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Michigan alternative electrical generation – Henry Ford is not a good analogy

5 Oct 2015

utility workA recent op ed in Crains Detroit Business argued that legislation pending in Lansing regarding Michigan’s electrical system is wrongheaded. The authors focus on the proposed elimination of the renewable portfolio standard (RPS requiring 10% of Michigan’s electricity be generated by renewables by this year) by the legislation and argue that the legislation will cost Michigan energy jobs. They argue that  Henry Ford wouldn’t have built his automobiles here if there wasn’t a legislative infrastructure to support buyers of his cars.  I think I agree with the authors that we should retain the RPS, but their argument doesn’t persuade me. I believe that the future will include a greater mix of sources of electricity. It will not be simply large power coal-fired plants owned by large utilities providing us electricity.

However, without any historical discussion, they suggest that Henry Ford located his operations in Michigan because somehow the regulatory climate supported buyers of his cars, because in their words Lansing didn’t “kowtow” to the horse and buggy industry and paved streets and put up traffic lights. That’s simply not true.  Detroit’s mayor Hazen Pingree began a push to pave streets in the 1890’s and Ford didn’t begin production of his Model T until 1908 (making over 10,000 of them in 1909).  The traffic light wasn’t patented until 1918 and reportedly the first one was installed in Detroit in 1920 – again, well after Mr. Ford had begun his operations (in 1920, Ford reportedly manufactured 1 Million cars worldwide).

As most students of Detroit history know, the automobile industry focused on Detroit because Henry Ford was from here, there was a history of manufacturing, and there was easy access to raw materials. There was no amazing roadway system which led Ford to conclude “this is the place to build the automobile.”  In short, it was an accident of luck, history, geography and economics. I think a better analogy is the railroads, which required a dedicated infrastructure as Congress wanted to open the western United States to commerce and did so by granting rights, privileges and land so that the railroads could establish their “grid” at a lower cost.

The authors of the op ed pay short shrift to the discussion of the legislation’s other major change – elimination of net metering, but it appears that they view this as problematic also. Net metering is the current system whereby individuals and small businesses that generate their own electricity can sell it back to the grid.  The net metering issue is not over whether individual electricity generators can or should sell power back to the grid – rather, it’s what should be the price of that sale. Currently, individual generators can sell power back to the grid at the retail price of electricity charged by the utilities. This has been a boon for encouraging individuals and others to put up wind turbines and solar cells. The ability to sell excess electricity at the same price that the utility charges certainly means a faster payback which means more people will invest in it.

Utilities argue that this is a subsidy and they’re right.  Individual generators do not have to meet regulatory requirements relating to the power that they generate, nor do they have the costs of ensuring long-term reliability or the overhead costs of delivering power to consumers.  If you took your home-grown tomatoes to Kroger or Meijer, would you expect the law to require the store to buy them from you and at the same price the store sells tomatoes? Of course not.  In my view, the question is not whether there should be an incentive for individuals to create distributed power but, rather, how much of an incentive is fair to incentivize distributed power generation and fair to those who will continue to depend on the existing grid that will need upkeep.

We have an infrastructure in place that requires maintenance and upgrading for the 21st-century.  This is not a problem with a simple one-size-fits all-solution. The Legislature needs a more nuanced approach than simply blowing up the current system, but let’s get the arguments right.

Me and DTE and Big Data – now what?

26 May 2015

imageEarlier this year, DTE offered us an app which would help us manage our energy usage.  Last week, a box labelled “DTE Insight” arrived at our home.  DTE Insight is supposed to “put home energy usage data at our fingertips” and give us real time energy data usage.  

As the parent of a recent high school graduate interested in statistics, I hear a lot about “big data” and “informatics” and how the processing and analysis of data will change our lives. While it is interesting, the DTE app and “bridge” have not been a revelation. I still know that lights need to be turned off, and appliances unplugged.  

While putting a number to how much electricity each item in my house is using is cool, I’m not sure that having “snapshots” of this information will change my use or that I want to take the time to compare and contrast or to evaluate each individual bit of data as to each appliance (I suppose if each item had a meter scrolling on it….).  Instead, I expect I will continue to turn the lights off and read outside in the daylight, and keep telling my kids to turn off the lights and the TV when they leave a room.

While I see the value for large energy users, I’m not sure that knowing how much each lamp is costing me in real time is going to change my behavior. Maybe someone can show me how they are using it to become more energy efficient?

Musk a modern day Edison? Batteries take a step up.

1 May 2015

Could these be a thing of the past?

Could these be a thing of the past?

One of the common refrains about solar and wind is that the sun doesn’t always shine (actually it does but not always on us) and that the wind doesn’t always blow. In short, solar and wind can’t always provide power when we need it.  Often that means that solar and wind have been consigned as a supplemental resource in our just-in-time power system.  It also has caused many problems between early adopters of these renewables and the power companies as they fight over the price of sales to the grid (net metering) vs charging solar users extra to help support the grid.   The problem has been power storage – our system and technology do not let us generate power and store it for when we need it.

Last night (actually this morning), Elon Musk announced that he wanted the entire United States to convert to batteries – for home, office and business use and that he further wanted the entire United States to fuel those batteries with solar power.  Now, most of us would think that was an amazing futuristic projection. However, Musk is the CEO of Tesla – the high end electric car manufacturer – so he knows about batteries.  Further, he’s the cousin to the CEO of, and a major investor in, SolarCity – a firm that is leasing rooftops for solar panels (and then selling the electricity to the roof-owners. So, when he says he wants to get us off coal, oil and natural gas and onto solar and wind, he’s worth listening to.  He says we can eliminate the grid.

He is now offering for sale the Tesla Powerwall which is a lithium ion batterypack for $3,500 each. It would take about 3 of them to power a whole home but these could be hooked up to a house with solar panels and the panels could be used to charge the batteries which then could eliminate the need to be on the grid at all. He actually thinks we can eliminate all fossil fuel use in the United States – he said that it would take 2 billion battery units to do it but that equals the number of cars driving on the planet today – his thinking being if we can have 2 billion cars, we can have 2 billion batteries.
He’s got a “gigafactory” going up in Nevada to make these batteries and says there will be more. This could change everything about our economy and our environment and could unshackle our economy in ways not seen since the industrial revolution.  Have all the questions been answered about how much this would cost and how long these batteries will last? Not yet, but that was one intriguing announcement and it could lead to some really interesting and positive changes for the planet and our economy.  It looks like the Tesla was merely the wrapper and the battery technology may be the true gift. I, for one, will be watching.

Gas taxes, electrics and hybrids – is Michigan paying attention?

17 Dec 2014

Tesla

A sharp, environmentally friendly car, but also a “free rider”?

Everyone agrees that Michigan’s roads are in awful shape.  Everyone seems to agree on the amount of money to get them into good shape and keep them there (an additional $1.2 Billion a year – although MDOT argues that it may be closer to $2 Billion/year).  What no one seems to be able to agree on is how to pay for that.  With a week left to go this year (and I wonder why they aren’t working through the 31st on this), the House has passed two bills and the Senate has passed another.

Michigan, desperate to fund much-needed road repairs, appears unwilling to take on this issue

The first House bill would amend the General Sales Tax Act to eliminate, over 6 years, the sales tax on motor fuels. The proposed exemption would first reduce the portion of the sales tax that existed before the approval of Proposal A on March 15, 1994. After January 1, 2021, eligible fuel would be exempt from the sales tax. The Legislature’s own financial analysis shows reductions in State and local revenue by approximately $1.1 billion by fiscal year 2021-2022.  The second bill would amend the Motor Fuel Tax Act to replace the current excise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel with a single excise tax that would be adjusted annually.  The current gasoline fuel tax is 19 cents per gallon and under the bill, the tax rate could go up every year but could not exceed 32.5 cents.

the number of miles driven is a good proxy for wear and tear on the roads but I wonder if there should be some weighting based on, well, vehicle weight

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Electric Shaming – Part 2 – “I told you so”

15 Dec 2014

1368974_10201396380089655_297288408_nA year ago, I raised the question “has electricity shaming come to Detroit?”  This was after I started receiving the monthly “letter of shame” that DTE generates, comparing my family to our more and less efficient neighbors.  It appears I’m not alone in wondering about this.

Saturday’s Detroit Free Press asked the same question.  The answer appears to be about the same as mine was – most people wonder who are these “more efficient” neighbors and what are they doing that I am not?   Interestingly, the Free Press article says DTE and Consumers can document a decrease in electricity usage after these letters (and emails) start going out – albeit a relatively small decrease – 1%.  In the meantime. I’d appreciate better information on how to save energy rather than just the generic platitudes about switching lightbulbs (I’m working on it), vacuuming out my refrigerator (I do that)  and ditching the old refrigerator in my basement (not going to happen).

Detroit’s Carbon Footprint – now what?

18 Nov 2014

Not a carbon footprint

Not a carbon footprint

A couple of years ago, my son was watching a cartoon where one character discussed his villainous carbon foot print (a giant foot).  This showed me both how widespread the use of the term “carbon footprint” had become and how little anyone seems to know what to do with or about that information.  A group at the University of Michigan recently released findings calculating the City of Detroit’s cumulative carbon footprint and presented their report to Mayor Duggan’s office.

Not surprisingly, the study reported that some 66% of the City’s emissions come from stationary sources including residential and commercial buildings and another 30% result from transportation. Those are known to be large sources of emissions.

What I found interesting is that 41% of the city’s total emissions are produced in just 4 of the City’s 33 ZIP codes – primarily from the City’s southwest, midtown and downtown areas. Citywide, greenhouse gas emissions totaled 10.6 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents in 2011 and 2012. According to the report, if you drove from Detroit to Ann Arbor 60 times, your car would emit roughly one metric ton of CO2.  Also interesting is that, on a per capita basis, Detroit’s 2012 emissions are below average when compared to data previously collected from 13 other U.S. and Canadian cities. Detroit’s per capita emissions ranked 9th-lowest among that group—below Cleveland, Denver, Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor and Washington, D.C.  Per capita emissions were lower in Baltimore, Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto, Seattle and New York City. That one always surprises, but New York with its many tall buildings is surprisingly efficient on a per-capita basis. The report shows that electricity use contributed 45% to 2012 citywide emissions, in large part because of DTE Energy’s fuel mix, which includes 76% coal.

Now that we know where the City’s “low hanging fruit” of CO2 emissions can be found, the City may be able to work on assisting its property owners and businesses to reduce those emissions, which typically go hand-in-hand with cost savings.  That’s often the best way to sell such changes – not based on an environmental change, but based on an economic one.  One more thing for Mayor Duggan’s team to work on.

Now this is smart…..

1 Jul 2014

smart meter; smart grid technology

Smart Meter

The grid gets smarter.  In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, just before they send Richard Dreyfus out in the middle of the night, there’s a short scene in a control room where the power company management are discussing where the power outages are and where to deploy their repairmen (hence Richard’s close encounter). (more…)