During this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) interactive music and film festival in Austin, TX, an event was held to discuss Energy at the Movies. Hosted by Dr. Michael E. Webber of The University of Texas at Austin, this event focused on energy as it is portrayed in and influenced by the silver screen. After giving a lecture on this topic, Dr. Webber hosted a panel discussion with research scientist and author Sheril Kirshenbaum, film historian and UT film Professor Dr. Charles Ramirez-Berg, screenwriter and director Matthew Chapman, and producer Turk Pipkin. Yesterday, UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering released video of this discussion. If you’d like to check out the lecture that inspired this discussion, you can access the youtube video here.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) works at the heart of high-risk energy innovations. Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), ARPA-E was established in 2007 to promote and fund energy technology research and development. With an annual budget in the neighborhood of $400 million, this agency supports the development of technologies that result in reductions in imported fuels and energy-related greenhouse-gas emissions, while improving energy efficiency across all sectors.
On Thursday, the agency’s director Arun Majumdar announced that a new technology will be tested on the nation’s electric grid. It is believed that the first company to be tested in this grid environment will be an advanced compressed air energy storage (CAES) technology. This technology could efficiently store energy in the form of compressed air, which can be stored and later released – creating a type of air battery that can be used on the gigawatt (power plant) scale.
Scientific American released a new video about what the smart grid is, starting with how our transmission infrastructure works. For those interested in learning about terms like “spinning reserve” and “just in time” manufacturing to the “extreme”, this video is definitely work a look.
Over the past 6 months, I have been working with other students from The University of Texas to develop a short report (primer) on the smart grid in Texas. This project was a part of a competition sponsored by Power Across Texas, a nonprofit organization that works to provide information and education on energy. For this competition, we created a group of policy, engineering and business students (4 in total) to explore what the smart grid is (and isn’t) and what it could mean for the future competitiveness of our state. Our findings revealed how, with intelligent investment and smart policies, the smart grid could provide a competitive advantage for the state.
Our final report “The Smart Grid in Texas: A Primer” can be viewed or downloaded for free here.
Today was the first “full” day of the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This year, the meeting is being held in Washington, DC at the Washington Convention Center. It will run until Monday, hosting panel discussions and plenary speakers on a variety of science topics from sustainability to science and society aimed at giving scientists, engineers and journalists a chance to discuss not only the research topics that they explore, but the ways that they communicate their findings to the world.
Throughout the day, I attended portions of 6 sessions. My runaway favorite – “Science Without Borders and Media Unbounded: What comes next?” moderated by Bud Ward from Yale University’s Forum on Climate Change in the Media. The conference program provides the following summary for the discussion:
Climate science and “mainstream” journalism interests are undergoing what some call, in the case of journalism, an “epochal transformation.” The communications challenges facing climate science — manifested in part by widespread misunderstanding on the part of many in the public and their policy-makers — will play out against fundamental changes, shaking the very nature of journalism, communications, and science education communities, with blogs, list serves, and “tweets” increasingly complementing (or are they?) conventional journalism. Climate science and climate journalism in the end need each other if we’re to have a more informed and more engaged citizenry. Steps each sector takes during the coming months and years will help shape public and policy-makers’ understanding of the climate changes we all will face. In this session, one of the nation’s most respected students of modern journalism pairs with two journalism practitioners whose reporting frequently puts them in the public spotlight in responsibly informing the public about climate science and policy. The three share critical insights into navigating climate science communications in this “perfect storm” of an economic, geopolitical, scientific, and environmental issue. They serve up a feast for the climate science expert discussant to kick off an exchange with the audience.Moderator: Bud Ward, Yale Forum on Climate Change and the MediaDiscussant: Kerry Emanuel, Massachusetts Institute of TechnologySpeakers:1. Tom Rosensteil, Project for Excellence in Journalism2. Seth Borenstein, Associated Press
Reporting on Climate Change for a Wire Service3. Elizabeth Shogren, National Public Radio
Covering Climate Science and Climate Controversies for National Public Radio
- Communicating Diversity in Science: Implications for Climate Change Denial
- Rethinking Adaptation to a Changing Global Environment
- Powering the Planet: Generation of Clean Fuels from Sunlight and Water
- Mathematics and Our Energy Future
- Samantha B. Joye: Offshore Ocean Aspects of the Gulf Oil Well Blowout
- Deepwater Drilling: A Risk Worth Taking?
- If a Culture of Growth Is Unsustainable, What Should Change?
- Superconductivity: From 1911 to 2021
I won’t be able to attend all of these sessions (too many overlaps) – but, whatever ones I do make it to are sure to be interesting.
Check out my guest post today on Discover’s blog, The Intersection (blogging home to Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum). My post is about the Inaugural UT Energy Forum, hosted on UT’s campus earlier this month. I attended and spoke about the smart grid in a 7-minute TED-style talk.
For the past 48 hours, Texas has been slammed by a wave of winter weather that has Texans bundling up – and using more energy – to keep warm. This extreme weather has caused more than 50 power plants to go offline for periods of time ranging from minutes to hours. In response, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has ordered the Lower Colorado River Authority to increase power output from its dams. But, despite this extra capacity, ERCOT has been forced to start a series of rolling blackouts throughout central Texas in order to shed the load that these power plants are unable to meet.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas manages the flow of electricity from power plants to customers through most of the state of Texas. They are responsible for ensuring that, when Texans want electricity, it is there. When ERCOT does its job well, we don’t notice them. When things go bad – due to technical difficulties (aka something breaks) or freak january snow storms – we become acutely aware of their role in the energy world and the lengths they go to in ensuring our electricity supply.
To keep the electrons flowing, ERCOT attacks the potential problems from two sides – supply and demand.
On the supply side, ERCOT makes sure to keep power plants waiting in the wings to come online quickly if they are needed. This reserve capacity is designed to be able to put electrons onto the grid within a few minutes of it being called upon by ERCOT. Frequently, these reserve plants are powered by natural gas, which Texas uses to supply about 50% of its electricity needs throughout the year.
On the demand side, ERCOT (or, at times, other companies working in the electric utility world) maintains the ability to quickly reduce demand in response to unexpected drops in supply. Load shedding is the process of reducing the amount of power that is demanded from the electric grid by turning off the demand of certain users. These abilities might take the form of agreements with large industrial facilities, where contracts guarantee benefits (money) for those who agree to be “turned off” in the case of an emergency. On a smaller scale, residential customers can agree to cycle appliances (for example, air conditioners) on and off to reduce their total electricity demand. One example of this can be found in Austin Energy’s Power Saver Program, which provides free programmable thermostats for residential customers who agree to flex their power use to reduce demand when it peaks in the summertime.
When reserve power and voluntary load shedding are not enough to balance electricity supply and demand, involuntary load shedding is a likely next step. Today, ERCOT imposed 8 hours of rolling blackouts throughout Central Texas, when unexpected difficulties in more than 50 power plants across the state led to an insufficient supply of electrons for Texans to use. While most blackouts were limited to short intervals (less than 45 minutes, according to Austin Energy and other utilities in the state), each blackout was experienced by an average 330,000 Texans.
Today’s rolling blackouts show the potential problems with maintaining the careful balance of supply and demand that is required in a system that functions without large-scale energy storage as a back-up. This load-following design (where power plants respond to customer demand, instead of vice versa) lacks some of the flexibility needed to maintain grid reliability in the face of unexpectedly harsh winter weather. And, today, this design left many Texans in the dark.
[photos from flickr and KETK NBC – obtained via Creative Commons]