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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

This is Our Home . . . How are we going to power it?

Over the last few years the cost of electric power from TVA (via the Glasgow EPB) increased about 35%. Now it appears that, over the next six months, that cost will go up again by staggering amounts (as this is written TVA has not given us the final bad news, but it is likely that we will see an increase of something like 15% on October 1 and something very similar again on January 1, 2009) over the next six months. Add this to the stress we are already experiencing at the gas pumps and the crisis many of you will feel this winter as you see the unbelievable natural gas bills and the result is a gut-wrenching fear unlike anything we have ever seen before. In fact, it would not be going too far to say that it is now okay to go ahead and panic!

We have talked about the reasons for these dramatic increases several times before in this very blog. Drought in east Tennessee is drastically reducing the amount of cheap hydroelectric power TVA can produce. Increases in the cost of diesel fuel makes transporting coal from the mines to the coal-fired generation units much more expensive and that is driving up the cost of coal. China and India are using staggering amounts of coal and diesel fuel in their zeal to make cheap consumer goods for us to purchase at Wal Mart, and that is driving up the cost of both of those fuel sources. We hate to have this fact shoved in our faces, but the real culprit in these increases in the cost of all forms of energy is the way we live our lives. We use too much energy each and every day. In other words, we have found the enemy, and he is us.

As a Glasgow resident and a customer of the EPB you have something going for you that folks who buy their electric power elsewhere do not have . . . yet. For the last twenty years we have been developing a broadband network that touches each and every home and business in our community. For just as many years we have been planning to use that network to help our population use electricity in a totally different manner than the way we have taken for granted over the last eighty years. Even though our efforts have been discounted and ignored by TVA and the other elements of the electric power business in our country for most of those twenty years, it seems that the dawn is beginning to break over our landscape of ideas about infotricity.

Infotricity is a term we coined many years ago and it is meant to identify electric power, combined with a robust broadband network, as a totally different product. Electricity is something your home and business has been running on forever, but the decisions about how much and when it is used have been handed off to major appliances for the last several decades. Those appliances; air conditioners, water heaters, freezers, refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, clothes dryers, etc., have developed a very disturbing habit. They tend to wind up all running at the same time on hot afternoons like the ones outside right now. When they all get together and run at the same time it creates a demand for electricity that has a sharp spike (we call it a peak demand) that lasts from about 1:00 p.m. to about 7:00 p.m. on summer days. It is that peak demand that all power generation systems struggle to meet. Those peaks cause the most coal and natural gas to be burned. Those peak demands are the root cause for most of the large cost increases we are seeing for electricity.

By comparison, our plans for infotricity will chop the top off of those peak electricity power demands by using our broadband network to break up the habits of the appliances to work at the same time. Instead of the cheap thermostat that today controls your water heater, air conditioner, freezer, and refrigerator, we can use IP (Internet Protocol) commands to tame these appliances and turn their cacophony into a symphony!

Here is how it might work. Once our high speed network is connected to your home and when the home is retrofitted with new IP-based controls for the air conditioning, heating, water heating, etc., we could work with you to establish your temperature limits and living style and put all of that information into a server that is assigned the task of orchestrating the delivery of infotricity to your home. Then, every day as TVA determines what their mix of available generation is and what the likely temperature extremes for their service areas is going to be, their generation folks would transmit information to these “infotricity servers” which would, in turn, organize the temperature targets for your home and your appliances such that they do not contribute to TVA’s peak demand. The result might be that your home is “precooled” to a temperature cooler than normal in the morning while power demand is low so that your home can coast through the afternoon longer, and get a little warmer than you would normally like, in the pursuit of a flatter demand for power. As far as your other appliances go, well, so long as you have hot water when you want it and cold milk in your refrigerator, you really don’t care when the heating and cooling occurred, and infotricity would exploit that reality. In addition you would likely have additional reminders that you need to try to reduce your energy demand during peak periods. There will likely be a reminder in your email, information scrolling across your television screen, a red/green indicator near your washer and dryer, etc. All of this will be focused at reminding you that infotricity is far less expensive than electricity and that you need to participate by cutting back your consumption during the peak times.

Technology like this will allow TVA to offset the construction of new power plants made of concrete and steel and fueled with coal, natural gas, or enriched uranium with virtual power plants made of fiber optic cables and IP addressable appliances and fueled with a flow of bits, bytes, and intelligence. In effect, even though your home will not look any different, if you participate in this new world of infotricity, you will have a piece of a massive infotricity generator in your home. The technology, coupled with your willingness to respond to signals, will form the basis for the cleanest and most sustainable method ever devised for the generation of electric power. This is an earthshaking (maybe an earth-saving) idea and, the really cool thing is, it has been developed right here in Glasgow. We are optimistic that TVA is about to start working closely with us to further our development of this idea such that it begins to provide real power to their generation fleet within a couple of years.

These same ideas will work for businesses and industrial customers just as well as they will work at our homes. The secret to better living through infotricity is in learning how to use energy during the hours when it is abundant and less during the hours when it is in short supply. It is really just that simple. This is also the only way that electric cars will ever really fit into our total energy solution. Electric cars are a great idea so long as we can make sure that folks are not trying to charge them during the hours of peak demand. If plug-in cars arrive and if we are not prepared to charge them with infotricity, they will only compound our energy problem instead of improving it. But, once again, Glasgow is in a perfect position to take advantage of this technology when it is available.

In summary, things are bad, but not as bad here. We have ignored the simple fact that all energy resources are finite and we have been doing that for many years. While we have been ignoring facts, the population of the world has doubled and a lot of the new residents have decided they want to use their share of our energy resources as well. Now we have to pay more to keep them from using the energy we Americans had come to see as exclusively ours. Most communities find themselves virtually helpless to do anything about this situation, but Glasgow has been planning for this problem for twenty years. While we cannot tell you to relax and not worry about it, we can tell you that we have ideas and plans, and you are going to have options. These options will not be painless and they will not allow us to continue to be oblivious to reality, but they do give us hope for a sustainable energy future that is better than many of our neighbors can expect, at least for a while.

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