Tom Evslin: Let’s really build the electric grid back better

This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.

There’s no argument that our electric grid needs to be rebuilt. Some of it, like the transmission lines that sparked the California fires, is dangerously past its use by date. Much of it, like the lines radiating out from the site of the former Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, are in the wrong place. The design is centralized as a relic of the days before advanced electronics and communications made decentralization a more resilient and cheaper option. Almost all of it carries alternating current (AC) as result of an argument Nicholas Tesla won over Thomas Edison a century ago. Most important, the grid is not ready for the loads we will put on it as we continue to electrify. It is also not reliable enough to be the sole source of energy for transportation and heating.

Times have changed. All the electronics in our houses use direct (DC) and not alternating current; that’s why they are plugged into our AC outlets through the ubiquitous converter bricks. Almost all energy efficient appliances use direct drive motors and convert AC to DC internally. LED light bulbs are better with DC. Water heaters don’t care.

ACDC

The illustration above is from a report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) The report estimates that at least 10% of the energy coming into a house is lost in conversion from AC to DC. The number is much higher if a storage battery or an electric car is also being charged. The number gets higher each time a rechargeable tool replaces a gasoline-powered predecessor.

All solar panels generate direct current. All batteries are charged with direct current. But, if you have solar panels and battery backup today, the output from the solar panels is converted to AC by an expensive piece of equipment and at a significant energy loss; then, at the battery, the AC is converted back to the DC the battery needs by another expensive piece of equipment and more energy is squandered. These inefficient systems exist today because the transition from AC to DC had been unplanned; that’s no one’s fault.

But now we have a chance to build back better with the money already appropriated in the 1.2 trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Fortunately we have time. The last great stimulus bill in the Obama administration was a jobs bill. We had to put people to work right now right now even though we didn’t have constructive “shovel ready” jobs for them. Unemployment was very high. That was then and this is now. We have a shortage of people to do what we were doing before the pandemic. We can plan and design and then really build back better while we’re training the workforce we’ll need.

These are some of the rules we need:

  1. Any new transmission line and any line which is substantially rebuilt with the federal money must be DC. There will be a transitional cost of equipment to convert to AC where local sub-transmission or distribution is still AC. Think of these convertors as scaffolding for building back better. After all grids are DC, we won’t need them anymore.
  2. Any new distribution line and any distribution which is substantially redone with the federal money must be DC. Again there is a transition cost to convert to AC at houses which still need that.
  3. Building codes should be amended (a local and state job) to permit and encourage DC and hybrid houses as in the diagram below (also from ACEEE).

Hybrid

Once the distribution system is switched to DC, the inverter at the entrance to the house is no longer needed.

  1. After a transition period no grant money or subsidy of any kind should go to equipment for converting from DC to AC as part of solar or wind turbine installations or from AC to DC for battery installations.
  2. Give consideration to going underground for new and rebuilt parts of the grids for reliability reasons (and to prevent forest fires). There are less problems in burying DC lines than AC lines.
  3. Take advantage of the rebuilding of highways to bury electrical (and broadband) conduits as well as drainage.

America and Americans will have a huge advantage if we are the first major country to go all DC. Our energy costs will be lower as will emissions from generating electricity. Electricity will be more economical and reliable enough to replace much fossil fuel. The money’s already been appropriated.  We can build back BETTER.

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6 thoughts on “Tom Evslin: Let’s really build the electric grid back better

  1. Someone wants to revisit the 140-year-old “battle of the currents”? As Nikola Tesla’s genius determined back then, AC is the only option for regional and local transmission. There are new technologies for high voltage DC for long range transmission as was/is proposed for a corridor running from HydroQuebec, under Lake Champlain and along the Hudson to supply the NYC area
    but it is totally impractical to use DC throughout the grid as a whole. AC allows the easy conversion to different voltages. There are electronic devices known as DC-DC convertors that convert between voltages, both up and down but they are typically for low-current applications and have the same kind of efficiency problems as our ubiquitous AC-DC convertors plugged into our walls. The biggest argument against Edison’s DC system is that it would have required power plants to be located every few miles. We do essentially have that now with PV panels spread out across the land but if we are still to rely on large producers for our base power, the only practical way to distribute that power is with AC at high voltages. Let’s hear from some electrical engineers on this before we reinvent the wheel.

  2. 650 km Wintertime Trip With VW E-Car Took 13 Hours, 3 Recharges And Lots Of Warm Clothes
    By P Gosselin on 18. January 2022
    https://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/650-km-wintertime-trip-with-vw-e-car-took-13-hours-3-recharges

    Consumers’ expectations for e-cars are still unrealistic…can’t hold a candle to conventional combustion engine vehicles

    When it comes to performance parameters like fuel consumption, car manufacturers’ brochures often boast figures that in reality are only possible under really ideal conditions. But rarely are such conditions the case in real life. The result: disappointed consumers.

    Electric cars are notorious for their limited range and need of constant recharging – factors that are often overestimated by buyers. Recently German auto reporter Lisa Brack put her brand new electric car through a long distance, wintertime test. The result was hardly thrilling.
    “The result is sobering – she saves time by consistently freezing,” reported the German kreiszeitung.de here, on Ms. Brack’s test.

    13 hours of driving and charging

    Ms. Brack and EFAHRER.com conducted the long-distance test on her new VW e-Up by driving it from VW in Wolfsburg, where she had picked it up, to her home in Munich.

    The 650 km trip would normally be done easily in less than 7 hours with a conventional diesel engine car (assuming no traffic jams) and without the need to stop to refuel. But for Brack in her new VW e-Up vehicle, the trip needed almost 13 hours – a time the kreiszeitung.de describes as “appalling”. Numerous hassles were encountered.

    No heating

    After being handed her new car from VW in Wolfsburg, she departed for Munich at 2:45 p.m. The subfreezing weather was a major drawback for the VW e-car. According to the kreiszeitung.de, “the heating stayed off for almost the entire journey in freezing temperature” in order not to draw down the battery so quickly.

    This meant that to survive the trip, Brack had to take along a generous supply of “hats, scarves, gloves and generally warm clothing” and hope to find enough CCS charging stations along the way. Without these charging stations, getting the batteries charged up would take much longer.

    In total she needed three charging stops.

    Reached destination at 3:30 – in the morning!

    It was 3:30 in the morning by the time Brack reached her destination in Munich, half frozen to death.
    According to the kreiszeitung.de, she made the crucial mistake of charging up too seldom and wasted much time charging the batteries to 100% instead of 80% (the last 20% take the longest). “Charge faster, accept a little less range and charge again earlier – but again faster.”

    “One more charge alone would have saved 1.5 hours,” she commented.

    “As it was, however, the trip turned into a long winter excursion that she will not soon forget,” reported the kreiszeitung.de.

    Expectations too high

    The experience shows electric vehicles, though practical for short trips, still have a long way to go before they can keep up with today’s modern diesel and gasoline engines. Studies also show that e-cars offer very little, if any, lifetime CO2 savings.

  3. TCI and RGGI aim to VERY EXPENSIVELY electrify transportation, by:

    1) Making it more and more expensive to own and operate a car
    2) Moving everyone into apartment buildings and clustered condos, with bus stops
    3) Having everyone “ride the electric transit bus”
    4) Having all school children “ride the electric school bus”
    https://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/electric-bus-systems-likely-not-cost-effective-in-vermont-at

    Governor Youngkin has a better idea

    Virginia Governor Begins Withdrawing State From 10-State Cap-and-Trade Scheme
    By Matthew Vadum

    Virginia’s new Republican governor is moving to withdraw his state from a regional carbon emissions-trading exchange to which 10 coastal and New England states currently belong, a move that promises to be a major setback for the left-wing environmentalist agenda.

    On Jan. 15, the day he took office, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed Executive Order 9, which directs state officials “to re-evaluate Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and immediately begin regulatory processes to end it.”
    Youngkin said last month he would take Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, as The Epoch Times previously reported.

    The RGGI—some pronounce the acronym as “Reggie”—describes itself as “a cooperative, market-based effort among the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia to cap and reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector.”

    Such systems aim to reduce the quantity of carbon dioxide, the gas expelled from our lungs when we exhale, that is released into the atmosphere, on the controversial theory that it contributes to global warming. The system imposes limits on how much CO2 is emitted by each state, and when industry actors exceed their limits, they can purchase the right to produce that excess gas for a fee. These emission coupons, or credits, have a value and can be traded, and the companies involved pass on the extra costs to their customers.

    Virginia’s participation in RGGI “risks contributing to the increased cost of electricity for our citizens,” Youngkin’s order states. “Dominion Energy stated that RGGI will cost ratepayers between $1 billion and $1.2 billion over the next four years.”
    The benefits promised by RGGI “have not materialized, while the costs have skyrocketed.”
    RGGI is deeply flawed, experts say.

    The Institute for Energy Research faulted RGGI in 2015, saying its “loopholes and structural problems conceal the true economic costs and circumvent actual emissions reductions.” In 2017, Vox reported that while RGGI “raises money to fund good programs,” the quantity of “carbon emissions covered by RGGI is relatively small.”

    In 2018, the Cato Institute gave a thrashing to RGGI, the country’s first mandatory cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions. A Cato report found RGGI “shifted jobs to other states” and resulted in “no added emissions reductions or associated health benefits,” and that the revenue spent on “energy efficiency, wind, solar power, and low-income fuel assistance had minimal impact.”

    “RGGI allowance costs added to already high regional electric bills” and led to “a 12 percent drop in goods production and a 34 percent drop in the production of energy-intensive goods.”

    But left-wing activists claim RGGI a success and denounce Youngkin’s order.

    Nate Benforado, senior attorney at the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center said in a statement that the RGGI puts Virginia “on the frontlines of tackling climate change” and that Youngkin’s order “asks state officials to develop an illegal repeal.”

    “This is a shocking and troubling first action out of step with what Virginia communities need.”

    Benforado was echoing U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) who previously said a governor cannot pull the state out of RGGI without legislative approval.

    Republican state lawmakers in Richmond, who wrested control of the House of Delegates from Democrats in the November 2020 elections, say they will undo costly environmental legislation passed by the Democrats.

  4. The reason chosen for AC was transmission loss.DC power degrades rapidly when traveling through transmission lines.AC on the other hand when traveling through power lines does not have significant loss.

  5. Tesla’s AC current was chosen over Edison’s DC for good reasons. Mainly the need for
    different voltages for different electrical equipment and not needing “boosters” to keep
    the DC voltage up to the 12.? volts over the span of lines. To completely rebuild the grid
    for the benefit of the plug in car is ludicrous and as stupid as the build back better brand
    idiocy. Maybe building power producing plant’s (Nuke, Hydro) would be a much better bang
    for our bucks.. Info on AC/DC grids:
    https://www.matsusada.com/column/edison_vs_tesla.html

  6. Well, just wondering if the “inefficient conversion ” from solar panels was removed from the equation, then what does that mean? Why are solar panels necessary at all?

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