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POWER PREDICTIONS: A glimpse of the future of electricity

1229
 2014


Warren Lasher is director of system planning for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the entity that manages the statewide electric grid. Lasher’s responsibilities include looking into the future and assessing the impact of new technologies on the grid. (Photos by Jay Godwin) 

By Kathy Warbelow 
 
On Sept. 4, 1882, a giant dynamo revved up at Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station in lower Manhattan. The world’s first central power plant started sending electricity for the first time to 85 customers on a network of wires and underground tubes. It was the first transmission grid. 
 
Technology and engineering advances have created the power plants of today, behemoths that deliver electricity to hundreds of thousands of customers. Wind, nuclear and solar have joined fossil fuels as ways to produce power. 
 
The world around us has changed dramatically in the last 132 years, but the basic model for providing power hasn’t: A central plant still sends electricity to customers, a one-way transaction. 
 
In the coming decades, the stage is set for radical changes in how electricity is produced, transmitted, stored and managed. Existing technologies allow homeowners to generate their own electricity and return some to the power grid. Researchers are working on new technologies that will transform that process and allow people to store their self-generated electricity. 
 
The transportation network will become increasingly electrified. Electric-powered ships, trucks and airplanes will join the electric cars already on American roads. 
 
Even NASA is in the game, researching solar-powered spacecraft, which could become a crucial element in plans for a human mission to Mars in 2030. 
 
We asked three Central Texas experts to give us a glimpse of the future of electricity as they see it. 

 
FOUR PREDICTIONS FROM WARREN LASHER 
 
1) Storing energy underground

Compressed air power storage is of specific interest right now. 
 
You pump air under pressure into underground caverns. The energy is stored there and released when needed to run power plants. There is an issue with that: When compressed air is brought up to the surface and expands, the temperature tends to drop. Natural gas has to heat it to release the energy. 
 
But compressed air technology is something that could be built today. 
 
Geothermal power is something Texans talk a lot about. We have a lot of the resources. In essence, the technology brings up underground brines (underground salty water) that are warmer than the ambient temperature. Run those brines through a system where the energy they produce moves into a compound with a boiling point lower than water. The steam from that would generate power. 
 
Apparently, Texas has a lot of these underground brine resources. 
 
There are issues, however: These brines are often intermingled with methane. You could extract the methane and use that to generate electricity as well. It’s a matter of economies of scale: Resources in any one location might be low and not justify building a facility. And, because methane is a greenhouse substance, there are questions about that. 
 
2) Power storage in your garage 
 
I think batteries that can store power for your house are going to become more prevalent. They will be the batteries in your car; an increasing number of people will have one or two of those. 
 
Aside from cars, the Zero electric motorcycles look really good. They come with a five-year, 100,000-mile battery warranty. 
 
The idea is that one or two big batteries could power your house for a while. You could add some solar and, in theory, have the makings of going off the grid. 
 
Increasingly, homeowners and communities are going to build the infrastructure to operate off the grid at times. 
 
Batteries have become so much more powerful and reliable over time – smaller and lighter. Once those prices come down, you get economies of scale and the price of electricity will drop, closer to fuel-based power. 
 
Another trend is that changes we see in the music, film and photo industry are reaching the electric industry. The technology to change your thermostat from your cell phone, control your water heater or your pool pump exists. 
 
The idea of customer participation in the grid is increasing. 
 
3) The microgrid 
 
Our lives are completely intertwined with electricity. If there’s an outage, nothing works. 
 
When I lived in Virginia, we had an outage because of a storm. The gas pumps were off; you couldn’t buy a cup of coffee, all the phones were down, the cell phones didn’t work, and even 911 was down for nine hours. 
 
The microgrid is going to lead to more ways to do what we want to do, when we want, regardless of what is going on with the grid. 

(Microgrid Institute illustration)One expected scenario is the expansion of microgrids, which connect community-owned small generating systems to homes and businesses and to the main power grid. The community systems could be solar, wind or a small natural gas plant. (Microgrid Institute illustration)
 
You could have a microgrid at your house, a microgrid in cities, partly driven by solar. 
 
I would want solar on my roof, or community-produced solar. You could do it like a cooperative, or buy shares in community solar, or buy specific panels in a community solar project. 
 
A lot of the cost of solar is in soft costs — installing it on every roof. You could save all that money if the solar was at or near substations. 
 
4) What to watch for 
 
I really think the big change will come at the commercial level. Some of these big-box stores can cover their roofs with solar. That will be the tipping point. You know those companies are tracking the price of solar and they can really take advantage of the economies of scale with all that open, flat roof space.

 
TWO PREDICTIONS FROM BOB HEBNER 

(Jay Godwin photo)Bob Hebner is director of the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas at Austin, and an expert in areas including power storage and so-called smart transmission grids. He was a senior executive at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
 
1) Next-generation cooperatives 
 
The most fundamental change in the last 100 years was that we built a power system under the assumption of economies of scale — that the cheapest plan was to build a huge power plant and run wires out of it. 
 
What we’re seeing now is that we can develop various forms of distributed generation that are competitive in cost with those large-scale plants. That changes the equation. It allows generation closer to homes and businesses, and microgrids — transmission networks that cover a neighborhood or part of a city — and they will be run by co-ops. It’s a very different way of looking at electricity. 
 
Solar panels are driving that right now. The technology probably makes distributed solar (such as rooftop solar panels or small community solar farms) cheaper than concentrated generation. 
 
It’s going to change the whole way we think about power generation. 
 
2) It’s all about the microgrids 
 
The big issue will be microgrids, to get the economy down to the local level. Then we will think in an entirely new way about the power system. 
 
It’s a disruptive technology. Everything is going to change, and no one knows how. 
 
Japan has fallen in love with microgrids. When the Fukushima nuclear plant went down in the 2011 earthquake, the entire power system broke down. But there was a town nearby where a company was testing a microgrid (connected to small generation facilities) to see if it would work. It kept power going throughout the whole thing. 
 
We’re still going to have wires; large-scale power systems are not going away for the next 50 years. The microgrids will be connected to the larger grid. 
 
But with a smaller, more compact system, with solar or other renewables, a small natural gas or nuclear plant, you could get higher reliability and redundancy. The impact of an outage will be mitigated, because fewer people will be affected. 
 
I think the microgrid is going to be the killer app for power storage. If I’m going to be switching back and forth between generators, I’ll need storage to maintain the reliability of my system. 
 
This is where technology will allow us to go, not where regulations and economics are driving things right now. There was no apparent way to get us to cell phones either, and now we all have cell phones.

 
FIVE PREDICTIONS FROM ROGER DUNCAN 

(Jay Godwin photo)Roger Duncan, former general manager of Austin Energy, is now a research fellow at the University of Texas Energy Institute. He is also board chairman of Pecan Street Inc., which researches how consumers use electricity.
 
1) Two-way flows 
 
For the last 100 years, we’ve had the same energy system: Power plants move electricity in one direction to buildings where the electricity is consumed. The transportation system is disconnected and runs 100 percent off petroleum. 
 
In the future, instead of a one-way flow, there will be two-way flows between three points on a triangle: the power plant, the buildings and the transportation system. Homeowners will generate their own electricity and push it back to power plants; the transportation system will generate a two-way flow — vehicle to vehicle and vehicle to infrastructure. 
 
It will be a unified energy system. You will generate, store and dispatch electricity from any point in the system and move it to another point. 
 
Our generation is becoming more autonomous: driverless cars, drones, unmanned vehicles. The same thing will happen with infrastructure and the power system. 
 
2) Humans and machines 
 
The interface between us and machines will change. We will treat them as if they were conscious. You already can talk to Siri on your phone, get GPS directions from your car. The power industry will develop higher levels of interactive communication with their systems. 
 
3) Beyond fossil fuels 
 
The major transition will be away from fossil fuels to generate electricity. This is going to take time, not in the next decade or so. 
 
In the far future, there will be an almost completely decarbonized economy. Solar will be everywhere, along with what I call regional renewables. In Texas, we have a lot of wind. Other areas might have hydro, some biomass resources. I think there will be a lot of nuclear in the future. 
 
Solar and wind will take up more land area, but a lot of that solar will be on rooftops — not solar farms taking up fertile cropland. 
 
4) Walls and windows become power plants 
 
In the future, we will have solar paints and solar plastics with the ability to convert light into electricity. Building materials themselves — roofing shingles, windows — will be able to generate power. 
 
We’re also going to see more electrification of industrial processes; we’re already seeing it in the transportation system. 
 
Toyota has tested a prototype where you plug your car into your house if there’s an outage, and you can generate some power from the car. Via Motors has sold a couple hundred plug-in electric pickups that can power up to four homes in an outage while workers repair lines. Pacific Gas & Electric in California already has some. 
 
5) More ways to store power 
 
Energy storage is changing the game. It goes back to the triangle. You will have storage at all of those points and in between — at substations, in buildings, batteries, compressed air energy storage — a more unified single energy system. 
 
We will need a higher level of artificial intelligence to emerge to manage all of this. There are some people who speculate that the most advanced artificial intelligence will emerge first from the electric system.  
 


(NASA photo)Electric powered plane

 
INNOVATION: Electric powered planes 
 
NASA is researching electric-powered small airplanes. Using an array of small motors instead of heavy piston engines is cheaper and quieter, and allows for smaller, more efficient wings. 
 
NASA’s Transformative Aeronautics Concepts program is testing a wing that carries 18 electric motors. 
 
The goal is to start with small aircraft and eventually move to larger planes.
 


(Makani photo)Wind kite
 
COMING SOON: High-altitude wind energy 
 
Tech giant Google last year bought Makani, which has developed a “wind kite” that can be suspended 1,000 feet or more in the air, where winds are stronger. The kite would fly in vertical loops to simulate the action of a conventional wind turbine, and send power back to a ground station via tethers. 
 
Altaeros has developed a version that looks something like a cylindrical blimp with fins. The technology could be used in remote locations or the developing world. 
 
NASA has supported research into an even more far-out idea: wind turbines soaring 30,000 feet in the air to capture the super-strong winds of the jet stream.
 


(WiTricity Illustration)(WiTricity Illustration)
1. A magnetic coil antenna is housed in a box that can be set in the wall or ceiling.
2. The antenna, plugged into the power grid, resonates at a specific frequency.
3. Electromagnetic waves are transmitted through the air.
4. A second magnetic coil antenna, fitted in a laptop, TV or other device, resonates at the same frequency as the first coil and absorbs energy.
5. The absorbed energy charges the device. 
THE NEXT THING: Charging without wires 
 
WiTricity is developing ways to transmit power wirelessly. The simplest application is recharging cell phones and laptops from several feet away, several devices at once, on any surface and without plugging them in. Magnetic resonance sends power to the devices. 
 
The technology could be available next year for consumer electronics. The company is testing another version that could recharge electric cars. 
 
On a larger scale, the company is developing ways to deliver power without wires to industrial sites and environments such as mining sites and underwater.
 

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