Factoid: Exploring the Possibility of Solar Energy from the Moon

Published to LA Confidential, Winter 2018

We have often wondered, ‘Does life exist on other planets?’ Although we may not have infinite answers to extraterrestrial life on other planets, one concept that does exist out there is potential energy. Specifically, the possibility for lunar-based solar power (LSP).

According to a 2017 Forbes article, the concept of LSP involves developing solar power collecting stations on the Moon’s surface, which would convert sunlight into electricity and be wirelessly transmitted to Earth. Supporting this concept of a more sustainable source of clean electricity by using solar panels to collect sunlight on the Moon is retired University of Houston physicist, David Criswell.

By Criswell’s own models of his proposed 20 terawatt LSP system, he provides an eventual projected wholesale price of 0.001 cents per kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. At present, an average American household pays in the range of 12 cents per kWh. By comparison, the future not only appears to be built on the complete use of clean energy, but the possibility of LSP may lead to significant savings. Although it is a fantastic idea to ‘Klingon’ to, the idea of LSP may still be lightyears away.

Source: Physicist Wants To Beam Solar Energy Back From Moon’s Surface


Working out the Tribbles of On-Site Power Storage

Published to LA Confidential, Winter 2018

On-site battery power storage is a hot new energy option, but it does not come trouble-free. As Captain Kirk learned in Star Treks “Troubles with Tribbles” episode, some problems are easier to solve than others.

At this time, most utility batteries are being installed to manage frequency regulation, provide synchronized reserves, and other ancillary services of interest solely to grid operators. How much a retail power customer may save by installing a battery system, however, depends on a customer’s utility tariff rate, and how the power storage system is operated.

There is no question that the state of the art in battery storage systems is advancing rapidly, while at the same time, expanding production capability at locations such as Tesla’s “Gigafactory” is causing prices to fall significantly (in dollars per kWh of storage capability). Following a trajectory much like solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, battery storage is becoming cost effective in more and more applications.

While battery pricing has been rapidly dropping, care is needed to consider the balance-of-system expenses that can significantly increase total installed cost. But even if costs fall enough to yield an attractive payback, is power storage an out of this world option? Not necessarily. Let us look at a few of the other “tribbles” that need to be addressed, regardless of pricing.

Fire codes – While a few applications of batteries (e.g., “hoverboards”) have given some people pause about installing them in their buildings, recent New York City Fire Department regulations on stationary lithium-ion batteries have favorably addressed fire prevention and suppression concerns. In a 97-page report issued earlier this year, NYSERDA and the City found that “The installation of battery systems into buildings introduces risks, though these are manageable within existing building codes and firefighting methods when appropriate conditions are met.”

Regarding a potential fire, the study found that the batteries it tested emitted toxic gasses that may be “mitigated with ventilation rates common to many occupied spaces” finding that “toxicity is similar to a plastics fire” already a factor in most office environments with their computers, copiers, printers and furniture. Among the other key findings in the report are that water, by far the most common fire suppression agent, is the most effective extinguisher for a battery fire, and that thermal runaway (i.e., fire spread among battery cells) may be addressed by cell module design.

Space and weight considerations – Any battery big enough to actually manage a building’s daily peak load will be large and heavy. While basement floors may be capable of holding stacked battery cells, locating on an upper floor or roof may require structural enhancements.

Leasing issues – To get around the high first cost, a few firms lease their batteries to customers. They secure the large dollar utility and/or governmental incentives up front, and the leases offer them a guaranteed revenue stream for 7 seven (or more) years. Customers need to understand that a lease does not assure that power storage will indeed cut their electric bills. Smart battery software is needed to optimize charging and output, with a performance guarantee that delivers a stated minimum savings, or a payment if it is not achieved.

Software – Key to securing serious dollar savings are the algorithms (i.e., computer formulae) that determine when, and how much, power should be stored or discharged. At this time, there is no easy and standardized way to compare them. A good program needs algorithms that, in real time, take into account:

  • Supply price/tariff structures, and/or a third party’s contract terms.
  • Day Ahead and hour-ahead wholesale supply pricing.
  • Seasonality and timing of the existing delivery tariff.
  • Wholesale ancillary service opportunities and requirements (e.g., response time).
  • Facility’s recent and projected daily load and reactive power profiles.
  • Projected output profile of on-site generation (e.g., solar PV system).
  • Projected weather conditions.
  • Battery condition/degradation.

Navigating such issues requires expertise in tariffs, power procurement, and energy contracting. Luthin Associates has all three, and would be happy to offer its guidance to customers ready to explore the options of power storage.

For a more extensive explanation, please click on the link for the related article: The elusive art of predicting energy storage savings in the real world


Beaming up Best Paybacks at a 271-Year Old Institution

Published to LA Confidential, Winter 2018

Bill Broadhurst has been Princeton University’s energy manager since 2009. During those 8 years, he has handled challenges that range from raising efficiency in buildings built before the American Revolution, to designing state-of-the art systems for 21st century facilities.

Princeton’s 10 million square foot campus in New Jersey has an advanced central plant, equipped with dual-fueled boilers and cogeneration, variable-speed pumps and motors, thermal energy storage, and free cooling through its cooling towers. Cogeneration, Thermal Storage and Steam-driven turbine chillers minimize peak demand charges for cooling, and a centralized geothermal system is on the drawing boards. Power delivery to the campus from the local utility is on a high-tension real-time pricing tariff, with supply purchased from a competitive third-party supplier.

With HVAC and lighting systems installed literally across centuries, Broadhurst has found ways to enhance energy efficiency wherever possible, while meeting the University’s climate change goals. Those efforts have resulted in 70-80% of the facility’s lighting being converted to LED, and DDC controls installed in most of its 150 buildings. About half of them are optimized via control system optimization software run by his operators monthly. While all new buildings have hydronic heating systems, many of the older structures still have steam radiation. Broadhurst has replaced over 5,000 steam traps in them, plus a variety of other controls.

In those older buildings, he has had to deal with asbestos, rusted pipes, and the need to preserve their historical and architectural integrity, including many antiquated light fixtures. Even upgrading tubular fluorescent fixtures has been an occasional challenge. “To meet budgetary constraints, we switched out those lamps with Type A tubular LEDs (TLED)”, said Broadhurst. “Those are the ones that use a fixture’s existing ballasts. While Type B and C units [which use internal or external LED drivers] might have been more energy efficient, that would have required electricians to service since the safety labels on the fixtures might not be read or seen by janitorial staff.” As part of that upgrade, most fixtures are now controlled by occupancy sensors.

Pre-energy crisis HVAC equipment has also offered challenges. Old hot/cold deck and dual duct distribution systems, as well as unit heaters and terminal A/C units, must be renovated instead of being scrapped due to the high cost of replacing them with modern units. But Broadhurst continues to find ways to make them more energy efficient. Pneumatic controls have been replaced with digital controls. Many fan coil units are also controlled by occupancy sensors. Other energy-related systems have not escaped his eye: even domestic hot water piping has been insulated.

Princeton is now getting ready to embark on its next 10-year capital plan, and Broadhurst has a wish list of energy carbon-cutting options. With his skill and perseverance, he may indeed “go where no energy manager has gone before.”

Assimilating Distributed Energy Resources into Competitive Power Markets

Published to LA Confidential, Winter 2018

Imagine a friendly Borg that, instead of forcing assimilation, says, “Come join our Collective, and let us profit together.” That’s essentially what the New York Public Service Commission (NY PSC) is saying through its Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) process. Distributed Energy Resources (DERs), such as on-site solar and combined-heat-and-power (CHP) plants, would participate in local grids to produce and trade power.

REV is being pursued by the NY PSC, DER providers, and other energy service stakeholders. It is based on the transformation of electric utilities into distribution-level system operators (DSOs) analogous to the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), which operates the wholesale transmission system across the State. However, instead of giant power plants and other utilities, a DSO would enlist end users and localized small power producers (e.g., community solar).

Through a DSO, DERs and retail power customers will generate on-site power for export to the grid, making resources such as solar, CHP, and power storage systems more economically viable and competitive with electricity from large power stations. Since more power would be generated and consumed locally, less investment and construction of centralized generation and transmission would be required.

The key to making this concept into a viable reality has been compiling a report of the customer and distribution system interval data needed to support a real-time local power market. That system is not simply a group of interconnected wires. Instead, it is a complex set of nodes running at multiple voltages within each zone, involving many of the substations, transformers, relays, feeders, etc. At this time, access to that level of data is available only through utilities, and not in the real-time that may be needed by participants.

A former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Jon Wellinghoff, stated, “The sharing of distribution-level data by New York utilities can fundamentally change the way utilities and third-parties operate not just in New York, but throughout the whole country…[and could offer] market-based solutions” to problems that are presently confronting power markets and utilities.

What might this mean to commercial and industrial power customers?

Those producing and/or storing power could join in the potentially lucrative market for ancillary services, which is, at present, typically populated by wholesale power traders, producers, and utilities. Such services include frequency regulation, synchronized reserves, and black start, each of which has its own monetary value. However, participation may involve a high level of technical sophistication, metering, telemetry, software, and automation: reaction times are measured in seconds, rather than hours.

Present wholesale power pricing is passed through to customers based on the zone in which each is located. New York State’s grid has 11 zones, 3 of which are in Con Edison territory. As power flow data becomes more granular (i.e., shorter time intervals), localized pricing based on nodes (e.g., at substation transformers, of which there are hundreds) becomes feasible. A customer’s location near a node may then impact its supply (and perhaps its delivery) pricing, just as its zonal location does now.

The market value of a customer’s power generation and/or storage may also rise. Instead of it reducing merely the customer’s own electric bill, a DSO would allow it to send power out to the grid to other customers unrelated to it. At times when wholesale pricing is high, a customer could choose to sell some (or all) of its on-site power to profit from such market movements.

A customer’s physical location on the local grid might also have a tradeable value. A customer may rent space to a developer’s power system based on wholesale pricing at the nearest node. Many existing rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems are located on leased space, but are presently limited as to size, distribution, and the pricing of the power they produce. Rules being developed now would allow systems that are geographically separate to aggregate into larger groups to facilitate participation in markets.

Luthin Associates closely follows developments in REV as well as the DSO, and stands ready to assist customers in their efforts to participate in this new frontier of energy services.

For further discussion on this topic, please click on the link for the related article: How utility data sharing is helping the New York REV build the grid of the future