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Episode #35: ‘The Whole Grid and Nothing But the Whole Grid’ with Doug Houseman, Principal Consultant at 1898 & Co. [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. Each two weeks we’ll connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network...

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  • May 25, 2021 12:15 pm GMT
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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021 - 05 - Grid Modernization, click here for more

Today’s episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast brings in a guest who’s long overdue for an appearance in Doug Houseman, a Principal Consultant at 1898 & Co., a Burns & McDonnell division. Doug’s insights into the utility in much sought after, and his writing in the Energy Central community has been undoubtedly prolific as he seeks to impart wisdom to the next generation of power professionals that he’s learned the hard way through a career in utilities that stretches on for several decades.

Specifically, Doug has seen an unfortunate trend in the world of thought leadership, media coverage, and roadmaps to focus on quick fixes to the grid. Whether that’s through focusing on  overly optimistic silver bullets, the tendency to think and speak in sound bites, or just a myopic view of what solutions are going to carry the power sector, and really all of society, into the future, Doug Houseman is here to stress the importance of whole systems thinking and solutions. “If we want to keep the grid a social asset for all to use, then we need to work on the holistic picture, not a single aspect,” Doug recently wrote on the Energy Central article “The Whole Grid and Nothing But the Whole Grid,” and in this episode host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester invite Doug to dig even deeper on that idea.

Prefer to Read vs. Listening? Scroll Down to Read Transcript.

 

Thanks to the sponsors of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West MonroeEsriAnterix, and ScottMadden

 

Key Links

Doug Houseman’s Energy Central Profile:  https://energycentral.com/member/profile/doug-houseman

 

The Whole Grid and Nothing But the Grid: https://energycentral.com/c/gr/whole-grid-and-nothing-whole-grid

 

TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Welcome to today's episode of Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast. The show where we bring in top thought leaders, decision-makers, and influencers in the utility industry to dissect the key issues, hitting the world of energy today. I'm your host, Jason Price of West Monroe. And I'm coming to you from New York City. As always, I'm joined with Matt Chester producer of this podcast and Energy Central's community manager. Matt, are you excited for today's episode?

 

Matt Chester: 

Sure, I'm Jason. I think this is a guest that has been long overdue to be on the podcast. So I'm excited to give him the floor and start diving in.

 

Jason Price: 

Yeah, I'm excited as well. So the grid has been called the most complex machine that humans have ever built. And it's also one of the most critical to our modern way of life. A well-functioning grid is foundational to our advanced society. After all, what keeps our food cold, our medicine chilled, our computers and data centers running, our military on high alert, and increasingly our cars charged. Our lives depend on a safe, reliable, and affordable electrical system. For years leading voices in the industry have been calling for upgrades for modernizations and for a renewed investments in the grid infrastructure. In recent years a number of major events, not the least of which include the outages in Texas from the winter storms this past February have hammered home how critical it has become to address any potential shortcomings of the grid as quickly as possible. Specifically, today's guest is going to guide us on a tour of how the various stakeholders come together to fix the grid are actually falling short of really embracing what's needed.

Jason Price:
Seeking to guide the conversation away from mythical silver bullets, the ever outspoken and rarely shy Doug Houseman of 1898 & Company, a subsidiary of Burns & McDonnell will tap into his extensive experience in history in the utility sector to reset the grid modernization conversation for us.

Jason Price:
But before we bring Doug into the virtual studio, let's recognize our key sponsors who made this episode possible. To West Monroe. West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric gas and water utilities and their telecommunications, grid modernization, and digital and workforce transformations. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends operational expertise, customer experience, and technology to address the challenges of modernizing aging infrastructure, transportation electrification, ADMS deployments, and challenges presented by the proliferation of DER and cybersecurity. To Esri. Esri is an international supplier of geographic information, and that includes GIS software, web GIS, and geodatabase management applications. To Guidehouse, formerly Navigant Research. Guidehouse is a premier market research and advisory firm covering the global energy transformation.

Jason Price:
To Anterix. Anterix focuses on delivering transformative broadband that enables the modernization of critical infrastructure for the energy, transportation, logistics, and other sectors of our economy. And to ScottMadden. ScottMadden is a management consulting firm serving clients across the energy utility ecosystem. Areas of focus include transmission and distribution, the grid edge, generation, energy markets, rates and regulations, corporate sustainability, and corporate services. The firm helps clients develop and implement strategies, improve critical operations, reorganize departments and entire companies, and implement myriad initiatives.

Jason Price:
Today's podcast guest is never shy to bring both deep insight and a sharp tongue to the conversation. His desire to share what he thinks is coupled with a passion to make the world a better place, and do so through our electric grid. He is a prolific writer on Energy Central and a member since 2017. Having shared his insights with dozens of original posts, questions answered, and insightful comments added to the community. For our members on Energy Central, there's a good chance you've read his postings, read his responses to your questions, or chimed in on discussions offering perspective.

Jason Price:
So while Doug may draw his boyhood roots from farm country in Michigan's upper peninsula, he rolls up his sleeves and rumbles like he is from Detroit. Doug's broad background in the energy sector has taken him across many different organizations and corners of the industry, from Capgemini, where he worked his way up to chief technology officer, to his founding of the Smart Energy Alliance to a stint as vice president of technical innovation at EnerNex, and ultimately to his current role at Burns & McDonnell. Today he is the lead for grid modernization with the firm, and he continues to be a leading public voice on grid-related issues. Frustrated with the tendency towards soundbites or single technology solutions being proposed for the future of the grid, Doug recently shared a post on Energy Central titled, The whole grid and nothing but the grid. And in today's episode, we're going to let Doug give you a piece of his mind as we dig deeper into the topic. Doug Houseman, welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

Doug Houseman:
Thank you.

Jason Price:
Doug, let's start with the basics. You wrote that much of what you're reading today about fixing the grid doesn't sit well with you. Share some of these headlines and without naming names, where are you seeing these statements generally coming from?

Doug Houseman:
Well, if we look at the Texas event in February, we saw a lot of people pop up and say, "Well, if they'd just been connected to the rest of the country, there wouldn't have been a problem." Well, that's the most false headline and conclusion that you can draw from the events in Texas in February. Because if you look at California ISO, Southern Power Pool, Whack, MISO, and the other control areas that surround Texas, even Mexico, they were all in crisis for power during that time. And connecting Texas wouldn't have helped Texas at all. And if we'd connected Texas three or four years ago, because of the very low-cost wind power, the folks in Whack probably would have lost six or eight gigawatts of power plants because they weren't economically sustainable. So the issue would have been worse, not better.

Doug Houseman:
And you can look at, solar is so cheap, we can get rid of everything else. Okay. Solar is so cheap if you can use the power exactly when it's made that you don't need anything else at that time. But at three o'clock in the morning, solar is very dear and the cost is not just the cost of solar, it's also the cost of storage. And we tend in each piece of the industry to take only the cost of our piece and not look at it in the perspective of reliable 87.60 power across the year, regardless of the weather and regardless of the season. Right now our peak is in the summer, typically in the late afternoon, as we get to more and more electric heating and we replace all the natural gas and we get to more and more electric transportation, our peak is going to shift from summer afternoon to winter night.

Doug Houseman:
Solar doesn't produce very well in the middle of December. Wind to a large extent doesn't produce as well as we would like at time. So we either need to overbuild. And in the case of Ottawa, Ontario, the load in December is such that they'd have to put 12 kilowatts of solar on the roof to equal one June kilowatt of solar, based on the difference in load between June and December in the output of the two. So how would you like to have to build 12 times of something and shut 11 of them off much of the year? That doesn't sound like affordable power to me.

Jason Price:
Yeah. So Doug, let's talk about that. So instead of pushing singular solutions, you're arguing for more complete systemic approach. So what would this practice look like?

Doug Houseman:
So we've got Diablo Canyon in California, a nuclear power plant produces two gigawatts about 8,600 hours out of the 8,700 hours of the year. So how do I replace that big baseload plant? It turns out it's about 9.7 gigawatts of solar in that same area in California. And it's just shy of about $30 billion in storage at today's costs to support that 9.7 gigawatts of solar in order to be able to provide that level of reliable power. When we look at that, all of a sudden the cost of base-load solar doesn't look quite so cheap as when available solar. Now we could do a lot of energy efficiency work with all of that money. We could do a lot of demand response work with all of that money. We could put in a lot of thermal storage with all of that money and so on and so forth and maybe not replace the baseload. But that's something that nobody has taken the time to actually work through in a systematic fashion to find those megawatt-hours in those particular hours of the day when it's needed.

Doug Houseman:
We have a tendency to talk about solar, and I'm sorry, I'm picking on solar as a whipping boy, and we need lots and lots and lots of solar, but it's easy to poke holes in the current hype around solar.

Jason Price:
Doug, back to your paper. Part of the problem you cite is that what prevents the system from moving forward is the tendency for politicians to latch onto soundbites, for consultants to get paid for their preferred solution, and for the public to want neat and easy-to-understand solutions that push reliability and affordability. So how do we shift those stakeholders to instead adopt the systems approach?

Doug Houseman:
Well, I think the first thing we need to do is to put into middle school and high school science classes units on water, electricity, gas, wastewater, and other things that are critical to our society so that people don't still think that, "Oh, electricity comes from that thing in the wall." And I don't know how many junior high, high school classes I walk into to talk about electricity, where two-thirds of the class thinks that electricity comes out of the wall, and there's nothing beyond putting that little box in the wall. We have dumbed down and forgotten to teach the public about the utilities that they use, the complexities behind them and why they need to think carefully about how they use them. We've got in Congress right now three people with engineering degrees. So we've got 335 Congresspeople between the House and the Senate. And 1% of them have an engineering degree. More than 90% have a law degree. Shouldn't we have better representation by understanding in order to make laws that touch on all that critical infrastructure and the critical services that our society depends on?

Jason Price:
Let's get back to some of the tangible examples where we could look at who's doing things right, where are things perhaps on the cusp of potentially moving in the right direction. So are there any States or regions that you can think as approaching and moving in the right direction? What are some examples of regional grids that are falling into a single approach trap that you've warned us about? So can you share with us some of the landscape and how you're seeing where things are working and where it's not?

Doug Houseman:
Well, as we saw with the August rolling blackouts in California, the fact that they pushed renewables very heavily and dependent on imports from other states, which they figured wouldn't be advancing along the same path, rather than putting in enough storage to take advantage of the investment in renewables, cost them a lot of trust with the public in California. And it's unfortunate, because there are people in California who are engineers and were advising the appropriate people, and were not listened to about the storage issues. And so we got the rolling blackouts. This spring, it is not unusual at noon or one o'clock in the afternoon in California for the power price to be negative, for five gigawatts or more of renewable energy to be curtailed. And it's only growing as they put in more renewables faster than they put in storage. They also have congestion problems on their grid, because they figured that rooftop renewables would deal with most of the demand issues and so they wouldn't have those congestion problems, except they do.

Jason Price:
Doug in your paper you talk about messaging problems. You talk about resource allocation problems, are there technical problems that can be solved in a need to be addressed as well that we can do through technological improvements?

Doug Houseman:
There are always technological improvements. We built most of our grid in terms of the grid pattern in the 1920s and 1930s and continued to build out that pattern as people move further and further into the suburbs and so on and so forth. In order to keep it economic much of what we did was called an open radial system. So if you think of a bicycle tire and you take the tire and the rim off, and you look at the spokes, they kind of run out every direction from the hub, which we could call a substation, but they never touch after they leave that hub. Much of our distribution grid is still built in that open radial fashion, which means that if we have one fault on the circuit, the customers at the end of that circuit probably don't have any power.

Doug Houseman:
Thinking about how to loop those circuits, so the ends of the circuits touch, and how to automatically feed the end of that circuit from the end of the other circuit is an important issue. And the equipment, even though we've got reclosers and we know how to do it, specific equipment to do that currently doesn't exist. There's work being done at Oakridge on solid-state equipment that would do that. It would fix many of our power quality problems. It would allow us to change the voltage and give us DC power in addition to AC, or to put DC power into the AC grid without having to have individual inverters. And that's something I really support because as we get to a more flexible grid where we can be fed from more locations, we get more resiliency, which means people spend fewer minutes in the dark.

Doug Houseman:
And when I was a kid, if the outage was four or five hours, that wasn't a big deal because we really only had to worry about the refrigerator completely defrosting. Otherwise, we could do almost everything without the electric grid. As we've gotten more and more addicted to the internet for doing work from home from COVID-19 and other things, and we put more and more life support equipment in the home so that people don't have to be in hospitals and they can stay alive for a longer period of time with a better quality of life, the grids kind of could become more important. And so the more technology solutions that we can get and work the costs down, the better off we're going to be.

Jason Price:
Let's now take this from the macro to the micro. So let's say a utility CEO is listening today and agrees with everything you're saying, what would you tell the CEO as the first step to take in terms of moving forward with what we're talking about in your paper?

Doug Houseman:
Probably the first step I would take as a CEO is to take a step back and ask two questions. If I were to have my great-grandchildren come into this company in 100 years, what would it be famous for? Take all of the temporal issues out, take all of the personality issues out, take everything else out and look well into the future and say, "What do we actually need to do well 100 years from now?" The second ask is, "Do I believe that we are actually going to get to electrification in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years? I don't care what the time period is. And what does that mean to my company in terms of load, reliability, resiliency, sources, storage, et cetera, again, without putting any temporal ideas behind it?" And then use that as an end state to think about what steps they need to take today to get to that end state.

Doug Houseman:
So if I believe that end state is 50 years from now, where do I have to be in 25 years to get to that end state? If I need to be there in 25 years, where do I need to be in 10 years to be on the right trajectory in order to be able to make sure that I can meet that 25-year and that 50-year goal? And once you start to back in very specific steps that you need to take to make your utility better and to provide the kinds of things that your customers' needs become clear. And one of the key things that I always say to people who run the grid or water systems or gas systems is, there are three facets to a good utility. It needs to be strong. It needs to be smart, and it needs to be sustainable.

Doug Houseman:
And many people, unfortunately, when they're doing their roadmaps focus on one of the three. I'm going to be sustainable, I'm going to put in all renewables and storage. And then they find out that the grid is not strong enough to move all of that energy from where they make it to where they want it to be at the time that the customer wants it. And yes, we can shape customer demand. But to what extent can we shape customer demand? Ultimately, if we follow some of the philosophy that's out there, we can shape customer demand to the point where we can shut down the grid for four, five, six hours at a time. That may be theoretically possible, is probably not realistically possible. We need to be smart. We need to know what's going where, where we have more capacity, what in a way of demand-side management we can take advantage of? And all the other pieces that are involved so that we can optimize how the grid is operating regardless of the weather.

Doug Houseman:
And from that optimization, help our customers have the power they need, not always what they want at a price that is reasonable. And reasonable is not always cheap. And the final thing is, we want the grid to be sustainable. We want to use materials in the building of the grid itself that have great longevity and good recyclability. And we want to put renewables and other sustainable generation sources on the grid, and the same for storage, which means maybe it's not lithium-ion. Maybe in a hot summer what I want rather than batteries are big tanks full of ice that I use in a district heating and cooling system in order to keep the buildings at the right temperature. And maybe in the wintertime, instead of having ice in those tanks, I have just shy of boiling water in those tanks, maybe instead of putting photovoltaics on somebody's roof, the right answer is I put thermal catalytic fluid [inaudible 00:21:46] on the roof in order to be able to store heat from the summertime until the wintertime.

Doug Houseman:
But we've got to start thinking as Apple says different, and we've got to pay attention to how all the pieces go together, because you can make one really good and ignore another one, and all of a sudden you can't do anything. It's like the guy who was in the hot rod magazines for about three years during the 1960s, as he put a P-51 Mustang Allison engine into a Volkswagen bug. And the reason he was in the magazine through the years, is he put the engine in and the transmission and the back axle didn't work. And then he put a transmission and a back axle in that worked and the rest of the suspension wouldn't hold the car up, and so on and so forth. By the time he was done, I don't think there was a part of the car that he hadn't touched.

Doug Houseman:
And we need to avoid that, "I'm going to do this. Oops, I need to do that." We need instead to say, "I'm going to do this and in order to do that, I'm going to do this, this, this, this along the way." And some of those, this is may reduce the initial that, and that's the way we need to think about things.

Jason Price:
Yeah. So I would encourage everyone to go on Energy Central and read Doug Houseman's article, The whole grid and nothing but the grid. Doug, we want to thank you for your time. And now we're going to do something a little bit different. It's called our lightning round. This is where we ask you a few personal questions to allow our listeners to get to know you a little bit more on a personal level. So your response should be limited to one word or phrase. Are you ready?

Doug Houseman:
Yep.

Jason Price:
Best fast food meal?

Doug Houseman:
Chick-fil-A.

Jason Price:
What did you want to be when you grew up?

Doug Houseman:
An astronaut, and I got close.

Jason Price:
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Doug Houseman:
Patience.

Jason Price:
Last book you read?

Doug Houseman:
1632 by Eric Flint.

Jason Price:
Ideal vacation spot?

Doug Houseman:
With a time machine Mombasa, Kenya, circa 1982.

Jason Price:
What are you most optimistic about?

Doug Houseman:
The human race will survive.

Jason Price:
Fantastic. You've made it to the other end of the lightning round unscathed, which means you've earned the final word on today's episode. You've thrown a lot of great ideas to our listeners today and they'll hopefully heed your advice. So is there a final takeaway that you want to leave us with? What's message do you want to ring in their heads in the days to come?

Doug Houseman:
Understand the context of the sound bites, and make decisions based on solid knowledge, not just quick advice.

Jason Price:
Doug Houseman. Thank you once again for this insightful dive into the world of grid modernization, and thanks for always sharing your thoughts in Energy Central community as well. And I'll know that our listeners should check back to Energy Central to see your continuing posts and insights. Thank you again, Doug.

Doug Houseman:
Thank you.

Jason Price:
You can always reach Doug Housemen through the Energy Central platform where he welcomes your questions and comments. Once again, I'm your host, Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com. See you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast.

 


About Energy Central Podcasts

As a reminder, the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is always looking for the authors of the most insightful articles and the members with most impactful voices within the Energy Central community to invite them to discuss further so we can dive even deeper into these compelling topics. Posting twice per month (on the second and fourth Tuesdays), we'll seek to connect with professionals in the utility industry who are engaging in creative or innovative work that will be of interest to their colleagues and peers across the Energy Central community. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

Happy listening, and stay tuned for our next episode! Like what you hear, have a suggestion for future episodes, or a question for our guest? Leave a note in the comments below.

All new episodes of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast will be posted to the relevant Energy Central community group, but you can also subscribe to the podcast at all the major podcast outlets, including:


Thanks once again to the sponsors of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West MonroeEsriAnterix, and ScottMadden

Discussions
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PJ Davis's picture
PJ Davis on May 25, 2021

Great interview Doug! You'll have to share how you were able to get close to your dream of becoming an astronaut sometime. Well done on this one!

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