The U.S. power grid is a modern engineering marvel, but it’s overdue for an overhaul. Participants at the recent Transactive Energy Conference in Portland, Oregon, came together to discuss the changing system and to develop the concept of transactive energy as the future of the grid.

Transactive Energy seeks to engage all devices and resources in the electrical grid in a market-based system. (Source: Edward Cazalet, "Transactive Energy: Public Policy and Market Design." May 2013)

As the first such conference of its kind, the gathering was initiated by defining exactly what transactive energy is. In an interview with Sustainable Business Oregon, Carl Imhoff, manager of the electricity infrastructure sector for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and a moderator at the conference, provided a succinct definition: “Transactive energy is a means of using economic signals or incentives to engage all the intelligent devices in the power grid—from the consumer to the transmission system—to get a more optimal allocation of resources and engage demand in ways we haven’t been able to before.”

If consumers need proof of what a smarter grid could do for them, transactive energy is a concept that can provide it. Transactive energy systems integrate both utility-owned and third-party-owned resources—including power generation, ancillary services, and load management services, among others—in order to utilize the lowest-cost electricity in real time. The key driver of transactive energy systems is the market-based approach, which allows every service provided to the grid, even those by consumers, to be valued.

This way, those providing the services, whether they are generating power or providing load reduction services or something else, can be compensated, thus splitting the benefits and savings of the increased efficiency of the electricity system between the customer and the utility. This system is a long way from the traditional unidirectional flow of power (from utility companies to consumers) and supply side-focused mindset of the historical electricity sector.

Employing the increasingly prevalent two-way information and communications technology deployed as part of smart grid development efforts, consumers can begin to interact within the electricity system in ways that were not possible in the past. A transactive energy system utilizes smart grid infrastructure to send signals back and forth between utilities, grid operators, and individual assets in the grid system, communicating the real-time flow and cost of power.

These assets can include everything from large centralized power plants to residential solar photovoltaic arrays to demand-response programs. Signals can even be sent to and from electric vehicles (EV), integrating EVs into the electrical grid.  In a transactive energy system, instead of being passive energy consumers, you and I could become what are being referred to as “prosumers,” not only receiving electricity from the grid, but providing our own services to the grid system and getting paid for it. 

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electricity, energy, energy efficiency, grid, Innovation, renewable energy, transactive energy, United States, utilities

Across the developing world, retailers are selling solar-powered portable lamps that can meet basic lighting demands, reduce dependence on expensive and inefficient kerosene lighting, and contribute to important development goals like energy access and improved literacy rates.

Solar portable lamp companies must find innovative ways of restoring consumer confidence in their products after a flood of cheap, faulty models created a distrust of the technology (Source: OneDegreeSolar).

Small solar portable lamp companies are learning how to navigate the relatively unstructured business environments of developing countries, but a lack of consumer confidence in the unfamiliar technology is a serious deterrent to scalability. Confidence has been eroded further by the presence of low-quality lamps that mimic higher-quality products. To increase sales and improve both the social and environmental impact of solar portable lamps, companies must develop a dependable product and brand that is appealing to customers both familiar and unfamiliar with solar technology.

Gaurav Manchanda, an Indian-born entrepreneur and founder of One Degree Solar, found a new way to restore consumer confidence in a low-cost lamp that meets the standards of the Lighting Africa project. He developed a short messaging service (SMS) technology that both provides customer service and allows the company to monitor the social and environmental impacts of every lamp sold.

The use of mobile phone technology has skyrocketed in East Africa, and Manchanda’s development of a customer service practice that utilizes this unique market characteristic allows his product to penetrate markets previously characterized by uncertainty. Manchanda’s interest in tracking the social and environmental impact is based on his background in development work, but is also reflective of this market as a whole. Companies that operate in the solar portable lamp market are typically social enterprises interested in the triple bottom line of economic profit, social impact, and environmental health.

Manchanda realized that high-quality customer service is a competitive advantage and a way to generate confidence in relatively new and unfamiliar products among customers with very little purchasing power. With the help of an in-country partner, he developed an SMS platform hosted by Safaricom and Airtel that allows his company to send bulk text messages to purchasers of One Degree Solar products.

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developing countries, east Africa, energy, Energy Access, Green Technology, Innovation, rural electrification, solar portable lamps

Schematic of Phase 1 of ContourGlobal’s Project KivuWatt (source: BBC)

Along the western border of Rwanda, an innovative energy project on Africa’s 2,700 square kilometer Lake Kivu is generating electricity in a region beset by both geochemical and geopolitical instability.

Lake Kivu is one of the world’s three known “exploding lakes,” presenting a threat as well as an opportunity for local communities. Volcanic and bacterial activity in the lake generates substantial methane deposits that, if untapped, could erupt violently with disastrous effects on local lives, wildlife, and the environment. If safely extracted, however, the methane could provide a source of electricity and reduce the geochemical risks associated with the untapped gas.

To harness the lake’s energy potential, private sector investors are financing Project KivuWatt, a unique technological solution that translates potential risks into both socioeconomic development and geochemical stability. The initiative offers a model for successful power-producing projects in Rwanda and other developing countries.

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developing countries, electricity, Green Technology, Innovation, Lake Kivu, Methane, natural disasters, Project KivuWatt, Rwanda

Wind projects often have difficulty generating public support. This is one of the non-technical barriers identified by Worldwatch that is constraining the renewable energy sector.

For the past eight months, Worldwatch has been working in partnership with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to begin developing a set of renewable energy indicators to measure and assess progress toward meeting renewable energy goals. This exciting and challenging project has allowed us to dive deeper into an examination of the real-world conditions shaping the evolution of the renewables sector today.

As the first phase of this unique venture draws to a close, Worldwatch has identified three key areas where measurements could have a profound impact toward transforming the global energy sector:

  • Barriers to renewable energy development and deployment;
  • Enablers to scale up renewables development and deployment; and
  • The positive impacts of renewable energy deployment on broader national priorities and development goals.

Certain renewable energy technologies, such as wind  and solar, have matured to the point where they are now at grid-parity with traditional fossil fuel generation sources, with even more set to approach this point in the coming years. At the same time, many technical restrictions are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Yet despite all these positive developments, the renewables sector still has not witnessed the robust growth needed to reach the full potential of these technologies.

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barriers, development, enablers, energy, indicators, Innovation, renewable energy, renewable energy deployment

LEED Platinum Manitoba Hydro Place had its performance meticulously tracked for two years to determine whether it was living up to its ambitious goals. In fall 2012, Manitoba Hydro is expected to publicly release the full schedule of performance results. (Source: Flickr user stevecoutts)

Data collection is increasingly recognized as a priority in the evaluation and evolution of green buildings. Though the importance of green building design and its impact on climate change have been well documented, the actual performance of many green buildings often fails to meet expectations. There are several factors that contribute to this phenomenon, and the ability to accurately measure the energy efficiency of buildings is crucial to improving performance and standards. Performance data makes it possible to evaluate the effectiveness of different building strategies and technologies. This information is instrumental in the advancement of codes, standards, and best practices. Below, I will highlight a few initiatives that are attempting to gather and process performance data from buildings.

Data Collection Initiatives CBECS

One such effort to gather building energy information is a survey conducted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Office of Energy Consumption and Efficiency Statistics. Through the use of a national sample survey called the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), the EIA provides data that supports the development of energy standards and codes. The latest iteration of the survey is set to include information from approximately 8,500 commercial buildings. The two previous attempts to deliver survey results were derailed by funding issues: in 2007, a less exhaustive data gathering technique was used due to a lack of funding; more recently, poor implementation of the new technique led to faulty data that could not be used. In 2011, the survey was suspended as a result of budgetary cuts by Congress.  Due to these setbacks, the latest available data dates back to 2003. Despite resuming work on a 2012 CBECS, there are still budgetary issues that might sidetrack the program.

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Climate Change, development, energy efficiency, Green Technology, Innovation, United States

As I discussed in a previous blog, renewable energy trade disputes are becoming a particularly contentious issue between many nations. The United States and China are facing off in one of the most publicized of these disagreements. Further action was taken last week as the U.S. Department of Commerce made its second ruling of the year on this issue, placing tariffs on solar photovoltaic (PV) imports from China.

A Suntech Power Holdings employee at a Chinese solar PV manufacturing facility. The Commerce Department ruling placed a 31.22% tariff on Suntech products. (source: China Daily)

The previous Department of Commerce ruling from March 2012 placed countervailing duties on solar PV imports in order to balance what the department determined to be illegal subsidies to solar PV manufacturers from the Chinese government. The initial tariff rates, which were set between 2.9 and 4.73 percent, came in much lower than what was expected by most experts.

The new preliminary ruling comes in response to the second set of claims by the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM) that Chinese solar companies have been dumping their products in the U.S. market at below market value. The coalition, led by SolarWorld USA, looks to level the playing field for U.S. solar manufacturers against what they see as artificially cheap imports coming from China.

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China, energy, energy policy, green economy, green jobs, Green Technology, Innovation, renewable energy, solar power, United States

In a previous blog, I discussed the value of pumped-storage hydro systems, especially when it comes to integrating intermittent renewable energies like wind and solar into a power system. However, traditional pumped-storage hydro systems require two reservoirs of fresh water (one upper and one lower), which are not always available at locations that might otherwise benefit from an energy storage system. An exciting technology that tackles this problem – requiring only one on-land reservoir – and that has gained recent momentum is seawater pumped-storage hydro.

An aerial view of the seawater pumped-storage hydro system on Okinawa Island (Source: wastedenergy.net)

Seawater pumped-storage hydro works similarly to traditional systems. Excess electricity from fossil fuel, nuclear, or renewable energy power plants is used during periods of low power demand to pump water uphill to be stored in reservoirs as potential energy. Then, when demand peaks the reservoirs are opened, allowing water to pass through hydroelectric turbines to generate the electricity needed to meet power demand. The main difference for seawater pumped-storage is that instead of having a lake, river, or some other source of fresh water serve as the lower reservoir, these systems pump salt water uphill from the ocean to a land reservoir above. This lowers the system’s fresh water footprint and greatly expands the potential for pumped-storage hydro worldwide because seawater pumped-storage is much less site-specific than traditional systems.

There is currently one seawater pumped-storage hydro system operating in the world, on the northern coast of Okinawa Island, Japan. The system began operation in 1999 and has the potential to generate up to 30 megawatts (MW) of power. The hydropower plant has a total head – the vertical distance, or drop, between the intake of the plant and the turbine – of 136 meters and the upper reservoir is located just 600 meters from the coast.

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Caribbean, energy storage, hydropower, Innovation, pumped-hydro storage, renewable energy, wind power

By Philip Newell

In the least electrified parts of rural Africa, over 90 percent of people do not have access to electricity. To address this problem, Solar Nexus International (SNI) has designed a contained system of solar power generation that can be installed relatively quickly and easily.

Solar Nexus connects all the distinct components of an off-the-grid electricity system. (Image credit: Solar Nexus International)

The heart of this operation is the SolarNexus, a small device that links wires, transformers, converters, inverters, and batteries required in an off-grid electricity system. Through this device, Solar Nexus hopes to fulfill its mission for “solar empowerment through market-based development of local solar energy resources worldwide.”

Typically, it takes a fair amount of knowledge and training to set up an electricity generating system. Whether solar, hydropower, or wind, transforming captured energy into useful electricity requires a variety of different hardware, not always available in rural communities in developing countries. If any of this hardware is improperly installed, or if wires are not the proper size, the efficiency of the system suffers severely. When these systems are installed in developing countries, high-grade wires are usually not used because they are too expensive or not available, and as a result less electricity is available for use. In order to overcome this problem, Solar Nexus International custom-designs a system for each client, and then ships out a container that includes all the wires and materials needed for a U.S. code-compliant system. Once the shipment is received, the provided instructions allow local electricians to install the system. As a result of high quality and correctly sized wiring and components, communities will be able to generate more electricity from the unit, sacrificing much less to poor wiring.

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Africa, Innovation, renewable energy, solar power, sustainable development, technology series

Worldwide, the total square footage of green buildings (defined here as LEED certified buildings) is doubling every year, and 85 countries now have their own green building standards. But are we doing enough to harness the overwhelming benefits that come from boosting energy efficiency in buildings?

On January 25, Greg Kats, President of Capital E and the author of Greening Our Built World, presented on “Sustainable Solutions for the Planet’s Energy Challenge” as part of a new series from the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program. In his talk, he discussed the many ways we can move sustainability forward in three target areas: transportation, industry, and building efficiency, which account for 28 percent, 26 percent, and 40 percent of U.S. energy use, respectively.

Among the obvious solutions to promoting a more sustainable economy, Kats noted, are increasing the production tax credit for renewable energy, pumping more money into energy efficiency financing, and incorporating more renewable energy into building and city designs. He pointed to positive patterns already emerging in the field of low-carbon technology: solar photovoltaic technology, for example, has seen an 80 percent price reduction in just four to five years. Similarly, the price of a plug-in hybrid vehicle is now near that of a non-hybrid in a similar class.

The benefits of building green

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Climate Change, development, emissions reductions, Green Technology, Innovation, renewable energy, sustainable development, United States

On October 13th and 14th, I represented the Worldwatch Institute at the 4th Annual International Conference on Energy, Logistics and the Environment.  The conference was held in Denver, Colorado, and it was well attended by stakeholders, government officials, natural gas industry experts, innovators and entrepreneurs, academics and other interested parties.  The conference was organized by the Global Commerce Forum and was given the theme, A Sustainable Energy Future for Emerging Economies: Focus on Africa.  Discussion focused on the imperatives for clean energy development in emerging economies.  Traditionally, industrialized nations developed via fossil-fuel energy.  Industrialization fostered economic growth and prosperity in the developed world.  Many industrialized nations have prospered largely because heavily subsidized fossil-fuels have provided for affordable and reliable energy.  However, environmental concerns are driving industrialized nations to seek new energy sources and infrastructure to develop clean environments.

With its focus on Africa, the conference sought to answer one of the contentious questions in international discourse on energy development: ‘should emerging and developing nations develop their energy infrastructure from these same traditional energy sources, or are there now other, better options available to them?’  In his opening remarks, Don McClure, Vice President of Government & Stakeholder Relations & Legal of EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc, indicated that Africa is in a unique position to invest in critical thinking that produces a “leap frog” in innovation.  He also indicated that Africa is in an enviable position to avoid the pitfalls associated with fossil fuel development through lessons learned from developed countries.  In a keynote address presented by former Governor of Colorado and Director of the Center for the New Energy Economy, Colorado State University, Bill Ritter, the intersection between access to energy services and education was highlighted. Governor Ritter also indicated that access to modern energy services is important in that it facilitates educational opportunities for children in developing countries. He stressed the need for an economy powered by clean fuels and public health in Africa.  He concluded by stating that there can be ‘no economic development without reliable power.’

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Africa, energy, Innovation, natural gas, renewable energy, sustainability