Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Oversold Smart Grid: Dismissing the Work of Women

Comes the Smart Grid

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.  
from Wikipedia
Every dryer I have owned for the past twenty years had a "cool-down" part of the cycle to prevent wrinkles, plus an end-of-cycle buzzer.  The dryers usually also have some kind of wrinkle-saver feature: the dryer keeps tossing the clothes about and buzzing yet again, so if you don't catch the first end-of-cycle signal, you will still have clothes that aren't wrinkled.  These are pretty important features for most women.  I remember the old days before permanent press fabrics and dryer-cycles.  It was all about ironing.  I still do some ironing on occasion, but not nearly as much as I did when I was first married.

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.


The 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!


Pete said...

" Humans are daylight creatures..."

Bringing in a nuclear angle... It may be a coincidence, but the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl both happened on the overnight shift. TMI at 4 am, Chernobyl at 1:30 am. The terrible release of chemicals from the Bhopal, India Union Carbide plant also happened late at night, as I recall.

Every plant has a different work schedule, but I have often seen operators having a rotating shift schedule. Sometimes they will work days, sometimes at nights, sometimes the overnight shift. Then, on their days off, they try to fit their schedule to match the rest of their family. Constantly rotating your waking hours really plays havoc on one's ability to get quality sleep.

I'm not saying it is a dangerous situation. Reactor operators today are so well trained, when abnormal things happen their training kicks in almost by reflex. It is just something to be aware of and guard against.

Meredith Angwin said...


I completely agree with you. Rotating shift schedules are common in the utility industry, despite a great deal of research showing that they are bad for people's health and for their performance.

Thank you for this note.


Phil Nasadowski said...

Not to mention - washers tend to overflow, and dryers are notorious for catching on fire! neither are things I want happening while I'm asleep.

This silliness has extended to Germany where they even suggest that you should consider the weather before running the dishwasher...

IMHO, the grid should adjust to people's lifestyles, not the other way around...

Kit P said...

“First of all, I want to say that I try to spare the grid.”

What? That the sound of me loosing respect for you. If you have to put the word smart in front of something, it is not. The problem is not the grid, Our job in the power industry is provide power when it is needed by our customers. Of course we have to build power plants to do that. Right now there are steam plants with turbine control valves match power output to demand. It does not matter when you do your laundry to us.

Except for a few hours a year, the cost of making power does not vary too much. On really hot or cold days if a power plant or two are offline, it would be nice to be able to communicate to big users to reduce demand but getting a million people to conserve at the moment they need power the most is not going to happen.

I do not know where people come up with these ideas. I think it some form of OCD behavior like eating all the food on your plate because there are starving children in China. I am setting the thermostat just where it make my wife happy. My mother law came to visit (six months ago). She apologized for 'needing' her room warmer. I told her that I work in the power industry and it is our honor to make her comfortable.

Think of it this way. Our parents save the world from tyranny. We cleaned up the air. It is okay to wash your cloths when you want. You have my permission and tell Bernie Sanders that Kit said it was okay for everyone but him.

Joffan said...

It would save all that daytime electricity load if only women would wash clothes in the river. There are plenty of stones there to beat the clothes on.

... and you don't really need clean clothes in the winter, anyway.


Hans Rosling...

Meredith Angwin said...

Thank you all for your comments!

Phil, I heard the opening statements about "watch the weather before using electricity" about two years ago around here, about how we had to change our behavior to integrate renewables. The talk is getting louder here today, as you can see by my post. Not as loud as Germany yet, however.

Kit P. I understand what you are saying. I love having your permission to wash my clothes any old time I want to wash them! I don't know, though. Somehow I feel I am helping the grid and helping the baseload plants make money when I start the dishwasher at 10 p.m. Maybe it is OCD behavior. I still do it...

Joffan. I know that video. I was thinking of The Magic Washing Machine (Roslings wonderful video) when I was writing this post. I felt that the GMP "3 a.m. load of wash" commercial was a step backward from his idea. Did you look at that GMP commercial? I find it appalling. I am sure other people think it is great.

Kit P said...

Loved the video and I usually regret looking at them.

Growing up my mother said that you could not be poor if you lived a a town with a good library. Think about the information available on the internet. American are now richer that Jefferson and Washington. We all have the opportunity to be Lincoln.

I volunteer an hour a week to run a chess club at an intercity school. A few week ago I got schooled. The kids showed me how to use the internet to teach moves.

Engineer-Poet said...

The mistake these people are making is expecting the same clothes technology to suit the demand profile they assume.

If e.g. an electric clothes dryer had a "heat battery", it could consume electricity overnight to store the heat to dry clothes the next day.  Limiting the temperature of any element which can come in contact with lint would also eliminate the threat of fires.

Anonymous said...

One of the best uses of "solar energy" I recall from a child was my Mom hanging clothes out to dry in (at the time) rural NJ. It was all good, the clothes got dry, smelled fresh, and were sterilized by the UV from the sunlight. Of course, it was backbreaking work for Mom. We all helped her out. No one was embarrassed by having the neighbors see our underwear hanging on the lines. Now, where I live, clothelines are not allowed because of deed covenants. I guess its because its a wannabe "rich" neighborhood and clotheslines are too hillbilly-ish.

Meredith Angwin said...

You are quite right about what a wonderful world we live in today for those who love reading! My granddaughter loves her IPad, but she also loves going over to the library and checking out Nancy Drew mysteries. We did that when she was visiting a few weeks ago.

Yes, conceivably, massive changes in washer and dryer technology could solve the problem. ;-) Do you think the new versions would be affordable? And why doesn't the GMP commercial address this?

I hate covenants against outside clothes-drying. On the other hand, to dry clothes outside a person pretty much has to be home to take them in if it looks like rain, etc.

Also, I dried clothes outside for a while, and I stopped when a pair of white pants I owned split...the fabric had rotted in the sun. It wasn't clear until I moved in them.

Actually, these pants were part of a gi, an aikido gi, and they split during training while I was doing a roll. It was a very embarrassing moment. Someone said: "I bet you dried these in the sun." I admitted that I had. UV is hard on fabrics.

JoeyT said...

Got it. UV tends to break down fibers. Not too good in winter, either. I can recall many instances of frantically pulling in the wash just ahead of a summer thunderstorm. Mom had a dryer for use when needed. She just liked the fresh smell of line-dried wash.

Anonymous said...

All this seems to dodge the very important question - even if you *did* do your laundry at 3am - what happens if you have several consecutive days of low solar generation due to weather, accompanied by several days of low or no winds?

This is not an unrealistic scenario. I'm sure it wouldn't happen every day, or even most days, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happened in most markets once or twice a year?

I've heard renewables advocates reply, "Well, the sun is always shining and the wind is always blowing *somewhere*, to which I wonder. . . but don't they need their wind and solar power? How much can they afford to give you?

Or is every market going to build out 50 or 100% more generation than they need for themselves, to ensure they always have enough power to share with their neighbors? How much does all that "overbuilding" cost?

Engineer-Poet said...

"Yes, conceivably, massive changes in washer and dryer technology could solve the problem. ;-) Do you think the new versions would be affordable?"

One likely candidate for heat storage is molten nitrate salts, which are very cheap.  Some kind of a heat pipe with a "switch" to turn heat flow on and off, not a problem.  Really good insulation for the heat battery... I don't know what aerogels cost these days, but I'm sure they can be made much cheaper.

"And why doesn't the GMP commercial address this?"

Because when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I learned a bit about "Energy Star" appliance design recently, and it's all about meeting a standard for DSM power management.  There is nothing about provisions to e.g. wash clothes when a solar water heater hits the desired temperature.  What is not written into the standard is not incorporated into the product.

Meredith Angwin said...

What a fascinating comment stream! I thought that "Energy Star" was mostly about efficiency, but it is about Demand Side Management. Very interesting indeed.

Jeff: Demand Side Management is the answer ;-) We just won't be permitted to wash clothes when Demand Side Management the wind isn't blowing and DMS shuts off the washing machine. Or at least, that is one scenario.

Engineer-Poet: I am personally fascinated by the idea of molten-salt clothes dryers. I will say, however, that they sound more-complicated than current clothes dryers, so they are unlikely to come into commercial use very soon. For example, I have a front-loading washer, which is more energy and water efficient than a top-loader. It is also more expensive than a top-loader, and I am pretty sure they sell more top-loaders. Complexity costs money. People don't want to spend money. That's my opinion, anyhow.

Reese said...

I love that italicized "know." Made me laugh. Still making me laugh!