Navigant Research Blog

Bill Gates: How to Fund Energy Miracles

— August 21, 2014

Through the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates has taken a stand on improving global public health, investing in programs focused on basic advances such as developing a next-generation condom to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, creating a standalone vaccine cooler for communities that are stranded without electricity, and inventing a toilet that can solve sanitation issues by pyrolizing human refuse into something more usable (using solar power, no less).  Meanwhile, Gates is also challenging U.S. energy policymakers and their funding practices for energy R&D.

In a June blog post titled “We Need Energy Miracles,” Gates called for the United States to look hard at R&D allocations, potentially redirecting funding from the military and healthcare sectors toward energy research and pilot projects (presumably renewable ones).  Given the imperfections (intermittency, inefficiency) of existing renewable resources, Gates argued, this research is necessary to establish an equitable energy mix, both in the United States and abroad – especially in developing nations that must increase energy use to grow their economies.  He stressed the need to invest in projects that are “high risk/high reward,” in order to achieve the sort of miracle needed to support growing demand and limit climate change.

Memo to Bill: DIY

Responding to Gates, Solar Wakeup (republished by Clean Technica) noted that Gates has been active in investing in energy storage with Aquion and LightSail but challenged him to be the major financer of the next energy miracle.  Why? Simply put, it’s unreasonable to expect increased investments (private and public) in risk-agnostic energy R&D, and if one of the world’s richest men wants it to get done, he should do it himself.  Payoffs are slow for energy projects, the uncertainties many: macroeconomic conditions, volatile energy and resource markets, policy reversals, infrastructure needs, and high operating and maintenance costs.  Solar Wakeup’s challenge is based in reality.

But the cleantech and renewable energy sectors are already substantial in countries all over the world, and growth is accelerating.  China has recognized this.  In recent years, China’s public and private investments in cleantech, both at home and abroad, have explodedReports by Azure International explore the drivers for increasing investment in cleantech in China.  Risk is inherent in investors’ strategies for expanding their energy-related portfolios, and intangible values, such as technological and innovative prestige, sometimes compete with return on investment (ROI).  Encouraged by the government, Chinese investors have become increasingly willing to fund energy efficiency and conservation projects, such as smart grid and smart buildings.

The topic of investment in renewables and smart grid is thorny, with many caveats and nuances that tend to shape the potential for ROI – but it’s safe to say that with China’s example, maybe Gates has a point in his stance against being risk-averse toward investing in potential energy miracles.

 

Helsinki’s Plan to Make Private Cars Obsolete

— August 12, 2014

Helsinki, Finland, has proposed a strikingly ambitious mobility on demand system that presents the logical extension of current innovations in passenger travel.  The city plans to create a subscriber service that would let users choose from, and pay for, a range of transportation options through their smartphones.  The options will include conventional public transit, carsharing, bikesharing, ferries, and an on-demand minibus service that the city’s transit authority launched in 2013.

The major innovation that makes this work will be an integrated payment system.  This part of the scheme may prove the most complicated to implement, but it is the final piece of the puzzle that makes this scheme truly transformative.  No longer forced to choose between the on-demand capability of private car ownership versus the eco-friendliness of shared transit, Helsinki residents will be able to easily get where they want to go, when they want to get there, without needing a car.

I’ve been using the phrase mobility as a service for this phenomenon, but it looks like the mobile phone companies may have claimed that moniker already.  Whatever the name, the concept is the transportation version of other businesses that are moving from selling a product to selling the service or utility the consumer wants from that product.  Planned obsolescence no longer makes good business sense, and consumers can benefit from constant improvements in technology.  This is most common in information technology (in cloud computing and storage, for instance), but it’s also happening in the energy sector – especially for clean technologies like solar, where leasing programs offer a way to overcome the upfront price premium barrier.

Share, Don’t Buy

Globally, carsharing membership has grown around 28% since 2010, with Europe as the leader in this sector.  Navigant Research’s report, Carsharing Programs, forecasts that global carsharing members will surpass 12 million in 2020.  The rise of on-demand ride services, such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, are also transforming the way city dwellers use taxi services.  Taking on the highly regulated taxi business, these companies face considerable opposition, but at this point, it will be hard to put the genie back into the bottle. Bikesharing and even scooter share services are also spreading.  Today’s young urban dwellers expect to be able to use an array of transportation options to suit an array of needs, at the touch of an app.

Helsinki’s program has the potential to tie into other transportation innovations, such as the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) – more carsharing programs are deploying EVs as a selling point for their service – and autonomous vehicle technology.  Wireless charging would also support schemes like Helsinki’s by ensuring that shared EVs are recharging when parked, rather than relying on the driver to remember to plug in.

Faced with dwindling demand in mature markets like North America and Western Europe, automakers are exploring a range of new services to offset lower demand and to gain a competitive edge.  Farsighted companies will look to begin selling mobility as well as vehicles, changing transportation as much as the IT and energy sectors have changed.

 

New Federal Standard Mandates Physical Grid Security

— August 12, 2014

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is currently drafting a physical security standard for approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  This much needed proposed standard will eventually prescribe physical security for transmission stations and substations operating above 500 kV, and in some cases operating as low as 200 kV.  Say hello to NERC CIP-014-1.

The stated purpose of NERC CIP-014-1 is: “To identify and protect transmission stations and transmission substations, and their associated primary control centers, that if rendered inoperable or damaged as a result of a physical attack could result in widespread instability, uncontrolled separation, or cascading within an interconnection.”

CIP-014-1, or “Sip Fourteen,” requires each transmission operator to perform an initial physical security risk assessment and periodic subsequent physical risk assessments.  Effective security proceeds from a thorough risk assessment – this is the right starting place.  Each risk assessment then requires an audit by a third party.  The plan goes on to require operators to define risk mitigation plans, to have those plans audited by a third party, and to then implement the plan.  Finally, a third party must validate that the plan has been properly implemented.

Not So Wide

This sounds like a long, drawn-out process, but it’s the right pathway: assess the risk, plan the mitigation, and then execute the plan.  Each step audited by a non-affiliated third party.  Security done right.

The FERC liked NERC’s proposal except for one word: widespread.  Where the FERC had directed NERC to develop a plan that requires “identification of facilities whose loss could result in instability, uncontrolled separation, or cascading failures,” NERC modified the requirement to prevent widespread instability.  The FERC rejected this: “The term ‘widespread’ is undefined and could potentially render the Reliability Standard unenforceable or could lead to an inadequate level of reliability by omitting facilities that are critical to the reliable operation of the Bulk-Power System.”

In other words, the FERC is nervous that any given utility may choose to define widespread instability as a total global blackout, making anything less severe outside the scope of this standard.  There’s a precedent for this: the original deployment of NERC CIP standards resulted in 77% of U.S. utilities claiming that they had no critical cyber assets and were therefore automatically NERC CIP-compliant without taking any action.  It’s not exactly back to the drawing board for NERC, as the FERC praised much of NERC’s proposed standard, but it is one more go-round of comments, proposals, and approval.  And to the FERC: Good catch!

Plan B

One other much welcomed bit of goodness in the proposal is resiliency.  The FERC writes in its comments, “Resiliency is as, or even more, important than physical security given that physical security cannot protect against all possible attacks.”  Amen and hallelujah!  As we learned with the Metcalf Substation in April 2013, some kinetic attacks cannot be prevented.  But Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) had enough network resiliency in place that even the loss of a large substation resulted in not one outage.  PG&E knew: you can’t hold off all the attackers, but you can have a Plan B in place to deal with their damage.  And if that Plan B is automated, so much the better.

 

Preparing for the Worst, Cities Seek Resilience

— August 7, 2014

The Rockefeller Foundation is asking cities to apply for the latest phase of its 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge.  This challenge aims to enable 100 cities to better address the shocks and stresses of the 21st century.  The selected cities receive support from the Rockefeller Foundation to create and implement resilience plans and to hire chief resilience officers (CROs) to oversee strategies.  Thirty-two cities – including, for example, Bangkok, New Orleans, Durban, Mexico City, and Rotterdam – were selected in the first phase of the competition.  San Francisco appointed the first CRO in April 2014.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 report on the impacts of global climate change highlights the particular vulnerability of urban infrastructures.  The impact of climate change on cities can take many forms – including increased temperature, drought, and storms – but the most direct threat comes from rising sea levels.  Approximately 360 million urban residents live in coastal areas less than 10 meters above sea level.  China alone has more than 78 million people living in vulnerable, low elevation cities.  Miami, New York City, and Tokyo are also among the top 20 cities at the highest risk of coastal flooding, along with Asian megacities such as Mumbai, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Dhaka.   The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan and Hurricane Sandy off the East Coast of the United States in 2012 demonstrated how even the most advanced cities can be devastated by extreme events.

After the Flood

The threat to American cities is further emphasized in the Third National Climate Assessment from the U.S.  Global Change Research ProgramMiami, in particular, is developing into a test case for the impact of the climate changes on U.S. cities and the ability of civic and business leaders to collaborate in response.

Resilience can be characterized as the ability of cities and communities to bounce back from catastrophic events, as well as respond to more gradual changes that threaten well-being or economic stability.  Resilience is not just a question of identifying and acting on specific climate change impacts; it also requires an assessment of each city’s complex and interconnected infrastructure and institutional systems.   New York, for example, initiated a major study of the how the city’s infrastructure and services can be better designed to cope with events like Hurricane Sandy – including more resilient, distributed energy grids and new approaches to land use policy in flood-prone areas.

Urban Sensitivities

Resilience is also a driver for new technology adoption.  The Sensing City project in Christchurch, New Zealand is an interesting test case for how smart city technologies can support resilience planning.  Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake in 2011 that left 185 people dead; the rebuilding project is estimated to eventually cost around NZ$40 billion ($35 million) in total.  The aim of Sensing City is to use sensor technologies and data analytics, including smartphones and sensors embedded in new construction, to lay the foundation for a healthier, more sustainable, and more resilient city.

Coping with the threats and uncertainties of the 21st century will require a deeper understanding of the normal operations of a city and its vulnerabilities.  That’s why resilience is becoming one of the key attributes of any smart city and a significant driver for the smart city market.

 

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