The Grid Within the Grid (My Earth Day 2009 Post)

Most people driving into San Jose, CA will quickly notice the quixotic mix of the hotel De Anza, a throwback to art deco style architecture, and the many new glass-and-steel condo towers beckoning white collar 30 somethings to migrate back into the city center.  To be sure, this city draws a striking contrast between the city streets around the gleaming center of the city, and the dilapidated wooden structure homes on the other side of the 280 freeway dressed up in all manner of baby blues and yellow paint jobs. Old and new San Jose, they call it.  I live about 5 minutes from city center in San Jose, and from time to time drive past the building-turned-artwork city hall on the way to something or another. The last few times I drove past city hall, I noticed an approximately 2-3 foot black machine right across city hall on the curbside – about the half size of a mailbox. Now what seemed at the time like a high tech parking meter may in fact transform old San Jose yet again – only this time it’ll be the roads which change.

It turns out the curbside machine was one of four installed by Coulomb Technologies —three in a parking garage on 4th Street and one curbside across from city hall. The purpose of the device is to provide drivers with the ability to charge up electric and electric-hybrid vehicles. Here’s how it works: a driver can subscribes to the company’s ChargePoint Network, and receives a smart card that allows he or she to fuel up at any station. A driver can pay for 10 sessions a month for $15 or all the way up to unlimited monthly access for $50. The charging station will work for fully electric vehicles as well as plug-in hybrids. Chargepoint subscribers can visit the network’s web site to view a Google maps feed of available (or occupied) stations.

Let that sink in a moment – an electric or hybrid electric driver using this network can effectively place a ceiling on his or her transit fuel costs while driving “green”.

But charging stations are the visible tip of a larger iceberg. To enable a consumer level cap on transit costs in this fashion, we would need a standardized grid of services and standards – one which would allow drivers to plug in whether they are in San Jose or anywhere else in North America. And that requires what I like to call the grid above the grid. It’s an idea stemming from the way the internet works, simply applied to energy. Think about all the things that have to work in concert ot allow you to read this blog post : An ethernet cable (or wifi) is used to connect your computer to your router at home or in the office. That’s a physical layer standard. Next you need an Internet address, or IP, which works on top of the physical standard.  This blog has an IP address, and so does your computer – its how traffic gets to and from you on the internet. Next, you have to have a transport standard from your browser to the blog server to allow to you request the blog post text. That’s a standard too which sits above the IP address standard (the “TCP” in “TCP/IP”). Finally you have the application layer standard which sits atop the transport layer. That’s the HTML standard which all web pages adhere to, allowing your browser to work all over the internet. The point here is that to make it all work, it’s important to compartmentalize the system into different layers of a “stack model”, with each standard layer sits on top of one another. The same stack model can be helpful in identifying steps needed to fuel transportation in a post-petrol world.

Here’s one (admittedly simple) Grid Within the Grid model:


The assumption here is, like the internet, there’s a grid built on the back of another to make post-petrol driving convenient. In turn, the four pieces are as follows:

The Connector (or “plug”) Layer

The first layer in the grid would a standard plug which connects to any charging station (home or commercial), and fits any electric or hybrid-electric vehicle. The good news is we already have one.  The three-point, 400-volt plug, which will allow electric cars to be recharged anywhere in a matter of minutes, is set to be unveiled Monday at the world’s biggest industrial technology fair in Hanover, northern Germany. According to a press release from German energy company RWE,  sa press release from German energy company RWE, automotive and energy companies have reached an agreement for a standardized plug electric and electric-hybrids. Some of the automakers include in that agreement are Volkswagen, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Fiat, Toyota and Mitsubishi.

The Refuel Layer

The next part of that standards stack is the charging stations on the roadsides, or what I call the charge station layer. It’s also problem for which appropriate tools have been developed and deployed for determining where Starbucks franchises will be located to tap demand, for instance. Same thinking applies to charging stations, and making sure those stations all support the lower level standard (use the same plug). Of course there’s also the matter of making sure Chargepoint users are authenticated. Energy credits provided to Chargepoint users would need to be billed, which requires set up of a monetization grid as well. To make such a system convenient, drivers would need to be able to pay a number of different ways: credit cards, subscription, stored value cards, and possibly other exotic methods such as bill to a phone (the way some vending machines work in Japan). Layer on top that a number of different providers would jump on board to provide charging stations the same way ExxonMobile, Shell, Chevron, etc all lined up to provide drivers with fuel for conventional vehicles. The trick is getting the most ubiquitous charge network providers to join open payment interoperability standards. This too is a problem which has been solved in the past – by banks who have coordinated to provide ubiquitous use of Visa and Mastercards, regardless of what bank a business accepting credit cards is using, or whether that business is a brick-and-mortar business or a web business.

The Energy Transmission Layer

There’s little point to switching to electric or electric-hybrids if we keep generating electricity through fossil fuels – whether you’re concerned about the impact of greenhouse gases on the environment, domestic job creation, or the America’s political-economic entanglements driven by dependence on petro-dictatorships for fuel. It’s the same problem. The U.S. has the natural resources, the technology and the capital to initiate a shift to renewable energy. Missing is a high-voltage and fault-tolerant transmission backbone to make that future a reality. The issue is that the prime areas for renewable energy production are in places where we don’t have robust existing transmission infrastructure.  Since there is a geographic gap between production and demand, electric companies have understandably built coal, nuclear, natural gas and oil-fired generators closer to customers.

Matthew Wald of Scientific American provides depths around the issue by writing that “North America is actually covered by four regional grids (three of which serve the U.S.). The largest is the Eastern Interconnection, an extensive complex of transmission lines that stretches from Halifax to New Orleans, with substations that step down the high-voltage electricity to lower levels so that it can be distributed locally along smaller wires. West of the Rockies is the Western Interconnection, from British Columbia to San Diego and a small slice of Mexico. Texas, in an echo of its history as an independent republic, comprises its own grid, now called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. And Quebec, with its separatist undercurrent, also has its own grid. The high-voltage transmission systems in the four regions comprise about 200,000 miles of power lines, divided among a staggering 500 owners, that carry current from more than 10,000 power plants run by about 6,000 investor-owned utilities, public power systems and co-ops.”

Power traveling through a feudal mess of jurisdictions is only one problem. We also lose power the longer we transmit it, and the older the energy grid is the less efficient it operates. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), seventy percent of the existing high-­voltage system is consequently 25 years old or more. Hence the DOE’s current goal of attaining 20 percent of U.S. electricity from wind by 2030 includes a plan for a national, high-voltage transmission backbone. The 22,000-mile system is the energy equivalent of the interstate highway act for a post-carbon transportation economy. Today’s transmission system usually operates at no higher than 345 kilovolts, but the proposed national energy backbone  would operate at an extreme high-voltage rating: 765 kilovolts. The bump in power would reduce typical system losses of 3 to 8 percent to around 1 percent and provide routing around. It also wouldn’t hurt to have a smart grid which routes around failure between any two lines, in case of routine failure or in the case of an electro magnetic disruption. Incidentally, the U.S. military is currently studying the effects of a weaponized electro magnetic disruption device, which could be used to knock out power to affected areas. Enhanced security is a nice benefit to revamping the grid too.

The Production Layer

As the self-explanatory name implies, the production layer involves what happens inside a power plant – be that power plant conventional, or renewable. To the extent that the other three layers are properly sorted out as above, a centralized conversion from fossil fuels to renewables at the power plant level would have the effect of “greening” transportation around the country.

The Big Picture

This is one picture of what we can create , and none of this is new. Making the kinds of changes we’ll need to make one way or another is a matter of applying internet design principles, business community buy-in, public support, and exercise of a new national highway act focused on energy.  The key to this is a concerted effort – our national highway system was not constructed individually by states and glued together afterwards. So it is with the need for a national transportation energy grid. The best part is we will probably create lots of jobs while we’re at it.

This entry was published on April 22, 2009 at 6:36 PM. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “The Grid Within the Grid (My Earth Day 2009 Post)

  1. brandon pelissero on said:


    I was referred to you by Mark Buhrke via Facebook and wanted to touch base as I’m not on Facebook ‘yet.’ I can be reached via cell 404 229-2406 or email I live in East Atlanta and would love to hear what we can do for one another.

  2. Hi Eric,
    This is a very interesting article, and I wish hear more people talking about it. Regarding the $15 per 10 session recharge, I’m wondering what the cost per recharge is for the average California home owner to plug an electric vehicle in at home. Do many people store solar cell energy for this purpose. We need to take the lead in CA. Thanks for your post!

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