The dire power grid situation in Texas this week has prompted a number of readers– and randos on Twitter- to ask what can be done to improve the situation. It’s hard to rebuild an entire power grid. It’s easy enough to scale small solutions that can have a huge impact, though. These are cheap at a marginal level. They do not involve monumentally expensive solutions to a single stakeholder. And, best of all, they will bankrupt neither public agencies nor individual consumers. No, I’m not talking about wearing a sweater and turning down your thermostat– though that’s valuable, too.
Allow net metering and distributed generation.
Regulators need to make it easy for people to install solar panels on their roof– or even CHP systems. This makes the grid less prone to collapse. It also saves people money. Utilities have lobbied aggressively against net metering, a setup in which consumers can sell power back to the grid at the rate they’d be charged. We do not have net metering in Michigan, meaning that extra electricity you sell back to the grid is sold at a wholesale rate, rather than the immediately-priced rate. This gets more complicated– and more of a value proposition- as the utility shifts to more renewables and needs to figure out how to manage peak demand (3-7pm in the summer in our service territory).
Residential battery storage systems.
This means storing power so you can sell it to the grid when the grid needs it. You don’t have to get a Tesla Powerwall. If you don’t have an electric car, it might not make sense at all. But one thing is certain: the combination of home battery storage and electric-vehicle-as-battery is going to be vital in the energy grid of to-morrow. Sophisticated software buried deep within the motorcar and the battery system allow consumers to sell power back to the grid in peak demand times and charge when it’s cheap. Vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, can be done without extra battery storage. Dynamic pricing can make this actually profitable for homeowners (or at least pay itself off quickly).
Replace electrical resistance heating with heat pumps
Electrical resistance heating– where the purpose of the element is more or less quite literally to waste electricity- is the most inefficient form of heat. It’s extremely expensive at a watt-per-BTU level. But it’s popular because the hardware is cheap. After my article yesterday, a few people reminded me that a lot of people in Texas don’t have gas in their homes at all because it’s just not a thing down there.
In this case, I introduce to you the split system heat pump. Heat pumps extract heat from cold air the way an air conditioner does on a hot day, but they can work both to heat and to cool. The thermodynamic sorcery of it is that for every watt of energy you put in, you can extract the equivalent to three or four watts of heat. No, it’s not violating the laws of physics, it’s this thing about the expansion of refrigerant, the Carnot cycle, yada yada. A unit will run you as little as $600-800, and some DIY ingenuity can save you a couple grand. But you usually have to have an HVAC professional connect the refrigerant lines. We did about half of ours ourselves and contracted a guy to do 30 minutes of work for $400, but it was worth every penny. You can buy them on Amazon.
Mandatory shutoffs for large users of electricity in vacant spaces
Think stadiums and office buildings in extreme demand scenarios. This has come up in Austin and Houston, where photos of brightly-illumed skylines are (quite appropriately) frustrating consumers. Sure, a single lightbulb uses very little power. But a skyscraper? I mean.
These are some things that, for costs as low as a few thousand dollars per house (though the sky is the limit), can have a huge impact on the grid at large. How to pay for it? Public incentives in a combination of cash discounts, and on-bill financing. The latter has been used with great success to finance energy retrofits. Combining sources of funds from federal, state, and local levels decreases the pressure to find a single, expensive source of funding. And this is great for the private sector because it increases consumption of these products!
There’s a separate issue of how to fix the issue of grid management. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.
This story is part of a series on infrastructure.