Perspectives: Bravo, Steven Chu!

I’m becoming a fan of U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu.

At a “clean energy summit” held in Washington, D.C., in February, Dr. Chu was a panelist, along with a Who’s Who of notables that included Bill Clinton, Al Gore, T. Boone Pickens, Robert Kennedy, Jr., Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the chief executive officers of Wal-Mart and the Sierra Club … and 19 others. In this distinguished gathering, Dr. Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, stands out owing to his technical credentials.

The summit focused on policies needed for constructing a “smart grid” to facilitate new renewable electricity generation and to help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

My observation is that one of the key problems in making needed improvements to a large technical system such as the electric grid is that the public often does not have a clear understanding of the relevant facts. This brings us to:

    Electricity 101


    Among the most basic principles of electricity production is that there are two primary components involved: the provision of power (kW, MW, etc.) and the production of energy (kWh, MWh, etc.).


Even though the foregoing seems extraordinarily simple and is well-understood by people in the electricity business, I’ve observed that it’s exceedingly rare to find a “man on the street” who understands the concepts involved. And even in the venerable halls of Washington, D.C., such ignorance is not rare. Yet, without fundamental knowledge of these principles (and much more), grasping the implications of various paths to a “smarter” grid are … well … just not possible.

So, it gets down to: We must trust smart people who really do understand what’s going on. And Dr. Chu qualifies. His pronouncements at the summit and elsewhere bespeak a rational man. Among his cogent remarks, he said: “We should start to invest heavily in pumped hydro storage.” His point is that we need more flexible, dispatchable power to accommodate the ups and downs inherent in wind and solar. Wind and solar power, from the perspective of an electricity producer, are energy sources. They need to be complemented with power sources (such as pumped-storage hydro plants) to provide a reliable supply of electricity.

The summit shows that an important group of today’s thought leaders, including leaders of Congress, have discovered that the U.S. needs a bolstered transmission system – now dubbed a Smart Grid. This idea is advocated as essential for bringing more renewable energy (a.k.a., wind and solar power) into the national supply. The recognition of the need for a strengthened grid is welcome … even if overdue, and even if it comes with its new rationale for undertaking transmission enhancement as a public cost. Within the electricity business, fortifying transmission has been known to be an urgent need for at least 20 years. However, prior attempts to get policymakers’ attention on the matter have been largely ineffective. The failure to “grow” transmission to meet needs was collateral damage of electric industry restructuring in the 1980s and 1990s, and this issue is past due for serious attention.

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