Topics: How to Work with Utilities; Green Hydrogen; Creative Food
On this episode of Solutions News, we tackle Energy and Fuel – and ask how we might move to into the Future. As PG&E has begun preemptively shutting off power to thousands of its customers in an effort to mitigate liability – we ask, how might local and regional governments work with utility companies to provide efficient and clean energy for the communities they serve? We also explore hydrogen created via electrolysis with renewable energy resources as a green fuel that can replace fossil fuels in transportation, industry and energy generation/storage. Our guest is Katie Davis, who leads the Los Padres chapter of the Sierra Club – and is working hard to prevent additional oil extraction on the central coast of California. Later, we do some great “didyaknows” and finish up with some interesting food parts that have surprisingly healthy uses!
How to Work with the Utilities for a Clean Energy Future
What are utility companies and who are they? Here in California we have what are called “Investor Owned Utilities” or “IOUs” for short. The IOUs are private companies that have private shareholders and private bondholders but who have historically generated all of their profits from selling electricity and gas to the California ratepayers. The two largest and by far most powerful IOUs in California are Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric ( a distant third in size is San Diego Gas & Electric). The two major ones have been around for a century or more, and exercise enormous (some would say egregious) influence over the California Public Utilities Commission who sets the rates all customers pay to these giant, privately owned companies. Together the IOUs keep the California grid full of energy. The problem is that the State of California has very different objectives than the IOUs. California ratepayers who want to have 100% green energy sources at the least possible costs. The IOUs want to keep the fossil fuel game going as long as possible and maintain monopoly control over the ratepayers in their portion of California who are no allowed to buy energy in competition with the IOUs in their respective “territories.”
Ok, so we understand the inherent conflict between a monopolist like PG&E and the public who wants to get the best price for the energy we use, on the most reliable basis possible, and preferably have that energy be “green.” So, how might local and regional governments work with utility companies to provide efficient and clean energy? Any electrical grid of the future will need to incorporate cost-effective alternatives to centralized fossil-fuel generation so that all customers can take advantage of the shift towards local production of renewables rather than just investing in the existing grid infrastructure, or more fossil fuel plants.
Here in California, PG&E and Edison have both been doing everything they can to slow down the movement to green energy, slow down rooftop solar, and slow down use of wind and geothermal as alternatives to fossil fuel. However, across the United States, municipalities are making partnerships with utilities and taking community action to make the transition to green energy.
Over the past decade, regulated utilities have invested $55 billion each year into the grid. Spending is rising faster than electricity demand - raising costs every year - and much of this investment has been to shore up aging “old-school” infrastructure that isn’t reducing carbon emissions anywhere as fast as we need to deal with climate change. Clearly, the first step is to think beyond traditional pole and transmission line infrastructure towards scalable renewable alternatives.
Part of the problem is that the typical energy grid is woefully inefficient; it is built out to meet MAXIMUM demand needed only at the hottest points in summer or the coldest points in winter and rates are set based on the peak use of energy. Moreover, as other industries have evolved to use technology and IT solutions, most utilities still trail far behind with outdated infrastructure and the lack of a “smart grid”.
New York is working to change this process in the state by investing $55 billion to rethink the way that utilities invest capital into grid infrastructure through what they call Non-Wire Solutions. These solutions are portfolios of resources such as rooftop solar, battery storage, energy efficiency and smart load controls. Instead of investing in new poles and electric lines to meet increasing electricity demand - which is the approach utilities usually take - a utility could instead invest in these local methods to manage and produce cheap green energy - which is flexible and quick to build. This keeps the energy and the jobs needed to both create and manage it locally.
Another aspect to building for the future besides getting utilities to consider alternatives to outdated infrastructure is to ensure that upgrades are available to anyone who wants or needs them.
For example, in Portland, the city council created a program to help people of low socio-economic status by heavily subsidizing solar panels for anyone who does not have the money to install them or does not own their home. Since the panels are a twenty-five-year investment, the small amount of money paid by the city ends up being more than paid for, and also helps homeowners to lower their electricity costs.
We also mentioned a similar program in North Carolina during a “didyaknow” on the May 24th show. The Roanoke Electric Cooperative offers federally backed loans and no up-front cost, to ensure that customers can make the important housing changes that will help them save on their electric bills. A simple loan to fix something like insulation could help a homeowner save around 10-12% on their monthly electric bill. In both the Portland and the Roanoke case, when income is not an issue, there can be near universal upgrades that allow both the customer and the utility to save in the long term.
The primary function of a utility is to provide cost-effective, reliable electricity, and to ensure that the generation process is as efficient as it can conceivably be. But to be a true partner with the customers and the communities that Utilities serve, they must be incentivized to focus more on the people, rather than focusing solely on earnings reports the IOUs want for their shareholders. Hopefully, Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration will prove a more effective public steward for rate payers and will compel the cooperation California so badly needs if we are to achieve our “green energy” goals for the future.
The Solutions of Hydrogen Power
To make distributed energy work, that means micro-grids all over the state powered by sun and wind, will require LOTS of “green” hydrogen. That means hydrogen created by electrolyzing wind and solar resources into hydrogen without using any fossil fuel whatsoever.
66% of the cost to produce hydrogen is the energy to create it, which currently is running less than 5¢/kw hour which means we can produce hydrogen for less than $6/kilogram which is the equivalent of $3/gallon of gas! And as production from Wind and Solar increases we will have more and more excess production which we can “capture” and store permanently as hydrogen until we want to use it in our cars, trucks, buses or the electrical grid. Electrolysis is a brilliant method for storing energy, has a tremendous shelf life, can be easily transported, used to fuel vehicles, and emits only water. It’s now economical to literally turn our excess sun power and wind energy into hydrogen: the fuel of the future.
Currently, in addition to cars, buses and trucks, hydrogen is used to power forklifts in warehouses all over the country and in many industrial processes (i.e. production of methanol, ammonia, or biofuel).
We’ve been asked to explain how electrolysis works. So here goes. Electrolysis is the process that runs an electric current (as an example from wind or solar sources) through water molecules to separate the hydrogen gas from the oxygen (in H2O). Hydrogen produced this way is “green” and totally abundant and 100% clean.
Hydrogen can also be made from also use recycled or reclaimed water such as the outflow from the Goleta waste water treatment plant. That’s right, we can make clean hydrogen from treated sewage water and power our grid as well as our transportation infrastructure. Though electrolysis was thought to be expensive in the past, as we said a minute ago, we can product green hydrogen for about the current cost of a gallon of fossil fuel gas!
A renewable future must include hydrogen as the most economical storage option as well as a fuel option. As a fuel, hydrogen is much more cost effective than gasoline and is even more efficient than battery powered electric vehicles. For example, while a Tesla has a range of 237-315 miles, a 2019 model of the Toyota Mirai only needs to refuel every 312 miles. And compared with electric vehicles that can take hours to recharge, refilling a hydrogen powered car only takes 3-5 minutes. This powerful alternative to both electricity and gas is part of why hydrogen vehicles are starting to become more popular worldwide.
Surprising Food we Usually Toss that are Useful, Healthy and Easy to Use.
On Friday June 7th, the Optimist Daily featured a story about why we shouldn’t toss the core of a pineapple, and some other intriguing suggestions for reducing food waste by using parts of common foods we normally throw away. We thought we’d share a few with you here today, but there are so many that we’ll add more in the coming weeks in our Didaknows…
First of all - Did ya know that watermelon seeds are super nutritious, quite delicious and ounce for ounce, have more protein than a whole egg? While it’s not advisable to eat them raw, sprouting them by soaking in water for a few days helps to shed the skin, and turns them into a great snack. Or they can be roasted and eaten like sunflower seeds as well.
Another great food you’d never think to eat: The center of a pineapple. It’s rich with bromelain, an enzyme that breaks down protein, that is a great boon for digestion. The core is totally edible, though It may not have the exact same succulent texture of the rest of the fruit. It is still delicious and better yet, it’s where some of pineapple’s most impressive nutrients are hiding. It’s great to add to smoothies, chop into a salsa, or finely dice as a salad topper.
And of course, there are also many non-food uses that are being developed for food waste - it seems like we hear about a new one every day! From Ghana using cocoa bean husks to Scotland using coffee grounds to make biofuels, it will not be long before we are all like Doc Brown in Back to the Future - tossing banana peels, chocolate and coffee into our fuel tanks to take off into the future.
Utilities will need to change to stay relevant in the Future of Energy
Katie Davis is Chair of the Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter, covering
Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, and serves on Sierra Club’s
National Marine Team and California Climate and Energy Committee. A
former VP of Web and Ecommerce at tech company, Citrix, she was
involved in corporate sustainability initiatives and served on the
Community Environmental Council’s Partnership Council. In 2012 she
trained with Al Gore's Climate Reality Project, became a climate
change speaker and activist, helped to start the Santa Barbara County
Water Guardians and its effort to qualify an initiative to ban
fracking and other extreme oil extraction in Santa Barbara County for
the ballot in 2014 and served on its campaign steering committee. She
went on to take a leadership role in the Sierra Club where she led
successful campaigns to defeat oil projects and set 100% renewable
Katie Davis, our Guest on June 7, 2019