Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Heat Pump Clothes Dryers

Our 1970s era clothes dryer is a bit more noisy than it should be. It is pretty easy and usually low cost to repair. My area appliance store has a number of these machines in service yet, but, I've been researching  heat pump dry clothes dryers back before they were available in the U.S. Now, they're here and it might be time to upgrade.  It was harder to justify buying a new dryer when the replacement would consume just as much electricity as the old unit and repairing our current one was more cost effective than purchasing a replacement. 

My rural electric coop doesn't have much info about heat pump dryers, but about 3 years ago, I found a link from their national association that wasn't very kind to the new tech. The title -
"On the Way: A $2,000 Clothes Dryer"  was kind of the first clue they would rather you stayed with the  higher KWH consuming dryer, though in the article, a price point of $1000 to $2000 was mentioned. Looks like the title price was off a bit. 

After listing many good features, lower energy costs, no outside venting, so lower fire risk,and  lower environmental impacts, the REC  program manager then noted “If you have a large family, no way in the world can you get a device that takes twice as long to dry your clothes.”. He concluded by suggesting that members who wanted to save money should hang their clothes outside to dry. Given this curmudgeon like advice, It was refreshing to see the new found love for energy star dryers (including heat pumps) from the RECs in my latest coop newsletter


Who knows, maybe the REC's can also change the "get off my lawn!" attitude they display towards members who want to generate their own electricity, because a lot of them will want to do just that!   

 As for dryers, since we haven't purchased one yet, here's a gentleman who has been living with a heat pump dryer for a while, and he's put much more info together than any of the utility programs I've been able to find

About the only items I would add. to his excellent blog post, is that retail electric rates will probably continue to rise over the life of this appliance. Also, many consumers will be replacing dryers with much less drying capacity than the new dryer, resulting in many less dryer loads annually . Given these items, consumers might see slightly improved economics than listed .   


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Renewable Energy And National Security

Renewable advocates and climate hawks over the last few years have claimed that wind and solar play a crucial role in national security.  The above photo shows a t shirt of mine purchased at an Iowa renewables conference a few years back. Lately, it seems that advocates have steered away from this message to instead directly discuss co2 reductions. This may be because the United States has built renewables to date mainly, using the same large scale centralized power station model favored by the fossil fuel and nuclear industry.The country also currently has ample supplies of fracked national gas, coal, nuclear power, etc., so the national security advocating seems to have faded with greens and climate hawks, if they ever truly believed the security benefits position in the first place. It may have been a tactic to attract support from non traditional interest groups.  But, the security message is also invoked by non renewable interests, so...   These days, there seems to be a renewed (pun intended) push for regional transmission and even global grid networks to encourage renewable energy. I’m still amazed when the “large scale renewables is the only way” advocates start to hyperventilate when trying to understand why rural residents push back against absentee owned transmission lines and large scale renewable projects, , the ventilating continues when voters fail to prioritize clean energy at election time. Most voters support clean energy, but I've yet to see a poll where energy, clean or dirty, ranks high in the voting booth.  But, I digress.

 It’s pretty hard to square the security narrative with large scale renewable power plants IMHO. We have plenty of resources, clean or otherwise. When security comes into the dialog, we must take another look at how we build power plants and design the grid, and whether our resources will provide electricity to our homes and businesses when things go wrong.  

The hard truth is little to none of these resources will be available if we have a grid outage. In that case, it will be difficult to transfer coal and natural gas to power plants,and nuclear has demonstrated problems with shutdowns and restarts (search the net for Fukushima).  So, renewable energy produced on site becomes very important, along with a distributed localized grid.  None of the large scale wind or solar farms-will be of any use to us if the grid has a major failure, due to weather, cyber-attack or low tech malice, fire, by physical damage or shorting out the grid when smoke accumulation causes power lines to arc to the ground, ice storms, or even critters. If we have any kind of sizable grid outage, we’ll have national security issues. So let’s look at some of the things that can go wrong. 

A raccoon recently caused a power outage for about 40,000 Seattle folks. This internet search also provided a link to a rather tongue and cheek looking website bragging about all the grid attacks undertaken by squirrels, (Hmm, quite a few in Iowa) greatly out numbering cyber-attacks.

Anyone following the news though, can’t help but notice the amount of cyber hacking lately.  Cyber-attacks are happening to our countries infrastructure, and most likely will continue for the foreseeable future.  A recent attack against the grid in Ukraine should be a wake up call for all of us. Check out this fascinating article  - 

“the control systems in Ukraine were surprisingly more secure than some in the US, since they were well-segmented from the control center business networks with robust firewalls. But in the end they still weren’t secure enough—workers logging remotely into the SCADA network, the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition network that controlled the grid, weren’t required to use two-factor authentication, which allowed the attackers to hijack their credentials and gain crucial access to systems that controlled the breakers”

Yes folks, we’re behind here, but not just in that respect- 

 The power wasn’t out long in Ukraine: just one to six hours for all the areas hit. But more than two months after the attack, the control centers are still not fully operational, according to a recent US report. Ukrainian and US computer security experts involved in the investigation say the attackers overwrote firmware on critical devices at 16 of the substations, leaving them unresponsive to any remote commands from operators. The power is on, but workers still have to control the breakers manually.

That’s actually a better outcome than what might occur in the US, experts say, since many power grid control systems here don’t have manual backup functionality, which means that if attackers were to sabotage automated systems here, it could be much harder for workers to restore power.”

This does seem to be on some government agencies and policy maker’s radar, but so far, actions seem to be concentrated on beefing up the current centralized system and shortening the repair time. However, given the challenges here, I have felt for quite a while that this can only be a short term strategy.  In the following link,  the recently retired head of FERC, Jon Wellinghoff, shares this belief. I’d encourage folks to read this in detail,  Some quotes of interest here- 

“I think we are in a very tenuous security situation, mainly because of the way the grid is configured.  It is currently set up in such a way that requires central station generation, which is then distributed through nodes of high voltage substations and then sent out to load centers. This centralized distribution system presents an array of vulnerabilities from a cyber and physical security standpoint.”

“A node is one of a number of high-voltage substations, which are contained within the three main interconnects making up the North American power grid; the Texas, Eastern and Western interconnects. The nodes are sort of a gathering point inside the interconnects where more than one power generation source feeds into, which is then distributed out to load centers. These particular nodes, if they are knocked out by either a physical or a cyber-attack, could have a major destabilizing effect on the entire grid system. Repairing these nodes has a long lead time due to their highly customized designs. So if there are multiple node outages it could be many weeks or months till the system is back to normal. By then, the country could be in chaos.”

There was also a link in this Q and A session to a previous chat with former Clinton era CIA head James Woolsey that went into great detail about the potential “chaos”.  

The EMP Commission, which was set up after 9/11, estimated that within 12 months of an EMP event, two-thirds of the US population would likely perish from starvation, disease and societal breakdown. Other experts estimate the likely loss to be closer to 90 percent.

Q. Really? That bad?

A. Oh, sure. William Forstchen’s novel, One Second After, gives a chilling portrayal of what life may look like after an EMP detonation. It describes a population totally unsuited for living in the dark. Deaths come in waves; first the elderly and then those who depend on medication. Following that are those who die of simple diseases, like typhoid or dysentery, as well as those who have no survival or farming skills, though even subsistence farming would likely be a challenge given the speed in which society would collapse versus the time it takes to actually prepare fields and grow substantial amounts of food. Eventually, the few survivors in the small town who have overcome these deprivations and learned to produce food face continual security issues, having to fight off marauding bands and, interestingly, bullets become a base currency in their economy. It’s pretty bad stuff.”

Sounds more like a crap storm than “chaos”, but let’s go back to Wellinghoff - The solution is to go small and distributed, not big and centralized.

“Well, there is only so much you can do. We could physically protect these nodes by beefing up security around them, but they’ll never be totally safe from a physical or cyber attack. It is sort of like building a firewall to keep out hackers. Eventually, the hackers will figure out how to get through, forcing you to build a higher firewall. It never ends. What we need to do is to move forward from this kind of thinking.”

“We need change the way the grid works, not just build higher and higher walls around these nodes. This can be done by shifting from a centralized to a distributed grid architecture in which power generation is dispersed along the grid.” 

Despite the fact that Wellinghoff was extremely noisy about this during his time at FERC, precious little happened during the current administration, due to push back from incumbent utilities (you know, the companies making the money off of our century old grid design) and the makeup of the current regulatory system. I wasn’t surprised when Mr. Wellinghoff mentioned in the article that he was looking into adding a battery backup system to the solar array installed on his house. Hey, if a head of FERC is this concerned, maybe the rest of us should be also. We should be going smaller and more local with grid design, not bigger and more centralized. That means less big transmission lines and more microgrids. We certainly shouldn’t be trying to do both at the same time.

So this country needs a robust distributed generation policy, which almost none of our elected or regulatory folks are talking about. One of the few places giving serious discussion to changing grid design is New York State, after Hurricane Sandy pointed out the flaws of their centralized grid design. It’s time that Iowa and the Midwest did the same. Wellinghoff said it well -

"How quickly we get to a distributed grid depends on how quickly we recognize the value of moving there."

I’ll throw the transmission line advocates a bone and agree that some new power lines are probably needed in the U.S. But, a national distributed generation policy would make it much more clear where those builds should take place.

I’d also be remiss here if I didn’t mention other side benefits to going local and distributed with grid design-
Democratization of energy production, the folks at ISLR are great at covering this.
More public support for the climate hawks desire for co2 reductions. Who knows, people might even think more about it when voting. November is coming, advocates!
Energy dollars stay in local economies, instead of billionaire’s pockets.
Local renewable owners might engage more on other environmental issues.

Thanks for stopping by.

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.
Albert Einstein

Edit, Sure enough, something happened today Aug 8, that is relevent to this topic. I'll just put this right here

Edit 2 There's a lot of info on the web about this issue. Including a recent article in my REC magazine reassuring members they are on top of this, and speculating the Ukraine outage happening in the states is unlikely , since it was "low tech". 


Plenty of other folks are worried about low and high tech attacks on the grid, however. Here's a couple more articles.  

Monday, May 23, 2016

Why Iowa Is Leading In Wind Power

It’s no secret that Iowa is a leader in wind power. News outlets, internet searches, wind trade organizations, etc. all tout Iowa’s installed wind capacity, though I’ve yet to see an article that explains why Iowa has become a wind power leader.
The quick answer is - Policy!   

Iowa’s first wind construction of note happened because the state's legislators required investor owned utilities to have 2% wind in their portfolios. Utilities opposed the legislation, though it passed and required utilities to purchase wind energy from other sources. Legislators envisioned lots of small installations, owned by farmers and other entrepreneurs, but ended up with a single installation owned by Enron (sigh). 

Wind was also added in the windier parts of northern Iowa to support RPS goals in surrounding states (looking for a supporting link here).  Iowa also has a special wind property taxassessment, and access to the sometimes available, sometimes not, federal windproduction tax credit. However, none of these policy tools catapulted Iowa to leadership status IMHO. 

Faced with a potential increase in the states renewable portfolio standard in 2003, MidAmerican instead pushed legislation passed by the Republican controlled House and Senate, and signed by then Governor Tom Vilsack, that allowed MidAmerican to include wind generation in its customer rate base. That’s right, Iowa didn’t lead in wind energy until one of our large utilities was guaranteed a minimum rate of return on its wind assets (kind of sounds a lot like a feed in tariff, right?)  That legislation also conveniently (for the utility) excluded farmers and other independents from receiving the same fair treatment.  A proposed amendment to the MidAmerican bill to fix that omission failed. And, MidAmerican still fiercely opposes any legislation to level the playing field. Iowa’s relatively small distributed wind, farmer and independently owned assets since, have been constructed using a hodgepodge of state and federal grants, tax credits, and other incentives, often at considerable risk.  

Wind is very cost competitive with other generation sources of course, though MidAmerican’s owner Warren Buffet would tell you otherwise. So, Iowa policy makers, how about a stable fair policy that gets renewable energy for the rest of us

Edit - part 2

Since we set the "way back machine" to Iowa's early wind power days and Enron, I should note that Iowa policy makers anticipated then that electric utilities in the state would become deregulated. In fact, the states investor owned utilities pushed heavily for it in 2000. In 1998, Utility property tax rates were overhauled anticipating such a change, creating a utility replacement tax. The deregulation effort was halted here, probably when the Enron scandal broke, and also I hear, because of heavy resistance from the state rural electric coops, labor, and the enviro community. I'm guessing at least one of those groups regrets that decision now. 

However, my understanding of the wind bill put forth by MidAmerican is that it achieved partial deregulation, deregulating the wholesale market, allowing the utility to build excess wind capacity,and guaranteeing a rate of return, while also shutting out competition. Customer rate payers were held captive to their monopoly utility, unable to shop for competitive electric plans, and receiving unfair treatment if they wished to generate their own electricity. Partial deregulation allowed the Enron market manipulation scandal to happen in California, though differences in Iowa's legislation seem to be more about limiting competition and limiting consumer choice.  

So, this stinker policy change is responsible for Iowa's "leadership" in wind energy.
Even though legislators originally envisioned diverse widespread ownership of renewables in Iowa, one utility has cornered the market. 

MidAmerican - stable, guaranteed rate of return on wind assets, while only required to offer low avoided cost to farmers and competitors, 

Profits flow to Berkshire Hathaway instead of being retained in rural Iowa.

Ratepayers left without choice in electric providers.

and etc. 

Bad as this legislation is, it still proves that only a stable risk free environment will allow for this country's transition to clean energy. Distributed generation is an important part of that transition, but now utilities are moving to corner that opportunity as well. Distributed generation needs such a stable policy as well, except one that creates opportunities for farmers, home owners, and other average folks, not big utilities. In other words, it will be much easier to get public support for said clean energy transition, if we create policy that benefits the many, not the few.  In Iowa and nationwide, its time for energy democracy



Sunday, May 8, 2016

Does using a water heater as an energy storage device make sense? Well, it’s complicated.

Here’s an  1200 word post for all you folks who can’t get enough energy efficiency information.

 A more accurate title for this might be “Who benefits from using water heaters as energy storage devices, the electric customer or the utility?” After reading-   Q&A: An energy storage solution mayalready be in your basement, I’m adding a post on this, as I’ve had some experience with a water heater program similar to the one discussed in the above link.  So, let’s dive a bit deeper into this issue.

The article opens with- “The much publicized Tesla Powerwall battery offers a way for homeowners with solar panels to store their energy for use at night as well as help utilities manage the grid.
Yet a decidedly less flashy piece of equipment residing in basements and closets of homeowners holds much greater potential as a residential battery – electric water heaters.”  

I’m not sure how to use my water heater to power our farm acreage if we experience a grid outage, but that snarky comment should be one of the few you’ll encounter in this post. The article describes a rural electric cooperatives (GRE) load shifting water heater program. It involves installing electric load controls on water heaters, and heating the water at night, when grid prices are low.

My rural electric coop offers a similar program. They sell subsidized, well insulated water tanks that use resistance heating elements, in return for installing load controls that can shut off the heaters during times of peaking grid prices, and probably recharging at night when they eventually move to “time of day” electric rates. I’m guessing GRE’s program is similar, though I didn’t check to see what type of heaters their distribution coops sell or subsidize, though the Q&A article mentions that “Each water heater absorbs 13 to 14 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy every night.” That totals about 5110 KWHs annually. That’s typical electric usage for resistance element water heaters. Our farm house had a water heater of this type for about ten years. It was well constructed, we always had plenty of hot water available, but it used lots of electricity, about the same amount as the ones in GRE’s program. The energy tag from our old heater is pictured below.

So, the following info is not a product or retailer endorsement.

After doing some calculations, I passed on participating in my electric provider’s water heater program, and instead, selected this heat pump water heater, purchased at retail instead of the coops subsidized rate. Here’s the math to explain why.  My coop offers an 85 gallon water tank for $400, Energy Factor - .91.  Homedepot lists this water heater for $1,544.99, so my electric provider subsidizes and sells it more than 2/3 below retail. Home depot lists the heat pump model I chose at $2,399.00, energy factor 3.39. I purchased ours at another retailer on sale for about $2000 if memory serves.
People’s energy consumption habits vary widely, so I’ll stick to my own usage figures. I have some energy monitoring equipment that makes it fairly easy to determine energy usage. We used our previous tank about 10 years, and it consumed about 14 KWHs per day, or about 5000 KWHs annually.  The heat pump model was installed a couple years ago, and is using about 2 KWHs per day, or about 730 KWHs annually.  
The new heater should last 10 years, so, I estimated an average electric rate of 14 cents per KWH for that period. So far, I’m saving about 4270 KWHs, or just about $600 per year. The electric provider didn’t have our new heater in their program, but they decided to offer a modest rebate in return for an agreement to load control the new heater at their discretion, which they haven’t done yet. A modest federal tax credit was available for heat pump water heaters (now expired, I think).  Our pay off time for the additional cost of my non subsidized heated is 2.7 years. If it was as deeply subsidized as the coops heater, ROI would probably be reached in about 1 year.  

So, it appears the electric utility is distorting the market, making their water heater seem the most attractive choice. If you use this water heater for, say, floor heating a building, my utility further distorts the market by offing a special electric heating rate, forcing other utility customers to help subsidize the program.  It’s kind of amusing then, when utilities try to claim customers who generate their own electricity are receiving a subsidy that’s unfair to customers who don’t generate their own electricity.  Customer Self generators provide a benefit to other ratepayers, but that’s a topic for another post, I think. Many utilities also have no problem awarding large KWH consuming accounts with lower electric rates, another "subsidy" that small KWH using customers must bear. I’m feeling the snarky level rising again, so let’s move on.  

This type of utility program doesn’t meet my criteria for an energy efficiency program. It provides peak energy savings to the utility, increases sales of electricity (certainly not the only utility program that increases KWH sales), and possibly extends the life of old fossil fuel power plants. I was surprised to see at least one enviro group supporting an effort to roll this program out nationwide.

So, let’s tally up.
Water heater program - utility benefits
Additional KWH sales for several years

Peak Load savings
Continued use of power plants at risk of becoming stranded assets.

Water heater program - customer results 
Market distortion discourages purchase of a more efficient appliance. Choosing the correct water heater is one of the best opportunities for significant reduction of electric use in the home. As energy efficiency options go, water heaters have an excellent return on investment potential. Our previous water heater accounted for almost 1/3 of our annual electric usage.
Lower up front purchase cost, but several thousand dollars of increased KWH purchase over water heater life span. Money that could be used to help finance a solar array.  

If the home owner does wish to explore backup back up power options ( batteries, generator, etc), having a water heater that uses several thousand watts when running, makes it much more difficult(and costly) to adopt emergency back up power solutions. And, with utility load controls installed, will you be able to use your water heater in emergency back up situations?

usage limited to certain time periods. If the electric customer has a solar array and the utility recharges the water heater at night, while adopting time of day rates... well, you get the picture.   

Final thoughts
Our farm has a solar PV installation, which further complicates this discussion. The Q&A article notes that as more solar PV is connected to the grid, daytime electric usage makes more sense. It certainly does when the customer owns the solar array. It’s time that self-generators are properly compensated for peak load cost savings that they provide to the grid. Yeah, I’m a feed in tariff supporter (There might be a post  comparing feed in tariffs and net metering soon).   

Serious energy wonks will probably guess that I believe that net metering discourages energy efficiency efforts (subject of a future post). More food for thought. Do energy efficiency efforts slow the transition to renewable energy?  And, If you intend to generate your own electricity, it does makes a difference what type of appliances you should choose. Yeah, the utility business is a changin, and it seems like some utilities are going to fight change as hard as they can. The customer is always right, and a lot of customers will want to generate their own electricity.  

Also, resistance heating water tanks do interest me in certain applications. Floor heating in grid tied situations with renewable power. Pellet fired boilers, or solar assistance to keep electric use low. Or used off grid with the same tech. They would be a good choice for certain agriculture and commercial applications.  Sorry if I came off as overly critical of them. The main issue here seems to be monopoly market distortion.

They have their place, but I think most residential locations would be better off making another selection.   

P.S. Please note in my REC news letter, members are advised to maximize energy efficiency prior to considering solar installations. Hopefully all rural electric cooperatives water heater programs will soon include the most efficient water heaters available...

                                             photo living with energy in Iowa

Edit Oct 2016 

It's nice to see the RECs are now starting to "warm" up to Heat Pump water heaters, though I think the economics might be a little better than the coops are suggesting (REC uses a family of four rating). I haven't found a detailed explanation of the criteria energy star uses for heat pumps yet. 
The print version of the article from touchstone mentions that many RECs  are offering rebates for heat pump water heaters. I followed the recommendation and checked my zip code.  

No rebates from my REC, but a modest one from MidAmerican. In fact, no rebates were listed from my REC at all, but 3 pages of rebates were listed by MidAmerican. 


While I have no doubt some RECs offer rebates for heat pumps, are the rebate  economics designed to make resistance water heaters the more attractive option, or are resistance and heat pumps discounted by a similar percentage of their retail cost?

Another item to consider, the investor owned utility in my area seems to offer substantially more rebate programs than my cooperative. if that's true for other REC members as well, they might ask their own cooperative why.