Smart Grids or Procrustean Beds?

There has been a lot of advertising in the media of late about ‘Smart Grids’ – breathless babbling about this wondrous technology that will save the planet by somehow reducing the dreaded greenhouse gasses. But there has been very little talked about in public about what it is and how the public will be affected. I can understand why, I think.

The electric grid is a complex and delicate beast. Most of our devices are very touchy about the quality of the power that they consume – shift the line frequency by too much and motors overheat or stop working; vary the voltage too much and TV pictures collapse, light bulbs explode and so forth. So maintaining stability is a major challenge that involves careful matching of supply and demand. This problem has gotten worse as grids are expanded and interconnected to move power across great distances. Not only does the management problem get worse but these large scale wiring plants are also subject to other disturbances – induced currents from geomagnetic events or cascading faults that disturb power over huge areas.

Problem is that while electric loads can vary over short time intervals, many forms of generation take time to ramp up or down, sometimes many hours. This exacerbates the problems of grid management. Power sources are categorized as to whether their output can be scheduled or not – this is referred to as dispatchable power. The problem with the current fascination with renewable power (see is that neither solar nor wind power is dispatchable. What is worse, wind can vary by 100% within a few minutes so any large scale usage will have grid stability side effects. The approach so far has been to build backup power generation capability – largely turbines fueled by natural gas. These have to be kept spinning all the time – burning fuel to keep the equipment ready to provide power at a moment’s notice. (The side effect is that whatever greenhouse gasses were saved by using wind are more than made up for by the backup generators – but both wind advocates and politicians ignore this little detail.  Recently there have been studies showing that because of wind backup the GHG production actually increases.) And power companies introduce geographical diversity to the wind farms – spreading them far apart to catch the wind someplace. Problem is that across a small place like Ontario, winds tend to be correlated – so much larger distances are needed. And let us not overlook transmission and conversion losses – which run 15% to 20%, sometimes higher.

What is generally talked about is that the ‘smart grid’ involves computer management and enhanced communication to enable better coordination of the grid. What is not really talked about is that this coordination also involves coercive user demand management. Power companies have for the last few years been offering inducements to allow them to deploy ‘managed’ thermostats – that would permit the company to override local settings to reduce user demand when it suited them. You want to cool or heat your house when there is a power shortage? Not any more – the power company will tell you when you can and cannot do this. This idea is no doubt brought by the same people who introduced time of day metering, another demand-management approach.

If one reads the latest report on IESO about the future Smart Grid and how wonderful it will be (someday) there is this oft-asserted phrase that consumers will be able to monitor and manage their energy us.  What is not mentioned is that over the last few years the offpeak rate has been raised aggressively and is now very close to the onpeak rate — since the supplemental charges are now 57% of the total bill this TOU differentiation is becoming increasingly meaningless.  We think $0.25/kw is likely the real net net.  So all the talk about how wonderful this will be is likely from the viewpoint of the utility people (the 1997 Ontario utility restructuring brought to us by Enron, by the way.)  The bottom line really is it is all about relentlessly higher prices and loss of control in anything but an illusory sense.

The smart grid is more of this – allowing the power company to change your electricity demand remotely to suit themselves. They feel this will allow them to cut back on backup power, which produces those green house gasses and add even more wind to the power mix. The idea, I guess, is that when the wind drops in Ontario a whole lot of houses go dark. All the virtues of a third-world power system but under modern computer control and at power prices that are predicted to be among the highest in the world.

And I am sure that because these are all controlled blackouts that some areas will be hit harder than others. And to administer all of this there will no doubt be a huge bureaucracy added for the statutory exemptions to come. In effect, instead of expanding the power supply in Ontario they are looking for ways to reduce it and to some extent make it less reliable. Power consumers in Ontario are being put on a procrustean bed to have their ‘excess’ lopped off when it is not convenient. I am sure there will be some side effects. Most electrical equipment fails quicker when provided with a varying supply — not that the current generation of appliances has been engineered for long life anymore. Ontario grew because it had a cheap and reliable electricity supply. It will be interesting to see how expensive and unreliable power will help correct the local economic downturn. The problem with this solution is it is yet another form of coercion that we will have to live with and suffer the consequences.

The Myth of Sustainable Energy and Being Green

We are constantly being challenged to change or degrade our lifestyle to conform to what is called a more sustainable energy lifestyle – but have we ever stopped to think about the energy sources we depend on and where they come from?

Here in Ontario a significant portion of our electricity comes from hydroelectric generation – water falling through a turbine that spins a generator. The water is falling under the influence of gravity, having been carried into the clouds and fallen back to earth at a higher level due to solar heating and atmospheric circulation. As long as the rain falls from the sky there is the potential for hydroelectric power generation.

Many parts of the world depend upon the combustion of coal to produce heat that almost always produced steam to spin turbines that turn generators. The combustion process requires oxygen – the byproduct of plant metabolism driven by the sun, much from the huge forests that once covered most of the continent (but our lumbering folks are working hard to fix that). Coal is the remains of ancient plants that got buried for a long time. The process continues today in the peat bogs of the world. Is coal burning sustainable? Perhaps, but only if our consumption does not overrun the rate of generation – which I suspect it does. But there is a lot of it to burn… as long as there are plants to make the oxygen the process requires.

So instead of coal, many industrial processes burn natural gas or petroleum. We have pretty much built our whole civilization around this stuff. We seem to fret a lot about running out. After all, not only is this a high energy fuel but it provides the basic chemical feedstocks for many of the synthetic products we use and wear. And we keep finding new sources although each is more difficult and problematic to get. And where does it come from? The theory I like is that this stuff is sea floor sediment that has been subducted and cooked in the earth for a long time – if so it continues to be made as long as the continents keep wandering. Are we overrunning the rate of production – be nice to know.  But we do keep finding new sources of it — the latest is ‘fraking’ of sedimentary rocks. Personally, I think this stuff is far too valuable as a feedstock to burn. But the big money is on the side of burning it. And so far we have plenty of plants to produce the oxygen we need for combustion (and breathing).

Eco-terrorist organizations back extensive deployments of wind turbines as a sustainable source of energy. As long as the sun shines and heats the earth, making the wind blow, we should be able to produce electricity. Well, that is the theory anyhow. The rub comes from how industrial wind turbines are used. If I put up a wind turbine at the house to offset the rising costs of electricity, I would need to have a battery bank to absorb the wildly variable wind-produced energy and trickle it back into the appliances that are quite intolerant of voltage fluctuations.

But these huge wind farms have no batteries – instead the province is provisioning backup power with an extensive buildout of natural gas-fueled generators. So when the wind dips these things can spin up quickly and keep the province from going dark. This can only be done by keeping the turbines spinning and hot all the time – so what is saved by wind generation is made up for by the burning of natural gas. And we will ignore the huge energy costs of the cement, fibreglass and steel that makes up these behemoths. And also the environmental destruction caused by placing them in bird sanctuaries and migratory flyways – but what are treaties when there is money to be made? These things are touted as sustainable but their use is heavily dependent on burning natural gas – a small detail that is usually ignored in arguments about a sustainable energy future, whatever that really is. And lets not forget the green plants… And they are not without their side-effects as well — downwind of the turbines it gets drier and warmer due to the enhanced mixing. The long range climate impact of this is not even in anyone’s’ climate fantasies — yet.

Solar photovoltaic is the other darling of the eco-terrorist. Ontario has rich subsidies for anyone willing to cover acres of prime farmland with these passive converters of sunlight into electricity. Besides the loss of the land to other purposes, there is the manufacturing process for solar panels that is immensely energy intensive and has been rumored to release byproduct gases that are vastly greater heat traps than CO2 and methane. And another downside is that even though the sun is lavished on us at almost 1kw per square meter, the conversion efficiency of sunlight into usable power is roughly 10%, so huge areas are needed to produce provincially meaningful amounts of power.

Wind and photovoltaic power sources are relatively low density – any power production requires huge tracts of land. And to offset the regional variability these sources are widely spaced. This increases the need for expensive long distance power transmission lines to move the small amounts of power generated. The theory is that if the wind is not blowing one place it is blowing someplace else, same thing for cloudy skies. Problem is that Ontario is much too small – the wind fluctuates similarly from one end of the province to the other and often blows hardest when power demands are low. And there are two issues with the long distance grid – transmission losses and management complexity.  The computer industry is sure that the ‘SmartGrid’ will fix all our problems — substituting technology for the human element that so far has struggled to manage complex grid interactions.  May not fix them but someone will get rich…  And these huge cats cradles of transmission lines are susceptible to induced electric loads from geomagnetic storms. There is an interesting recent study from Germany that suggests that wind farms amplify wind variability rather than damp it out. Like so many other things it would seem that the averaging out of variability was a theory that no one bothered to check.

Nuclear provides almost half of the electricity for Ontario. Strangely, this is not considered a sustainable energy source, but I would suggest it really is. Nuclear fission uses the accelerated decay of heavy elements to produce heat – generating steam that is used in the same way as in coal-fired generators. No oxygen is required for this process, it could run in a vacuum or underground. And where do heavy elements come from? They are common components of the earth but like everything else that makes up this world come from (very) ancient supernova explosions. For a while there was some interest in breeder reactors that produce more fissionable material than they consume – but this technology has largely been shunned because the product could be used to make bombs as well. Same thing happens if we chose to reprocess spent fuel.  So instead we crud up the fissionable material through use and then want to throw it away as nuclear waste but are so panic stricken about it that we make transport difficult and reprocessing almost impossible – so subsequent constructive uses are ignored. And the spent fuel piles up in the reactor buildings — turning small problems into big ones over time. The issue will be forced eventually, the only question is how and at what cost — and I do not mean the costs of an orderly, planned process but more like the mess that was Fukishima. My simplistic view on nuclear power is that it is in the same position as steam was early in the industrial revolution — everyone recognizes it as a powerful source of energy but there are a lot of hard lessons to be learned to use it safely. It may also be relevant to consider that there are lots of small, highly reliable reactors in use as powerplants for ships — perhaps small really is beautiful and we have gone well astray in seeking to build huge reactors when we really only understand little ones?

The common factor for hydroelectric, nuclear, combustion, wind and photovoltaic power generation is the sun. Combustion processes are ultimately solar because they need organic matter, mostly from plants, to produce the fuel and oxygen from plants to drive the combustion chemical reaction (and a lot of time to transform the plants into the forms we use). Photovoltaic processes produce electricity by capturing the incident sunlight (at 10% to 15% efficiency) – but like wind, large scale direct use without batteries to modulate the variability requires backup power. And hydroelectric and wind require the sun to warm the earth, driving evaporation and air circulation as long as there are large scale temperature differences. As the earth warms these differences will get smaller over time. Studies show that winds around the Great Lakes are gradually diminishing over time as the planet warms – somehow that makes me wonder just how ‘sustainable’ wind and hydroelectric power are if we are messing with atmospheric circulation? And the fuels nuclear needs is replenished every time a supernova blows…  renewable, but only if you are immortal, I suppose.

Fossil fuels are probably ‘sustainable’ as long as there are plants, oceans and continental drift and we chose to ignore their atmospheric side effects. Problem is that like the folks with the goose that lays golden eggs we seem to want everything right now. So pacing our consumption to not overrun the rate of generation is probably asking too much. And since we keep pushing the population upwards even the rate of consumption is increasing.  And all these people want to live in cities so the farms and forests are getting paved over and cut down – so fewer places for the green plants so essential to the generation of oxygen that we and our combustion processes depend upon.

There has been a lot of enthusiasm for fossil fuel replacements — ethanol in gasoline and other examples. Problem with all of these is that the overall energy cost of producing the fuel is substantial, more than the base petroleum distilate. And if we really care about saving the planet, does it really make sense to replace one combustion process with another?

Nuclear power could provide the energy that we need with few environmental side effects. There are no combustion byproducts to contribute to climate change. And through breeders and waste reprocessing the amount of the planet that would need to be pillaged could be greatly reduced. And we should not forget a few details. Fission reactors are natural and have been found to have existed in African for millions of years. Fallout is very dangerous to be sure but we all survived the results of hundreds of open air nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s and 60s. The problem with the technology is that it is all so new. The self-created panic over nuclear technology has slowed development of better ways to use it. We have forgotten the hundreds of people who died as engineers learned to build with iron and steel, control steam or fly though the air. None of the technologies we rely on achieved their current state without pain. And if we ever overrun our supply of fissionable materials there may be a bit of a wait until the next supernova explosion replenishes our supply. And whats worse, the shipping charges would be enormous.

If we consider the definition of sustainable as anything constant and long lasting that will not be compromised by the changes we are making to this planet, the only real answer is the sun. Or more precisely, the process that the sun uses to create its energy – nuclear fusion. The process is simple – one takes two or more light elements like hydrogen or lithium and mash them together with great force, fusing their nuclei into heavier elements. This process releases energy in huge quantities – look up at the sun some day or see a film clip of a hydrogen bomb explosion. The fusion process makes the sun glow and sparkles the night sky. And it goes on and on, making heavier elements out of lighter ones until everything we see around us is created. But there is a slight problem – the sun uses the gravity produced by its gigantic mass to achieve the temperatures and pressures needed for fusion. On Earth it is a bit harder. Folks have been working on this for the last 60 years or so and have been able to create the right conditions for a short time using a fission bomb as a match or for a brief instant using some very fancy equipment. I recall an announcement a few years ago that the hottest spot in the solar system was in a lab in New Jersey — their fusion reactor had achieved for a brief moment temperatures higher than are thought to exist in the core of the Sun. For a brief moment it made me very happy.  Exciting stuff but a very long way from power generation. And one other dark thought — the light weight elements that fusion consumes come  from the origin of the Universe itself, currently called the Big Bang. So we could run out and short of another ‘Let There Be Light!’ there would be only darkness.

I seem to recall that the original concern for sustainable energy production was so our society would not go dark when we ran out of coal, oil or gas. A noble goal to be sure. Energy is a precious resource and should not be wasted. But our technological infrastructure requires a steady diet of power within fairly narrow bounds – something that wind cannot achieve without a lot of combustion-powered backup power. So perversely we are probably burning even more fossil fuel to support the illusion of sustainable power. Nuclear could do it but as a society we are running away from it. And fusion power is so far away that it is still on the boundary of science fiction. So we are doing for electricity what we did with automobiles. In order to reduce the consumption of gasoline in cars we added ethyl alcohol – currently around 10%. Ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is made by crushing, fermenting and distilling corn – a process that has a steep energy cost of its own. And cars burn gasoline with ethanol are less efficient than on pure gasoline. It may be worth remembering that this idea first came about in the 1930’s as a means of increasing corn consumption. So in the end, some farmers are happy, but more gasoline than ever is being burned.

Being Green or being sustainable — the real question is what are we trying to achieve? Civilization as we know it is a huge consumer of energy. If we really want to save the planet there might be some virtue in technologies that produce large amounts of energy with minimal planetary heating. But the greenies, the eco-terrorists, are working to replace one combustion process with another. Not a path that will change what is happening to the planet.

Even electric cars do this — somehow the power has to be produced that the electric car uses. So one might consider these things coal, wind or nuclear powered cars. And the batteries they require have technological consequences of their own.  So are we really that much better off with an electric Prius or a gasoline powered behemoth? I am not sure the real answer is that clear.

Our approach to sustainable energy seems much the same – what we are doing is more inefficient and wasteful but we keep doing it because it is ‘green’. And being ‘green’ is used to justify a lot of abuse — look at the way Ontario is ramming wind farms down the throat of rural communities.  Actually looking at what we do is just too much to ask. Somehow the dystopian scifi authors are probably wild optimists.

Planned Obsolescence

About ten years ago I decided to remodel the kitchen of my almost 100 year old home in the west end of Toronto. The existing kitchen was bright and spacious and had a lot of potential for being a great cooking space. I was fortunate at the time I could afford some high end cooking equipment including a 36” Thermador gas stove with grill. This was a wonderful cooktop with enough power to run the wok and an ultralow feature that could simmer the most delicate of sauces. I loved it and used it a lot. Then I had to move.
The real estate agent took one look at my kitchen and advised me to replace my serious gear with something a bit more middle of the road – the argument was it looked too serious and would scare off typical buyers. So the Thermador and a few other items were moving to the country. That is when the fun started.
Seems that while the cooktop is advertised as dual fuel – natural gas and propane, and the basic conversion between the two fuels is a matter of changing the supply regulator between two presets and replacing the natural gas orifices in the burners for propane ones. But the vendor is very coy about making these parts available after the initial sale. A small matter of the correct parts not being listed on the parts list and the part numbers being changed for the stove and its components. This took six months with little cooperation from the local high end appliance dealer (yeah, he carries Thermador but didn’t make a profit on this sale..). But after the parts showed up and we got them installed things seemed to be going good. And then one of the burners stopped lighting.
It seems that the ceramic igniter had cracked and needed to be replaced – problem is that the part numbers have been changed again so just finding out what the right thing to order was another long, drawn out deal. But when parts were finally identified and ordered and installed, allowing for the mandatory special tools and so forth. So far, so good, so I thought. Then, a few months later, another cracked, and then another. And then the spark control module became erratic and was replaced. And then the electric gas valves started to act up. And now, after three and a half years of regular service calls to replace failing parts my service provider tells me that the part numbers have changed again and he is finding it hard to locate the components for my now ten year old cooktop. Which needs the year old spark control module replaced – again. And even better, the last batch of ceramic igniters had the same part number as the old ones but were of a different design that doesn’t fit the stove.
So this expensive piece of semi-industrial equipment is starting to look unmaintainable – seemingly by design. Oh, they have a 1-800 customer ‘support’ number to be sure. Seems like it is run out of Quebec because the ‘welcome’ dialog is all in French. Don’t know who owns Thermador these days – I think it may be Bosch but it could be some other too big to care conglomerate. Anyhow, I finally get to a person who (I think) speaks English and ask about parts for my unit. The story is that everything shows on her computer so how could there be a problem? I explain the issue of the changing style of igniter and she passes me to the answering machine of her ‘manager’, also with a French message. Leave a long message but no call back. And am too bummed out by the effort of getting through the first time to want to try again. I don’t know too many French swear words – maybe I should learn. Service guy is still getting the runaround from the parts folks.
So here we are – the cooktop that was once a point of pride is semi-functional. One of the ultralow burners is reliable, the other can be humored to light with some manual assistance. It is starting to dawn on me that once it started to act up it should simply have been ripped out of the counter and thrown away. The money I have spent on almost annual repairs would have gone a long way towards buying a new one of some type from somebody. My theory is that these too big to care appliance manufacturers have been buying up all the boutique appliance makers and replacing their once industrial components with stuff from the back alleys of some Asian country. It still looks impressive but is no longer designed for long service life. Guess that cuts into their unit sales goals. The same thing happened with automobiles – a lot of prestige marques got bought up by Ford or GM or Volkswagen and redesigned to use common components. Their distinctiveness got replaced with a sort of corporate sameness – although I am sure the parts number games were played to keep the prices differentiated for the different end markets even though the components were just the same.
I guess that is where we have ended up – playing at making quality gear and charging prices that were once associated with it but shipping the same old homogenized corporate junk. Clearly this 200 pound chunk of stainless steel and cast iron is now just playing at being a cooktop. And if I replace it, what with? Pretty much all the serious looking cook gear is now being made by one or another corporate behemoths – so regardless of how it looks and cooks in the first six months or so it probably is not made for the long haul anymore.
Some of my most prized tools were originally from my father or grandfather. Over the years the handles take on a smooth polish and the steel acquires a muted glow. Even my fathers cameras were like this – solid pieces that just did their job year in and year out with little complaint. They had been made well and built to last. I used to think that my Thermador stove would provide a similar experience over my lifetime – but that seems not to be. In the search for higher corporate profits and the famous quick buck I think the manufacturers have lost their way.