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Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Why Don't You Have an Electric Bike Already?

Top of the World!
If you’re already making most of your daily trips by bike or on foot, you don’t need to read further. An electric bike is unlikely to improve your life. For everyone else, read on!

Would you like to be stronger and smarter? Would you like to be happier and healthier? Would you like to keep depression at bay without medication? Would you like to reduce your stress by 40% and sleep better? Would you like to do all this in everyday clothes, without sweating, and have fun while you’re at it?

It’s time to get an electric bike. It will change your life. Seriously. I’m not kidding.

(Mark Markovich, BikePortland.org)
If you don’t bike now because you live in a hilly area, electric bikes make hills flat. If you don’t bike now because you don’t like to get sweaty, an electric bike means you don’t have to get sweaty at all if you choose. (If you can walk without sweating, you can e-bike without sweating. If you can’t walk without sweating, you have a health emergency you need to deal with pronto.) If you don’t bike now because you have to cart around children or groceries, an electric cargo bike will do both for you in a snap. If you don’t bike now because you don’t have time, you will find an electric bike is as fast as a car for distances under five miles, and in heavy traffic for distances under ten miles. If you don’t bike now because you always have to drive more than five miles for your daily trips, you’re probably overestimating how far away your daily errands really take you. If you don’t bike now because the drivers in your town are freaking maniacs, well, we’ll talk about that.

The benefits to cycling are legion. If a pill or a gadget could make you happy, improve your immune function, make you less likely to take sick days, make you less likely to get depressed, cure your depression better than current medications, give you more energy throughout the day, help you sleep, improve your skin, promote your brain health, prevent heart disease and type 2 diabetes, prevent dementia, reverse heart disease and diabetes, prevent multiple kinds of cancer, help you age well, and help you stay mobile and active until a few short years before your death, you would see people standing in line for days to purchase it. But the fact is exercise can accomplish all of the above for you. Indeed, 30 minutes of exercise a day is basically a wonder drug that is cheap, available to all, and has few side effects. Since you already have errands and commutes to do, walking or biking these trips is an easy way to ensure you get your vital 30 minutes a day. I’m a big fan of walking, but due to how our poorly US suburbs are designed (as opposed to The Ten Minute Neighborhood) most people can do few of their daily trips on foot. However, daily trips on an e-bike are very doable because e-bikes are just that great. Even better, they’re fun. Really fun. And they’re the most energy efficient mode of travel on the planet.


My awesome E-bike
Hard-core bicyclists are quick to object to e-bikes as hardly counting as exercise, but this isn’t true. With a pedal-assist e-bike (that only kicks in if you pedal) you expend 70-80% of the calories you’d expend on a regular bike over the same time period, depending on terrain, of course. I live in San Francisco, land of big hills. On flat pavement, I am most comfortable biking at about 12 mph on my regular bike, and about 15 on my e-bike, not counting waiting for lights. I cover distances faster on my e-bike, especially returning home since I live up a big hill, so I burn fewer calories on my e-bike because of the shorter rides. However, once I got my electric bike, I replaced many, many car trips with e-bike trips, so net I have a lot more calorie expenditure. I still use my regular bike when I want to get more serious exercise, but to zip down to the store? To go to the symphony? To go to my evening tai chi class? It’s electric bike all the way.

I’ve been a driver for over forty years. Our household used to own two cars, and I used to personally drive more than 10,000 miles a year, most of it on complex San Francisco city streets. I totally get that cars are convenient and that it can be enraging in a very primal way to share street space with cyclists. My husband and I now own just a 2004 Prius that we drive less than 4000 miles a year total, most of that on trips out of town. If you’ve never ridden an electric bike, you may not believe this, but the switch from car driving to biking is liberating. What most people don’t realize is that riding an e-bike is just about as fast, and often faster, than driving a car or taking Lyft or Uber. What people also don’t realize is that driving or sitting in a car makes you sedentary just as much as watching TV does. It’s possible to be a little overweight and healthy. It is not possible to be sedentary and healthy. Our bodies need movement to function properly. It’s as simple as that.

Let’s take a 150 lb person and examine their average calorie burn per 30 minutes of activity, the exercise being on the moderate side.
Watching TV—28
Car driving—34
Reading, sitting—42
Computer work—51
Sitting in meetings—60
Walking 3.5 mph (17 min/mi)—149
E-biking 12 – 14 mph--223
Regular bicycling 12 – 14 mph—298

As you can see, regular biking is more exercise than e-biking, but both are much, much better than sitting on your butt driving. Time squandered sitting on your butt trapped in your car is time you could’ve put towards health, happiness, and having fun. I know you’re still not convinced. Read on!

Circles of Daily Life
Your daily errands are closer than you think. Here’s a great mapping tool. Use it to draw three circles centered on your home with radii one, two and three miles. To left are my three circles. I live in a congested part of the city where there is a light or stop sign every single block. Which means I am stopping every 15 - 30 seconds. On my e-bike I can pretty much get to every destination in the inner circle in 6 - 7 minutes. The second circle 10 – 12 minutes. The outside edge of the third circle I’m confident I can get to in 18 - 20 minutes, faster if I hit the lights right. As you can see, most of San Francisco is within a 20 minute e-bike ride. And this is with constant stops in the second densest city in North America. I’m sure you can do much better.

While looking at your three circles, think about all the trips you made in the last week. How many fit in the first circle? If you don’t live in a city, maybe not many. How many fit in the second circle? Probably quite a few. How many in the third? All these trips you can easily bike to, and it probably won’t take much longer than driving and parking (maybe a minute or two more?) If you go during heavy congestion times, e-biking is likely faster than driving, plus it’s lots of fun zipping past cars stuck in traffic.

I’ll give a case of going to my acupuncturist. Her office is 2.2 miles away, on a bus line that stops half a block from my house. There are two substantial hills on the way if I bike.
Walk—50 min
Muni bus—30 min (includes 3 min walking and 8 minutes waiting)
Regular bike—24 min there, 27 min home (worse hill on way home)
Drive—24 min (20 min drive + park/feed meter)
E-bike—15 min each way

E-bike wins hands down. It even substantially beats Lyft/Uber because while you don't have to park with rideshare, you do have to wait 1 - 5 minutes for them to pick you up.

Here’s another case. My sister lives in the suburbs of Seattle. Her closest grocery store is 2.2 miles from her house, up a big hill every time she leaves her home.
Walk—44 min
Bus—not an option, none exists
Regular bike—17 min (Google map estimate)
Drive—8 – 11 min, depending on time of day (6 – 9 min drive + 2 min park/walk)
E-bike—11 min

E-bike wins because it’s as fast or nearly as driving, less frustrating if there’s traffic, and better exercise. And more fun!

Last case. My sister works 8 miles from her home in an industrial part of a small city.
Walk—2 hrs 43 min
Bus—not an option, none exists (completely ridiculous, but so it goes.)
Regular bike—50 min
Drive—20 minutes without traffic, 40 min with traffic + 5 min walk from parking lot
E-bike—35 minutes

It may seem like driving is quicker, but the fact is my sister commutes when everyone else does, when traffic is at its worst. Though 50 minutes of regular biking might leave you a bit tired and sweaty, some people might like such a workout if they’re able to shower at work. However, 35 minutes of e-biking will leave you energized, non-sweaty and perfectly ready to start your day. E bike wins.

Serious cargo e-bike
Some of the benefits of e-bike versus regular bikes: easier on the knees, you can get built-in lights to make you very visible to motorists, they’re usually more upright, which also makes you more visible to motorists, easier to carry heavy things home, can get out of intersections faster (most dangerous places on roads with turning drivers not looking out for you like they should.) Riding into the wind or uphill is no longer a miserable experience. Cons: more expensive than a regular bike, have to worry more about it getting stolen, not as good exercise, heavier, hard to carry upstairs, harder to bring onto public transportation. The mining of elements in e-bike batteries has a negative environmental impact.

Compared to cars e-bikes require a tiny fraction of the cost to own and operate. No need for insurance or gas, little maintenance, uses a very tiny amount of electricity (1/2 cents worth per mile.) You will never have to hunt for parking or get parking tickets. You don’t have to uselessly carry around 3000 pounds of metal with you wherever you go. No fumes, no emissions, no vibrations, no noise. All bicycles are on a human scale that is good for neighborhoods and neighborliness. Because of their far lighter weight, both bikes and e-bikes do very little damage to roads, creating in and of themselves almost no need for costly road maintenance. And all bicycles require far less land use, both when in use and when parked.

You can fit a lot of bikes in a couple car parking spots.
Land use is an important point. Think of a terrible traffic jam. You’re inching along and it takes five minutes to go half a mile. Your stress builds as you realize you’re going to be late. You think not only could you bike faster, you could walk faster than your car is moving. Look around at all the cars in front and behind you. How many can you count? Forty? Fifty? If a traffic fairy waved her wand and all the cars you just counted magically turned into people on bikes, the traffic would disappear instantly. The bikes would hardly fill one lane of the road. There would be plenty of room for everyone; in fact there would be room for ten times the number. That’s how much less space bicycles take, both on the road and parked.

Carrying children is easy with an e-cargo bike. In fact children vastly prefer it to being strapped motionless to a car seat seeing the world vaguely from behind a window. There are all sorts of kid-oriented models these days, many with rain canopies to keep your little ones dry. An added bonus to ebiking is passing the long line of cars dropping children off at school while you pull right up to the front door.

Carrying groceries or other heavy stuff is easy on an e-bike. You can use panniers, baskets, bike buckets or straps. On my Xtracycle e-bike I can carry five bags of groceries plus a twelve-pack of toilet paper. Up hill. Into the wind. And it's fun!

Oh, to have a traffic fairy wave her magic wand.
E-bikes do require batteries that have negative environmental impact, but because the batteries are so much smaller than those of electric cars, the impact is an order of magnitude smaller. While not zero, if an ebike will allow you to downsize a car, this would be would be far, far better for the world than buying an electric car or continuing to drive your current vehicle. An e-bike battery runs 4 – 8 lbs. The Nissan Leaf battery is 403 lbs. The Tesla Model S battery is 1600 lbs. Right now there are more cars than drivers in the United States. This is insane. Replacing all of these current cars with electric cars would be insane. If two-thirds of American cars were replaced with e-bikes, the health and happiness of the US population would not only improve, people would actually get where they were going faster. And they would have more fun.

I’m not going to recommend any particular brand of e-bike, but I will say that the technology has advanced substantially since I pieced my bike together with a kit I got online. (Not easily. I finally got it going well with the help of an electric bike guy in town.) Now you can get e-bikes that are entirely waterproof, with the batteries integrated into the frame, or at least encased in a goodly amount of firm plastic. My advice is not to get the cheapest e-bike you can find (it’ll just fall apart), but there are good ones to be found starting around $800, and great ones for more. Depending how often you use it, you may have to get a new battery every 3 – 5 years, so factor that into your calculations. The good news is electric brushless motors have very few moving parts and need very little maintenance. What’s more likely to go bad is the controller for the electrical system. I’ve had my bike (which was really a kluged together job) for nine years now. I’ve replaced the battery twice and the controller once. I have a 300W motor that does a great job moving me, groceries, and my 80 lb bike up very big hills. I can’t see why anyone would get a 500 Watt motor or, worse, a 750 Watt. If you have to pedal to get it going and it has a top speed of 20 mph, you don’t need that much power unless you live at the top of a volcano. Don’t get a bike with a throttle unless you know yourself well and know you’ll always pedal. Just sitting on your butt on your bike doesn’t count as exercise, plus it’ll cut your range significantly. Last piece of advice on bike choice: get a bike with an electric motor, not an electric scooter with pedals. If it doesn’t really look like a bike or a trike, you will get few exercise benefits from it.
 
Last few issues: weather, seniors, and bad drivers.

A Do-It-Yourself Snow Canopy
Rain. I can’t say I’m fond of biking in it, but with proper gear (poncho, rain paints, etc) it’s not so bad. Fenders are essential. Rain canopies on cargo bikes can be had for children. When it rains I also sometimes take the bus, walk (I like walking in the rain) or postpone an errand for another day. If I get wet coming home, it’s no big deal, I just change my clothes. Getting wet on the way to a destination is the biggest issue.

Snow. I have a friend in Minneapolis who bikes year round, even in sub-zero temperatures. He gets studded snow tires and says proper clothing is essential. Again, he bikes year around. In Minneapolis. It is more than possible.

Wind. San Francisco is often windy, with wind blowing in from the ocean. My electric bike has increased my happiness level when having to bike into the wind considerably.

Easy senior mobility
Seniors! Let’s not forget them. They need to exercise for health as much as anyone. E-bikes are wildly popular among those over 65 in the Netherlands, a land where people ride bikes daily from childhood on. Seniors there say e-bikes keeps them on bikes an additional ten years. If you don’t feel comfortable on a two-wheeler, there are always senior electric trikes, very fun, great for shopping and getting around town.

Freaking terrible dangerous drivers. In my estimation, two-thirds of drivers are decent, courteous, responsible human beings. The other third are devil's spawn. They speed. They text. They run lights. They turn without looking. Many have no idea where they’re going or lack the mental capacity to negotiate any kind of complex street environment. Some are deeply angry, alienated, unhappy people, and their driving reflects it. Even worse, their vehicles give them a sense of anonymity, power and entitlement, a dangerous combination. Some drivers feel hostile (consciously or subconsciously) towards bicyclists because they perceive bicyclists to have a different social identity that they view as inferior in status, power and legitimacy. In an effort to enforce and preserve social and personal dominance, they express disdain and aggression towards bicyclists that can be unpleasant if not harrowing. In San Francisco aggressive, reckless drivers hit three people a day on average, often elderly pedestrians in crosswalks, but sometimes cyclists as well.

What about those lawless bicyclists! you might say. Bicyclists aren’t nearly as dangerous. They don’t have the speed or the mass to injure anyone in a car, or even anyone on foot unless they’re going very fast and get a direct hit. It happens, but rarely, mostly because if a cyclist hits a pedestrian with any speed, both are going to end up in the hospital. There are huge consequences to the cyclist. Car drivers hit people every single day. There are almost no consequences to the car drivers.

So with all these crazy, irresponsible drivers, is it just too dangerous to bicycle you might wonder? I’ve been cycling in San Francisco for ten years, and have also during that time bicycled in Seattle, Minneapolis, Nashville, New York, Washington DC, Charleston, Boston, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna and Paris. In that time I’ve had two low-speed crashes, both the result of getting my front tire caught in light rail tracks. (I now have sufficient fear of God of light rail tracks.) Here are some techniques I’ve used:
--Use bicycle infrastructure when it exists. (Check bike routes on Google maps.) Good bicycle infrastructure protects bicyclists and substantially reduces conflict between motorists and cyclists. Many communities are slowly putting in bike lanes here and there. Few are protected like they should be and sometimes they just disappear mysteriously, but having a wide enough shoulder to ride on makes a big difference. If you have a completely off road bicycle path that takes you at least close to where you want to go, kick your heels for joy and use it!
--Advocate for bicycle infrastructure. The reason you don’t have enough in your community is that not enough people have asked for it with enough urgency.
--Advocate for speed humps to slow cars down. Speed kills.
--Ride a bike with plenty of lights. I love my Monkey Light. Use lots of lights at night.
Light up the night!
--Wear bright clothing. At night wear reflective clothing. (I break this rule when my husband and I take our e-bikes to the symphony.) Never ride at night without a light front and back. (This rule I don’t break.)
--Take residential streets that are calmer with less traffic. The route you would take in a car may very well not be the best route to take by bike.
--Don’t be afraid to bike to the right of congested car traffic. Again, it’s speed that kills. Cars going under 20 miles an hour are much less likely to hurt you than cars doing 30 or 40 mph. Even better if they’re crawling along at 5 mph.
--Don’t get all duded up in Lycra like you’re training to be Lance Armstrong. Especially if you’re on an electric bike, it just looks silly. Dress like an ordinary human being, doing an ordinary daily task that’s just as important as what anybody in a car is doing. Because it is. Riding an upright bike in regular clothes makes you more visible, but it also makes you less of an alien species to drivers, increasing their empathy and willingness to take adequate safety precautions.
--If a car driver pulls some stunt that threatens you, don’t be shy. Yell loudly. Even “Hey, hey, hey!” will do. It’s faster and louder than a bike bell and gets better results.
--When stopped at intersections, I do my best to get myself in front of traffic (in the crosswalk if need be, once pedestrians have passed) before the light changes. Better to be in front of cars where drivers can see you than to the right where they might right-hook you as they turn.
--At four way stops I signal turns with my hands and make eye contact to make sure the other drivers see me. Often drivers will wave me through before them so it helps to really look at them behind their windshield. If someone is nice to you, give them a friendly wave as acknowledgement.
--Watch out for car doors. Take the lane if necessary to get far enough from them so you don’t have to veer suddenly into traffic. If someone opens a car door right as you’re passing it probably won’t kill you but it will likely send you flying and it might break bones.
--Watch out especially for people making unprotected left turns. They’re crazed, looking for gaps in traffic, not for you. Wave if you must to make sure they see you.
--Safety in numbers. If there are routes popular with other cyclists, then cars drivers are more likely to expect cyclists there and look out for them.
You could do this, too.
--Don’t bike too fast. This is key. I rarely bike over 15 mph. I know many cyclists love going faster, but the faster you go, the less time you have to react to cars or other obstacles, and your speed increases the force impact of any spill or collision you might have. Low speed spill onto pavement=skinned knee. Medium speed collision=broken bone. High speed collision=death.
--I don’t bike next to 50 mph highways. It just makes me too unhappy. If that’s your only option, I’m really sorry.
--If you're going to try out e-biking to work, I suggest trying out the route during non-peak hours first, when there's little traffic and no time pressure. There will inevitably be things you don't expect, and perhaps ways to optimize your route or make it safer or more pleasant that you can't tell just by looking at a map.
--Smile. Put out good vibes. Enjoy the trees, the flowers, the sunlight, perhaps a pale moon rising in the east. I find being a middle-aged woman with flowers on her wicker basket also helps. Did I mention riding an electric bike is fun?

Sunday, March 31, 2019

A Good Problem to Have


California Electricity Production March 23, 2019
Saturday, March 23, 2019, was a windy, sunny day in California. It was so windy and sunny that at 3pm renewables supplied 68% of the electrical load. As you can see in the chart above, not only did the California ISO, the entity responsible for managing California’s energy grid, throttle back electricity imported from other states, it pulled way back on the electricity it took from natural gas (thermal) power plants. Ramping down California’s lone nuclear power plant wasn’t an option—nuclear power plants are pretty much on or off and take a long time to change from either state. Hydroelectricity can usually be throttled back somewhat, but after a wet, snowy winter in California the reservoirs behind the dams are full.

This is not the first time California has had such a bounty of renewable power. In April and May of last year, renewables at times made up over 70% of the electrical load. For the last three months, December 2018 -- February 2019, renewables contributed more than 60% of California’s electricity at some point in each month. So far, the all time high for renewables contribution to the California grid for any five minute period is 74%.

California has four basic challenges to resolve on its journey to using solely renewables + large hydro to power its electric grid.

Part of the baseload
1)   The state needs baseload power that can supply around 20,000 MW delivered around the clock and around the year. Hydroelectricity, on non-drought years, can provide about 4,000 MW.  Nuclear provides another 2,000 MW; however, California’s aging lone nuclear plant is scheduled to shut down in 2025. Other renewables, such as biogas, small hydro, geothermal and biomass are together reliably supplying 2,000 MW around the clock. This leaves a gap of 12,000 MW that is currently being met by burning natural gas or importing electricity from other states.
2)  California’s second challenge is that summer demand, higher than any other season, generally peaks around 6pm when solar panels have lost most productivity. This demand needs to be reduced, shifted to other times of day, or both.
3)   Challenge three is that in order to meet winter demand, the state needs to figure out ways to produce electricity on cloudy, low wind days in December and January, when both solar panels and on-shore wind turbines may produce only a third of the electricity that they do in other seasons. Sometimes this low sun/wind combination might last for days at a time, so shifting demand to other times of day won’t help.
4)  The last challenge is what to do with the excess electricity that will inevitably be produced on windy, sunny days after solar and wind are built out enough to deal with challenges one through three. With just the amount of wind and solar being added to California 2019, it is likely that renewables + large hydro + nuclear will surpass 100% of demand often on sunny, windy days in 2020. It is likely that renewables alone will surpass 100% of demand on sunny, windy days after 2022. But this is a good problem to have! Read on!


How to Provide Renewable Baseload Power

Leaky, leaky
First let’s discuss why burning natural gas and importing electricity from other states is not a climate-friendly answer for meeting baseload or peak power requirements. Though we’ve been led to believe that natural gas is a “clean” fuel, because the national natural gas distribution system is so leaky, it turns out that burning natural gas to produce electricity, while better for our lungs, is almost as bad for the climate as burning coal. We need to transition natural gas out of our homes and out of our electricity supply in relatively short order. 

But why not just buy electricity from other Western states that have excess to sell? There are a few problems with this. 1.) These states have peak summer demand right around the time California does, which means they’re least likely to have excess electricity when we need it most, especially any produced from hydro, solar or wind. 2) Right now all these states burn coal. Some of them burn a lot. In fact, most would have no electricity to sell at all if they didn’t burn coal. The coal burners even include Washington State, despite its prodigious amount of hydroelectricity. Even if “officially” California is buying electricity produced by hydro, wind turbines or solar panels, if these states weren’t shipping electricity to California, they would burn less coal or none at all. Eventually these states will build out renewables enough to meet their own internal demand. Until then they have no business shipping electricity to anyone else.
Wyoming is the state furthest west with the most purple.
3) Even if all these states installed renewables like crazy, few have much in the way of potential wind resources. Many have great solar potential but their solar would produce daytime peaks very close to California’s solar generation peaks, when California needs to import electricity the least. The exception, as you can see in the wind map adjacent, is Wyoming. Wyoming has both amazing wind and a small population. It could easily build out enough wind farms to sell electricity 24/7 all summer to California. Too bad the state is completely in servitude to coal and perversely unwilling to take advantage of the great renewable, non-destructive source of energy it is so richly endowed with. Since California cannot force Wyoming to become sensible, the Golden State will have to make use of its own great untapped resource to produce baseload energy: off shore wind.

Off shore wind beats on shore with a stick.
On shore wind in California comes and goes. Some days are blustery; some days are still. In contrast, the wind off the coast of California is strong and steady all day, all night, and all four seasons. Perfect for baseload. The wind off the north part of the state is better than the wind south, but even the wind off LA isn't bad.Though the US has been slow to adopt off-shore wind technology, Europeans have not. Europe now has 18,499 MW of off shore wind turbines installed, with 4,543 grid-connected turbines. Of turbines installed last year, the average size was 6.8 MW. Because of deep waters in windy areas, California will likely need to install floating turbines, although there are some locations with shallow water where conventional turbines could be used. But Europeans are ahead of us there, too. There is already a 30 MW floating wind turbine farm off the coast of Scotland, and a 31 million euro floating wind project approved off the west coast of Ireland. Since off shore wind farms take several years to build and install, California should get started now. Building out a reliable baseload power supply is purely a matter of money and political will.

How to Meet Peak Summer Demand

Up, up, up
Renewables contribution as a percent of peak load in California falls in summer months, not because renewable generation falls, but because demand goes way up with the state’s summer air conditioning load. It is then that California turns to burning natural gas and importing electricity in spades.

The main problem is that utility-scale renewables production is strongest from 9am to 6pm, while summer demand peaks from 3 pm to 9 pm. This mismatch is partly due to residential solar dampening daytime demand, but also because heat builds during the day, peaking between 3:30 and 5pm, depending on how far one is from the coast. (The demand curve during other seasons looks quite a bit different but it never exactly matches renewable production.) To meet summer demand without burning fossil fuels or causing other states to burn them, California would have to build out renewables to the point there would often be large oversupplies of electricity fall through spring as well as many summer days until 3pm. Or the state would have to figure out a way to reduce summer peak demand. Or it would have to do a combination of both.

So what are the options? Waste electricity? Have blackouts every summer afternoon? Neither! Excess electricity can be used in productive ways, excess electricity can be stored to be used other times, and peak demand can be shifted or reduced, all with technology that currently exists. Let’s explore.

Store Peak Supply Electricity for Peak Demand Hours

1)  
Pumped hydro storage. During sunny/windy hours, the state can use electricity to pump water up behind a dam, creating a giant battery of potential energy. Let the water fall to provide baseload grid capacity in late afternoon/evenings. The site can be closed-loop, with reservoirs that don’t impact existing river systems. California currently has 3,000 MW of pumped hydro storage. Doubling its pumped hydro storage capacity would go a long ways towards ensuring grid reliability during peak demand hours.
2)  Ice batteries. This is a twofer—ice batteries essentially both store electricity and reduce peak demand. They can be programmed to charge themselves by making ice when renewable supply exceeds demand, say 10 am – 2pm, then use the ice to coast through the hottest six hours with cooling that requires very little electricity. This can be done on an industrial, commercial, institutional and residential level. The technology is relatively low tech and already exists. For homeowners, the cost of an ice battery is equivalent to a conventional AC system.
3)  Encourage home batteries via time-of-use charges. Charge low rates during peak supply hours and very high rates during peak demand hours. This will both make use of excess electricity and shift demand. It would also encourage households to install solar on west-facing roofs, which will provide more electricity late afternoon when it’s most needed.
4)   Utility Scale battery storage—lithium ion, redox flow, zinc hybrid, etc. Charge during peak generation, use during peak demand.

Reduce or shift demand away from peak hours 3pm – 9pm
1)   Ice batteries (discussed above.)
2) Implement steep cost for electricity during peak demand for residential and commercial users (discussed above.)
3)  Reduce amount of sewage treatment, water pumping and water treatment during peak demand hours. Some obviously needs to happen continually, but some can be delayed to off peak times.
4)  
Go no lawn
Conserve water/use greywater in Southern California. The State Water Project is the largest single user of energy in California. Getting water from Sacramento-San Joaquin delta to Southern California requires pumping it 700 miles and then up 2000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains. Summer is exactly the time lawns and poorly landscaped yards need the most irrigation. Use permaculture techniques to replace lawns and other water-guzzling landscaping with lush, beautiful gardens that require a third the water. Use permaculture water capture techniques plus grey water to keep landscaping going all summer with minimal watering.
   5)  
Singing Frogs Farm--no-till, low water, high biodiversity
Stop water-crazy agriculture in California that requires crazy water pumping electrical use. Cotton, rice, and alfalfa are water-intensive crops that can all be grown in places where water falls from the sky all summer. Beef fed with irrigated forage, and cheese from cows that are fed alfalfa require huge amounts of water. These animals can also be raised in places where water doesn’t have to be pumped hundreds of miles. (Wisconsin! Iowa!) Almonds can’t be grown in many other parts of the US, but if the crop is largely being exported to China, then California is just foolishly exporting cheap water to China. Raising prices to, say, a 1/5th to a 1/4th of residential costs instead of the present 1/100th to 1/50th  would send rice, cotton, alfalfa and cheese production off to the states they belong in and would encourage dry farming, drip irrigation, mulching, compost use, and bio-intensive farming, all of which regenerate the soil and draw down carbon from the atmosphere. Yes, the cost of food will rise. If we want a planet habitable for the human race this is inevitable. Better to directly subsidize healthy fruits and vegetables for low-income households than to waste water and energy as extravagantly as we do.
6)   Implement a steep time-of-use rate structure to move industrial demand off peak demand hours. Demand response programs already exist but they could be much stronger, on the order of triple for kilowatt-hours used summer months between 3pm and 9pm. Industrial customers will either put their own west-facing solar panels on their rooftops, install their own batteries, or run their operations when electricity is cheaper.
In LA, trees=cool
    7) Reduce need for cooling throughout California. Plant trees, trees and more trees, especially to the west of buildings. Add green roofs, add living walls. Water them all with greywater. Add awnings to all west-facing windows. Make all roofs that are not green into white roofs that reflect heat. Reduce urban heat island effect by ripping up asphalt and concrete and turning it into low-water (but lovely) green spaces or replace with cool pavements, including vegetated permeable pavers irrigated with grey water. Add solar canopies to shade walkways and parking lots. (Better yet, get rid of parking lots.) Increase the albedo of asphalt by adding light color aggregates or seal existing asphalt with reflective coating. Discourage housing in high summer heat areas. Create gentle density and walkable communities in areas with reliable cooling ocean breezes (within 5 miles of coast) by replacing parking lots with townhouses, duplexes and apartments. (See Ten Minute Neighborhoods.)

Monster Demand Day--July 24th, 2018
Peak electricity demand for all of 2018 in California was 46,284 MW, which occurred at 5:35pm on Tuesday, July 24th. Wind plus solar provided roughly 11,000 MW of that. Total daytime demand that hot day was a behemoth 876,174 MW-hours. If California had developed a renewable base load of 20,000 MW, it would’ve been able to cover 480,000 MW-hours of that 24-hour demand. To produce the other necessary 400,000 MW-hours with solar and on-shore wind, solar and on-shore wind production would’ve roughly needed to have been 2.5 times what it is now. (This is assuming a fair amount of demand shifting and battery storage to better match time of generation.) This much wind and solar would mean a significant amount of excess electricity would be produced fall through spring. Let's look at the winter situation, which is slightly worse.


How to Produce Enough Renewable Electricity on Cloudy Windless Days

Cloudy, windless day, Jan 14, 2019
While the sun shines reliably in California in the summer, it doesn’t in the winter, nor does on-shore wind blow reliably. While demand is lower in the winter, on some days renewable production is much lower than in summer. On Tuesday, January 15th, 2019, for example, total system demand was 600,000 MW-hours. A baseload of 20,000 MW would have covered 480,000 MW-hours of that, leaving only 120,000 MW-hours for solar and wind to cover. Unfortunately, on January 15th solar plus on-shore wind only produced 42,000 MW-hours. To meet demand on this particular day, solar plus on-shore wind would have had to be built out at nearly three times the level it is now. Since these cloudy, low wind days can occur for days at a time, shifting demand five or six hours wouldn’t fix the problem. The good news is the cost of both solar and wind has dropped and is dropping further! More good news is that there are more than enough rooftops in California where solar could be installed to meet this demand without sacrificing agricultural or natural areas. Tripling the number of solar panels in California is doable. Tripling the number of wind turbines may be less so due to the lack of good wind sites. Maybe quadrupling solar will be a better bet, or maybe adding more floating off-shore wind turbines. It all depends on how expensive floating wind farms turn out to be.

Either way, building out enough renewables to meet December/January cloudy, windless days will result in substantial over-generation of electricity in the spring and fall, summer mid-days, and very often in the winter. Won’t it all go to waste?

No! Or at least, not necessarily. Now we’re getting to the good problem to have.
           
How to Use Excess Electricity in Productive Ways

1) Schedule sewage treatment, water pumping and water treatment when excess electricity is available. Some obviously will have to happen continuously, but there is some ability to ramp and slow down based on electrical supply.
2) Use excess electricity for electrolysis. Electrolysis is used in the production of aluminum, lithium, sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, chlorine, sodium hydroxide, sodium chlorate, potassium chlorate, electrolytic copper, oxygen, and electroplating. Offer plants nearly free electricity in spring and fall but expect them not to run summer months from 3pm to 9 pm, or on cloudy winter days. Same can be done for hydrogen and ammonia production. (See below.)
3)   Produce ammonia for fertilizer. Permaculture is the future of farming, but there will probably still be a place for chemical fertilizer. Producing it from a simple combination of water, air and electricity is the way to go. Use electrolysis to crack water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Ramp up ammonia production fall – spring; expect plants not to operate summers from 3 pm to 9 pm or on cloudy winter days.
4)   Same for hydrogen. Though there are high levels of losses using hydrogen as a fuel, hydrogen may very well come in handy soon for long-distance shipping. Taking advantage of excess electricity to produce hydrogen may soon make economic sense even in the Midwest on windy nights.


Oh my gosh, how can these plants possibly make a profit if they don’t operate on cloudy days or summer late afternoons and evenings? Well, if one of your primary inputs is electricity, running when electricity is dirt cheap will make the economics pan out nicely. To extend their operations to, say, 5 pm in the summer, these plants could install arrays of west-facing solar panels so they don’t have to draw from the grid during peak demand hours.

Floating wind--California's future?
California is an interesting case study, but every single state and region will have similar challenges (though different particulars) as they work towards powering themselves 100% by renewables. Up until now, as a society we’ve built our electrical supply to meet demand, whatever the environmental cost. But there are many clever, creative ways we can encourage demand to better meet a renewable supply curve. It requires different thinking and a willingness to work around a different set of constraints, but it is by no means technologically or even economically infeasible. If we think preventing massive die-off in the 22nd century of both humans and most other species is maybe, just maybe something we owe the both the planet and the future of humanity, then as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, we need to stop saying, “It costs too much! It’s not possible! It’s inconvenient! We’re too poor!” Instead, we need to roll up our sleeves and start saying, “How do we get this done?”

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Lessons of the Great Beaufort Skedaddle

View of Beaufort, SC, Dec 1861
The American Civil War can be viewed through many lenses, but a perspective rarely employed is that of the South's refusal to make what was essentially an energy transition--from slave labor to nascent fossil fuels. A small, moneyed elite, who made most of the economic and political decisions for the region, feared loss of wealth. If an orderly transition away from slavery, say over twenty years, had been negotiated between the North and the South, with a gradual introduction of Constitutional rights for former slaves, the great wealth of the antebellum South would undoubtedly have diminished, but much would have remained. Instead, half a million Americans died in war, and the entire South, black and white alike, experienced violence, hunger, and massive destruction of property and infrastructure, to be followed by a hundred years of grinding poverty, during which many of the worst abuses of slavery--racism, segregation, confinement of blacks to the lowest economic strata, black disqualification from voting, and white control of the black population through violence--remained intact. (The decade of Reconstruction was only a partial respite.) Even today, seven of the ten poorest states in the nation are former Confederate states. 

Sometimes history plods along slowly. Sometimes it turns on a dime. On the 157th anniversary of the Great Beaufort Skedaddle, it's worth remembering that sometimes doubling down on one's way of life brings about catastrophe from which there is no recovery.

They were at church when the word came. In the pews of Saint Helena’s in Beaufort, South Carolina, master and slave alike heard that an enormous Yankee fleet was massing off Point Royal Sound a mere ten miles away. If Confederate defenses didn’t hold, the town would have to evacuate in a matter of hours. It was time to pack and to pray.

Beaufort antebellum charm
In 1861, Beaufort was one of the wealthiest, most cultured cities in America. The town boasted not only a library of three thousand volumes but also some of the most erudite, educated men in the South. Having built their elegant Greek Revival mansions with ballrooms, chandeliers and two-story piazzas, planter families gathered here each summer to escape the heat and ague of their Sea Island plantations, as well as socialize and talk politics.  Secession politics. For more than a dozen years cries for secession had risen from Beaufort, much of them led by its native son, rabble-rousing, fire-eater Robert Barnwell Rhett, remembered as the “Father of Secession.”

The Confederacy knew full well that Port Royal might be a target for a Northern base, but they couldn’t be sure other sites weren’t also in the running and so were somewhat lackadaisical in establishing defenses for Port Royal Sound. During the summer of 1861, local plantations reluctantly provided slaves to begin construction of two forts to guard the Sound’s entrance: Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island and Fort Beauregard on Phillips Island. But not only were the forts still incomplete by November, the artillery installed fell far short of what was originally proposed and even farther short of what was needed when the Yankees came calling.

Plans had been underway in the North to take a Southern port since early summer, with Lincoln himself involved in the selection. After all, to implement the “Anaconda Plan”—a tight blockade of the Southern coastline intended to cripple the Confederate economy—U.S. Navy warships needed a place to refuel with the coal that gave them power. Port Royal was one of the choicest deepwater ports on the Southern coast. That a massive Northern fleet was poised to sail was common knowledge to anyone who could read a newspaper once The New York Times published the details in the article, “The Great Naval Expedition,” on October 26th. The only unknown was the destination, a secret that, remarkably, was successfully kept.  It wasn’t until they were at sea that the captain of each vessel opened a sealed envelope telling him where his ship was headed.


The Great Naval Expedition en route
The fleet that set out on Oct 29th would prove to be the largest U.S. naval and amphibious expedition in the entire nineteenth century.  It included 17 warships, 25 colliers, 33 transports, 12,000 infantry, 600 marines, and 157 big guns. Port Royal, with its two cobbled-together forts supplied with only 2500 men, 4 gunboats, and 39 guns between them, didn’t stand a chance.

Bombardment of Port Royal
Nature came to the South’s aid in the form of a storm that sank some of the Northern fleet along the way, and then rough water delayed the day of the final attack. But when November 7th dawned clear and calm, the water so still it was glassy, enough of the North’s warships were available to commence battle. Union ships concentrated their enfilade on Fort Walker. To the soldiers inside, the sound of artillery was deafening. By noon, only three of Fort Walker’s water battery guns were still operational; by 2:30 p.m., all powder was gone. The time had come to abandon the fort. The command at Fort Beauregard, concerned about being trapped on Phillips Island with no line of retreat, quickly followed suit. Thankfully, casualties on both sides were light. Accounts vary, but the Confederates finished the day with between 11 and 59 killed and an equivalent number wounded or missing, while the Union fleet saw 8 dead and 23 wounded.

Even with the enormous attacking naval force, Sea Island planters had been so confident in the defending forts manned with recruits from their very own Beaufort Volunteer Artillery that many watched the battle from shore on nearby Saint Helena Island. But when Confederate cannons grew silent and cheers reverberated from the Northern ships, they knew something had gone dreadfully wrong. They hurried home to evacuate, no doubt pained to leave bolls of valuable Sea Island cotton still unpicked in the fields.

When news of the battle’s outcome reached Beaufort, a kind of panic ensued. Facing an invading army of Yankees was too dreadful to contemplate; flight was of the essence. But what to take, what to leave behind? The daguerreotypes? The silver? Of course the family bible must be packed. Some loaded up carriages, hoping to stay ahead of the Yankees on the long overland route to safety. But Beaufort was lucky that day—there was a steamer anchored in the river that could take hundreds swiftly to Charleston. However, it had only so much room. Furniture, clothing, horses, and the vast majority of their most valuable property—slaves—would have to be left behind. In the tumult, even food and dinner dishes were abandoned on dining room tables, testament to the haste involved. That evening the steamer departed overflowing with Beaufort’s white citizenry along with every jewel and sentimental item they could squeeze on board. Legend has it that when Yankee forces arrived two days later to occupy the town, they found just one white man remaining in Beaufort, and he was dead drunk.

What must the deserted slaves, who spoke Gullah, their own Sea Island patois, have thought as the laden steamer chugged away from Beaufort’s dock? Did they realize that history had unexpectedly turned a corner right in front of them, and that now, after centuries of captivity as a people, they were suddenly free? Perhaps the political ramifications didn’t sink in that night, but before the first Yankees arrived, clothing and other finery had been looted (liberated?) from the grand homes, and food and liquor thoroughly consumed in an understandable celebration of events. 

Five generations now free (1862)
It is estimated 8-10,000 slaves were left behind in the Sea Islands when the white population fled. They were soon joined by thousands of others who escaped to the region once they realized that Northern occupation meant freedom.  They all needed food and shelter, and since the Emancipation Proclamation had yet to happen, their legal status, beyond being “contraband,” was unclear. The Army asked for help and received it in the form of the Port Royal Experiment. Financed and organized by Northern abolitionist charities, the Experiment worked as a test case to create self-sufficiency among the former slaves. Its success points to what Reconstruction might have been if less corruption and more competence had been at its helm.  Northern missionaries and teachers flocked to the Sea Islands to create schools and aid societies. Former slaves were allowed to farm the confiscated plantations and were paid $1 per 400 lbs of cotton they were able to harvest.  The Penn School on St. Helena Island was one of the earliest schools established for freed slaves and can be visited as part of the Penn Center today.

Yankees at home on a Beaufort piazza (1862)
The Union Army found Beaufort a pleasant setting for officer’s quarters, administrative offices and hospitals.  Because the Army occupied Beaufort until the end of the war, the fine mansions, while suffering damage, were not burned to the ground like so many other Southern towns and surrounding Sea Island plantations. To this day Beaufort’s centuries-old live oaks and antebellum charm remain. Port Royal turned out to be as advantageous a harbor as the Union had hoped and did much to strengthen the potency of the blockade. After the war, most planter families—their sons dead, their plantations burnt, their Beaufort homes sold in government auctions for back taxes (often without their knowledge)—never returned. The civilization that was antebellum Beaufort vanished into the night with that last steamer.

It is rare that the wheel of fortune spins as violently as it did on November 7, 1861. The town that had advocated so fiercely for secession was the first to feel the brunt of an occupying army. A people remarkable for their wealth lost almost everything in a matter of hours. A region that so defiantly insisted that its way of life—slavery—was non-negotiable ended up being the first to have a colony of former slaves experiment with what it meant to be free. The Great Skedaddle indeed.

Beaufort 1849 is a novel by Karen Lynn Allen set in Beaufort, South Carolina, at a point when the Civil War might still have been avoided.