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Pop Quiz – What Happened on October 19, 1973

Posted to Esri in the Digital Utility Group
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Bill Meehan's picture
Director, Utility Solutions Esri

William (Bill) Meehan is the Director of Utility Solutions for Esri. He is responsible for business development and marketing Esri’s geospatial technology to global electric and gas utilities.A...

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  • Apr 11, 2022
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Certain dates stick in our minds, like December 7, November 22, April 4, and September 11*. There was a sense of life before that day and a completely different view afterward for many people. We probably don’t recall what happened on October 19, yet it changed the course of energy forever and life as we knew it. We created the term, “The Energy Crisis” on that day. That was the date that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries or OPEC imposed an embargo on the sale of oil to the US and other countries. The result was a spike in the price of oil (and thus gasoline) and shortages. Americans understood that energy supply and costs were not within their control for the first time.

The Double Whammy

We didn’t realize back then that there was another creeping crisis brewing as well, climate change. Today, the energy crisis and climate change are part of our everyday lexicon and directly related.

The gas price near Los Angeles nearly topped out at a whopping seven dollars a gallon as I write this. Next year, on October 19, we will commemorate 50 years since the energy crisis began. We’ve had 50 years to solve this problem, but we are still held hostage to forces outside of our control. Presidents through the years pledged to “never be held hostage by foreign nations for our energy.” Yet here we are.

Despite efforts to become energy independent, the oil price is primarily determined by forces beyond our control and set by the global market. A revolution, earthquake, coup, or civil war anywhere in the world can dramatically impact oil prices. The price of oil also influences the price of natural gas.

We Are Running Out of Time

We are 50 years behind schedule, so we need to move quickly. We can’t rely on future technology such as nuclear fusion, a large-scale shift to hydrogen or installing solar panels in space. The climate challenges are getting more severe too. At the same time, global instability is continuing, influencing oil prices.

What can we do? Electrification of our energy is the obvious answer. It provides the smooth transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. EVs are a good start. Yet, freight continues to be hauled by diesel-powered locomotives and big rigs with little move to electrification. Heating is still primarily dominated by fossil fuels. Many homes in the Northeast are still heated by oil.

Understanding Precedes Action

There are several steps we can take right away. However, before we rush in, we must get a complete understanding of the scope of the challenge. For that, we turn to GIS. As Jack Dangermond has stated often, understanding precedes action. We must model our world as it is, then perform analysis to better understand the as-is situation. Finally, we can use GIS to plan our approach in a timely manner, optimally and cost-effectively.

Here are some suggested steps to begin.

Accelerate the Rollout of EV Charging Stations

GIS is the perfect tool to analyze usage patterns, optimally site EV charging stations and assure that rollout benefits all aspects of society. GIS has the tools to model demographics, equity, and electric infrastructures. Note that the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provides funding for EV charging stations, but many more stations will be needed to provide the coverage to accommodate a complete migration to EVs. GIS can provide the additional analytics to speed up the installation of EV charging stations to match the coverage of gas stations.

Hasten the Move to Heat Pumps 

Electric home heating is the most expensive compared to natural gas, bottled gas, and oil. But that is based on the old way of using resistance heating (like used in toasters). The new way is the use of heat pumps. The knock on heat pumps is that their effectiveness suffers considerably once the temperature drops below 40 degrees. That was true ten years ago. Not today. Today heat pumps can operate effectively at much lower temperatures due to the advances in heat pump technology. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has been studying the use of air-source heat pumps in Alaska with remarkable results. Continued roll out of roof-top solar will aid in the adoption of all-electric buildings. With solar and heat pumps, the cost of heating and cooling will be substantially reduced.

Encourage Ground-Source Geothermal Utilities

Another promising step that is available today is networked ground source heat pumps. Eversource Energy, the largest electric and gas utility in New England, is piloting a project in Framingham, MA. The idea is brilliant. While air-source heat pumps are great, they rely on outside air for the heat exchange, very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. Ground source geothermal (not to be confused with deep-steam heating geothermal systems) heat pumps use a water piping system buried below the frost line for the heat exchange. The water remains at a constant temperature of about 45 to 80 degrees regardless of the outside temperature. So the heat exchange is much more efficient. The brilliance of this idea is that the utility creates a network of these buried relatively constant temperature water pipes as part of the utility network. Businesses and homeowners tap into this network with their heat pumps. The heat pump can integrate directly into the existing home forced-air duct system or hot water system. Both heating and cooling are much more efficient than conventional heating and air conditioners.

The concept was promoted by the nonprofit organization HEET. The beauty of this system is that it is incremental. For a gas company like Eversource, it provides an alternative to expensive replacement of older leaking gas mains with clean geothermal energy. Leaking gas, methane, creates three times the greenhouse gases produced by carbon dioxide emissions. Substituting these gas mains with a geothermal grid provides extremely efficient energy plus eliminates the source of greenhouse gases. An added bonus, it is safe.

GIS has been used extensively to model electric, gas, and water utility systems for years. It models all the attributes of gas and electric networks. The GIS can model the best locations to migrate homes and businesses to this proven technology. It can model the earth’s characteristics to aid planning, design, and construction.

Fast-track Electric Transmission Construction

The move to electrification will require more juice. So we need to ramp up the production of renewable energy. Significant renewable energy sources are in remote areas. The problem is getting the power from there to where it is needed. That’s where transmission comes in. GIS is engaged in discovering the best location for transmission, the engineering and design, construction, and operations of transmission systems. Finally, if we are ever to electrify freight rail, perhaps rail and transmission operators can get together and use existing rail rights of way for new transmission corridors. Just saying.

Remember October 19

Energy independence and carbon-neutrality need to be addressed together. We never want to be in a situation where an event in a far-off land significantly impacts the ability to conduct business, heat our homes and drive wherever we want. Again, GIS can help in every step along the way.

For more information on how GIS can support energy utilities, visit our webpage.

 

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Thank Bill for the Post!
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Bill Meehan on Apr 11, 2022

Luckily the IIJA has funded a DOE program called the Building a Better Grid to the tune of 16.5 Billion. This will certainly help. Good planning that focuses on resistance, sustainability, and equity will need tools like GIS to pull this off.

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