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November 11, 2007

A Modest Proposal

There is no doubt that electricity will deliver an increasing percentage of the power we use. We’ll heat more of our homes electrically rather than with imported ($100+ barrel oil)oil. We’ll plug our cars in at home and at work.

More electricity use means that demand outstrips current supply We could (but won’t) increase electric supply relatively rapidly by bringing more coal plants online. We will (optimistically) bring new nukes into the grid in the medium term. We are adding solar and wind to the mix at a pretty good rate and will continue to do so but they are still a tiny percentage of what we use now and are hardly a panacea for the future.

Demand-side electrical management is an important part of making this work – especially during the transition to a much more electric economy. Hydro power and nuclear power are both best used to deliver a steady supply. Solar and wind deliver real supply but it’s variable, at least on a local level. Fossil fuel is almost the only remedy we have for supplying peaks or replacing nuclear and hydro when plants go offline and solar and wind on cloudy or calm days. It’s an interesting fact that the today’s engineering guidelines call for total potential grid supply of about 130% of anticipated peak demand to allow for outages in either generating capacity or transmission facilities.

Wholesale rates to a particular grid can go up many hundreds of percent when there is an outage or multiple outages during a peak period.

So imagine that your house has three lights: green, red, and yellow. Green means your local grid is in a surplus situation as far as kilowatts are concerned. You can buy them at a bargain rate; yellow says standard rate; red says the grid is in severe deficit – kilowatt hours’ll cost you a lot. Even with just solar hot water, Mary and I are finding some things relatively easy to adjust: do the wash when there’s lots of hot water, run the dishwasher on “free” hot water at noon, shower on a flexible schedule (me only).

The dryer would be relatively easy to schedule for cheap electricity. Stove, not. Charging heat storage – yes with limits. Charging up the car’s batteries – yes with limits. Power tools and big screen TV – easy to avoid red periods (except during important sports events). In NJ where we had air conditioning (don’t need it in Vermont), we did have a rate based on the ability of the utility to cycle it off during periods of excess demand. Never noticed the difference which may have meant that it didn’t work.

But I’m sure you’re way ahead of me and know we don’t really want to be watching the colored lights all the time and really can’t watch them when we’re asleep. We need smart appliances to be reading the lights and our preferences. For example, start the washing machine any time during the day the system goes green but no later than three pm (because I need the clothes) unless the system is red. Charge the car batteries during green at night but I’m leaving at 6AM so need them to be at least half full by then even if we have to pay a premium. A usable user interface’ll be a challenge but the electronics and programming to do all this are duck soup.

This isn’t about changing lifestyles; it’s just about a little e-magic to make the best of what we have and stretch our generating facilities and grid delivery capability further. All of this magic can only work if we’re all connected to some source of information accessible to all our smart appliances which’ll be coming soon to an outlet near you (or you can put smart switches between your dumb appliances and the wall). In Vermont my wife Mary and her ten able colleagues on the Telecommunications Authority Board are gonna make sure we all have that connectivity by 2010. Hope that’s the same wherever you live.

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