Monthly Archives: July 2013

Electron democracy

A long-belated companion to Steven Chu’s “Time to fix the wiring” essay I posted earlier, this is the white paper I co-authored for the same McKinsey & Company series. Given the roughly five-month delay in uploading this, I suppose “Time to post the writing” might be an apt subtitle… :)

Ever the stickler for citing sources (in university, while writing up a chemical engineering lab report, I once cited a colleague’s report I made use of, in my bibliography of sources – yes, I was a wild one) I was pleased McKinsey kept the footnote crediting the work John Robb and Jeff Vail.

Four years on, it’s encouraging to see how wrong the essay has turned out to be — because all the recent developments are for the better. It would be as if an investor bought a bunch of boring utility stocks for the safe, reliable dividends, only to discover at the end of the year that they got a bunch of capital appreciation as well.

Though on that note, I think fossil-fuel burning utilities are already a risky investment now, because renewables are already eroding their business model in some countries… and since renewables will get dramatically cheaper going forward as production scales up, the phenomenon will inevitably repeat itself around the world.  (Speaking of uploading delays, clearly I’ll have to get to part 2 of this series…)

When the essay was written (late 2008), grid energy storage seemed a long, long way from commercialization, so our assumption had been that large-scale hydro plants and smaller-scale fuel cell facilities would complement renewables’ intermittency.  (The EV / PHEV adoption rate is such that these are unlikely to offer any appreciable grid storage by 2030, either…)

With Germany’s announcement of a program to subsidize battery-based residential energy storage systems, enabling companies to ramp up production and get the economies of scale with which to drive aggressive cost reductions, it looks like fuel cells will face a lot of pressure at the residential scale.

As for the resiliency benefits of on-site power generation, that seems to have become a priority for many tech companies, in areas where subsidies for on-site generation are available.  (I could justify mild subsidies, because on-site generation minimizes the need to maintain or expand transmission infrastructure, which can be expensive.)

One wonders if some of these companies are worried that a renewables future will destabilize the grid: this is a “myth”conception, as many utilities point out.  I read somewhere that when Germany began its Energiewende — (renewable) energy transformation — the feeling was that the grid could only handle 5% intermittent renewables (ie. wind + solar). Then it became 10%, and then 20%. Then it became 40%. The latest I’ve seen is 60% with the possibility of 80% for continental Europe. As technology improves, that will only increase. Especially if/when electricity-to-hydrogen or electricity-to-natural gas technology matures, allowing for large-scale storage of excess, intermittent electricity.

On the fuel cell side, Bloom Energy seems to have become adept at acquiring subsidies market share in the on-site generation space, despite the fact that their technology is less efficient than combined-cycle gas turbines.  (That said, turbines are generally LOUD and therefore not suitable for on-site location.)  As such, when it comes to larger-scale on-site 24/7 fuel cell power generation, since Ballard isn’t in that game anymore, I root for the folks at ClearEdge Power, whose use of cogeneration makes it possible to achieve overall energy efficiencies of 90%+, even if only a portion of that becomes electricity. :)


– – – – – – – –


By Matthew Klippenstein and Noordin Nanji

3 March 2009

The way electric power is generated and distributed will change substantially over the next two decades. Power will be democratized, as small-scale production at the individual and community level moves from niche to normal. The resulting “electron-democracy” will still have centralized power plants, but power grid activity will increasingly be dominated by innumerable incremental energy flows between small producers and consumers. This is likely to happen whether or not public policy mandates a shift away from dependence on fossil fuels.

Most centralized plants (hydro excepted) cannot easily adjust to demand fluctuations, leading to steeply discounted off-peak rates and the need to acquire additional plants for high-demand periods. More broadly, an expansive transmission grid dominated by a few central power plants is vulnerable to disruption from both natural phenomena and human malevolence.

In contrast, smaller-scale power generation can respond more nimbly to market demand, in a shorter time frame, with lower capital costs. Filling supplemental power needs with niche supplies rather than primary power facilities creates new generation options that that otherwise would be impractical. Finally, a grid fed by a broad, physically dispersed heterogeneous mixture of power sources would provide robust protection against disruption.1

Putting these strands together and looking forward, the distributed grid might look like this: intermittent wind and solar power generation would be complemented by load-supplementing fuel cell plants, in much the same way that peak power and base load power plants interact today. Electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and batteries would serve as grid energy storage when excess energy is being produced. The latter is analogous to the role of pumped-storage hydroelectric in current utility systems, where water is pumped from a lower reservoir to a higher one for later use in generating hydroelectric power.

Considering the intensifying pace of climate change, governments should play an ambitious role in the transition from today’s grid to tomorrow’s electron democracy. Governments could coordinate with local business to develop centers of excellence for distributed power in targeted industries. Mechanisms such as feed-in tariffs—which grant favorable rates for those generating power from renewables and clean-tech sources—could facilitate the development of these regional technology clusters. They would bring ancillary economic benefits as well.

We are hopeful that by 2030, our energy system will be considerably less dependent on fossil fuels, particularly for electric power generation. Supported by a diverse array of renewables, our energy needs could be met with an overlapping set of complementary clean technologies. In doing so, we would strongly curb our global warming emissions. We would then be poised not only to stabilize the climate, but to transcend the Fossil Fuel Age entirely and open a new “Age of Sustainability” in our human story.

– – – – –

1 A closer examination of these topics is available from Jeff Vail (A Theory of Power) and John Robb (Brave New War) in their writings on “rhizome” at and “resilient communities” at, respectively.

Number one!

Clearly, people really enjoyed the Canadian Tesla sales stats I was able to pull up via vehicle registration records. The article is now number one for the week!  An article on Canadian stats topping an American website’s “recently popular” list.  How about that!  :)

Tesla article - number one

I noticed that the good folks at the InsideEV’s website subsequently offered year-to-date Tesla sales estimates for Canada, perhaps deriving them from my numbers? ;) They even mentioned vehicle registration data in a recent article! Nice to think I may have helped pioneer that methodology in the EV blogosphere, even if it’s of infinitesimal consequence (or should that be infinite inconsequence?).

That said, InsideEV’s does great work — I read them daily, and have learned a lot from their posts. It’d just be nice if they could throw a bone of credit now and then. :) Heck, I unabashedly cite and others as the sources for the data in my public-access EV spreadsheet!

Tesla sales in Canada, Jan-May 2013

My GreenCarReports article on Tesla Model S sales in Canada this year has been popular enough to reach second-place in GCR’s “Most Popular this week” sidebar.

Tesla Model S article popularity

Very cool, and almost certainly indicative of the fact that Tesla fans are starved for sales data!  After all, the company is about as forthcoming with monthly sales statistics as old Howard Hughes was, with public appearances. Too old a reference?  How about Thomas Pynchon?  Too obscure?

Well, they’re about as willing to disclose that information, as current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is, of letting his MP’s speak freely. When his most recent cabinet was announced, the media was given… pre-recorded video commentary from each of the lucky lawmakers.

Unfortunately, all this message control came to naught, as it was discovered that “enemies lists” had been compiled for each new Minister, to help them in their governance. No doubt the Harper Government(TM) wishes it could give its leakers the “American treatment”…

The surveillance state is an autoimmune disorder

Reaching into American history, we encounter the saying, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”…. in our modern era, we might need to add a corollary, namely that “the price of infinite vigilance, is freedom”.

First, a short medical analogy.

Autoimmune disorders

Autoimmune disorders (Wikipedia prefers autoimmune diseases) occur when the body’s defenses — antibodies — no longer distinguish between healthy tissue and harmful cells. Instead of focusing on the dangerous antigens, they attack the body itself.

Type 1 diabetes is an example, where the patient’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing regions of the pancreas. Blood insulin levels drop, making it more difficult for cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream, leaving elevated blood glucose levels, and all the associated problems of diabetes.

Multiple sclerosis is another example, where the patient’s immune system attacks their nervous system. Localized physical inflammation occurs, which causes nerve damage, which impairs sufferers’ quality-of-life.

These autoimmune disorders occur on the individual level.

The hygiene hypothesis

In medicine, the hygiene hypothesis suggests that allergies could be thought of as a sort of autoimmune disorder, brought about by excessive cleanliness (!).

The general idea is that our immune systems developed over millions of years in the, um, virulent and filthy conditions that characterized most of human existence until the arrival of modern sanitation. Given this, our immune systems have evolved to be hyper-vigilant.  After all, until recently, even minor flesh wounds could be fatal, if they got infected.

One theory posits that if our immune systems aren’t kept busy fending off microbial, bacterial and viral attacks when we’re young, they overreact when they encounter benign intruders (e.g. pollen), or even healthy human cells, mistaking these for existential threats. It’s the medical profession’s equivalent of the “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” argument…!

The generally agreed-upon workaround is to make sure kids wash their hands before eating and after using the washroom, but to otherwise roll around in dirt, play with animals and so forth. The former steps help keep children safe from more dangerous microbes, while the latter keeps their immune systems busy.

Stranger still, medical researchers are exploring the treatment of autoimmune diseases by deliberately infecting patients with parasites!  Reasonably benign parasitic worms which co-evolved with humans and co-existed with us until the advent of modern hygiene, are introduced to the body.  Improvement comes when the immune system stops attacking healthy body tissue, to focus on beating back the parasites.

Unfortunately, the immune system sometimes resumes attacking the body after it beats back the parasites, meaning that periodic reinfection may be necessary. In helminthic therapy, you don’t take vitamin supplements, you take parasite supplements!

Societal-level autoimmune disorders

I think the recently-revealed excesses of NSA / PRISM / surveillance state can be best thought of as a societal-level autoimmune disorder. Human society has almost certainly become dramatically less violent over time, and that’s a very good thing. Especially for those of us who’re members of ethnic groups who’ve historically been the victims!

Meanwhile, for a roughly fifty-year period in the 20th century, an enormous American security apparatus evolved, to address the perceived existential threat from Soviet Communism — and, uh, stamp out any less-than-solidly-pro-American governments in Latin America and other strategic parts of the world. (We should try to be objective, eh?)

With the threat of Communism now gone, the vast resources of American society’s “immune system” have become focused on terrorists — individuals who can cause damage and suffering, but who cannot and could never pose the kind of existential threat of an invading army. This is a good thing: we want to be safe from those who cause us harm.

But like a white blood cell which indiscriminately attacks other cells in the body — not just the harmful antigens — the NSA has effectively wiretapped everyone in the world. Given that in the normal course of law, courts must be convinced of reasonably-probable wrongdoing for wiretaps to be granted, the NSA is essentially treating everyone as a suspect.

In this sense, its behaviour maps to that of an immune system that has been hijacked by an autoimmune disorder, and is treating the body’s own cells as invaders. The main difference is that the surveillance state exists at the societal level, while autoimmune disorders exist at the individual level.

The price of freedom…

If autoimmune disorders can be prevented and/or treated by allowing the body to be exposed to lesser pathogens, this might hint at the path out of the surveillance state. If citizens accept that to maintain their major freedoms, they must accept that minor acts of violence might succeed, the recently-revealed excesses of the NSA could be curbed. A government which tracks its people’s communications, by the very act of doing so, subtly impairs their freedoms of conscience and expression.

The above is a bit abstract, so I’ll close with a couple closer-to-home examples.

1) Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush made the comment to the effect that “[terrorists] hate us for our freedoms”. In doing so, he both oversimplified and mischaracterized the motives of such attackers, which relate more to the various humiliations of Western colonization, and the despair of resolving or overcoming the injustices they perceive.

But if Osama bin Laden hated us for our freedoms, then restricting those freedoms through the surveillance state gives him exactly what he would have wanted! (Political violence — such as terrorism — is successful when it causes the victimized government to bend its policies in the desired direction.) If for no other reason than thwarting bin Laden, it will be important for us to rein in the surveillance state.

2) brings us back to the “pull quote” at the start of the post.

Reaching deeply into American history, we encounter the saying, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. It’s been misattributed to many Great Men in American history, among them Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine, though it seems to’ve been a British actor who first formulated the phrase.

In our modern era, we might need to add a corollary, namely that “the price of infinite vigilance, is freedom”.

[July 25 – light editing to summarize the conclusion at the outset. – Thx for the tip, Bob!]