Thursday, September 4, 2014

Another Name for Methane: The Microgrid for Vermont

Sudden Press about the "Microgrid"

Natural gas
In the past two days, articles about NRG and the supposed New Generation have been coming thick and fast.

At the national level, NRG and HuffPo are starting a joint venture called Generation Change: Together We Will Be Heard. This forum is going to have "realer than real" dialog about energy, including the new "solar power that has evolved from large roof top panels limited to industrial buildings to ones that are compact, portable and charge our phones, cameras and tablets."

Okay, yeah, confusing.

At the Vermont local level, there's a joint venture between NRG and the Gaz Metro's wholly-owned subsidiary, Green Mountain Power (GMP).  As Vermont Digger reported:  GMP Teams With National Energy Company to Build Microgrids.

The story is clearer locally, but the story is not fun.

The NRG CEO takes a stand for Natural Gas

The Vermont Digger story quotes NRG CEO David Crane about these planned microgrids.  He says that  "the best form of energy storage is natural gas. "

Huh huh huh? Now methane is energy storage?

Traditional not-smart solar
Let me explain this, by referencing to the comment stream on this article (which is terrific). In the comments, people in favor of microgrids and people against microgrids all ask the same question:  Exactly HOW does natural gas come into this?

Finally, one comment link explains it. The link is to this article, with more extensive quotes from the NRG CEO. NRG Energy Deploying Dean Kamen’s Solar-Smart In-Home Generator.

Note the clever title "Solar Smart Generator." Solar and smart!  How wonderful.

55KW Stirling Generator
Smart Solar?
If you continue to read, however, you find that Solar-Smart is a Stirling engine running on natural gas. It is sized for the home. And somehow, it's all about Hurricane Sandy.

I gather that NRG's goal is for every home to have its own Stirling engine and a natural gas connection.  The end-quote on the Solar-Smart article is from NRG CEO David Crane:  “The solar industry belongs with the natural gas industry -- those industries go together. They just don’t know it yet.”

 Side Note: It's a large company, but not everyone has heard of NRGWikipedia describes their business areas as including co-generation, renewable energy, and renewables. The company owns many fossil-fired plants, some wind farms, and part of a nuclear plant.  The core company was part of Houston Lighting and Power. It has expanded by many acquisitions.

The GMP CEO takes a stand against electricity distribution

Now, back to Vermont.  In the Vermont Digger article, we see that the CEO of GMP is in line with this "your very own Stirling engine" idea. (I guess that is why she's teaming up with NRG on microgrids.)  In the article, GMP CEO Mary Power  described the current energy infrastructure as “archaic” and made up of “twigs and twine” that will cost the nation tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.

The CEO of Green Mountain Power Seems pretty cavalier about the current grid. Doesn't sound eager to maintain that old "twigs and twine" system.   This is even though she heads a DISTRIBUTION utility, for heaven's sake!   What is she doing saying stuff like this? Does she want to see the archaic grid disappear, along with GMP and her job?

GMP may lose, but Gaz Metro will win

Of course not. In my opinion, CEO Mary Powell's  job is safe.  After all, she works for Gaz Metro.  GMP is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Gaz Metro. We Vermonters forget that at our peril.

Even if Powell doesn't bother much about the grid in Vermont, her parent company can do very well. Gaz Metro can hope to put in lots of gas pipelines for those microgrid Stirling engines.

Vermonters may lose, but the state government will win

"Twigs and Twine"
Wonder what GMP linemen
think of Ms. Powell's statement?
A wonderful thing about natural gas is you can raise the taxes almost infinitely.  Vermont put tax after tax on Vermont Yankee, and Vermont Yankee decided to close down. Vermont slapped a $12 million generation tax on Vermont Yankee. Meanwhile, through its revenue sharing agreement,  the plant was already on the hook for $18 million in revenue sharing with the local utilities.

Sending the state and utilities a total of $30 million dollars in a year is a lot for a small plant. As an oversimplification, taxing Vermont Yankee to that extent made its profits lower and its power less competitive.  This was one of the reasons it closed, in my opinion.

Raising Taxes for the State

With gas pipelines, raising taxes is just so easy.  You can force a gas pipeline to pay, say, $30 million a year in problem. The pipeline will just go to the PSB and ask for a rate increase.  People won't stop buying the product (natural gas) just because the price went up. For heating your home, home, fuel oil and propane will probably still be more expensive than natural gas.  Also, once you use  natural gas, there may well be a cost to retrofitting your home furnace for another fuel.

What about the electric utilities? Aren't they price sensitive? Well, no.  Merchant plants sell into a market and they are price sensitive.  But the distribution utilities are regulated, and they get more money by the simple expedient of asking for it.  Let's face it.  New coal or nuclear aren't in the cards. Renewables, though subsidized, aren't cheap either.

Basically, as long as gas remains cheaper than oil, the sky will be the limit on how much distribution utilities will be willing to pay for gas-fired electricity. Even if gas is highly taxed and expensive, the distribution utilities will buy it. After all, the distribution utilities can't go broke, as long as they can go to the PSB, explain the situation, and get a rate increase.

The Winners and The Losers

So, with this great leap forward of a mutual aid pact between Gaz Metro and NRG, who are the winners and the losers?

  • Gaz Metro (sells more gas)
  • GMP (sells more gas, after all, it is Gaz Metro)
  • State administration. The state can tax the pipelines as much as they want to tax them, and the consumers will pay.
  • Vermont consumers who want reliable power. They want someone to keep repairing those sticks and that twine.
  • Vermont consumers who want affordable power. The mixture of high-priced gas, stealth gas taxes and few merchant plants will mean "bye-bye to affordable."
  • Any sincere environmentalist who is living painfully off the grid with solar panels, a wood stove, a bunch of batteries, and a vegetable garden. This person just didn't know how easy it is to be green with natural gas, the new storage. 


Anonymous said...

I don't understand why no one seems to care about the environmental effects of methane use. Methane itself is a terrible greenhouse gas, causing anywhere from 30 to 70 times more atmospheric degradation on a per molecule basis than CO2. Fugitive emissions from widespread use of methane will negate any "benefits". And what benefits are these? The only real advantage methane has over coal is that is doesn't have sulfur, so no need to worry about sulfur dioxide emissions or sequestering sulfur. True, it emits less CO2, but still emits copious amounts of CO2 compared to truly clean forms (like nuclear). You've still got to burn it. That means nitrous oxides as well as CO2, and the same problems with greenhouse gases and ocean acidification. Anyone who advocates more use of natural gas (methane) is no environmentalist.

Howard Shaffer said...

Great post! Send it to multiple media.

Mary Gerdt said...

Thank you, Meredith. I thought as well that they Gaz Metro would transport or store excess solar power in the gaz pipeline? That way a shuttle of charged gaz could flow between Canada -solar grid---then to NYC and Boston, the ultimate markets. If I misunderstood the article I read awhile back, excuse me as an amateur scientists wannabee :<) mary

Meredith Angwin said...


Gaz Metro is really clever with its use of words, but it uses words to mislead. The microgrids will have little to do with solar, and a lot to do with gas.

Solar power makes electricity, which can only be sent through power lines, not gas pipelines.

I consider myself moderately cynical with respect to the actions of big companies, and I know they pay big bucks for people who can write good "spin." However, that "smart solar" designation for the gas-fired engine was over-the-top. It reminded me of Orwell's 1984: War is Peace, etc etc. Gas-fired is solar!

Don't feel bad about being mislead. They mean to mislead you.

Anonymous said...

about being mislead

The past tense is "misled".  It's easy to misinterpret it as a word pronounced "my-selled" but it's really "miss-led".

Meredith Angwin said...

Anon 1: Thank you for your comment. I used to work on ways to burn natural gas without making so much nitrogen oxides (NOx)...I even have two patents. But nobody notices this problem. A reporter heard me talking about nitrogen oxides and in the story he wrote, I was talking about carbon dioxide! He literally could not HEAR "nitrogen oxides." NOx is an invisible problem, until it turns visible as the brown haze of photochemical smog.

Howard and Mary: Thank you for your comments!

Anon 2: Thank you for the correction. I am often a little ashamed about how errors show up in my writing and I don't see them. Then I remember that "real" reporters have copy-editors and other editors. Thank you for reading my work carefully. I don't think I pronounce "misled" incorrectly, but I sure wrote it incorrectly. I got "mislead" right in the next sentence, at least. (Pathetic attempt at self-justification.)

Anonymous said...

I don't know, any kind of Stirling engine I've ever seen tends to be big, bulky, and pricey. The toughest problem I ever worked on as a grad student in engineering was analysis of the regenerator used in the Stirling cycle. If this is going to power your home, you're going to be constantly burning natural gas (I guess that's why Gaz Metro is pushing it) to meet your household baseload, and you're going to have to oversize the engine to meet peak loads. Exactly what an "archaic" utility grid is all about. You're going to have to pay for maintenance costs on the engine. You're going to have to meet safety codes for pumping that much natural gas into your home. You're going to have to meet emission requirements with the correctly sized and positioned exhaust stack. You can have all the benefits and avoid the hassles if you just use your local utility and you don't have to worry about anything except paying the monthly bill. So how is this scheme better than what we have now, other than maybe a feel-good sense of ownership and that you're "doing something"?

Engineer-Poet said...

You can already get a domestic cogenerator (Honda calls it a MCHP, and it may or may not still be marketed in the USA as "Freewatt").  It's not a Stirling, it will need oil changes, and if it was the solution to our problems why hasn't it solved them since its introduction in 2007?

Vermont is going to need such things very badly just a few months from now.  With NG supplies limited and home heating prioritized, residential cogenerators may be one of the few sources of power capable of staying on-line during a severe cold snap.  But promotion should have started years ago to be ready, and we all know that didn't happen.  So:  rotating blackouts, anyone?

Meredith Angwin said...

Anon 3 and Engineer-Poet

You are completely correct. These types of in-house co-generation systems would require a great deal of monitoring and maintenance from the homeowner.

Anon 3: This scheme is NOT better. You are totally correct. However, I think that one "selling point" is that the system would provide both heat and electricity.

Which would, of course, make the system even more complicated. Even up here in Vermont, we don't heat our houses in the summertime! Unlike an industrial co-generation facility, home heat requirements fluctuate wildly. So we would use the cogeneration heat for part of the year, and have ways to dump it outside for part of the year? What a mess! What a lot of in-home infrastructure would be required.

Another thought, not totally related, is about getting older. I went out for dinner with a friend yesterday, and we talked about the move-from-houses. We are both older, and she was urging me to do as she had done and move from a big house to a condo. I am not ready for that move now, but I do wonder: what portion of the population right now (and as the baby boomers age) wants more complications to running their houses? Not many, I think.

To say this idea is impractical is putting it mildly. Unfortunately, the CEO of Green Mountain Power is not an enthusiast of maintaining the present system, but instead insults it as "twigs and twine." IMO, with this sort of statement from our distribution utility, things look bad for Vermont's future.

Anonymous said...

The thing I keep coming back to is, what is really wrong with the system that we have (or had)? All of these schemes, small-scale solar, "microgrid" co-generation", home-based wind power, all seem to have the common thread of hatred of grid-based energy. All I am wondering is, what is the basis for that hatred? I have used grid-based power for going on 60+ years now and I have no real major beefs with it. It delivers a needed and necessary product reliably and at reasonable cost. What more could you ask? Sure, in the old days there were a fair number of polluting generating sources and I agree with some of the concerns over that, but there are ways of dealing with that problem. Ontario has become the clean energy powerhouse of Canada using a combination of nuclear, hydro, and a smattering of wind energy here and here. We should look at that as a model. In particular, the NW region of the US can really be a leader in this kind of energy system. The US energy grid has functioned reliably for decades, and if maintained and improved can continue to do so. As they say in the Navy (and a nod to you, Rod Adams), if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Rod Adams said...


There is one group of people who notoriously ignore the wise counsel of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

That group is the infamous unethical repair shop that takes advantage of trusting customers who believe the scare stories about how they are going to break down if they don't replace their flamboozle with a kerfuddle really soon.

The same kind of people are the ones advocating massive overhauls of our electric power grid.

It never ceases to amaze me how many try to portray utilities as some kind of greedy corporate monster when they used to be friendly neighborhood companies whose stock was a safe place for widows and orphans.

Maybe I'm just unique. My mom is one of those widows who receives regular dividends from the utility stocks that she and dad purchased over the years. Dad, one of the most admirable men I've ever met, worked for the power company for 35 years and was proud of the product he helped to deliver.

Rod Adams said...


Side note to your side note - David Crane and his board of directors are apparently not happy about their relative lack of name recognition.

They recently joined the stadium naming crowd to buy the rights to the former Reliant Stadium in Houston, TX, the home of the Texans of the National Football League and some rodeos.

Meredith Angwin said...

Anon and Rod

Yes. What is wrong with the current grid? Basically...nothing!

I lived many places in the United States, and everywhere I lived, I had access to electricity, with only a few hours per year when there were power failures. That is an amazing record of reliability! I mean, I have been through hurricanes and earthquakes and the power went back on a few hours later. It's astonishing.

Some areas lost power for longer times with natural catastrophes, sometimes losing power for a few days. Such an unusual loss made the headlines in the local papers. As I said: the grid has astonishing reliability. "Twigs and Twine" indeed!

Rod, your analogy to the unethical repair shop is spot-on, and I shall use it in the future.

Anonymous said...

When you understand how the modern electric grid works, you come to realize how amazing an achievement it really is. To have an energy source as versatile and valuable as electricity available literally at the touch of your fingertips, for such a reasonable price and at very high reliability, really is a remarkable achievement. All the more so because people have come to accept it simply as a facet of modern life, and don't give it a thought. That itself is the hallmark of a truly successful system. As recently as a hundred years ago in this country the majority of the population were resigned to a life of hardship and labor for even the most basic of life's necessities. Today very few people can imagine such a life. And the availability of abundant energy (including electricity) at affordable cost and reliable delivery is the major reason that such a life of hardship is a fading memory for the vast majority of us. And the fact that there are those out there who denigrate and belittle this achievement, and criticize and demean those who make it possible, is yet another example of how incredibly intellectually lazy so many of the public have become.

Kit P said...

Hello Meredith
Still working in China at nuke plant but currently on vacation in the big city of Macao. Lots of good post but let me add some more info.
Interesting is not the same as practical. The reason not very many home CHP units are sold in the US is that most of us love our big utilities because they do such a wonderful job of providing all the power we want. There are a place where that is not true. If you are lucky, you get just enough power to meet your needs. If you are rich, then you may need a CHP unit to provide what you want. Just for the record, Southeast Asia loves air conditioning.
A minor correction, nitrous oxide, the ghg, is not a NOx. There are many oxides of nitrogen. Some are produced from bacteria and some from combustion with air. A common mistake.

Meredith Angwin said...

Hi Kit

Great to hear from you!

FWIW, I didn't write or say "nitrous oxides." The reporter heard what he heard, and wrote that I had written about carbon dioxide.

I spoke quite clearly ---if I dare say so myself ;) ---about nitrogen oxides from combustion, describing them as smog and acid rain gas. This was reported as me speaking about carbon dioxide.

When I called the reporter, he corrected the article.