Positive Solutions E-Magazine Interview with Dr. Wendell Porter
Dr. Wendell Porter specializes in energy and resource efficient building and process systems. Recently, we asked him to weigh in on several topics involved in renewable energy, categorized by residential, commercial, industrial and transportation.
Positive Solutions: The first question is here we are in 2015 and where are we in achieving global sustainability in energy at this point?
Dr. Porter: I think we are at the tipping point for renewable energy. We’re just getting to the point where we can see that things are changing and I believe that they will proceed at an avalanches pace. The numbers that the solar and wind people are putting up are nothing but astounding and they show no signs of slowing down. So, it little matters that we might have an issue in the Southeastern part of the United States that is likely political in nature, when the rest of the world is changing. I actually think that we’re right in the middle of a huge change.
Positive Solutions: In all the news on renewables for residential energy use, the Tesla Powerwall has stood out, since it purports to have solved the great stumbling block of how to adequately store renewable energy once it has been generated. What is this system and is it really a game changer for renewables?
Dr. Porter: The Tesla Powerwall… you know it’s one thing to say that you have battery storage for those people who went off the grid in the early days of solar when you had a bunch of lead acid batteries that had to be tested for specific gravity, charge, clean-off charge, and all sorts of things. It was a maintenance nightmare and an expensive bond to some technology.
The Powerwall has taken all of that and made it a package deal. When you buy this battery technology you get the software to charge and discharge it. You get the ventilation and cooling programs so that you make sure not to overheat it when you’re charging or discharging it. You get a package deal, it’s like plug it into the wall and forget about it.
That is the game changer, it took everything that a small power producer, which is what a single household or homeowner is, and took all their worries and got rid of them. So in the sense that they packaged the whole deal together, that’s the secret. The other part is that, it has a great price point, which if you actually do the math yourself and figure it out, is pretty effective.
In the news today, the Chevy Bolt, the second car in their series is coming out with a price point on their battery of a $145 dollars per kilowatt-hour (kWh), which points back to Elon Musk’s (Tesla and SpaceX Founder and President) sense of public relations work. You know, he makes his announcement about the Powerwall for his own company but it spurs everyone else in the industry to get off the stick and get going. So that’s what’s really a game changer, he’s sort of shoved everyone off a cliff and said, Hey, we’re done talking about it, let’s just do it.
So that’s what’s really a game changer, he’s sort of shoved everyone off a cliff and said, Hey, we’re done talking about it, let’s just do it.
Positive Solutions: What is net metering and why are some U.S. States and utility companies fighting it?
Dr. Porter: The meter on your wall is a way of measuring electricity and typically as the way it’s always been it measures electricity coming into your house, but there’s nothing in the way of physics to stop it from also measuring what is coming out of your house. So when it does that, it actually runs the meter backwards and the numbers tick off in an opposite direction. So, net metering is merely a way of taking that meter and acknowledging that it is a two-way device. For example: If I use 9000 kWh and generate 8999 kWh in any given year, my bill is for just one kWh for that entire year.
Positive Solutions: How exactly does a system intended to direct power into a building handle a flow going the other way?
Dr. Porter: That’s a key point because power flowing out of the home doesn’t go all the way back to the plant to be shipped off somewhere else. Think of electricity in terms of flowing water. It goes from a higher potential to a lower potential. For example: if I’m producing solar energy at my house and I have a neighbor who doesn’t have a solar panel on their roof, then the utility will send that extra capacity of power to help supply my neighbor’s energy use.
Positive Solutions: So basically you could say that under normal conditions the power naturally flows downhill and let’s add so that we don’t over-simplify this, that there are mandatory safety components like inverters and auto-transfer switches that prevent problems with back flow, like if for instance, there were a utility black out, all of which is written into the standard building electrical codes that have to be adhered to in any home power installation.
Dr. Porter: Exactly! The utility company comes back and says you’re using our grid and I say only a tiny bit of it. Another point is that a centralized power plant, which is 50, 100 or even 500 miles away from the customer has an average transmission loss in the U.S. of anywhere from 6 to 8 percent as the power is sent down through the lines. If you produce the power right next to the user, you get rid of those losses. In effect, the utilities are actually saving somewhere along the lines of 280 to 300 MWh in a year and that’s a huge deal which is not really talked about.
The real issue with the fight by utilities, and let’s say for example: in Australia, and the American Midwest, utility companies had a point where their spot market price went to zero in the last year. That means that there was so much renewable energy being produced in those areas that the spot price for the electricity that the utilities produced was reduced to zero during those times.
Positive Solutions: So, it’s more of a commodities and investment issue?
Dr. Porter: Yes, and once that happens, the business model for these utilities is broken, because it is 130 years old and based on their complete monopoly on the electrical power business. They really don’t know how to deal with this.
Now the forward thinking utilities are moving on to what they should be and that’s an amenity service provider. Imagine that your utility company operates a biomass plant or a hydroelectric plant or a centralized solar plant and they go on to aggregate all these residential solar producers and they service all these with service agreements. They also provide the transmission lines that combine and service all of these mini/micro grids together instead of selling electricity as their main business product.
Positive Solutions: So the main product they would be selling is their services in coordinating and servicing the grid?
Dr. Porter: Yes exactly! Then we all get together and say well, I’ll do a little over here and you do a little over there, it’s going to transform the grid. The old fashioned companies that don’t want to change, they’re going to do all they can to stop progress, but only in areas where they own the political machinery and that’s only in a few areas of the U.S. but it’s really a case of closing the barn door after the horse is gone.
The rest of the world has already voted for renewable energy, you’ve got countries like Kenya, which represents approximately a billion and a half people that the fossil fuel power industry will never be able to serve.
Positive Solutions: Isn’t one of the major problems in sub-Saharan countries like Kenya, or similar areas where these people are so poor that they will likely never have the ability to pay for those services provided by big electric utilities?
Dr. Porter: That’s right, but if you start small and come up from a village level, they can pay for solar charging of their cell phones and that aggregates money back to the village, and then they’ll aggregate those monies to build a community center with a refrigerator for high value goods and a television for education purposes and a couple of lights, and then someone else will get a couple of lights, and then you start forming a micro-grid. Then some time in the future, you’ll have 15 villages that connect themselves into a larger micro-grid.
This is exactly what is going to happen in places like Kenya, they’re going to have a mix of PV (photo-voltaic cells for solar power), wind, geothermal and hydroelectric. They will totally bypass the fossil fuel age.
Positive Solutions: In regard to residential renewables, what do you think of the various wind energy systems, designed especially for homes? For example: the Archimedes introduced in 2014.
Dr. Porter: Years ago, I started looking at the possibilities for local power, meaning small solar and wind systems, but, as the technology has grown in both industries, the one thing that has popped out about wind is that bigger really is better. Anything designed for the home is going to be on a shorter tower, where you haven’t got enough wind effects close to the ground. When you can get the wind power hub up into 100 meter to 300 foot range, you can get the 7 to 10 MWh things like they’re building now and they’re operating 60% of the hours in a year, almost equivalent to a regular power plant, at least a coal fired power plant.
So anything closer to a house that a person could maintain is going to miss that and your wind speeds for collection is going to be lower. Now that being said, there are places where that’s the only choice you’ve got. There are remote villages on the North Slope of Alaska, where in the winter, they have no sun whatsoever and in the summer they have limited sun, so you could put PV in the summer and small-scale wind for the winter months and it makes a perfect match. Another example would be a small island that can’t afford the big towers, so a mid-scale would work fine. The technology is booming in all sectors of wind. It’s just that the individual market for wind power is probably limited, but moderate sized wind power, I don’t believe is limited at all. It will just keep expanding.
Positive Solutions: One more question about wind power in regard to offshore vs. onshore wind farms. Offshore you’ve got issues like shipping lanes, beach property owners who don’t want their ocean view messed up, maintenance nightmares keeping underwater transmission lines connected to name a few. What is your opinion on onshore vs. offshore?
Dr. Porter: I think offshore has started slower than onshore; however, it has some particular advantages. Great Britain is probably the leader in offshore wind as a percentage. Underwater cables have been done for years, and are not a problem. Each part of technology has been established by other industries. It’s just a matter of putting them altogether for wind. The cost is higher but the advantages, it’s got some real advantages.
You need to get the hub height up high and across the water where there’s nothing to block wind flow to get some very steady winds all year round. Then you can put them far enough offshore, by working out mathematically the arc of the earth so that the people onshore don’t see them. Of course shipping lanes hardly ever move so, you just place them outside the shipping lanes. We have offshore oil rigs all over the Gulf of Mexico and people navigate around them all the time.
Each one of these problems is surmountable and the advantages are pretty significant from the actual output and you’ve got no one complaining over there in terms of sight lines, if you put them a few miles offshore, you’re just not going to see them.
Positive Solutions: Moving on to the next question; talking about situations like Volkswagen and their recent scandal regarding the emissions test defeat device installed in their diesel cars…
Dr. Porter: I know, I’ve read some posts from a guy from the EPA and he said that most car companies have played some similar games but nothing to this level.
Positive Solutions: It was a shock for people who bought the cars in involved and now they’ve got this huge legal problem…basically this situation with Volkswagen and for another example the case of Shell Oil drilling in the arctic, the question here is whether or not corporate shaming really has any effect on these big players?
Dr. Porter: I would have said no, except that some similar situations have actually occurred, I mean that corporate shaming basically put South Africa’s Apartheid out of business. We actually divested and embarrassed them around the world and isolated them to the point where they couldn’t deal with the rest of the world.
You can’t do that as a country, but last year the people aiming for divestiture in the carbon markets (the fossil fuel markets), they were gearing towards getting 50 billion dollars worth of divestment. In the New Yorker Magazine recently, they had an article that talked about a group that had announced a divestment of 2.6 trillion dollars worth of carbon assets.That’s a real game changer. Look up the New Yorker article because it’s astounding that they were able to reap that much, because it’s finally dawned on the wise financial investors that the money will go this way. Once you realize, keeping in mind what I just talked about in regard to the spot market price of electricity, one of the reasons it is possible is that renewable energy doesn’t have any fuel charge. It’s finally dawned on them that once you build it, the maintenance costs alone without fuels costs… it’s got significant advantages.
Positive Solutions: On a more positive note, what do you think of joint ventures for renewables like F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. and Algae AquaCulture Technologies project creating bio-fuel with the waste wood sawdust and algae?
Dr. Porter: The overarching theme behind things like that is that in our industrialized economy, and through-out our economy, there are patches of product areas where in the past what we’ve done is just thrown stuff away. Somewhere in the background, we’ve got researchers that say, ‘Listen, that’s another profit stream for you, if you’re really paying attention, you’d know that you’re throwing away something that’s got value.’
For instance, take a pulp manufacturer who takes the wood from a tree to make paper out of and then makes mulch out of the bark which is great but, they still end up with mounds of stuff left over that’s not much good for anything. What they do there is take that waste product and use it for fuel in a power plant. We’ve got one here in the city of Gainesville.
Accordingly, if you look around the world where they are using biomass to make electricity, nearly all of them are pretty much using wasted product to fuel it. In the situation with this joint venture, they’re taking a forest product and taking the sawdust and incorporating it with algae and co-making a product that becomes something useful out of a waste product. It’s sort of like bio-fuel made with left over restaurant vegetable oil, and I’ve heard people say ‘you’re never going to have enough to run all our transportation with that.’ I say well yes, but ‘you throw enough vegetable oil away every year to run all the railroads in this country.’
Positive Solutions: The best news here came from remarks made by President Obama at the recent National Clean Energy Summit where he touted the recent Clean Power Plan in helping to stop “limitless carbon emissions” and that renewables like solar and wind have really hit their stride, according to a report from the EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration), solar and wind produced grid electricity has increased 5% per year since 2001 and that doesn’t account for individuals and businesses who are off the grid generating their own electricity .
Dr. Porter: Actually, he’s putting limits on what you can spew out of a smoke stack and the limit are such, that it means all these coal fired power plants that were grandfathered in a long time ago will be put out of business. You know, we still have some 70-year-old coal fire plants running in this country and they’re just a disaster. They should have closed down a long time ago and that’s really the issue.
And another thing, it’s putting some real teeth in the push for renewables and it changes the game in regard to natural gas being the bridge. So, I’m happy that he’s doing it and would guess that even if he’s unsuccessful with the courts and the legislative branch, that the markets will be so nervous about investing in coal that you won’t see another coal fired power plant built in this country, ever. The other thing is that I don’t believe the 5% figure quoted by the EIA shows the true growth of both wind and solar. I get a figure of more that 12.4% annually from the last 10 years.
If you just look at wind it has increased 26.2% per year and that’s generation, not capacity. Generation is different from capacity and comparing renewables to fossil isn’t the same because fossil plants can run around the clock. I went back and looked at the numbers and found that PV (photo-voltaic) has increased in the last recorded 10 years just shy of 100% per year, in 2004 they generated 16,000 MWh grid connected and in 2014 they generated 15,900,000 MWh. If this rate keeps at 30 to 40% increase, at this pace in another 10 years we’ll be done!
Positive Solutions: Recently, several companies have come up with giant carbon scrubbing filter devices, for example: The Smog Free Tower in the Netherlands. In the U.S, we have the Global Thermostat’s air-capturing machine.
Dr. Porter: The thing you have to remember with these after-effect devices that are created to, you know, you’ve created this mess and now you have to clean it up, these devices are opportunistic in nature. So add that cost to whatever you are doing.
These after the fact, fixes are always going to cost more than the primary up-front change.
Positive Solutions: So in other words, it’s cheaper to quit using fossil fuels than to try to clean it up after the fact?
Dr. Porter: That’s right, and if you look at transportation sector, and think about what if you decided to combine trips and actually pay attention to how many miles you drove. Instead of taking five separate trips to do your shopping, you’d just make one trip and stop at all of them. Then, you might car-pool with a neighbor and take the kids to school one day a week. By doing these things, you could probably across the board cut 20% of your miles off each month. Now personally, I’ve been able to cut 50%, but I’m talking about the average person.
It’s been shown, time and time again that an educated driver can increase their miles per gallon by 20% by just changing the way they drive. Just doing things like coasting into a red light and instead of accelerating and slamming on your breaks in traffic. Stop accelerating right before you get to the crest of a hill; there are a bunch of things you can do, and I’ve done those, too.
Just doing those things alone could reduce our gasoline purchases in this country by 3 1/2 to 4 million barrels a day. So, instead of complaining about the high costs of something, it is time to take control of your own finances and say, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore.’
Positive Solutions: Clean transportation news has had its ups and down in the last few years but the good news is that:
• Tesla just introduced its new SUV.
• Nissan and BMW are leading the way in electric cars sales with 320,000 sold in 2014.
• UPS recently added 125 hybrid trucks to its fleet.
• Norfolk Southern recently added Eco Trains to its Georgia routes.
• The first Hyperloop set to be built in Spain.
• The epic voyage of the first solar-powered airplane
The question here is what does the future look like for clean transportation. Will converting over to electric vehicles be the answer or do we need to invest in more mass transportation?
Dr. Porter: With transportation renewables, you have to hack at it one sector at a time. At the top level, the 20 largest cities in US ought to have world-class mass transportation systems. We need to quit playing around with the national budget and recognize that we’re competing with the rest of the world. Our largest, densest cities really don’t have the physical space for the parking and the roads. The actual functioning of the city is better done with mass transit.
So that’s one aspect of it, the other is that anything that is personal is getting much more efficient whether you’re talking about a car that gets 50 miles per gallon of gas or about cars that are 100% electric. I think we’ve totally uncoupled from using oil to get us around. It doesn’t go in lock step every year up. In fact, it hasn’t increased for many years. So, I think the future is already here and I think that electric cars are going to eventually win the day.
So, I think the future is already here and I think that electric cars are going to eventually win the day.
When you think about electric cars and all this nonsense in the media about the batteries not having perfect range; do you know how many moving parts are in an electric motor?
Positive Solutions: Not many?
Dr. Porter: There’s only one, the rotor moves and that’s it. You don’t have to change the oil. I mean a regular gasoline powered car, there’s oil dribbling all over the ground, you don’t have to have antifreeze. You know there’s a whole bunch of things you don’t have to do anymore when you have an electric motor.
The current crop of electric cars would let us do everything we want to do, you know if I need car that goes farther than I can go on one battery charge I just go rent it. Why buy a car for long distances when you only need it for that kind of travel twice a year.
Positive Solutions: So, electric cars for daily commute and hybrids for longer haul?
Dr. Porter: Yes, and I just read an article in Clean Technica on the new Chevy Bolt, the totally electric version where the price point has come down on their battery cells to $145 per kWh. When you compare that with the Tesla Powerwall, which I think comes out to $350 per kWh of storage capacity its really very good.
Now part of the difference in pricing is that the Powerwall’s pricing is based on the distributor’s price for the whole package, versus the Bolt’s battery is a wholesale cost of just the battery. So it’s not really apples to apples, but still it’s a dramatic difference and it’s an eye opener.
So when we talk about renewables in transportation, I think it’s going to get much worse in the U.S. Congress, but we’ll find that something will finally fracture. One thing is that the gas tax is going to have to be bumped up considerably; otherwise the whole thing will just fall apart.
Positive Solutions: Yes, infrastructure i.e. the interstate system is dependent on that gas tax and I’ve always wondered if that money goes into the general fund?
Dr. Porter: No, that actually all goes into a highway fund and it’s one of the reasons they have to do these stop gap things because it’s not enough to pay the bills. What they’re doing now is taking general funds and putting them into the transportation/highway bills. That means that say for instance, mass transit riders in New York City are paying for roads that they don’t use. So, we’re going to get to the point where we’re going to say that if you’re going to use general funds for the highway bill, you’re going to have to put money in there for mass transit and money for bike trails. It’s not all going to be for cars it’s going to be for actual transportation.
What better time to raise the gas tax than when prices are low like they are now. If you added 5 cents a quarter for the next five years, no one would even know.
Positive Solutions: It would seem like raising the tax will hasten the demise of gas transportation, but we will need to start taxing electric cars, how will that be done?
Dr. Porter: Oh, they’re going to have to, because electric cars do use the roads, but right now there is no convenient way to charge them for wear and tear on the roads. How do you do that?
Positive Solutions: One more question about transportation, when we were talking about the solar airplane, which kind of reminded me of the Wright Brothers. Is there a viable alternative to fossil fuel powered air flight out there?
Dr. Porter: Alternatives out there for jet fuel, there isn’t really anything viable at this time, but there is an alternative in how we use fuel, …well first of all peak jet fuel happened in Oct. 2000 and that was 15 years ago.
Positive Solutions: So what happened at that point?
Dr. Porter: Well, a recession and 9/11 knocked down jet fuel use. Then, new jets coming on board that were 30% more efficient. Efficiencies have been built into the methods of transporting planes, i.e. – full flights, less flights, etc. We’ve crammed in a lot more passengers in fewer flights. We’ve never hit the peak that we had in 2000.
In Europe, they use a ground track, trains and buses take you to the major hubs and that’s 40% of all flights. So, if you developed something like luxury buses or trains to travel to an airport hub and then fly out. You’d buy one ticket and that takes you all the way via both ground and air-travel to get to your destination.
Positive Solutions: How does the Hyperloop fit into that? The example for the efficiency of the Hyperloop as opposed to air travel was the LA to Chicago route that could be achieved with the same speed and still be much more efficient energy wise. It wouldn’t work for transcontinental, but…
Dr. Porter: I think you can get a lot of mileage with high-speed trains. The precursor to the Hyperloop is just high-speed trains like you’ve got in Europe and Japan. Think of something that gets you 200 or 300 miles in an hour. That’s basically an hour anywhere in the State of Florida, which is a big State. So, we’ve got a lot of options for high-speed interconnected travel that doesn’t use nearly the energy that we used to use. So I think the options are almost limitless.
Many thanks to Dr. Porter for your time and the wonderful discussion of renewable energy developments.