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.

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.

PG&E Home Energy Stats

Our energy provider is PG&E, though we opt-in to the MCE Deep Green program to ensure that 100% of the energy we use is sourced from wind and solar (it’s like having solar panels without having to own your own inverters). Went looking on PG&E’s web site last night to see how owning an EV has changed our electricity consumption over the past 1.5 years and was blown away by the quality of the data access and visualizations they provide. You can download billing and consumption data in CSV or XML for any date range, for import into spreadsheets or so you can build your own web app. But why bother? They offer a huge range of ways to view your usage data over time, to compare your usage to similar homes, to view electric, gas, or combined. They overlay weather data and plot-lines to help explain usage spikes. Super well done. You can fine-tune your home’s characteristics for better reporting accuracy.

The answer to my original question? Pretty much zero. Driving an EV has had negligible impact on our electricity consumption, which means I’m basically driving for free (though granted I sometimes take advantage of the charger in the work parking garage). Shown: How our natural gas usage increases in the winter months.

A Nation-Sized Battery

If you want to power your home entirely on renewables, the general recommendation is to include enough battery storage to keep things running for 3-4 days without any input (no sun, no wind). This fascinating blog post looks at a hypothetical scenario where we wanted to scale this pattern up to supply the entire United States with enough battery to back up a 100% renewable grid.

He does the math, and comes up with a battery size of approximately one cubic mile. Size is not a problem (it would be distributed), but the cost would be around $25 trillion – more than the annual U.S. GDP. And we know of no source in the world capable of supplying enough lead (he uses lead batteries in the though experiment because they’re 85% efficient and are the cheapest form of battery). So there’s some problem solving to do there, and there are problems with the hypothetical – for example the whole nation would never experience a lack of sun or wind for four days, and we could share extra juice around on a well-distributed grid, eliminating the need for this much battery storage. Or we could come to a fantastic battery breakthrough that changes everything. Or … Good read.

A Nation-Sized Battery

Fireside chat: Tim O’Reilly with Jason Calacanis

Loose notes from SXSW 2011 session: Fireside chat with Tim O’Reilly with Jason Calacanis

Jason Calacanis, Founder,
Tim O’Reilly, Founder/CEO, O’Reilly Media Inc

Wonderful way to open a week of stimulating sessions that challenge preconceived notions of technology, politics, and journalism in unexpected ways. O’Reilly was an intellectual silver bullet, as always, but really nice to catch him in an unscripted conversation rather than in one of his more “formal” talks.
Continue reading “Fireside chat: Tim O’Reilly with Jason Calacanis”

Waste Stats

Some really amazing figures on solid waste, via the Clean Air Council, including:

Only about one-tenth of all solid garbage in the United States gets recycled.

In the U.S., 4.39 pounds of trash per day and up to 56 tons of trash per year are created by the average person. [Since this is garbage night and this stat got me curious, I actually weighed our garbage tonight before taking it to the curb – a total of 2.5 lbs for a family of 3 – the rest was recycled or composted.]

Diapers: An average child will use between 8,000 -10,000 disposable diapers ($2,000 worth) before being potty trained. Each year, parents and babysitters dispose of about 18 billion of these items. In the United States alone these single-use items consume nearly 100,000 tons of plastic and 800,000 tons of tree pulp. We will pay an average of $350 million annually to deal with their disposal and, to top it off, these diapers will still be in the landfill 300 years from now. Americans throw away 570 diapers per second. That’s 49 million diapers per day.

Throwing away one aluminum can wastes as much energy as if that can were 1/2 full of gasoline.

Americans receive almost 4 million tons of junk mail every year. Most of it winds up in landfills.

As of 1992, 14 billion pounds of trash were dumped into ocean annually around the world.

Forty-three thousand tons of food is thrown out in the United States each day.

Each American exerts three times as much pressure on the natural environment as the global average.

People who change their own oil improperly dump the equivalent of 16 Exxon Valdez spills into the nation’s sewers and landfills every year.

… more at the site.

The Groaning Power Grid

Amid the din of conversations about how South Dakota alone gets enough wind to power a quarter of the country, or the huge efficiency gains of nuclear power, or how harnessing the movement of the tides could provide 20% of Britain’s energy needs, one important fact gets lost: The power grid in the U.S. has barely been upgraded in 20 years, and is nowhere near ready to move vast amounts of power across long distances. As energy demand rises and we start to look at large centralized installations (wind, hydro, nuclear, other), we overlook a politically inconvenient truth – without vast investments in the power grid itself, all that new energy isn’t going anywhere. The grid is already full-to-bursting, and moving lots of energy across long distances is a giant headache.

When the builders of the Maple Ridge Wind farm spent $320 million to put nearly 200 wind turbines in upstate New York, the idea was to get paid for producing electricity. But at times, regional electric lines have been so congested that Maple Ridge has been forced to shut down even with a brisk wind blowing.

“We need an interstate transmission superhighway system,” said Suedeen G. Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Music: Rail Band :: Balakononifing

ServInt Goes Climate-Positive

Worldopener-Small Several years ago, when Birdhouse Hosting was young, I was researching the market to find a reliable datacenter that was entirely powered by renewable energy sources. I did find a few, but none working at the scale I was looking for (some didn’t have 24×7 monitoring and support; others did, but didn’t provide cPanel licenses). I ended up going with ServInt, and have been extremely happy with their reliability and support.

Today got some exciting news: ServInt has just announced that their whole VPS operation has gone not just carbon-neutral, but climate positive:

ServInt’s commitment to climate-positive hosting applies to its entire line of Virtual Private Server (VPS) hosting services. Each of ServInt’s VPS services is backed by a commitment to offset the total carbon-footprint of the VPS by at least 110 percent. ServInt accomplishes its carbon-offsetting goals through large-scale reforestation campaigns operated by American Forests (

To ensure a truly climate-positive approach, ServInt calculates its reforestation commitment not only on the energy consumption of the host servers, but on its entire VPS infrastructure. That includes compensating for all core routing and switching equipment, for cooling and redundant power operations, and for an extensive back-LAN that provides customers with free backups and centralized update repositories.

Music: Elbow :: One Day Like This

Integrated Manure Utilization Systems

The idea behind the Discovery show Invention Nation is good: Send three hipster dudes around the country in a bio-diesel bus, looking for interesting technological environmental solutions. Unfortunately, the show is poorly produced and executed, but the ideas in it are interesting enough that it’s kept me watching.

Cool to see a piece recently on Integrated Manure Utilization Systems (IMUS). There’s a butt-load (sorry) of usable methane gas locked in the manure that gets discarded by the ton at dairies and stock yards around the world. An IMUS system involves strategically placed floor grates in cattle yards, into which manure can be pushed. From there, it’s chopped, mixed with water, and placed in large holding tanks. Bacteria go to work on the sludge and methane rises to the top, where it’s burned (cleanly) to create electricity.

How effective is the process? The dairy farm visited by the Invention Nation guys had 250 cattle, and was able to generate enough electricity not only to power itself, but 150 average-sized households as well. And the equipment investment pays off in 5-7 years.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association says the range of benefits from IMUS include:

  • Reduced manure handling costs
  • Protection of water resources
  • Odour reduction
  • Recycling of waste water
  • Reduced energy costs
  • Value-added revenue from the sale of energy and bio-based fertilizer
  • Strengthening agriculture’s reputation of environmentally sustainable resource management

Imagine if every dairy and cattle yard installed their own IMUS – the enviro benefits would be immense.

Music: Son House :: Empire State Express