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Racing With Climate Change - Part III. How Do We Know That We are Truly Winning?



“Change moves with the speed of trust” - credited to author Steven Covey


“There are emerging climate-action tools that can speed trust-building. How might we best apply them?” – point of this post


Part 1 of this series offered a framework for speeding the energy transition through concerted near term, distributed, community driven initiatives and a longer-term national/international utility-scale efforts. Part 2 recommended early measures that empower climate action-oriented municipalities and communities with the resources and foresight to implement stepwise programs and projects at the local level that pave the way for the rest of the country. This third and final segment of “Racing with Climate Change” seeks to address some critical elements to assessing the effectiveness of climate actions and doing it in such a way that reinforces trust across all the stakeholders.


In part 2 of this series, we referenced “Net Value to the Grid” (NVG) and the benefits that development of distributed, local energy resources can have on NVG. Since posting part 2, we received several comments expressing disdain for the “Value to Grid” metric. The “grid” can be perceived as some monolithic, omnipresent resource that serves our insatiable electrical needs... but the true proprietors are the utilities, of which laypersons have no meaningful influence. As discussed in Part 2, this relationship was by original design. On one hand this model was convenient and enabled the industrial revolution to accelerate. On the other, it ceded control, knowledge, and power of this pervasive resource to relatively few monopolies, conjuring shades of “Big Brother” or “the Matrix” as it proliferated.


The next generation grid is expected to be a lot of things beyond reliable delivery of power at the lowest cost. In Grid 2.0, that power must come from carbon-free sources, with broadly shared impacts and equitable access, while providing resilience to its customer-base in the event of macro-grid outages. In this new context, “Value-to-[Grid] Customer” is considered to be a much more appropriate metric than “Value-to-Grid.” Properly established, a different relationship between the grid and all its users should emerge: one of two-way engagement and mutual trust, where interests, both short and long term, are tightly aligned. At the crux of accomplishing this is how to validly and transparently quantify and measure “Value-to-Customer.”


Consider long-established methods that utilities use to measure grid reliability. These include metrics such as System Average Interruption Frequency Index (SAIFI) [1] and System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI) [2]. These paint a picture of a utility grid’s performance for management, investors, and regulators, but are not necessarily an accurate representation of actual customer experience. For example, these metrics don’t capture the cost of outages to the customer. They also don’t consider the timing of the outages. Did outages come at critical times for customers’ well-being or operation? Perhaps the utility had to reduce voltage (rolling brown outs) or turn off the power (rolling black outs) to one set of customers or another to keep the rest of the grid stable. Rolling brown outs and blackouts were frequent occurrences during the latest drought-induced wildfires in California and the surprise deep freeze in Texas. In essence, the supply of power could not meet the demand at those times and customers needed to get “bumped”. Consider how more customer-centric businesses deal with a similar supply-demand mismatch. Airlines compensate customers that “get bumped”. This keeps oversold flights from fouling up the entire system operation. Today’s utilities generally don’t compensate customers that “take one for the team.” Conversely most inconvenienced or disrupted grid customers don’t expect compensation. This is indicative of the long-standing relationship between the “monolithic grid” and its largely obedient customer-base. To make a timely transition to Grid 2.0, that relationship must evolve to one of better mutual understanding, partnership, and trust.


Developing that new relationship is where locally implemented, community-centric tools, employing national and international standards/guidelines - can play an instrumental role. Let’s consider some different examples.

Local Air Quality has a strong correlation with health and well-being [3]. Local and regional power production can have a significant impact on air quality. To date, accurately, and transparently monitoring local air quality is a very expensive proposition. For example, Massachusetts employs only 23 regulatory air quality sensors [4] across the entire state at a cost of $15,000 to $60,000 each [5]. Imagine widespread deployment of sensors with comparable accuracy at a fraction of the cost deployed in neighborhoods throughout the state. The data that they produce can create a valuable element in the “Value to Customer” currency. Improvements in local air quality correlate to progress against climate goals. They can provide tangible, real-time verification of other indicators of progress. There are a handful of emerging companies diligently working on such low cost, high accuracy sensors, including Greentown Labs based Quant-AQ.

Real Time Carbon Tracking Tools are digital tools that continuously aggregate numerous sources of real-time data reflecting the actual “carbon content” of the local electric grid at any point in time. These sources include national (e.g., Energy Information Administration -EIA), regional (e.g., Independent System Operators -ISOs) and local inputs (e.g., Automated Metering Infrastructure AMI). The tracker identifies points in time when the grid is being served by more fossil fuel sources (e.g., coal, natural gas) than renewables. Those are times when flexible loads (e.g., EV Charging, hot water heating) should be turned off or curtailed and energy storage systems should be activated. Such tools are exceedingly helpful in establishing baseline carbon inventory and running scenarios to prioritize climate actions and optimize resources. Ultimately these trackers can be used to directly control local distributed resources. Much like the air quality sensors, there are a handful of emerging companies intensely working on real-time carbon trackers, including Greentown Labs based Singularity.

Carbon Footprint Assessment Tools are digital interfaces intended to simplify, streamline, and standardize the process of calculating, monitoring, and prioritizing actions to mitigate an individual’s or entity’s carbon footprint. Numerous variables from disparate sources go into such calculations. For households, in addition to electricity, heating fuels and water usage, they account for means of transportation, food consumption and waste streams. For industries, these calculations may also include raw materials and process emissions. Common, traceable, easy-to-use digital platforms – represent another cornerstone for a carbon “currency” that will spur universal efforts to decarbonize and transition to grid 2.0. As with the other examples, there are several nascent firms developing such interfaces, including Footprints – also based at Greentown Labs.



The widespread, interconnected use of such grassroots tools should parlay into more meaningful national and global measurements. Top-down metrics can prove deceiving and lead to poor decisions. Consider Secretary of Defense’s Robert McNamara’s misguided data-driven (e.g., “body-count”) approach to the war in Vietnam. Presented properly, these metrics can fill a gap that has formed in our society’s attention to community efforts. Collectively, we tend to pay closest attention to global, national, and individual (e.g., health, wealth) trends. However, when it comes to climate action, community is where the rubber hits the road. The challenge is elevating the universal recognition of this critical role to a level that brings about widespread engagement across the population.

The clock is arguably the most vital and enduring monitoring device on the planet. Its role in coordinating communities and advancing civilization may offer some guidance here. Prior to the adoption of community sundials by the ancient Roman empire, society kept time by the diurnal cycles and the needs of individual stomachs. “Progress” against broader communal goals or threats was slow, disjointed, and unequal. The evolution of clocks and timekeeping brought new levels of order, cooperation, and coordination between communities. Behind advancements in virtually all sectors of civilization – from governance to trade, faith to knowledge, culture to industry – there are clocks of one form of the other, keeping time with increasing precision, information, and power [6]. Benjamin Franklin observantly declared time inseparable from money. Much like time, the air that we breathe is both local and universal. Are their means through sensors and digital platforms to tie its value so intimately to currency too?


Today’s watch, residing on the wrists of hundreds of millions of planet earth’s inhabitants, garners copious amounts of vital information to better manage individual health, wealth, and well-being – all tied in some way or the other to time. Climate change is no different. Can these devices that routinely deliver economic and health metrics also deliver critical metrics about climate action? After all, the sooner that we can establish an effective climate action “currency” and synchronize our respective clocks to collective community climate action, the greater the chances that civilization has to lessen the adverse impacts of climate change on the current and future generations, while sowing the seeds of opportunity to improve upon itself.


CONCLUSION (PART III)


Part 1 concluded that Smart Grid Interactive (SGI) community-centric tools facilitates “agility” – an essential element to a successful energy transition. Part 2 affirmed

the obvious - that those tools should be first put into the hands of communities that can be agile. Part 3 calls for the establishment of community-centric climate action “currency”, the lo

cal use of real-time monitors and digital platforms designed to reinforce trust through traceability and accountability to support that currency and the harmonization of actions across communities.


These are daunting tasks, particularly in today’s maelstrom of misinformation and extreme discord. Yet prior generations of our civilization addressed challenges of equal or greater magnitude when adjusted for the tools, resources, and information that they had at their disposal. There was a great deal of resistance to the introduction of clocks across the work: the progress, power, and control that they represented. It even led to extreme violence at times [7]. There are many lessons to be learned. Today’s civilization has the benefit of applying those lessons of the past to crossing the next chasm it faces with greater efficacy and equity. In short, we CAN do this.


Hopefully this three-part series, at a minimum, will increase awareness and provoke constructive thinking and discussion around community climate action and energy transition measures. Perhaps it can prove useful in guiding state legislatures to structure budgets and direct funding to stimulate or de-risk proposed projects and programs of this nature. Ideally this series will prompt widespread, meaningful climate actions at the local level, embodying many of the principals presented. Along these lines, Beacon Climate is a program/project development consultant that works with a wide array of partners, technologies, and methods to tailor effective and affordable climate solutions for municipalities, local utilities, and businesses. We are leading the development of the Resilient Energy and Infrastructure Consortium (REIC) at Greentown Labs, with the intent of forging an ever-expanding resource bringing expertise, innovation, futureproofing and grit to the challenges of climate change. Please reach out to us if your community is looking for support in this area.


Again, please add your ideas, comments and questions in the comment section of this blog or send them with related inquiries here.

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