Saving Energy At Scale

A while back I promised to write a post describing what I do by day at Energy Solutions, so here goes (with a small twist at the end). But it requires a bit of setup.

State governments often make pledges like “We’re going to reduce our carbon footprint 15% by the year 2020.” To make that happen, they put up a big pile of money and entrust it to power companies, since they understand the energy world. The utilities come up with with incentive programs to do things like encourage hospitals and schools to replace old HVAC systems with newer, more energy efficient ones, or for building contractors to replace lighting systems with smart ones that know when no one is home (to give a couple of examples). They work with organizations like the California Public Utilities Commission to come up with “Measures” — ways to evaluate what kind of equipment saves how much energy in a given climate zone, etc.

It turns out that actually getting a program like that off the ground is hard. There are literally millions of pieces of equipment out there that use energy in some way, and a dizzying variety of ways to measure energy savings. There are millions of buildings in the United States, under the jurisdiction of dozens of utilities. How do you devise an incentive program that’s fair to all, and that actually works? How do you prove that a person claiming an incentive is actually entitled to it? How do you measure the efficiency of a given heat pump or ballast or EV charger relative to its usage in a school, or apartment complex, or whatever? How do you ensure the system isn’t abused, and that the equipment was actually installed? How do you compare the attributes of the relevant Measures against the properties of all that equipment (complex queries at scale)? How do you make sure the person is claiming for the best possible program? And so on.

So the utilities hire a consultancy to design and run the program, write all of the logic that makes the magic happen, and build a web interface and batch processing system to handle all of the data and logic? My company, Energy Solutions, employs experts in every tiny corner of the energy industry, and is one of only a few organizations in the country that knows how to do this sort of thing.

Historically, the company created custom code for each new program (madness!). Four years ago, I was hired to help design and build a meta-system, configurable in every dimension, to host many domains running many programs, on top of all that ever-expanding data. While my personal history is mostly in making content management systems for journalists and academia, this job is different – the website is just a very thin layer on top of the most complex software I’ve ever worked on.

My expertise is in Python, and my framework speciality is Django. Over time, we started adding developers, and I’m now the Codebase Lead for a team of developers who report to a very large (too large?) group of stakeholders. I’m responsible for the quality, security, and performance of the codebase and the system. I do all of the code review, work with the ops team, and spend a little too much time in meetings talking about how to implement the Next Big Idea. So I spend my days bouncing between code, github, Slack conversations, and meetings.

And it’s stressful. For the past few years, I’ve fooled myself that things would settle down and get easier in a few months. But as soon as we solve one hard problem, three more pop up to take its place. I finish my days aching to get away from the computer and hit the trail. In the evenings, I’m brain-drained for hours. Lately I’ve been feeling the need to juggle fewer balls, to do something more focused. I’m honored to function as Codebase Lead, but honestly in need of a break. Recently, another opportunity came up in the same company, and I’ve just made the decision to transition to a different-but-related project. Not fooling myself it’ll be easy, but it should definitely be more focused and have fewer moving parts.

I’m proud of what we do – Energy Solutions does a lot more than just run the project I described there – we’re just a little corner of the company. All-told, ES saves more energy in the U.S. than the state of Alaska consumes (that stat was from four years ago – I’m sure it’s much more now). And they have their sights set high. With the Biden administration’s climate goals shaping up, there’s going to be way more to do in coming years.

A little while ago, I was running a conversion process on some data, watching it all roll by as it ran, and it struck me (should be obvious, but we get sucked in by architecture challenges and lose sight of the bigger picture): This isn’t just a few seconds worth of data – this is energy that was NOT used because of what we do, what we’ve built together. The stress is worth it – we’re making a difference not by talking about the importance of carbon reduction, but by making it happen.

Plants Trees with Your Searches

Google has made large donations to climate science deniers. Reconfiguring your browser to use the Ecosia search engine is easy, and every search you do builds revenue to fund tree-planting efforts around the world. 80% of profits go straight to carbon reduction. Ecosia is responsible for the planting of 75 million trees over the past nine years! Takes just a couple of clicks to set up – go for it.

Set up Ecosia here

The Duck Curve

In my business, this graph is known as “the duck curve,” and it’s a sort-of paradox. Home solar installations generate power when no one is home to use it, but then everyone goes home and suddenly needs power.

Where does the unused daytime energy go? Back into the grid in most cases, but then utilities must decrease output to match what solar customers are pumping into it. The other alternative is battery storage – either via things like Tesla’s “PowerWall” or by charging electric vehicles.

What most people don’t understand about the grid is that its total power must remain stable at all times. Even if the utilities are fully supportive of home power generation, the duck curve presents a challenge for them, because the more homes you have dumping power onto the grid, the more the utility must decrease its power generation to keep the total power precisely stable. And when everyone comes home in the evening, and solar generation decreases, the opposite must happen. All of this must happen in real time. Large fluctuations are harder to handle than small fluctuations, so more solar means means the challenge gets harder.

Because output fluctuates, renewable energy generation and battery storage go together like peanut butter and jelly – they must become tightly coupled. Now we just need cheap/light batteries to make it feasible everywhere. And so we can finally replace jet fuel with electric airplanes.

The Four Rs (Introducing “Refuse!”)

We’ve all learned the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. But there’s a fourth one, and it needs to come first: Refuse. As in don’t partake. Take every opportunity to refuse to use plastic, implore government and industries to cut back or reduce their usage, put pressure on companies and organizations to replace as many instances of plastic use as they possibly can. Break the cycle.

Wired: Since China’s Ban, Recycling Has Gone Up In Flames

Coda: We’ve been all been taught that “Change begins with me,” and that’s true. But it’s also true that no amount of individual recycling habits are going to reduce plastic use enough to make the kind of dent we need to make at this point. Only legislation and boycotts can do that. Governments of the world need (yes, need) to start making it illegal to use plastics when other materials would do. Consumers need to boycott plastic offerings when feasible alternatives exist (Why are people still buying plastic poop bags for your pet when compostable ones exist? Why are people still buying single use plastic water bottles? Just STOP!)

Vote for any and all legislation that aims to reduce or eliminate plastics usage. Refuse to support businesses that aren’t doing everything within their power. The goal now needs to be retraining society’s away from thinking that rampant plastics use is without enormous and lasting consequence.

Whale Fall

When a whale dies and sinks to the bottom of the ocean, it’s called a “whale fall.” Hungry worms and shellfish and all creatures great and small come from miles around to feast. That much I knew. What I didn’t know until today is that a whale fall can sustain the life of others for 50-75 years – which is approximately how long a whale lives to begin with. Gorgeous symmetry of nature.

Open Letter to PetSmart and PetCo (Plastic Poop Bags)

I just wrote and sent the following letter to PetSmart. I tried to send the same letter to PetCo, but they do not allow email contact through their site – I’ll tweet this URL to them instead.


Dear PetSmart –

I am aware that you give your shoppers a choice between plastic or compostable poop bags. That’s a good start, but I think it’s time to change that policy. Plastic bags take several hundred years to decompose, while compostable bags take only a few months. Of all the things we might want to enshrine in posterity for future generations, our dogs’ poop is not one of them.

Our landfills, waterways, and oceans are drowning in plastics, and the problem of ocean plastics has now reached the level of international crisis — a mind-boggling 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the world’s oceans every year. We see a regular stream of news stories and documentaries illustrating how critical the plastics path has become. While some plastic things in our society are difficult to replace with non-plastic alternatives, poop bags are not one of them. Compostable alternatives are every bit as easy to use, and do just as good a job. Frankly, there really is no excuse for anyone to be using non-compostable poop bags in 2019.

Yes, compostable bags cost a little bit more, but not much. I understand that you want to offer your consumers a low-cost option, but I feel that poop bags are in a “special” category because the plastics situation is so dire and because poop is… poop. I implore you to take a serious look at the situation and ask yourselves whether you would really lose customers if you simply took all non-biodegradable poop bags off the shelves at all of your stores.

As a major retailer of pet supplies, your store is uniquely positioned to make a tremendous impact. Refusing to sell plastic poop bags would send a powerful message to your customers and shareholders, would probably garner some positive press, and would help you and your customers to feel better about their choices.

Please give this idea your full consideration.

Regards,
Scot Hacker

Pyroclastic Flow

TIL about “pyroclastic flow.” Imagine the column of gases and ash and pumice pebbles spewing 32km into the air during the eruption of Vesuvius. The column is able to grow that tall because there’s so much upward force behind it, but eventually the sheer mass of the column overwhelms the upward force and it collapses in on itself and comes crashing down. Now, instead of that 400-degree miasma pushing skyward, 32km of hell is pushing down along the ground at 300mph, toward your town. The first victims of Vesuvius died when they took shelter indoors — 18 hours of raining pumice pebbles caved in the roofs of their homes. The other two thirds died when the pyroclastic flow spewed into town, enveloping them in an instant. Nature.

Sapfinger

Mountain biked up to Sapfinger to replace a geocache this afternoon, and bumped into an old friend on the way back. Can’t help myself from snapping this tree every time I’m up there – starkly beautiful in any light, but always reminded that what makes it so photogenic is the fact that it’s dying and leafless (pine beetles?). Today, turkey vultures were circling around and through, gliding just above its branches. Every time I visit, a few more big branches are crumbling at its feet. In a few years it’ll be just a stump, then eventually nothing, and this plateau will be a lonelier place.

Meet the Press on Climate Change

This weekend’s edition of Meet the Press took a totally new tack. Just one topic: Climate change. And the show started with an introduction: “We’re not going to debate climate change, the existence of it. The Earth is getting hotter. And human activity is a major cause, period. We’re not going to give time to climate deniers. The science is settled, even if political opinion is not. And we’re not going to confuse weather with climate.” Followed by a full hour of hard-hitting conversation. We’re going to start seeing a lot more of this. Thanks MTP for putting a stake in the ground.

Meet the Press – December 30, 2018

Meet the Press – December 30, 2018

Michael Bloomberg, Gov. Jerry Brown, Craig Fugate, Michele Flournoy, Dr. Kate Marvel, Carlos Curbello and Anne Thompson

Source: www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/meet-press-december-30-2018-n951406?fbclid=IwAR1jtuck4aM7-RGyqTeKc32NvDaMu_xM41nj0_kH1ZautOBqCouwWyTJjXA

Eight Million

Visualize eight million of something, anything. Now visualize a metric ton. Now visualize eight million metric tons. That’s how much plastic enters our oceans every year. Mind boggling.

After posting last week about how just nine rivers in the world account for most of the plastics in the world’s oceans, I heard from a group called Sustainable Asia about a podcast series they’ve produced about ocean plastics, the challenges of plastics recycling, the conundrum of incineration (waste-to-energy), and the programs China is undertaking to address its role in the crisis. I listened to it over the course of a week and it was so good I’m starting over. Super recommend (though it takes a bit to really ramp up).