Here in SoCal discussions on water conservation are a regular occurrence. We all know the management of water resources in California is critical given increasing populations, increasing strains on our enormous agricultural ‘breadbasket’, and ever-decreasing precipitation as the effects of climate change worsen. However, how many of us think about energy in terms of water conservation?
According to the International Energy Agency, energy production accounts for 15% of the world’s water withdrawal – water withdrawn from groundwater. Thermoelectric power plants account for over one third of the fresh water withdrawn in the US. Shockingly that volume is greater than the water used to grow our food!
So which energy sources are hogging our precious water and how? Actually, most energy generation technologies — including coal, nuclear, biomass and even concentrating solar power – consume astounding amounts of water. It is necessary primarily for cooling thermal power plants, as well as fuel extraction, transport and processing. This results in both the depletion of available freshwater resources and affects the quality of our remaining resources downstream due to the polluting effects of energy-related outputs.
Sunlight, on the other hand, is an infinitely abundant resource in most water-stressed parts of the world, including here in California. The World Energy Outlook, published by the International Energy Agency reported that photovoltaic (PV) solar energy is one of only two electricity generation technologies with negligible water consumption.
PV energy systems provide a sustainable solution to the water-energy nexus by generating clean electricity with little to no water use. With the smallest carbon footprint, lowest life cycle water use, and fastest energy payback time in the industry, thin-film PV modules provide a sustainable solution to water scarcity and energy security.
Water conservation must be a priority in water-stressed parts of the world. While PV solar is unlikely to provide enough power for the entire state any time soon, individuals and businesses installing roof-top solar can make a positive difference. It turns out, not only in reducing air pollution from dirty energy but also in saving our water resources!
It is important to note the other half of the energy-water nexus. Energy is required to produce, treat, and distribute water. So, even if solar is providing your electricity, the water you use is still linked to polluting energy sources. Combining smart water conservation techniques, such as those suggested in this EPA list of household water saving methods, with going solar is the best bet for ensuring our planet’s resources will continue to provide for our future.
As its moniker suggests, the Internet of Things (IoT) is about the connectivity of ‘things’, not people. Hence, managing our hyper-connected world by using data from remote sensors in our devices to provide control in a smarter, more efficient way. As nebulous and vague as the ‘Internet of Things’ is, it has been cited as the hot technology trend of the future. In a recent Business Insider report, they estimate IoT growth will increase connections from 1.9 billion devices today, to 9 billion by 2018 (see chart below).
In fact, IoT is already a reality with 24/7 connectivity to laptops, tablets, smartphones, smart TVs, gaming consoles, and even wearable devices.
One of the best known applications for IoT is the smart metering of electricity, water, and waste systems as well as integrated management of home and building systems. Building temperature, humidity, ambient light and occupancy could be monitored by sensors and used to control heating, lighting, air-conditioning, and the operation of doors and windows, etc.
Smart thermostats such as Google’s Nest allows home owners to manage their heating requirements remotely via their smartphone. Where utilities participate, users can program their biggest energy inefficient appliances (heating and cooling systems, washers and dryers, refrigerators, ovens, dishwashers, and pool pumps) to respond to varying energy tarifs and avoid peak demand periods. Sometimes demand reward credits are offered by utilities.
While these applications may make the workplace and home more comfortable and secure, the real motivation for adoption of such systems will be from potential energy benefits and hence cost savings. Avoiding peak periods would also have the broader environmental benefit of spreading demand, allowing power plants to operate more efficiently and reduce the need to build generating capacity to meet demand spikes.
But opinion seems divided over whether the Internet of Things will deliver improved energy efficiency overall. The exponential growth in the number of connected ‘things’ that all consume power could negate many of the efficiency gains of things like smart thermostats. More than $80 billion in power is wasted by connected ‘things’ according to an IEA (International Energy Agency) report. This is what is known as “vampire power”, or “vamping", and refers to energy used when devices are switched off or in standby mode. The IEA report notes the problem could result in $120 billion USD wasted by 2020 due to vamping!
One potential smart solution to vamping is to make appliances in the off or sleep mode actually power off but respond to a timer which is only responsive to the “on” switch during a portion of each second. The long term key to whether IoT improves energy efficiency lies with improving the energy efficiency of the devices themselves while at the same time providing innovative applications.
The wider potential of the Internet of Things is enormous and exciting. Wider ’smart grids’ could make our urban centers dynamic and responsive to energy demands, optimizing city-level energy use. As the Internet of Things continues to grow, the opportunity for bigger energy and environmental benefits from applications like smart grids could become a valuable reality assuming the overall efficiency of our ‘things’ also continues to improve.
California Governor Jerry Brown’s inauguration was historic in more ways than one. After all, this is his fourth term - despite the legal limit of just two (the term limit was imposed in 1990 after his earlier terms in the 70’s). But perhaps even more historic was the content of his exciting inaugural speech. Among many plans for a healthier and more economically viable state, Brown proposed ambitious green energy goals including growing renewable energy to 50% by 2030. Coincidentally, on Tuesday we posted a blog encouraging readers to support the policies and politicians defending and expanding solar opportunities.
Gov. Brown described California as an environmental policy trendsetter. We already lead the nation in solar energy usage, energy efficiency overall, cleaner cars and energy storage. However, with the majority of scientists agreeing that we must limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, much more comprehensive measures are necessary.
If we have any chance at all of achieving that, California, as it does in many areas, must show the way. We must demonstrate that reducing carbon is compatible with an abundant economy and human well-being.
He outlined the following three goals to accomplish by 2030:
California is already on track to reach its goal of one third energy derived from renewable sources by 2020. So, although 50% by 2030 sounds bold because no one else is doing it, it is actually feasible. This could mean the continuation of tax breaks and other financial incentives for homeowners to go solar. Given that transportation accounts for 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, incentives and infrastructure to get drivers in electric cars are also likely.
I envision a wide range of initiatives: more distributed power, expanded rooftop solar, micro-grids, an energy imbalance market, battery storage, the full integration of information technology and electrical distribution and millions of electric and low-carbon vehicles.
It won’t be easy accomplishing Brown’s goals with the oil industry leaders and some politicians opposing anything green. As mentioned in Tuesday’s post, we must remain diligent in supporting policies and politicians fighting for a cleaner world. By his speech, Governor Brown once again demonstrated that he is such a politician, with his practical and no-nonsense stance:
Taking significant amounts of carbon out of our economy without harming its vibrancy is exactly the sort of challenge at which California excels. This is exciting, it is bold and it is absolutely necessary if we are to have any chance of stopping potentially catastrophic changes to our climate system.
We are at a crossroads. With big and important new programs now launched and the budget carefully balanced, the challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it, to live within our means and to keep California ever golden and creative, as our forebears have shown and our descendants would expect.
There’s a good chance if you’re reading this blog you either have hopes of someday owning an electric vehicle (EV) or you are one of the proud individuals already enjoying cruising silently by gas stations…such as Run on Sun’s Jim Jenal in our new Volt pictured on the right! In either case your ears likely perk up at any breaking news regarding EVs.
Over the last few days I’ve noticed alarming headlines coming from multiple sources. While the key word in headlines such as “Study Finds Electric Cars May Not Be Very Green at All” is “may“, many of the articles state definitively that electric cars are not as green as gasoline cars. I decided to investigate.
On December 15th a new study by the University of Minnesota was released to the press. The study calculated the air quality impacts of manufacturing and refueling vehicles with various forms of power. Below is the study’s abstract verbatim:
We evaluate the air quality-related human health impacts of 10…options, including the use of liquid biofuels, diesel, and compressed natural gas (CNG) in internal combustion engines; the use of electricity from a range of conventional and renewable sources to power electric vehicles (EVs); and the use of hybrid EV technology.
…We find that powering vehicles with corn ethanol or with coal-based or “grid average” electricity increases monetized environmental health impacts by 80% or more relative to using conventional gasoline. Conversely, EVs powered by low-emitting electricity from natural gas, wind, water, or solar power reduce environmental health impacts by 50% or more. Consideration of potential climate change impacts alongside the human health outcomes described here further reinforces the environmental preferability of EVs powered by low-emitting electricity relative to gasoline vehicles.
Did you catch that last part? Electric vehicles, charged by low-emitting electricity (anything but coal) are preferable environmentally alongside human health impacts…to gasoline vehicles. A far cry from the grossly misinterpreted ‘electric cars aren’t green’. Which is simply not what the study says.
The straightforward lessons from the study include three main points:
In summary, don’t get an electric vehicle if you’re planning on charging it off of a coal-powered grid. Do get an electric vehicle if your grid is sufficiently green… or better yet, use a solar power system designed specifically with charging your EV in mind – see Run on Sun’s website for info! And remember that facts are frequently misinterpreted by the press. When in doubt, read the actual study, not just the headlines.
The New York Times, Washington Post and other national media all weighed in on a historic, yet divisive, announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just before the Thanksgiving holiday. As part of the Obama administrations’ enforcement of the Clean Air Act the EPA proposed a regulation that would lower the current limit for ground-level ozone pollution to 65-70 parts per billion (ppb) with a possibility for seeking a standard as low as 60 ppb. This in line with what independent scientific advisory panels have been recommending since 2008 when the current level was established at 75 ppb. The EPA had planned to release the rule in 2011 but the Obama Administration decided to delay due to election year jitters and the President preferred to wait until the economy was in a better condition to handle the economic blows that would result. Some may believe this is an issue being pushed by the Obama administration, but the 1970 Clean Air Act requires that these air regulations are revised based on the scientific evidence every five years.
The proposed standard is referring to ground-level ozone everyone in Southern California knows as smog or the infamous “haze”. As we are also painfully aware, smog is caused by emissions of pollutants which come from a range of sources including cars, power plants, air traffic, manufacturing plants, and oil and gas refineries. Ozone in the air we breathe is very harmful triggering a variety of effects such as asthma, chest pain, heart and lung disease, and premature death – particularly in children, the sick, and the elderly. For sunny Los Angeles this is no small matter since ozone causes the most damage during hot sunny days. As such, the updated standard is meant to be a public health measure and does not include direct regulation on businesses. The new rules will expand the ozone monitoring season and update the Air Quality Index to keep people informed when pollution levels are dangerous.
The fossil fuel industry, manufacturers, and their allys criticize the new standards stating they will wreak havoc on the economy. Some even calling it the “costliest regulation ever”. Indeed, power plants and factories will need to install expensive technology to clean up their pollution emissions. However, advocates argue that the economic benefits - measured in reduced health care needs and increased productivity due to improved health - significantly outweigh the costs to industry. States also have a very generous time, up to 23 years, to comply. Though some regions, including Southern California are not even complying with the 1997 standard of 84 ppb yet.
EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, stated “Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air,…protect those most at-risk”, and the American people “deserve to know the air we breathe is safe.”
This is what improving regulations on air quality is all about. Though smog levels have been declining steadily over the last 40 years, there are always costs and benefits to each incremental improvement. As populations in urban centers continue to grow, these reductions in allowable pollution levels are always going to be both more difficult to accomplish and more imperative to preserve human and environmental health. Most would agree that human and environmental health trump the economic health of industries, especially industries that now have many viable solutions to damaging practices. Getting regulations in line with scientific evidence is just one more way to remind industry of how their environmental impacts are affecting the rest of us.