What is a smart grid and why should you care?

If you only have the vaguest notion of what a "smart grid" actually is, don't feel bad. This is one of those energy buzzwords that confuses a lot of people. Part of the problem is that utility companies don't often do a very good job of communicating this stuff. They tell you it's good. They say something hand-wavey about the Internet. And then they pretty much leave you to fend for yourself.

The other part of the problem: "Smart grid" is one word that refers to more than one thing. A smart grid is actually lots of different technologies. They're related. But they do different jobs in different ways, and even one tool might have different levels of functionality that apply to it. That fact is really clear when you visit a smart grid research laboratory, as I did earlier this week at the Colorado State University.

The school's Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory houses a little micro-grid, where electricity can be generated, used, and stored in ways that model the workings of the real-life grid. The smart grid technologies the laboratory is used to study apply to every part of that system—smart grid is part of generation, it's part of how electricity is moved around, it's part of how we consume electricity, and it's part of how we balance supply and demand and avoid blackouts. In other words: This seemingly vague and esoteric concept is actually closely tied to practical, day-to-day realities.

Yesterday, I got to go on NPR's Marketplace Tech Report to talk about two smart grid technologies that you're likely to get some hands-on experience with in the near future.

Today’s electrical grid, [Koerth-Baker] says, is something of a high-wire act. “The grid, in order to function, has to have an almost perfect balance between electric supply and electric demand,” says Koerth-Baker. “And, there are people that work in these centers all around the U.S., working 24 hours, seven days a week to make sure that happens, and they have to work on a minute-by-minute basis, so the smart grids are really about helping them maintain that balance.”

Listen to the whole interview at Marketplace Tech Report.

Learn more about smart grids and how our electric system work by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Looking down into Colorado State University's smart grid laboratory. Image taken by Dan Bihn.

Maggie on Skeptically Speaking — Live on Saturday night

Join me Saturday at 7:00 Mountain time for a special edition of the Skeptically Speaking podcast. I'll be talking with host Desiree Schell about my new book Before the Lights Go Out. Tune into the live recording to learn more about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy—plus jokes. If you can't make the live recording, it'll be available for download on Friday, April 20th.

Win a signed copy of Before the Lights Go Out

Neatorama is offering two signed copies of my new book, Before the Lights Go Out, as part of a contest drawing. To enter: Go read the interview Neatorama did with me about energy, infrastructure, and my writing process. Then answer a couple of quick questions in the comments.

What's wrong with corn ethanol?

We grow a lot of corn in the United States, much of which never sees the inside of a human stomach. In fact, in 2010, something like a quarter of all the corn grown in this country went to ethanol production. That's a massive amount of corn grown for gas tanks. And it's a problem.

The process of growing corn is tremendously energy intensive, and it has some far-reaching drawbacks that threaten the future of vital farmlands in the Midwest. Corn crops provide steady, reliable income for farmers. But the risks likely outweigh those benefits, at least at the quantities in which we now grow corn.

In the spring of 2009, I experienced some of those risks first hand. At Smithsonian.com, you can read a excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out, my book about the future of energy. The excerpt is about Madelia, Minnesota, a small town where local farming advocates are trying to promote a more sustainable cropping system, and a better way to grow biofuels—one that provides incentives for farmers to grow less corn, not more.

Read the rest

The real cost of carbon

Two years ago, if you'd asked me what I thought about something like cap and trade, or a carbon tax, I would have said that they were interesting ideas, but probably not worth the trouble of fighting for. I didn't think a price on carbon was necessary and, in fact, I was worried it could do more harm than good.

Doing the research for my book, Before the Lights Go Out, changed my perspective. There are risks to any mechanism you use to put a price on carbon (there are risks to everything we do), and it's still not something we could institute easily (thanks, politics!), but I've come to think that this one thing could be the easiest method to change the way we make and use energy. Energy—and more importantly, reducing fossil fuel use—isn't intuitive. It's often hard to see how we're using fossil fuels, and make decisions about how to use less of them. A price on carbon, however you do it, takes some of the guesswork out of that. Instead of having to become some kind of Super Green Living Expert, all you have to do is do what's cheapest.

Grist.org posted an excerpt from my book this week, and they also did a short interview with me. One of the things they asked about was carbon pricing:

We’ve become dependent on fossil fuels for a reason — not because of any evil plot, but because these fuels are just that much more powerful than anything that came before them. The power of coal, the portability of liquid gasoline: There is amazing value there. At the same time, we’re also talking about fuels we have limited supplies of. And those fuels, when we use them, also cost us money in the form of health-care costs and climate change adaptation costs.

Right now, the price we pay for those fuels doesn’t really account for either the amazing benefits or the awful limitations. It’s an artificial price, based on simple, direct supply and demand. It doesn’t take the long term into account. It doesn’t take economy-wide effects into account.

If we valued fossil fuels at what they are really worth to us, then a lot of the other stuff would fall into place. That mixture of technologies and policies would happen faster, and more naturally, because it would be based on a natural incentive.

It’s reasonable for people to not want to spend half their paycheck on a fuel that is absolutely necessary to their life. But paradoxically, if we had a price on carbon, and the cost of those fuels went up, then businesses and governments and individuals would find ways to get people the services they needed at a lower cost. Right now, there’s not enough of an incentive for that.

Read the rest of the interview at Grist.org

Read more about why I think carbon pricing matters in Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Black coal or charcoal for cooking, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from epsos's photostream

Book launch party in Minneapolis, April 19th

Minneapolites and St.Paulians: Join me April 19th for a launch party celebrating my book Before the Lights Go Out. It'll be at The Bakken Museum—an excellently geeky temple to the history and inner workings of electricity—and besides the usual speech and snacks, I am told that there will be a Leyden jar on hand. Experience electricity up close and personal!

Climate change isn't liberal or conservative: It's reality

Paul Douglas is a Minneapolis/St.Paul meteorologist. Meteorologists don't study the same things as climate scientists—remember, weather and climate are different things—but Douglas is a meteorologist who has taken the time to look at research published by climate scientists and listen to their expertise. Combined with the patterns he's seen in weather, that information has led Douglas to accept that climate change is real, and that it's something we need to be addressing.

Paul Douglas is also a conservative. In a recent guest blog post on Climate Progress, he explains why climate isn't (or, anyway, shouldn't be) a matter of political identity. We'll get back to that, but first I want to call attention to a really great analogy that Douglas uses to explain weather, climate, and the relationship between the two.

You can’t point to any one weather extreme and say “that’s climate change”. But a warmer atmosphere loads the dice, increasing the potential for historic spikes in temperature and more frequent and bizarre weather extremes. You can’t prove that any one of Barry Bond’s 762 home runs was sparked by (alleged) steroid use. But it did increase his “base state,” raising the overall odds of hitting a home run.

Mr. Douglas, I'm going to be stealing that analogy. (Don't worry, I credit!)

A few weeks ago, I linked you to the introduction from my new book, Before the Lights Go Out, where I argue that there are reasons for people to care about energy, even if they don't believe in climate change—and that we need to use those points of overlap to start making energy changes that everyone can agree on, even if we all don't agree on why we're changing.

But there's another, related, idea, which Paul Douglas' essay gets right to the heart of. Just like there's more than one reason to care about energy, there's also more than one way to care about climate. Concern for the environment—and for the impact changes to the environment could have on us—is not a concept that can only be expressed in the terms of lefty environmentalism.

You and I can think about the environment in very different ways. We can have very different identities, and disagree on lots of cultural and political issues. All of those things can be true—and, yet, we can still come to the same, basic conclusions about climate, risk, and what must be done. Here's Douglas' perspective:

I’m a Christian, and I can’t understand how people who profess to love and follow God roll their eyes when the subject of climate change comes up. Actions have consequences. Were we really put here to plunder the Earth, no questions asked? Isn’t that the definition of greed? In the Bible, Luke 16:2 says, “Man has been appointed as a steward for the management of God’s property, and ultimately he will give account for his stewardship.” Future generations will hold us responsible for today’s decisions.

This concept—Creation Care—is something that I've summed up as, "Your heavenly father wants you clean up after yourself." It's not a message that is going to make sense to everybody. But it's an important message, nonetheless, because it has the potential to reach people who might not otherwise see a place for themselves at this table.

Too often, both liberals and conservatives approach climate change as something that is tangled up in a lot of lifestyle, political, and cultural choices it has nothing to do with. Those assumptions lead the right to feel like they can't accept the reality of climate change without rejecting every other part of their identities and belief systems. Those same assumptions lead the left to spend way too much time preaching to choir—while being confused about why people outside the congregation aren't responding to their message.

That's why essays like Douglas' are so important. We look at the world in different ways. We come by our values for different reasons. But even though we might take different paths, we can come to some of the same places. Let's respect that. And let's have those conversations. Climate change is about facts, not ideologies. It's about risks that affect everyone. We need to do a better job of discussing climate change in a way that makes this clear. And that means reaching out to people with language and perspectives that they can identify with.

Read Paul Douglas' full post on Climate Progress.

Read more about energy, climate, and what we can do to make the message of climate science more universal in my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Weather, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 66770481@N02's photostream

Maggie in Boston next week

I've got two speaking gigs in Boston coming up. Both are free and open to the public, but you'll need to RSVP. On April 2nd at 7:00 pm, I'll be speaking to the Boston Skeptics in the Pub about energy. RSVP for Boston Skeptics. On April 4th at 4:00 pm, I'll be at MIT, talking about science journalism online and how BoingBoing readers help shape my writing. RSVP for MIT. Hope to see you there!

Rolling on the river: The future of local energy

Today, most of the electricity in the United States is generated in very large facilities—capable of serving millions of homes—far away from the people who will actually use that electricity. We do it this way because it makes financial sense. It's cheaper to produce electricity in bulk and ship it over transmission lines, than it would be to produce a little electricity in a lot of places.

Or, at least, that would be the case if NIMBYism didn't keep getting in the way. Not In My Backyard movements don't just affect the construction of the actual power plant. And they don't just affect fossil fuels. Transmission lines serve both clean and dirty generation and they have to cross hundreds, or even thousands, of miles to reach their destinations. Along the way, they cross lots of people's property, skirt dozens of towns, and maybe even cut through federal lands. All of that means added cost. Today, experts have told me, it's often more expensive to build the transmission lines to feed a power plant than it is to built the power plant itself.

And that opens some opportunities.

Across the United States, there are pockets of sustainable energy resources not quite large enough to support a big power plant, but potentially very useful to us, nonetheless. And the high cost of transmission means that these resources are starting to make more financial sense. Chief among these is small-scale hydropower. At Txchnologist, I wrote a piece about small-scale hydro—how it works and what we stand to gain by thinking about the scale of electricity generation in a different way.

Kansas is not a state that’s known for its water resources. In fact, when European settlers first reached this region, it was a semi-arid, treeless plain of grass. In 1931, when historian Walter Prescott Webb wrote about the settlement of Kansas, and other Great Plains states, he described “the search for water” as a “continuous and persistent” issue.

It’s not terribly surprising then to learn that Kansas has only a trifling supply of hydroelectric power. Throughout the whole state, the annual mean in production is just 1 megawatt—enough to power fewer than 800 homes, or roughly 0.01 percent of the Hoover Dam’s nameplate capacity.

But Kansas has the potential for much more. In fact, the state could be getting almost 300 megawatts of electric capacity from water power – enough electricity for 240,000 homes. The key: That potential is only accessible if you’re willing to think local.

Read the rest of the story at Txchnologist.

Learn more about decentralized electricity generation by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: The Bowersock Dam and power plant in Lawrence is Kansas' only hydroelectric power plant. IMG_3612, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from mr_d_logan's photostream

Win a signed copy of Maggie's new book

Would you like a signed copy of Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy?

The book comes out on April 10th and pre-orders have already started shipping. Between now and the end of April, you can earn a fun prize for telling other people about my book.

1) Tell people on your social networks that you're reading Before the Lights Go Out. This applies to Facebook, G+, or Twitter. When you talk about it, be sure to tag me in the post—@maggiekb1 on Twitter, Maggie Koerth-Baker on Facebook and G+—so I know that you mentioned the book.

In return, I'll send you a sticker with my signature and personal thank-you. You can put it in your printed book and create an instant signed copy. Or, if you're an e-book reader, you can put the sticker on ... something else. Maybe your e-book reader. Maybe your pet/baby. Either way, it's yours!

UPDATE: I had another part to this, offering cookies to people who would write reviews of the book. It was meant to be fun. But, talking to a few people, I think that cuts too close to bribery. So I'm canceling that part of the contest.

The war at home: Energy crisis and risk in America

Here are two myths you need to let go of:

The solution to high gas prices is more oil.

Climate change is something that happens to polar bears and people from Kiribati.

The truth is that fossil fuels are extremely useful and valuable. And, by their very nature, the supplies are limited. Likewise, climate change isn't just something that's going happen—it's already taking place, and you can see the effects in your own backyard.

Too often, I think, we talk about the risks of fossil fuel dependence and climate change in ways that make them seem abstract to the very people who use the most fossil fuels and create the most greenhouse gases. That's a problem. There are lots of reasons to care about energy. But I think that fossil fuel limits and climate change are the most pressing reasons. And I think it's incredibly important to discuss those very real risks in a way that actually feels very real.

This isn't about morality, or lifestyle choices, or maintaining populations of cute, fuzzy animals. (Or, rather, it's not just about those things.) Instead, we have to consider what will happen to us and how much money we will have to spend if we choose to do nothing to change the way we make and use energy.

Over at Scientific American, you can read an excerpt from my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out. In it, you'll read about the energy risks hanging over the Kansas City metro area—a place that, in many ways, resembles the places and lifestyles shared by a majority of Americans. You've probably never been to Merriam, Kansas. But you can look at Merriam and see what could happen in your hometown.

Merriam isn't a small town. There's nothing really recognizable as a small town central business district. Instead, Merriam's stores and offices are mostly concentrated along two major thoroughfares—Shawnee Mission Parkway and Johnson Drive. These wide, multilane roads are dotted with clusters of shopping centers and big box stores, like necklaces strung with fat pearls. The municipal building and the police station are a couple of nondescript offices that sit off the frontage of Shawnee Mission Parkway, on a ridge overlooking the Interstate. Nothing about that says, "Classic Americana."

Yet Merriam isn't a suburb, either—or an urban city. It's too dense to be the first and not dense enough to be the latter. Merriam has a mixture of house styles. Drive down one street, and you'll see a 1930s bungalow standing shoulder to shoulder with a spare little 1950s Cape Cod. Next to that, there's a 1980s split-level with windows on the front and the back but none on the sides. More than three generations of the American Dream are living here.

It's ironic that Merriam doesn't really fit any of the classic American paradigms, because, quite frankly, most of us have already left those paradigms behind. We talk about this country as if it's full of neatly defined small towns, big cities, and tidy suburbs. In reality, the places where we live are lot mushier than that. Merriam isn't the exception. Merriam is the rule.

Read the rest of this excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out at Scientific American.

Image: Kansas City Photos, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from publicworksgroup's photostream

The battery beneath your feet

How many batteries have you used today?

Energy storage devices have become an integral part of our lives, but they still aren't really a part of our electric grid. There are some good reasons for that—at that scale of storage, batteries become gigantic and extremely expensive. But the lack of storage on the grid has some distinct drawbacks, putting the stability of our electric system at risk and making it harder to add in lots of renewable energy generation.

Because of that, researchers are looking for ways to get the benefits of batteries without some of the detriments. There are lots of different ways to do this, but one solution is particularly awesome to describe. Hint: It involves caves.

Last Friday, I had a guest post on i09 explaining Compressed Air Energy Storage, an old technology that could be one of the most cost-effective ways to store energy at a grid scale.

At any given moment, there must be almost exactly the same amount of electricity being produced as there is being consumed. If the balance tilts either way-even by a fraction of a percent-it could lead to a blackout. To simply keep the lights on, the grid has to be constantly monitored, with controllers predicting demand and making small adjustments, minute-by-minute, to supply. This happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

... That's where CAES comes in. CAES systems store energy underground in the form of compressed air, but to make it work you have to start with the right kind of geology. In particular, you need a space that's airtight. This means that you can't just pump air into the sort of cave you've toured while on vacation. Instead, you have to find a hollowed-out space underground that used to hold something naturally-such as a natural gas reservoir that's had all of the gas pumped out of it.

Read the rest at i09

Learn more about how the grid works and why storage is so important by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Holes in porous rock, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from blmurch's photostream

Reminder: Maggie live chat about the future of energy at 11:00 Eastern

I'll be chatting live with the editors of Treehugger.com, starting at 11:00 Eastern. The chat will be embedded at Treehugger. There will be opportunities for viewers to participate in the conversation!

Live discussion tomorrow: Electricity, infrastructure, and our energy future

Join me tomorrow at 11:00 am Eastern for a live chat with editors from Treehugger.com.

They'll be talking with me about my new book, Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us.

The key message I want people to take away from this book: Our energy problems (and our energy solutions) are about more than just swapping out fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable resources. Instead, what matters more is the infrastructures we live with, which dictate how we use energy, where we get it from, and how much we consume. If you want a more sustainable energy future, you'll need to focus on infrastructure. This isn't just about sources—it's about systems.

The chat will be embedded on Treehugger.

Maggie speaking Monday afternoon at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Why does electric infrastructure affect our ability to make energy more sustainable? How is the electric grid like a lazy river at the water park? And why should you never, ever go fishing with a salesman? Learn the answers to these questions—and more—when I speak at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Monday, March 12. My presentation starts at 3:00 pm in room 355 of the Mechanical Engineering Building. It's free, and open to the public. (Can't make it to the speech? You can also find out the answers to these questions by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.)