NEWS: ‘60 Minutes’ Strains Credulity; Polar Vortex Strains Grid

Posted by Lexie Briggs on Jan 10, 2014 10:19:00 AM

NOAAESRL_Physical_SciencesThe week started out with much consternation over a CBS “60 Minutes” segment Sunday night proclaiming “The Cleantech Crash.” DOE slammed it, with spokesman Bill Gibbons declaring 60 Minutes “flat wrong on the facts.” GigaOM said it got some things right and others wrong, notably conflating government programs (which have had some failures but are largely successful in achieving public goals) and VC investment (which have had some successes but more failures, but that’s what VC does). Energy Collective contributor Robert Rapier, who was featured in the piece prominently as a critic, complained of selective editing. “I gave several examples of cleantech successes to Lesley Stahl, and I told her in no uncertain terms that cleantech is not dead,” he posted after the segment aired. One solid rejoinder came from an AEE Partner, New England Clean Energy Council, along with an excellent Storify collection of pushbacks on Twitter. AEE joined in the social-media chorus with a series of “Memo to @60Minutes” tweets pointing toward our Economic Impacts of Advanced Energy report, which sized the advanced energy economic opportunity at $1.1 trillion globally and clocked the $130+ billion U.S. industry growing at a 19% rate. Perhaps the best rebuttal-in-advance of the “cleantech crash” thesis was this story that appeared in the New York Times the day before, documenting a “Solar Power Craze On Wall Street,” a trend doing well by AEE member company Solar City, in particular.


But more than inaccurate or unbalanced, the 60 Minutes segment seemed stale, relying on a handful of failed tech start-ups, old complaints about federal loans that turned sour, and the barest mention of success stories from a period of perhaps the most dramatic progress in advanced energy innovation and deployment – from solar and wind to EVs and energy efficiency and grid automation – in our country’s history. The world has moved on; certainly the advanced energy industry has. 60 Minutes needs to catch up. As the San Jose Mercury News’s Dana Hull wrote in reaction, “Come on. It’s 2014.”


Shortly thereafter – and much more widely – attention turned to the “polar vortex” (the most ominous-sounding weather system since last summer’s “heat dome”), which hit much of North America with a large mass of frigid air. Temperatures reached record lows in much of the country.


All this cold air challenged our aging grid, just as high temperatures did in the summer. Greentech Media reported that PJM Interconnection, America’s largest grid operator, set a new winter peak on January 7, topping 140,000 MW. As with many such weather challenges in recent years, advanced energy kept the lights on and furnaces pumping. GTM reports that PJM “called upon all of its demand response programs,” with AEE member EnerNOC saying that this was the largest winter dispatch in the country’s history. (Last summer, demand response was essential for preventing rolling brownouts in New York State.)


Demand response wasn’t the only advanced energy technology that came to the rescue. called wind power the “Polar Vortex MVP.” Some traditional energy sources suffered weather-related mechanical failures and other forced outages, including 20 percent of PJM Interconnection’s installed capacity. Never fear, though. As AWEA noted on its blog, “wind energy provided massive quantities of extremely valuable electricity when grid operators needed it most.”


In Texas in particular, this year’s storm can be compared to an ice storm in 2011, when a quarter of the states’ power plants went dark. This year’s polar vortex shut down 2,000 MW of capacity in Texas – much less than in the 2011 storm – but the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) issued a power conservation alert. “If we had lost another unit we would have gone into level 3,” Dan Woodfin, ERCOT’s director of system operations, said in an interview with the Dallas Morning News. At level 3 ERCOT orders power companies to start shutting down power to residential and small commercial consumers, 30 minutes at a time – i.e., rolling blackouts.


In other words: Advanced energy to the rescue.


This week New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced $40 million in prizes to develop the state’s storm-resilient microgrids. Some community microgrids, notably NYU’s Washington Square campus, kept the lights on in parts of New York City during Hurricane Sandy. Such systems would certainly increase grid resiliency during extreme weather like this week’s polar vortex, but Jeff St. John at Greentech Media wonders if the money will be enough “to overcome the regulatory and economic barriers” that have stymied microgrids in the past.


In other advanced energy news, advanced lighting solutions were the “brightest new ideas” at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. Beyond CFLs and conventional LED lights, these bulbs are “Wi-Fi connected, chip-embedded, LED bulbs that can be programmed from across the room or around the world.”


And on distributed solar, some utilities say: if you can’t beat them, join them. Integrys Energy Services is expanding into the residential solar market. Greentech Media quotes Clean Power Finance President and CEO Nat Kreamer describing the move as another indication that “traditional power companies are increasingly interested in residential solar as the market moves in that direction.”


Advanced energy is what happens when energy meets 21st Century technologies. As the best available technologies for meeting energy needs today and tomorrow, advanced energy encompasses all products and services that help make energy secure, clean, and affordable. Learn more by downloading the report below.


Download "Economic Impacts  of Advanced Energy"


Topics: News Update