Tag Archives: smart grid

So you’re telling me that my electric car’s battery is in the paint?

What comes to mind when you picture a battery? The familiar Duracell Coppertop AA battery? A clunky  automotive battery? The small rectangular battery in your cell phone? Researchers at Rice University are reinventing the concept of batteries and battery packaging by creating a lithium-ion battery with spray paint. That’s right, your local neighborhood hoodlum taggers can now be more energy forward than you sitting at home watching Cops.

A team of researchers from Rice University have demonstrated in a paper in Nature Scientific Reports that special “spray paints” can be used sequentially to build up the layers needed to form a lithium-ion battery. A spray-on battery could be used on a variety of materials, both rigid and flexible. They point out that the technology could be coupled to energy conversion devices such as solar cells.

Simply put, a lithium-ion battery is created by tightly layering cathodes and anodes like in the image shown below. The researchers at Rice University replicate this cylindrical design in a customizable form using the spray coatings that they developed. They applied the battery painting process to a variety of materials including stainless steel, glass, ceramic tile, and flexible polymer sheets. An SEM image of a cross section of the battery is shown below. Each of the spray painted batteries performed as a typical battery. They even applied the spray paint to a coffee mug to spell out the name of their Alma mater while also storing energy. They added that more complicated surface geometries could be possible using different spray nozzle designs that are tailored to the different viscous properties of the paints.

The are a few drawbacks to a spray painted lithium-ion battery. For one, the materials are highly toxic, corrosive, and flammable, hence why they are always tightly packaged and hidden away in their conventional form. Secondly, the batteries are highly sensitive to oxygen and moisture. This sensitivity currently restricts their widespread use because they still have to be packaged like their conventional brethren, reducing their novel promise. A spray painted battery is shown below on a glazed ceramic tile alongside its final packaged form. One of the researchers’ next steps is to develop a sealing layer to protect the batteries from these elements. Because who wants to paint their electric vehicle with a new battery but then have the painter tell them that they always have to keep the car cover on.

Typical lithium-ion battery construction.

Conventional and spray painted lithium-ion batteries.


SEM image of spray painted lithium-ion battery cross section.


Glazed ceramic tile with spray painted battery prior to packaging (left) and post-packaging (right)




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Society Needs to Be PowerWise

With the growing demand for electricity worldwide, matching the generation and consumption of electricity has become difficult for many countries.  There are two general approaches the society can follow to address this problem: focus on increasing the generation of electricity or focus on decreasing electricity consumption.  Society tends to spend more time and money on improving generation technology, as opposed to changing human behavior to consume less electricity.  Technological advancements on the generation of electricity from increasing the efficiency of natural gas combined cycle systems, to increasing the power capacity of a wind farm.  However, there are fixed limits on the improvements that can be made to these technologies.  Technologies that serve to reduce consumption of electricity have an astonishing effect in the market place.  Energy consumption behavior can be changed, especially if the public were aware of their energy usage in both a residential and a commercial setting. 

By focusing on reducing electricity consumption, societies can significantly reducing the impacts of the spikes in electricity demand.  The majority of people do not realize the energy that is “wasted” in their household from everyday appliances.  A technology called PowerWise is a real-time electricity monitoring system that can be implemented in a range of commercial and residential buildings.  This system connects to various systems throughout the house and gives an in-depth analysis of how electricity is used, where it is wasted, and gives suggestions on how to reduce usage (by even suggesting to removing lint from the dryer tray)[1].


            Figure 1: Example of PowerWise’s Customer Interface

This system can use historical data to monitor the user’s behavior and suggest long-term savings in electricity.  This type of technology can help consumers understand where they use and waste electricity, and educate them on how to reduce their carbon footprint. 

A similar technology produced by the TechnoWise Group not only monitors electricity consumption but also “optimizes voltages used by residential and commercial consumers” based on the performance of individual appliances [2].  This technology uses a controller that monitors the electrical needs of a given appliance, and it matches it with the exact electricity requirement.  The controller continuously matches the needs of the appliance, even if the power requirement changes during the operation of the appliance.   The voltage supplied to a given household can also vary depending on the demand for electricity in the area.  A spike in supplied voltage to a household can cause damage to the household’s appliances and lead to wasted energy in the form of heat loss.  The TechnoWise technology manages these spikes in input power to optimize electricity usage throughout the house.  If applied on a large scale, this technology could significantly reduce the strain on the electrical grid due to increasing demand, and potentially prevent brownouts and blackouts from occurring.

Using the information from these smart systems can help entities beyond the consumer.  Power generation and distribution companies, as well as appliance manufacturers, can use the information generated from these systems and apply the results on a larger scale.  This may be to alter the design of the existing appliance to optimize the operation of the device, or to gain a better perspective on when and why electricity demands peak during certain times throughout the day. 

Applying these technologies is a step towards a society that is smarter in energy consumption.  Continued innovations in smart energy technology can lend a helping hand to bring the world to an age where electricity shortages were a thing of the past. 

[1] http://www.powerwisesystems.com/products/leed-green-passive-house-builder/



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PUCT Moves Closer To Smart Meter Opt-Out

In December, the Texas Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved the creation and distribution of opt-out rules for electric consumers who oppose smart meter installations [1].  The rules will go back for a final vote, but unfortunately it appears the PUC is moving in this direction and is not the first state to do so.  As of spring 2012 Maine, Oregon, California, Nevada, Michigan, Vermont and Arizona were also introducing opt-out programs [2].

I support utilities fighting the opt-out clause for several reasons.  Most importantly, forcing utility companies to retain use of old utility meters takes away from the societal benefits widespread smart meter deployment can provide.  In terms of outage management, increased reliability, reduced congestion, and reduced peak demand that could lead to reduced energy prices and a reduced need for new peak power plants, smart meters are an important building block of the broader grid modernization effort.

Additionally, reading some customer meters on a monthly basis drives utility companies to retain additional utility vehicles and meter readers, and maintain two accounting systems, one for manually read data and one for the automated smart meter data.  The cost of this effort depends on the alternative the utility chooses between installing an analog or digital meter, leaving the smart meter with the radio turned off, or changing the point of delivery, and includes the upfront costs of making these changes and the monthly cost of reading the meter.  Hopefully the PUC will at a minimum decide this cost will be passed to the customer who decides to opt-out so that utility funds can be used to progress further into other smart grid technology.

One of two traditional arguments against smart meters is the health concerns of the radio frequencies emitted by the meters.  The PUC has tried to communicate that meters are within the Federal Communications Commission’s standards for radio frequency devices.  As shown in Figure 1 below, not only is RF exposure from smart meters less than RF exposure from a mobile phone, it is less than natural RF exposure from other humans and the planet [2].  Certainly health reasons alone lack justification for the missed opportunities of the new smart meter infrastructure.

Comparison of RF Exposure Sources to Smart Meters

Figure 1. Comparison of RF Exposure Sources to Smart Meters [2]

The second traditional argument with respect to privacy concerns is stronger, however, the Texas Public Utility Regulatory Act (PURA) mandates the following, “All meter data, including all data generated, provided, or otherwise made available, by advanced meters and meter information networks, shall belong to a customer, including data used to calculate charges for service, historical load data, and any other proprietary customer information.”  Furthermore, the PUC has given the customer power to authorize its data release to retail electric providers [3].

The second part of the privacy concern applies to cyber security.  Fortunately, the first version of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) smart grid guidelines and standards has been released [4].  Monitoring adherence to these guidelines is difficult, however, utilities have strong incentive to ensure the security of their new computerized systems and protect their investment.  Thus for me, promoting improvements in security is better accomplished by supporting utilities in their efforts to create a smarter grid rather than obstructing them with opt-out rules.

For those that share my opinion, there may fortunately be a legal strategy for utilities to prevent the new opt-out clause.  In a feasibility study conducted by Oncor at the request of the Commission, it was identified that “Texas law does not allow a regulatory agency to amend or rescind a final, non-appealable order,” which could apply to the original non-appealable Commission order that approved meter deployment to all customers in their service area  [5].

[1] The Dallas Morning News. “Public Utility Commission approves writing rules for Texas smart meter opt-out.” http://www.dallasnews.com/business/headlines/20121214-public-utility-commission-approves-writing-rules-for-texas-smart-meter-opt-out.ece

[2] Black & Veatch. “The Opt-Out Challenge.” March/April 2012. Electric Light & Power. http://bv.com/docs/articles/the-opt-out-challenge.pdf

[3] Public Utility Regulatory Act, Title II Texas Utilities Code. September 01, 2011. pg 121. http://www.puc.texas.gov/agency/rulesnlaws/statutes/Pura11.pdf

[4] U.S. Government Accountability Office. “Electricity Grid Modernization, Progress Being Made on Cybersecurity Guidelines, but Key Challenges Remain to be Addressed.” January 2011. GAO-11-117.

[5] Public Utility Commission Interchange.  “PUC Proceedings to Evaluate the Feasibility of Instituting a Smart Meter Opt-out Program.” 40190-326. http://interchange.puc.state.tx.us/WebApp/Interchange/Documents/40190_326_728872.PDF


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The US Power Grid and Cybersecurity

Over time, with new knowledge and awareness about carbon emissions and climate change, we have started to make smarter energy consumption choices worldwide.  Nations are broadening their use of alternative and renewable energy sources and programs such as LEED encourage better building efficiencies.  Here in the US, the electric grid is changing, too.

“Smart grid” technology, as it is called, organizes a nation’s electric grid a manner similar to the way the Internet connects web users.  Instead of providing merely a one-way transmission of electricity from power plants to buildings, smart grids allow for feedback communication, as well.  Information flows back and forth between provider and recipient, and the system automatically tailors itself to improve distribution efficiency.  Real-time energy use can be monitored, power outages can be quickly detected, and consumers can make more informed decisions about their utility consumption.  In theory, smart grids are win-win for pretty much everyone.

With this migration toward a digitalized electric control system, however, we also face a host of new challenges.  One of the main concerns that has raised a number of eyebrows is that of cybersecurity.  A complex, computer-based infrastructure opens the door to new vulnerabilities and access points.  These need to be addressed and adequately protected; otherwise, they could be exploited by ill-willed individuals looking to damage to the US.  Awareness of this security matter has spread significantly over the past few years, and more and more voices are speaking out and calling for action.

Last year, there was a push to pass a bill that would bolster the cybersecurity of some of our key national infrastructures, but it was blocked in Senate.  More recently, President Obama issued an executive order calling for transparency and information sharing between the government and private sectors in order to better protect the country against possible cyber invasions.  The order also makes a request for voluntary submissions of cybersecurity “innovations” that could be widely adopted throughout the energy sector—in particular, those with a smart-grid focus.

As validation for the reality of this threat, consider an incident that took place a few years back.  In 2010, a Chinese graduate student published an article with the journal Safety Science, which outlined how someone with the right knowledge could bring down the entire United States power grid through a cascading failure-based attack.  Though the student was merely releasing an academic paper and had no malicious intent, he did reveal significant weaknesses in our system.  Should someone want to cripple the US through a nation-wide, prolonged blackout, the possibility of his/her success exists.

Reports of cyber attacks on government divisions and national infrastructure are increasing.  The energy sector, in particular, has fallen under fire.  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that in 2012, our energy systems were the targets of 40% of cyberattacks aimed at “critical infrastructure.”  Additionally, head of DHS Janet Napolitano has warned the country against a “9/11 in the cyber world.”  She has stated that attacks are “increasing in seriousness and sophistication” and a successful one could “paralyze the nation.”

Technologically, the upcoming years will be critical for the US.  We face a host of interconnected challenges, many of which combine energy production, energy distribution, and national security.   As many are realizing, it is imperative for us to tighten up our cyber systems.  With the Internet and digital connectivity playing such a key role in the world today, we have to take extra steps to protect not just our physical systems, but our cyber ones, as well.


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Smart Grid and Infrastructure Security Implications

Image via Washington Post

It’s time for real talk. Existing power generation in Texas is having a tough time meeting the state’s rising power demand. The February 2, 2011 cold snap took the state by surprise and temporarily disabled the Oak Grove coal-fired power plant. The 1.6 GW shortage cascaded across the state and disabled back-up natural gas turbines, forcing the Electric Reliability Counsel of Texas (ERCOT) to issue rolling blackouts across the state. It’s not to say that Texas is unprepared for these kind’s of surprise weather conditions, but current demand management techniques are falling short. ERCOT would like the state’s peaking power reserve margin to sit at 13.75% of the state’s total generation capacity, but this number is pretty idealistic when considering how quickly Texas is growing.

So what’s the solution? Depending on who you ask, integrating a smarter infrastructure with distributed renewable energy sources is the way to go. This means installing new smart grid technologies with renewable power sources like wind and solar and taking dependence off centralized peaking power stations. The US Department of Energy is enthusiastically embracing this modus and has already allocated $4.5 billion in grants to smart grid technologies, along with setting clean energy generation targets to 80% of national generation by 2035. This is good news for Texans, where 10.9 GW of existing wind infrastructure is ready to help offset demand loads, not to mention all that untapped solar potential. So how exactly does a smart grid help?

It’s all about information feedback. By giving the power generators insight into how electricity is being consumed and where the faults lie, we collectively gain more control over how we use electricity. Smart grid  is often touted as a self-healing technology, in that it can respond to system outages much quicker than the existing electro-mechanical infrastructure. In addition, smart grid is expected to combat the rising cost of energy. By 2050, utilities are expected to increase by up to 400% of current prices. With smart grid in place, we can expect these to increase by about 50%. Not bad. However, an underdeveloped smart grid network could have catastrophic consequences for national security.

In 2010, the US media revealed that uranium enrichment plants in Iran had been catastrophically damaged by a very complex computer program known as Stuxnet. The malicious code was specifically engineered to damage industrial control systems and SCADA networks. These networks can be found in the oil and gas industry, water management,  power generation, etc. In the case of the Iranian enrichment facilities, the code was able to gain control of the uranium centrifuges and effectively destroy them before operators realized something was awry. The truly alarming thing about Stuxnet, though, is that it was operational and in the open for a full year before anyone realized it. The code is designed to install and exploit system back doors, known as rootkits, and can be installed on any media plugged into infected hardware. That means a flash drive plugged into a corrupted system becomes an infectious vector for other industrial infrastructure. Like a smart grid network. Stuxnet is kind of like the bull in the china shop. It’s very capable of causing a lot of damage, but it isn’t too particular about what it breaks. That means any existing industrial control system can be implicated.

There isn’t solid proof as to who designed Stuxnet. The United States has been implicated, as well as Russia and Israel. However, it is an extraordinarily complex piece of work and is almost assuredly the product of a technologically developed government. This would make Stuxnet the first form of cyber-warfare that is capable of targeting entire infrastructures. Scary stuff, especially if your entire electric infrastructure is tied to an integrated smart grid system.

It’s often said that no network is impenetrable, but good people are doing a lot of pioneering work to make sure that the bad guys can’t get in. Smart grid is a very promising avenue to bringing electricity generation into the future, but we need to be confident that we’re not unnecessarily introducing vulnerabilities into existing infrastructure.


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Texas Population Growth and Future Energy Demand


Photo:  Austin, TX Downtown Skyline

Forbes has released their annual list of fastest-growing cities in the U.S.  For the third consecutive year in a row Austin came out on top.  The Austin metro region grew at a 2.8% clip in 2012 bringing our regional population to 1.8 million people.  Austin has been roughly doubling in size once every 20 years since its founding in 1839.  The second and third fastest-growing cities on the list were Houston and Dallas.  San Antonio came in at #9 on the list.  Texas overall added 427,000 people to the state’s population from August 2011 to July 2012 bringing our state population to 26 million.  Texas is growing at a staggering rate of more than 1,000 people per day.  With Texas metros growing at such a breakneck pace, the challenge for Texas going forward will be to keep up with our state’s future energy demand [1][2].


Photo:  ERCOT Operations Center

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s grid operator, recently released a study showing that Texas will struggle to keep pace with future energy demand especially during peak demand times for energy.  Peak energy demand in Texas occurs from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. during the summer months.  ERCOT’s method of tracking whether the state will be able to cover its current and future energy needs is based on a reserve margin metric.  Reserve margin is a useful tool that measures how much extra generation capacity will be available based on what the anticipated future peak energy demand will be.  ERCOT’s reserve margin goal for the Summer of 2013 is 13.75%.  However, with total generation capacity expected to be 74,633 megawatts (MW) and peak demand expected to be 65,952 MW during the Summer of 2013, ERCOT will fall short of its goal with a reserve margin of only 13.2%.  ERCOT’s reserve margin is expected to decline to 10.9% by 2014, and it will eventually fall to just 2.8% by 2022.  ERCOT’s strategy going forward will be focused on introducing new market incentives for power plant operators across the state to build new generation capacity.  ERCOT will also focus its efforts on encouraging energy conservation through demand response initiatives [3].

Energy conservation efforts such as Austin’s Pecan Street, Inc. smart grid demonstration project is a great example of how Texas’ booming metros can reduce overall peak energy demand.  Pecan Street’s smart grid demonstration project is leveraging a $10.4 million DOE grant as well as resources from the University of Texas at Austin, Austin Energy, and a consortium of industry leading high tech companies.  Pecan Street is studying the benefits of integrating rooftop solar, energy storage, electric vehicles, natural gas, smart appliances, and home energy management networks to manage peak energy demand within neighborhoods and also to help customers reduce their monthly utility bills.  Pecan Street’s smart grid demonstration project has grown to include 600 residential homes.  Lessons learned from Pecan Street’s research projects will go towards helping cities across the state and country better understand how to satisfy future energy demand when facing rapid population growth [4].

Introducing Pecan Street, Inc.

[1]  Austin is America’s fastest-growing city: http://www.bizjournals.com/austin/blog/morning_call/2013/01/austin-is-americas-fastest-growing-city.html

[2]  Forbes; “America’s Fastest Growing Cities”:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/morganbrennan/2013/01/23/americas-fastest-growing-cities/

[3]  Future electric outlook shows improvement:  http://www.ercot.com/news/press_releases/show/26358

[4]  Austin’s Pecan Street, a Smart Grid ‘City Bloc,’ Adds PV Solar and EVs:  http://www.pecanstreet.org/2011/10/austins-pecan-street-a-smart-grid-city-bloc-adds-pv-solar-and-evs/


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