Over the next 40 years, we will progress to a better and different approach to generating, transmitting, and using energy. In some ways, the transition resembles the transformation of information technology during the last 40 years. Through the mid-seventies, over 90 percent of computing was done on centralized mainframe computers accessed by dumb terminals. Then minicomputers brought a variety of added capabilities closer to those working with the information. Software dramatically expanded what could be accomplished. Personal computers with local networks rendered obsolete most central mainframes. Now we hold in our hands computers more powerful than those ancient mainframes and access a wealth of information and applications in the cloud.
Forty years ago, if you forecasted today’s mobile and cloud technology, you would have been greeted with scepticism and laughter. Yet, the transformation happened. Now, it is understandable when people are sceptical of a future of smart cities powered with renewable energy. Yet, it will happen.
Until recently, most electricity was generated in central power plants, fueled by coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Now, seven U.S. states provide over 80 percent of their energy from a mix of renewable sources: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, South Dakota, Iowa, and Maine. Solar capacity has grown 20 fold since President Obama took office. Cities, states, and nations are racing to be one hundred percent renewable.
Future energy will be free of toxic spills into our drinking water, nuclear disasters, and coal miners dying from lung cancer. Future energy will keep our lights on and elevators running after superstorms. Future energy will be generated within our zero net energy buildings, communities, and cities.
Distributed Generation and Microgrids
Today, central power plants still dominate, yet old ones are being shut down as distributed generation proves superior. A good example is how two nuclear power plants were shut down in Southern California, with their generation more than matched by distributed solar power coupled with innovative battery storage.
At the same time that we are more efficient in capturing wind power and converting solar power, we are becoming efficient in energy use. There was a time when a ten percent annual growth in electricity use was met with new centralized coal and gas plants. Now, in a more efficient United States, electricity demand is only growing one percent annually and renewables meet this incremental demand.
New buildings cut energy requirements 50 to 80 percent with green roofs, optimal insulation, smart windows, efficient HVAC, and LED lighting. Software controlled networks of sensors and controls only use energy when and where needed.
By 2020, globally solar and wind will generate the equivalent of one thousand central power plants. Energy storage capacity will be the equivalent of hundreds of power plants, using everything from pumped hydro to thermal storage to advanced batteries.
Our aging electric grid is designed for a one-way flow of electricity from central power stations to commercial, industrial, and personal customers. Major storms have knocked out these customers for days. Generation and distribution are poorly designed for real time price signals. The aging grid is slowly being upgraded to an intelligent, resilient, two-way network of grids.
A new GTM report details 124 operational and 92 planned microgrids in the U.S. The 2,800 people in Borrego Springs, California, use a microgrid that can connect or disconnect from utility SDG&E’s grid service. The 2,800 use 26 MW of solar energy. The University of California San Diego meets over 80 percent of its power needs within its own microgrid that connects onsite solar, turbines, and fuel cells with power hungry labs and hundreds of buildings. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Transit will keep its electric rail running with a transit microgrid that includes standby generation, renewables, and the ability to run even if the utility grid fails.
Intelligent Energy Management and Zero Net Energy
Energy management is moving faster than the transformation of generation. Organizations often could not identify major costs and sources of energy use. Now GM saves over $20 million annually using Enernoc software, by having a single system that organizes its 1,700 energy bills from 29 countries. GM can see where it achieves the fastest ROI with efficiency investments, by shifting demand, and by investing in its own energy generation.
Early energy systems managed the lighting and heat in buildings. Next generation systems respond to price signals from utilities to downcycle air conditioning and postpone operations until off-peak pricing can be used.
I toured a National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) zero-net-energy building for over 1,000 employees. The building generates as much power as it consumes. Energy management and the Internet of Things (IoT) use natural daylight and ventilation, and turns off lights and other energy use when people are not present. Solar, wind, and geothermal energy use is optimized.
We are progressing from hundreds of zero-net-energy (ZNE) buildings, to ZNE apartment complexes, university campuses, military bases, communities and soon ZNE cities.
Some of the companies that shaped the information revolution are now reshaping our energy future. IBM, Oracle, Google, and Microsoft are involved in many smart cities projects. Long time technology leaders like Cisco, Texas Instruments, and Qualcomm provide building blocks for the IoT. These experienced IT leaders are joined by thousands of energy technology innovators.
Uber disrupted transportation. AirBnB disrupted the lodging industry. Now, financial innovation disrupts electric utilities, leading to energy that is efficient, smart, and distributed. Major banks, pension funds, and yieldcos are investing billions to own wind farms, solar projects, and energy efficiency retrofits. They eliminate the barrier of upfront capital expenditures that formerly stopped building and home owners, and offer monthly energy payments that lower total bills.
Each day, our energy future becomes more efficient, intelligent, distributed, mobile, and sustainable. Most likely you are one of the thought leaders and innovators that are moving us in the right direction. Thank you.
Photo courtesy of Pat Corkery/NREL
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from the Meeting of the Minds Blog
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
I work to ensure that a more diverse point of view, especially the gender-specific, informs the planning, design, operations, and user experience of transport systems. Safe and reliable access to public transport is a key driver of so many issues we face as a society. Cities cannot aspire to being inclusive unless more attention is given to this aspect of sustainable transport.
The Baltimore-based Climate Access Fund (CAF), a nonprofit Green Bank, was launched in 2017 to address the gap between the community solar regulation and the way the solar market has traditionally worked. CAF provides a one-stop shop for low-income community solar, working to attract solar developers to the nascent market.
Cities can and should inform their community members living in Opportunity Zones about what Opportunity Zones are, and how they work to protect them from speculation and displacement. Cities should also create zoning overlays to ensure projects proposed in Opportunity Zones actually provide community benefit. Cities can even create impact investing prospectuses marketing their Opportunity Zones to ethical investors. And, finally, cities should be ambitious, and create their own Opportunity Funds to include investment experts, policy experts, and members of the community to fund equitable, sustainable projects that actually benefit communities.