to keep everybody happy, and at their convenience, somebody would fix the one that went down.  [And after a big storm] there is another advantage — we run on any fuel, and typically your neighborhood has buried lines in it that are bringing natural gas. You probably have buried tanks with heating oil or propane. Those things are way less susceptible to problems than wires running through all the trees that get taken down by ice or wind or hurricanes, and these boxes then are so close to where you need them that the rest of the system going down hundreds of miles away isn’t going to affect you, and again, they are so close to your loads that you can also take their ‘‘waste heat’’ and turn it into your heat and hot water.

We right now run on natural gas, propane, diesel fuel, gasoline. The device is actually running on something that looks like a burner in your hot water heater, which is why it doesn’t make lots of noise. An engine, diesel cycle, Rankine cycle, auto cycle, typical—an engine has a very specific kind of fuel because it touches every part of the inside of your engine. It gets atomized, a spark comes in, compression come—an engine typically has a very, very selective appetite for fuel, but your hot water heater will keep water hot if there is a flame under it, and it doesn’t really care what the fuel is. We are running a system that looks much more similar to your hot water heater, but we turn some of that energy into electricity instead of heat.

Mr. Green.  We have refineries and chemical plants, they are always looking for ways that they can efficiently run those plants as cheap as possible. And some of them probably have cut their fuel requirements over the years because the cogeneration and other things, in fact, I don’t think we have a chemical plant that doesn’t have a cogen facility, but do you expect industrial and consumer demand to increase over the new few years? We can’t save our way out of the power.



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