Quest for Conservation: New Sugar Land exhibit teaches smart energy use

Think of it as mission possible.

A new exhibition is set to hit HMNS Sugar Land Sept. 21 that aims to teach patrons all about energy — where we come from, how we use it, and how we can use it effectively and efficiently.

Conservation Quest™

Sponsored by Reliant, an NRG Company, Conservation Quest™ uses interactive exhibits to relay important messages about energy conservation that will hopefully inspire the next generation to make thoughtful choices about energy use.

Visitors can turn cranks to compare the amount of energy required to light up a traditional light bulb versus an LED light, as well as learn about the cost and longevity of different types of bulbs.

Families can determine their average daily electricity use and play with appliances to sample ways to use less.

Renewable energy has a moment in the sun, too, in a Solar Energy section where patrons explore the science behind solar panels.

To learn more about Conservation Quest and book your visit to HMNS Sugar Land today, click here!

The Bear Necessities

If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as getting.
Benjamin Franklin

When I was younger, my parents would read to me before I went to bed.  I would hear tales of adventure and science from Tom Swift, Jr. and tales of mystery from the Hardy Boys, and the fantastical from The Hobbit.  They would also read the Berenstain Bears to me.  If you’re unfamiliar with this series, it’s about a family of bears that face situations that are likely to be faced by children and parents.  The Bear family consists of Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Brother Bear, Sister Bear, and, since 2000, Honey Bear.  There have been more than 260 books in the series.  In the books, Brother and Sister bear learn many valuable lessons, like what happens when you watch too much TV (The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV), eat to much junk food (The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junkfood) (hurmmm American public), or about earning and saving money (Wall Street)… I mean Trouble with Money.

The one that made a lasting impression on me was The Messy Room (da, da, daa).  In that book, Brother and Sister have a messy room and can never find anything (they even forget that they have some things) and their parents come up with an idea for storage.  Clearly labeled boxes stacked in the closet.  And then their room is clean (I’m still working on it myself, is it messy if I know what’s in all the piles?).

The current (that pun again) electrical infrastructure is like that messy room.

Wind Energy
Creative Commons License photo credit: l.bailey_beverley

The current electrical grid operates on a “use or lose” bias.  Meaning that only the amount of electricity needed at any given moment is on the grid.  If an energy source, like a wind turbine in West, Texas produces more electricity than the grid can use, it is bled off as waste.  If the amount of electricity needed increases, then short start up generators go online and once the demand is over they shut back down.  That strikes me as a very dumb grid.

One of the large hurtles in making a smarter grid is electrical storage.  We are all used to some forms of electrical storage.  We have alkaline batteries lying about our houses (except AA, I can never find any, but I’m sure they’re just over there…).  These work by producing electricity through the reaction of zinc and magnesium dioxide. They make up 80% of the batteries in the United States.  People have also gotten familiar with the lithium ion batteries which are found in most mp3 players and some phones. Lithium ion batteries are rechargeable, but through many recharges slowly loose the ability to hold a charge.  Lithium sodium batteries are in the works that can hold more energy and be a little less expensive.  One way to get batteries for your home is to get the old batteries from your hybrid car.

Chemical batteries are not the only way to store electricity.

Engine & Flywheel
Creative Commons License photo credit: Howard Dickins

Another way is to store the energy as compressed air.  The excess electricity is used to compress air, and when the electricity is needed the air is let out and turns a turbine.  Compressed air has been used for energy since the 1870s in Paris, London, and other cities. Another way to store electricity is the use of fly wheels.  The excess electricity is used to power up a rotor in a spinning motion.  When electricity is needed, the movement of the rotor is converted back into electricity. The new Gerald Ford class super aircraft carriers will make use of flywheels to help launch planes.  One of the main technical concerns is friction.  Too much friction and too much energy is lost. One of the most efficient ways to store up electrical power on the large scale is pumped water. The excess electricity is used to pump water up in a holding chamber or reservoir.  Then when electricity is needed, the water flows back down.

Electrical storage is also important for renewables.  Solar power can be unreliable.  Because of the rotation of the earth, solar power can be reliably unreliable.  Solar power can only be gathered when the sun is out.  Most of the time the sun is out, I’m at work.  There are usually only a few days a week when I get to see the sun.  Therefore, most of my electrical needs happen when solar power is not an option.  If I had a way to store it while I was at work, then I would use it when I got home. The same is true for wind.  Despite the United States being full of hot air, wind does not always blow.  Wind generated electricity can sometimes be too much for the electrical grid.  If the excess were stored, it could be used when there’s no wind a blowin’.

Small scale electrical storage would also help small scale renewables.

If I have a small scale solar panel, a small wind turbine, and a small water pump all tied up with some sort of electrical storage, I can take the electricity I gather in and only use it when I need it.  That way if the sun shines, the wind blows, or the rain falls while I’m away, I can come back and have Mother Nature power my computer.

Changing Energy Policies Across the Globe

Nuclear Power Plant
Creative Commons License photo credit: Intamin10

Japan will cut its electrical use by 15% this summer. After the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, their electrical production capability has been decreased. Nuclear power plants made up for a quarter of their electrical production. After the disaster at Fukushima, public opinion in Japan has shifted against using nuclear power. Because of this, some plant managers in Japan are postponing turning their reactors back on after scheduled maintenance. Not only are they concerned about making sure their reactors are safe, they don’t want to take the reactor down again once new government regulations come into effect.

Time for some 101 facts about Japan.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, Japan is an island, or rather, a chain of islands. Japan is an energy power house. While it is only the 10th most populated country, it is 3rd  in electrical generation. (America has double the population and is the largest electrical producer, China has the largest population and is second in electrical production.)

Japan does not have a lot of crude oil or natural gas. Most of what they use is imported. That’s one of the reasons they turned to nuclear power for electrical production. It takes fewer imports to run nuclear facilities than the coal, oil, and natural gas equivalents. There have also been fewer uranium crises than oil crises during the last 50 years.

In order to reduce electricity usage, the Japanese government has called for office thermostats to be turned up to 82 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the entire summer. This is an easy way to save electricity, however it would be very uncomfortable in a 3 piece suit and tie. The government is promoting a new “Super Cool Biz” look. They are encouraging people to wear shorts and polo shirts. The government is getting some resistance. While I would love to have to wear only polos and shorts (guess what I’m wearing now) at work, a nice suit and tie does bring off a certain professional air.

Upolu Point Wind Farm
Creative Commons License photo credit: footloosiety

With all that has gone on, some countries are rethinking their strategy for nuclear power.

Germany has decided to shut down all of its nuclear reactors over the next decade. Nuclear power generation currently (ha, a pun) accounts for nearly a quarter of their entire electrical generation (coal counts for about half, and renewables counts for about 16%). They plan to convert all the nuclear power generation into renewable. There may not be as much hot air in Germany as there is in the States, but Germany is the second largest producer of wind produced electricity (with the United States being first). In fact it makes up nearly 7% of their total electricity generation.

If the German government wants to bump wind up to over 30% of their electrical production, not only will they need to install more wind turbines, but they’ll also need to replace the older models with new and more efficient models. They will also need to bump up their solar energy. While Germany is one of the top installers of photovoltaic cells, solar only accounts for a few percent of their energy production. With more efficient cells, it should not be too hard to move that number up.

The Italians also voted to abandon nuclear power again.

They abandoned it after Chernobyl and do not have any actual nuclear plants. The vote was more a comment on their current Prime Minister who favors the use of nuclear power.

France is still a proponent for nuclear generated electricity to remain in the EU’s energy mix. France is one of the largest producers of nuclear generated electricity. It accounts for over 80% of their electrical power generation.

As with most exciting things in the world, we’ll have to watch and see what unfolds.

Get Smart : Meter or grid?

Throughout the years there have been many different versions of “smart” electronics. Movies are full of ‘evil’ and ‘good’ appliances, from Robbie the Robot to R2-D2. And even some that are just part of the background, like most of the robots in Star Wars and Wall-E. The energy industry has also started to toss around ‘smart’ terms. Not just things like Ohm’s law or Restricted-Universe Census, but smart meters and smart grids. So what are they? Are they the same or are they different? What does “smart” mean?

First of all, smart is not an indication of how well a meter or a grid does on an intelligence test, how many times they beat me at checkers, or how well they plot to overthrow humans and use us as batteries. It has to deal with how well they respond with real time stimuli. Can the system adjust in a real time fashion; can it be run correctly by automation?

A smart meter is like any other electrical meter. It reads how much electricity you use, in terms of Kilowatt hours. The information that the smart meter can give you is far more than a Thomas meter. A smart meter can tell you in real time how much electricity you are using at any given moment. It can also show you your electrical usage over time. You can see when you use the most electricity (probably right after you come home). Armed with that data you can make informed decisions, such as deciding if you want air-conditioning to come on when you get home at 5 p.m. or if you want to avoid peak hours and have the air-conditioning running from 4 – 5 p.m. But a smart grid is something completely different.

Kraftwerksneubau Neurath
Creative Commons License photo credit: Neuwieser

Even though the electrical grid has been growing for over 100 years , it has yet to become smart. The current grid is set for a “use it or loose it” grid. That means that the grid should always have enough electricity to power everything that is currently on it. This creates two types of electrical generation. One is base load and the other is peak load. Base load is what is always on the grid. This is mostly created using coal fired power plants. A Coal fired plant takes a lot of energy to start up, but once you get it going it is easy to keep it going. Because of that coal fired plants are always burning coal. So when you’re at work and the refrigerator is still on, it’s part of the base load. Most of the time the base load handles all our electricity needs. However if there is a large spike of electrical usage, such as the one around 5 p.m. when most people get off of work, the base load is not enough. This is when they can bring on fast startup plants, usually using natural gas as the fuel, and supply the electricity during peak times.

The current grid is rigged for redundancy. The current electrical grid has grown up to offer multiple paths for electricity. This means that if one area of the grid goes down, the electricity can be maneuvered around the broken part. What that means in practice is that just because an area near you looses power, your power may not be interrupted.

Why would a smart grid be better? For our current grid we use mostly large scale power generation plants, but the smart grid would easily incorporate lots of small residential power generators like small solar panels on roofs and small wind turbines. The small solar panel and wind turbines on the current grid are unable to provide all your electrical needs. Even though they take in electricity all day long, they only have available what they are taking in at the moment. If there were a way to store all the electricity that they take in during the day when you aren’t using electricity, then it would help with the electricity you need, especially during peak times. Also in a smart grid, if you had an excess of electricity you could sell it to a power company. You could even sell it directly to people who need the electricity. You would go from one who can only consume, to a producer, seller and consumer of electricity.

Arrays from the right
Creative Commons License photo credit: Mike Weston

How can a smart grid help us save money on our electric bills? Currently most electrical companies charge a single rate for electricity. That means that you pay a constant price for a kilowatt hour. The real cost of electricity is always in flux. The price has to do with what time of day it is, what season, what it was priced at yesterday, which power plants are down for maintenance, which ones have been reopened, the weather and many other variables. A smart grid would allow us to purchase electricity in real time. What if power plant B is selling electricity cheaper than power plant B at 3 a.m.? What if power plant A sells cheaper electricity at 2 p.m. than it does at 5 p.m.? Which one would you like to buy electricity from? When would you buy your electricity if you could store it? It gets even more exciting by adding smart appliances. What if you could tell you dishwasher to only wash dishes during the night if the cost of a kilowatt hour fell to a certain price? What if your water heater could find you a better price for the electricity used to heat water for your morning shower?


So is it green? What do we mean by green, it looks like cooper to me. The real question is how can this help save the environment and money (or if you’re more cynical, money and the environment). A smart grid would have the ability to allow small scale renewables to have a larger effect. In a system where a lot of electrical production would be done on residential or small communal solar cells, wind farms, tidal farms, or back yard geothermal plants, the need for large scale power plants would diminish. Large scale power plants will never be done away with. Mother Nature is far too capricious for that.

electric car charging point
Creative Commons License photo credit: frankh

Why do we need to change the grid if it works? The electrical needs for the country are expected to grow 30 % over the next 25 years. That prediction is counting on nothing new happening. What happens if we all switch to the electric cars during that time? Gasoline prices would drop, but electrical prices would rise, because electricity would replace gasoline as the fuel of choice. Right now that would mean building more and more coal plants.

On a smart grid, with most households having some small renewable power generation, the rise in electrical need may not lead to the building of more coal fired power plants.

So how long will this take? So far it has taken over 100 years to get to where we are today. When electricity first started being used most power plants where small and only provided enough electricity for a few buildings. Over time it became cheaper and more reasonable to have power generation on a larger scale. While this would not require us to reinvent the electrical grid, it would mean upgrading all of it. And all that would take more then four years.