Empowering an energy transformation

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The transition to a sustainable energy system will be “large, complex and messy,” even though it is necessary and inevitable. ASU researchers are helping to guide the process in positive ways.

Empowering an energy transformation

By Erin Barton

July 12, 2016

Think about all the ways you use energy on a typical day. The shower and coffee that kick off your morning require hot water. The clothes you put on were made in a factory run on electricity. You probably get to work using a car, bus or train that consumes fuel. Your lunch was transported to the supermarket, stored in a refrigerator and cooked with a stove or microwave. For most people, it is easier to list the parts of life that don’t require energy than those that do.

Most of this energy (82 percent in the U.S.) comes from burning fossil fuels: oil, coal and natural gas. Of course, fossil fuels are finite resources that will eventually run out. They also create significant amounts of pollution, including greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change.

As a result, transitioning to a more sustainable energy system is an urgent task. It is also a complex one, because energy is not just a technological phenomenon; it is profoundly social. Changing the system that delivers it will generate far-reaching social, economic and environmental transformation.

At Arizona State University, researchers from a variety of disciplines—law and policy, economics, engineering, humanities, and the physical and social sciences—are partnering with businesses and policymakers to help guide that transition in a way that is sustainable and equitable.

Inevitable evolution
The energy industry accounts for one-third of the U.S. economy, and the other two-thirds heavily depend on it. Between the economic significance of energy, its multifaceted nature and its centrality to our daily lives, any sort of energy transition is going to be “large and complex and messy,” says Clark Miller, the associate director for faculty in ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS).

It is also inevitable, according to ASU LightWorks Director Gary Dirks. In fact, it’s already happening.

“The distributed energy model has been heavily promoted–globally, but certainly in the U.S. and Europe–through government policy in the form of subsidies for both wind and solar power. The result is that the majority of new power generation capacity is renewable,” he says.

Conventional power stations are large and centralized, requiring electricity to be transmitted over long distances. Distributed systems, on the other hand, involve smaller, localized and increasingly renewable energy sources. This is disrupting the business models of traditional energy utilities.

“U.S. utilities at the moment are regulated monopolies,” says Miller. “They work in a certain set of ways, and they've got well developed rules that govern them that are matched to the technologies they're using. So as they change out those technologies, we're going to have to change all those rules. And that just takes time, and energy, and thought, even if everybody agrees. And then inevitably not everyone agrees,” he says.

Despite these challenges, Miller concurs that a transition is inevitable. The energy system is fundamentally unstable, he says, although most consumers don’t see it. We drive our cars; we don’t necessarily know where or how our gas is produced.

“Thirty years ago it was all conventional oil,” Miller says, referring to oil in liquid form that is easily extracted by drilling a hole.

Today, most oil comes from unconventional sources, embedded in rock in some way. The Canadian tar sands are one example. Extracting unconventional oil is difficult and expensive.

“Twenty-five to fifty years from today we will produce and consume energy very differently,” says Miller. “But we don’t know how.”

The social side of energy
This is the challenge. Technology, environments, social norms and energy resources are all changing rapidly. We cannot predict where we will end up and whether it will be environmentally and socially sustainable. We can, however, work to steer the transition in a positive direction. In fact, Miller sees it as an opportunity.  

“We can think of clean energy transitions as design problems, where the goal is to design energy systems that help communities thrive,” he says.

For instance, 1.5 billion people lack reliable access to electricity. Miller believes we must address inequalities like this when planning for a new energy system. This is one reason why policy, social science and the humanities are essential to a successful transition: technology alone cannot ensure an equitable energy system.

Miller directs the Energy and Society group, which works with individuals, communities, businesses and regulators to navigate an energy transition and work toward a positive outcome. In his own work, Miller integrates engineering and technology with the social and policy dimensions of energy.

For example, he has collaborated with ASU’s Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) Engineering Research Center on the sustainability of large-scale photovoltaic energy production. He also works with the Pakistan Centers for Advanced Studies in Energy to help Pakistan develop research on energy, policy and society as part of a larger U.S. Agency for International Development-funded project.

Kristin Mayes, a professor of practice at SFIS and the School of Sustainability, leads ASU’s energy policy efforts. She co-directs the Energy Policy Innovation Council, which informs and educates policymakers on current, complex issues in energy policy that impact Arizona and beyond. 

She also co-directs the Powering Tomorrow project, a collaboration among major energy industry stakeholders to develop new business models and regulations to help the industry transition smoothly to a decentralized system.

Powering Tomorrow published the results of its second phase of work in January 2016. The report identifies two potential future utility industry structures and lays out a set of regulatory reforms for each. It also addresses issues affecting low-income customers in an age of decentralization, as well as policies for the construction of new high-voltage transmission lines, which many believe will be necessary to secure a clean energy future.

“Change is happening at a rapid pace in the energy sector, and how we approach it from a regulatory standpoint will make all the difference to consumers and companies alike,” says Mayes. “This report begins to outline the kinds of utility industry structures and associated regulatory packages that could be helpful as we move into an era of greater levels of customer-sited distributed generation, energy efficiency and utility-scale renewable energy.”

In its next phase, Powering Tomorrow will bring together utilities, third-party energy companies and other stakeholders to draft model regulations and legislation needed to implement new utility industry structures.

Flexible tech
Intersecting with all of the social and policy aspects of energy is the technology that makes it work. Continued advances in energy technologies are needed to transition to a sustainable and decentralized energy system.

Nathan Johnson, an assistant professor of engineering at ASU’s Polytechnic School, develops off-grid solutions, such as microgrids. Just like it sounds, a microgrid is a miniature version of the large electric grids powered by big electric utility companies.

“A microgrid is a combination of multiple sources of electricity generation that can be isolated from a larger electric grid and typically includes renewables, storage and demand response,” explains Johnson. “Microgrids can be used to increase power reliability, provide back-up generation, improve renewable penetration, and transfer ownership of energy production and management to a local entity or possibly an individual.”

Johnson is also working on a universal charge controller, which allows different technologies to work together. This unifying hardware can help manage energy transitions by allowing for flexibility in the types of energy technologies and business models used by different groups.

“It allows you to use, for example, small solar panels, large solar panels, different battery sizes and voltages, and different sizes and voltages of electric loads,” he says.

In other words the controller allows for phased expansion and room for experimentation without the need to worry about expensive technologies becoming unusable due to changing circumstances.

Johnson’s team operates a half-acre microgrid testbed on ASU’s Polytechnic campus, where they perfect their designs and take them from concepts to physical reality. The testbed includes a Sustainable Community space, which incorporates various dwellings from around the world to offer a confluence of engineering, culture, social norms and environmental constraints to mimic real living conditions in developing countries. There, the team tests solar home systems, battery charging stations and a remotely controlled DC microgrid, among other things.

In order to get their work to the people who need it, the researchers partner with multiple private companies. For example, they collaborated with the Scottsdale company NRG Energy to create a containerized microgrid for use in disaster relief, inspired by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The microgrid is relatively portable and can be used to power medical stations or villages, for example.

The team also contracted with the IEEE Smart Village project to bring reliable power to people currently going without.

“Our hardware—namely the universal charge controller—is meant to be a key piece in the progression of IEEE Smart Village’s efforts to provide electricity to 50 million people,” says Johnson.

The team is also involved with in the NEPTUNE program, sponsored by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. The program supports research on optimizing energy systems while also providing skills and experience to military personnel and veterans. Johnson is currently training 25 veterans on microgrid design and operation. They will be prepared to succeed in a field with tremendous future potential and value.

“Change is inevitable. The question is, what is the goal and what is our trajectory to reach that goal?” Johnson asks. “We seek to provide the strategic foundation and practical stepping stones to see the energy transition through.”

LightWorks is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled thousands of scientific discoveries, over 800 patents, 280 new startup companies and hands-on training for approximately 33,000 students across Arizona’s universities. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.