A second squeal from the pig

The laws of thermodynamics might be paraphrased as (1) you can’t win, (2) you can’t break even, and (3) you can’t get out of the game. The second law is the frustrating truth that all engineers face. Whenever you change energy from one form to another, you always lose some as heat. Eventually all energy winds up as heat. Some say the universe as a whole will one day end up as one great expanse of uniform heat – the heat death of the universe. A cheerful thought, that.

To an engineer, heat is useless. It is loss. It is the price grudgingly paid for getting work done. The lower the price paid, the greater the success. You might say that the mission of the engineer is to squeeze the very most usable work out of a given unit of fuel before it inevitably becomes worthless, unusable heat.

In this context, the idea of burning fuel for warmth is absurd – all that fuel being turned into heat, with zero work done. And yet we do it all the time. Guelph’s Community Energy Initiative document of 2007 pegged the annual city-wide consumption of natural gas at 231 million cubic metres. Virtually all of that was (and still is) being burned in boilers or furnaces to create heat – heating our buildings, heating our domestic hot water, even heating for cooling (a feat performed by absorption chillers).

There’s another way.

Oink, oink

Oink, oink (Original posted here)

If you burn that fuel in an engine – the same kind of internal combustion engine in your car – you get torque and heat. That torque can turn a generator to produce electricity, while the leftover heat can be used for any of the purposes mentioned above. Using the same fuel to provide both electricity and heat is called Combined Heat and Power, or CHP (also called cogeneration). It gets you a second squeal from the pig. Or, viewed another way (see diagram at right, from building.co.uk), it gives you 260 units of valuable output from 325 units of fuel; conventional methods require 465 units of fuel (43% more) to produce the same output. If you rely on grid electricity and 80% efficient boilers, CHP is an attractive alternative.

There are variations on the engine idea. Large-scale CHP uses not gas engines but gas turbines – similar to what you find under the wing of a Boeing 737- to produce energy in the range of megawatts rather than kilowatts. At the other end of the scale, there’s a micro-CHP device called BlueGEN that doesn’t burn the fuel at all, but rather runs it through a ceramic fuel cell to convert it to electricity – enough to supply a typical single-family home, with sufficient leftover heat to satisfy the family’s domestic hot water needs.

In areas where the utility grid uses carbon-intensive brown coal for much of its power generation, like the Australian state of Victoria, a product like BlueGEN offers significant savings in carbon emissions compared to grid electricity – a welcome benefit over and above the financial savings. This is partly because coal-fired power plants produce the most carbon of any option on the energy generation menu. It is also because the grid electricity comes with a substantial drag in the form of unusable heat – the coal plants produce steam from high-grade heat, but they can’t use the low-grade heat left over so they discharge it as a waste product. When the fuel is consumed right at the point of use, this waste heat can be put to productive use.

Where the grid has a low carbon intensity, like here in Ontario, one might think that household-scale CHP would be a non-starter. It’s true that the average amount of carbon produced per unit of energy is a lot lower than Down Under in the state of Victoria. However, the average is meaningless in this situation. There are several forms of power generation in the Ontario mix – nuclear for base load, followed by hydroelectric, wind (when it’s available), and finally natural gas. These are dispatched consecutively as demand rises, and shut down in the reverse order as demand drops. As demand falls off, the first source to be shut down is natural gas.

When a household takes itself off the grid by producing its own electricity, that demand comes right off the top of the generation stack. If you’re going to compare the emissions of a product like BlueGEN, you have to compare its emissions against those of the marginal grid generation source – natural gas. During the period from midnight on January 14th, 2015 to 1:00 PM on January 19th, the average emissions factor for the Ontario grid was 73g of CO2 per kilowatt hour (for current data, click here). However, the marginal emissions factor was seven times that figure: 512g CO2/kWh.  By comparison, a BlueGEN unit with waste heat captured for domestic hot water comes in with an emissions factor of 240g CO2/kWh – less than half of the marginal grid emissions intensity.

What would happen if all of Guelph adopted CHP?

Earlier I mentioned that the 2006 city-wide natural gas consumption was 231 million cubic metres. If CHP units (with the efficiencies shown in the diagram) were used to produce the same amount of heat as our furnaces currently do, it would produce 1,402 GWh of electricity. The entire electricity demand of Guelph as of 2006 was 1,630 GWh. So, if we met our heating requirements with CHP units instead of furnaces, we could meet 86% of our city-wide electricity needs at the same time.

We mustn’t forget thermodynamics rule #1 – you can’t win, or rather you can’t get something for nothing. This scenario would double our natural gas consumption. However, even more of that “extra” natural gas – 121 million cubic metres, to be exact – is being burned in a peaker plant anyway to supply our electricity. The reason CHP looks so much better is that peaker plants dissipate their waste heat, rather than getting that all-important second squeal from the pig.

Deployed broadly in Guelph, CHP could save 121 million cubic metres of natural gas per year. That corresponds to 228,000 tonnes of carbon, not to mention $23 million in annual cash savings. It would also mean we produce 86% of our electricity right here within the city limits – a big plus for resiliency in an era when freak ice storms can tear down high voltage transmission lines and leave thousands without power, as happened in Quebec in late 1998.

Let’s get that pig squealing.

Who’s driving this thing?

Home, R2D2, and once around the park

Home, R2-D2, and once around the park

In my last post, I discussed the trouble with government incentives that focus on technologies. Alternative vehicle fuels such as compressed natural gas and electricity are the current favourite technologies for a post-carbon transportation era, but there’s another game in town that could prove far more disruptive: driverless cars.

When considering driverless cars, the first thing to do is to recognize that they promise to bring about a complete break from the current norm of private car ownership. The real potential of driverless cars lies not in a set of features available to individual car buyers – cruise control on steroids, say – but in the transformation of transportation from product to service. The driver (sorry, pun) for this transformation is economics.

The average car spends 95% of its time parked, according to Paul Barter of Reinventing Parking. If such a car were fully utilized, it could replace somewhere between two and 20 conventional cars. A shared driverless car service could offer mobility for at least 50% – and possibly as low as 5% – of the cost of personal car ownership.

The savings don’t end there. The end of car ownership also means the end of the line for most parking facilities, and the transformation of the few that endure. For single-family homes, the need for a garage goes away, as does the need for a driveway. For multi-unit residences, parkade structures become redundant and the space becomes liberated for more valuable uses. The same goes for workplaces, retail establishments, and so on. For the minimal periods of time when automated vehicles are not required, parking becomes a first-in-first-out model, situated on the cheapest real estate available – brownfield sites, for example – with cheek-by-jowl spacing since there’s no longer any requirement for people to get in and out. This unlocks a huge amount of high-value real estate currently relegated to low-value use.

There are infrastructure savings as well. Municipalities – at least those in Canada – struggle with a significant gap between the need to maintain infrastructure, and the funds available to meet that need. Self-driving cars, networked together to allow instant sharing of information regarding road conditions, would be able to operate safely with bumper-to-bumper spacing, even at highway speeds. This would dramatically increase the capacity of existing roadways, rendering a whole lot of asphalt redundant. The amount of pavement to be maintained would plummet. (On the flip side, some significant sources of municipal revenue – parking fees, fines for various violations related to motor vehicle operation – would also disappear.)

This same ability to increase awareness of the vehicle’s surroundings by networking with other vehicles, or with sensing technology embedded in the road surface or streetlight poles, would allow much more fluid flow of traffic. It would largely eliminate the start-stop dynamic that is so frustrating to drivers, especially when traffic lights on major arterial routes are poorly sequenced. This simulation video by CityLab illustrates how dramatically different a driverless intersection would perform. The result would be faster trips and better fuel efficiency. The opportunity for platooning mentioned in the previous paragraph (and described in more detail here) offers similar fuel efficiency improvement.

Mobility, real estate, and infrastructure savings are all well and good, but a there’s another saving – lives. Car accidents cause over 2,000 deaths and 10,000 serious injuries per year in this country, according to Transport Canada. The major safety topics in this report are dominated by the human factor, also known as the four D’s – drinking, drugs, drowsiness, and distraction – as described by eTrans Systems CEO John Estrada in a recent podcast. The Transport Canada report doesn’t go so far as to connect the causes with the casualty stats, but it’s pretty clear that removing the human from the driving equation would drive down the human cost of driving. This cost includes the hard economic cost of lost productive years from premature death or disablement, the hard cost to the health care system to treat injuries, the hard cost of damage to vehicle and property, and the soft but very real cost of the pain and suffering of survivors. This was the very factor motivating Google’s Sebastian Thrun to search for a better way to get around.

The economic force behind this innovation is massive and inescapable – a tsunami, in fact. There will be speed bumps along the road to widespread penetration of this technology, but the question is not if, but when.

So what does this mean for energy policy, and for municipal planning in general? With such a revolution around the corner, how can society prepare? How do we avoid making major investments that will be rendered redundant long before they live out what was expected to be their useful lives?

Take parking, for example. The City of Guelph is grappling with what to do about this issue in the downtown core. Finding a spot on a busy shopping day is a major pain – nothing compared to what Torontonians face, but a nightmare by Guelph standards. When customers can’t find a place to park while they shop, they won’t shop. They will go to malls and big-box retailers on the city periphery where parking is plentiful, and downtown businesses will suffer.

The obvious solution is to dedicate more space to parking. Surface parking is one way. Multilevel parkades make better use of scarce real estate, but at a substantial cost. Finding a way to fund this investment is a challenge.

If mass adoption of the driverless car is on the horizon, the logic for investments like this is no longer clear. The problem is pressing and must be solved in the short term, but any solution must be designed with an eye to how it might be re-purposed should technology send it the way of the electric typewriter.

That is no easy task, but inaction is not an option. Forward-looking design is the only way to avoid kicking ourselves when a significant societal transformation arrives.

There is a precedent. When Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct entered service in 1918, designer R.C. Harris had ensured it would be ready to accommodate two-way subway train traffic. The Bloor-Danforth subway began using it a full 48 years later.

With a mobility revolution on the horizon, today’s public infrastructure investments will need that same sort of vision.

Directionally challenged


Dream on, Alex…dream on.

Where energy policy is concerned, transportation is a tough nut to crack.

Energy end use falls into three broad categories: Industry, buildings, and transportation. Ontario consumption is roughly equal in each. So far, Guelph’s Community Energy Initiative (CEI) has focused on buildings. Industry already gets a lot of love from Conservation and Demand Management (or Demand-Side Management, if you’re talking about natural gas rather than electricity). Plenty of CDM/DSM incentive dollars are available to industrial enterprises, since energy consumption is concentrated and a single efficiency project can go a long way. Industry has gotten some CEI attention as it can be both a supplier and customer of a thermal energy utility, and again big demand is concentrated in a relatively small space.

Transportation has been largely left out in the cold. This is because any incentive program will be difficult to formulate for a specific target population, and will struggle to produce a fast payback.

Transportation is, by definition, mobile. Vehicles plying the streets of Guelph are either based here, or they come here from somewhere else. A program aimed at reducing transportation energy use may be aimed at the home base for a vehicle, or alternatively at the destination. It’s difficult for a municipality to justify a program that will primarily affect vehicles that drive here from elsewhere (fuel trucks, say), nor does it make sense to target vehicles that are based here but spend a good chunk of their life outside of the City limits (because they commute to Kitchener-Waterloo or the GTA, for example). Ideally a program would pick out the vehicles that are based in Guelph and rarely leave Guelph, but that’s a tall order.

Another challenge is how to devise a program to reduce energy use for transportation with reasonably quick results. You can stimulate active transportation by providing bike lanes, and Guelph is doing this (recently winning a silver award for being one of Ontario’s most bike-friendly cities). You can also plan urban development so that people don’t need to drive so much to clear their to-do lists, and Guelph is doing this as well. However, these are programs that pay off only in the medium to long term. Transportation energy usage stubbornly resists the quick-win improvement.

It is tempting to score a short-term victory by stimulating uptake of a particular energy-efficient technology. However, picking technology winners is something that governments have rarely done well, whether this is for a particular player in a given industry, or for an entire sector. As an example of the former, the Obama administration got burned by a US$536 million loan guarantee to the solar company Solyndra, which went bankrupt in 2011. As for the latter, if you’d surveyed the market for alternative vehicle drive systems fifteen years ago, you might well have bet on fuel cells. A survey of today’s urban streets would yield exactly zero examples of such vehicles.

If you get into the game before the market has pronounced judgement, it’s a great way to lose your shirt. If you wait too long, the incentive will not change the outcome from what would have happened anyway. Timing is key.

These days, a number of alternative fuel technologies are showing broad market acceptance. For small vehicles, electric drive systems are becoming ever more prevalent, starting with hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) like the Toyota Prius, then moving on to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) like the Chevy Volt, and then true electric vehicles (EVs) like the Nissan Leaf and my own personal dream car, the now-out-of-production Tesla Roadster (I know, I’m dreaming in technicolour if I think I’ll ever afford such a ride on a municipal employee’s salary). For larger vehicles, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) shows a lot of promise.

HEVs and PHEVs offer energy efficiency improvements over traditional internal combustion vehicles, but they both still have gasoline engines. Money spent on gasoline fuel leaves the community, never to return. EVs, however, run exclusively on electricity, which can be generated locally, injecting cash back into the community rather than bleeding it away to faraway refiners and producers. This makes EVs the most attractive target out of the three for an incentive program.

Two key barriers to EV adoption are range anxiety and cost literacy. Although the “fuel” for EVs is everywhere that society is found, the chargers – Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE), to use the industry jargon – are far from ubiquitous. Prospective owners worry that they might get stuck somewhere en route with a dead battery. A program to provide more EVSEs, either at home base or typical destinations (malls, say, or employee parking), can alleviate this so-called range anxiety.

Cost literacy is another barrier. Car shoppers look at sticker price, but that has nothing to do with their ability to pay. When costs are expressed as a monthly payment, they can actually be compared to a household budget. However, with EVs, this cost is only part of the story. The base cost is higher, but the operating cost is peanuts. I attended a seminar at the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy, where I learned that when cost is expressed as total monthly figure – fuel included – EVs win hands down against comparable internal combustion vehicles. An incentive program could be geared at simply clarifying this fact for car purchasers.

For larger vehicles, electric drive is still seems iffy, Edmonton’s choice to test electric buses notwithstanding. For this category, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) is attractive. After a false start in the 1990s, this technology appears ready for prime time. It’s still a fossil fuel, true. However, a CNG vehicle produces 20% less greenhouse gases than a comparable diesel or normal gasoline vehicle, and virtually zero NOx, SOx, and particulates. It also has a significant cost advantage – CNG would be the equivalent of $0.45/L gasoline. Even with gas prices as low as they currently are (by recent, not historical standards), that offers a competitive return on the cost to convert existing vehicles, or the incremental cost to choose a new CNG vehicle over the gas/diesel model.

With all that said, HEVs, PHEVs, EVs, and CNG vehicles don’t hold a candle to the revolutionary possibilities of another emerging transportation technology. More on that in my next post.