On Friday, most of the members of the Coalition for Energy Solutions attended a Jones Seminar at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth. The topic was Harnessing Distributed Flexible Resources for Sustainable Electric Energy Systems and the speaker was Dr. Johanna Matheiu of the ETH Power Systems Laboratory in Zurich.
Dr. Matheiu was a clear and well-organized speaker. Most of her talk was about methods of damping out short term fluctuations in the grid due to intermittent power providers. The fluctuations she was concerned about were short-term: changes in wind speed, clouds over the sun. When asked about long-term issues (the wind blows more at night when the demand for power is low anyway), she made some suggestions such as pumped storage. Among other things, she suggested running clothes dryers late at night.
I don't blame her for this suggestion. It is what everyone suggests. For example, my local Green Mountain Power ad for their upcoming smart grid suggests that washing machines be run at three in the morning. It's right there in the commercial.
Comes the Revolution?
Three in the morning? Really?
I have been married for over forty years, and we raised two children. I have run many loads of laundry in my time. I know something about laundry. Laundry doesn't "do itself" at three in the morning. If laundry is running at three in the morning, someone is running it.
Doing laundry requires human intervention:
- If wet clothes sit around in the washing machine for a long time before being transferred to the dryer, the clothes are likely to grow some serious wrinkles.
- When the dryer finishes, it signals (buzzes) so you can retrieve the clothes and hang them up quickly. This is important, unless you don't mind looking as if you slept in your clothes.
In my opinion, this business of dryers running in the wee hours of the morning is simply insulting to the work that (mostly women) do in order to keep their households in clean clothes, sheets and towels. The assumption seems to be that such human work is not necessary. The washing machine will run itself.
Unless, perhaps, comes-the-smart-grid-revolution, fabrics will also be quite different, quite high-tech, and these fabrics will be able to sit around in washing machines and dryers for hours without getting wrinkled. (I'm not holding my breath.) Also, these amazing new fabrics (if they are planned for the smart grid) are never mentioned in the ads.
Midnight and Laundry
First of all, I want to say that I try to spare the grid. For example, it is quite painless to start the dishwasher around ten at night instead of starting it right after dinner. I also avoid doing laundry at truly prime-time. I would welcome some level of time-of-day pricing, so more people would avoid stressing the grid.
But still it puzzles me: why all this emphasis on laundry-at-midnight?
I finally figured it out. Laundry at midnight is pretty much the only activity that seems to be available for time-of-day shifting.
Midnight and Real People
It would be over-the-top to suggest that people cook meals at three a.m., go to baseball night games that start at three a.m. and so forth. People won't do this. Some parts of our social structure need to work all night (hospitals, police stations, freeway gas stations, some industrial processes). These already operate all night. Shifting other processes to midnight doesn't usually work out well.
For example, when my husband worked for a start-up digital mapping company, they decided to add a midnight shift of digitizers (map-makers). Unfortunately, after a few months, they realized that the quality of the maps produced on the graveyard shift was much worse than maps from other shifts. The graveyard shift maps often required expensive reworking. It turned out to be more cost-effective to add workstations and workers in daylight hours. I think other companies have made similar discoveries, over time.
In other words, humans are daylight creatures, not nocturnal. When busily over-selling the smart grid, the sellers run right up against that fact. Somehow, they think midnight laundry is the solution.
Midnight laundry is not the solution. Suggesting that clothes should be washed at three a.m. is insulting to the work of running a household. Suggesting that clothes wash themselves is equally insulting.
Almost as important, this suggestion is an insulting oversimplification of the challenges of running a stable grid.
Note: I mentioned Dr. Mathieu's comments about the dryer to show how pervasive the "midnight laundry" idea seems to be. Dr. Mathieu herself is doing research about the smart grid, not overselling it. Green Mountain Power, on the other hand, is over-selling it.
Carnival of Nuclear Energy #151 is at Next Big Future today. It has relatively few links, and they are all significant. The economics of small modular reactors, Arnie Gundersen's less-than-amazing career in the nuclear industry, future prices of natural gas, planting apple trees and building nuclear plants to benefit future generations, a moving memorial to Ted Rockwell, and carbon-counting in Canada. Well worth a visit!