The Green Enterprise: PG&E
Correspondent Sumi Das looks at how PG&E is working to deliver clean energy to its customers. Innovations include a unique solar installation at the company's headquarters, a hybrid-electric service truck, and emerging renewables from biogas to wave energy. Das also sits down with Hal La Flash, PG&E's director of clean-tech energy policy, and discusses the utility giant's green goals and vision for the future.
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Sumi Das: Hello, I'm Sumi Das for ZDNet. PG&E is one of the largest utilities in the United States. They generate and deliver gas and electricity for more than 15 million Californians everyday. And while the majority of the nation's power still comes from carbon emitting resources, PG&E is striving to become a model utility by investing in clean energy alternatives.
Today, we're going to talk with PG&E executives. They're going to show us some new eco innovations they're developing to 'green' the grid. It's all next on The Green Enterprise.
Sumi Das: From wind to bio gas to the ocean, PG&E is investing in various forms of renewable energy to help stop its customers' reliance on greenhouse gases and the need to build more power plants throughout the state. At the same time, they're working on ways within their own company to 'green' their business, from using hybrid truck vehicles to installing solar panels at their service center.
We'll take a tour of PG&E and see some of these technologies, firsthand. But first, meet Hal La Flash. He's the Director of Emerging Clean Technology Policy at PG&E. He sat down with us to talk about the company's 'green' vision and technologies they're developing. Hal, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Hal La Flash: Thanks for having me.
Sumi Das: Now you're in charge of alternative energy innovations here at PG&E. Tell us what PG&E's overall vision is?
Hal La Flash: Well we've been a very big supporter of working on climate change actions, and we believe that's a critical issue for the world. And we're doing what we can to expand the amount of carbon free resources that we have in serving our customers.
Sumi Das: From our research, PG&E is doing better than the national average in terms of reliance on carbon, but you're still using a considerable amount. What can you do to change that?
Hal: Well you're right, we don't use nearly as much carbon based energy today. In fact, over half of our portfolio is already carbon free, but we want to work on the remaining part of that. Over 40% of the energy we sell is based on natural gas combustion. So we're doing things to replace that with more renewables, and then we're also doing things to find renewable sources of gas to put in the pipeline to fuel the power plants we still need.
Sumi: There's a lot of hype around 'green', and many of the technologies are unproven. Are you concerned that the whole 'green' plan might not work and that it could fail?
Hal: There are some proven renewables; there are quite a few proven renewables. Actually when I talk about this to people, I usually talk about it in terms of traditional renewables and emerging renewables. Only in California will you think of traditional renewables, most of the rest of the country hasn't heard of that.
Sumi: Tell us what a traditional renewable is.
Hal: We've had wind turbines in California for 25 years or more, and they've improved over time; we've had geothermal for a long time. So there are technologies that have a real good track record. And there are some new things we're looking at like 'wave energy' that doesn't have a track record, but we think it has potential that's worth exploring.
Sumi: Let's also talk about the future. Is there a day when California might be carbon free? I know it's something you hear politicians talking about, but realistically, could it happen?
Hal: Carbon free is going to be very, very difficult, not that we can't get close to it, but the issue is going to be that you need some carbon based resources, because they operate much more flexibly than renewables. The renewables are basically taken when nature has it available to you. It's likely you'll need some amount of carbon resources in the future to balance out the renewable resources that you have. That future's probably quite a ways off. It's going to take awhile to make that transition.
Sumi: So 30 years down the road, what will the average power electricity needs and requirements be of the average consumer, do you think? What will it look like?
Hal: I think you'll see what we have now and then an expansion as the new technologies come in. I mentioned 'wave'. 'Wave' will take a little while; it'll be in before that certainly. We're doing a little work on tidal, and we're doing a lot of work with bio gas. The bio gas gives us an opportunity to actually make a substitute renewable natural gas that we can put in the pipeline and fuel some of these plants that would otherwise be natural gas fueled.
So I think those will be big contributors. You'll see a lot of solar. Solar is making great progress. You'll see more wind. I think you'll see that as you get higher penetration levels. You'll probably see that with more energy storage to just make it fit the needs a little bit better. But I think that's what you'll see as the future goes on.
Sumi: Hal, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
Hal La Flash: My pleasure.
Sumi: Now we're going to actually take a look around PG&E and see what the company's doing to help 'green' our energy supply.
Sumi: Jennifer Zerwer is a spokesperson with PG&E. She'll be showing us some of the innovations taking place at the utility giant. Our first stop, PG&E's green vehicle to grid technology center.
Sumi: Jennifer here is going to explain to us what "vehicle to grid" is. Tell us about that.
Jennifer Zerwer: Vehicle to grid is the bi directional sharing of energy from an electric vehicle, or plug in electric vehicle, to a home or business, and ultimately, the electric grid.
Sumi: So basically this car right now is connected up to the grid. Now let's take a look at the meter behind us.
Jennifer: Definitely. So here we have an electric meter. Right now, it's moving counterclockwise, showing that it's currently charging the vehicle the energy's going from the grid into the vehicle.
Sumi: It not only charges, but it also gives back.
Jennifer: Exactly. And what I'm going to do is flip a switch on our inverter, and then we'll start seeing the meter spinning in reverse, showing that energy is going from the car to the electric grid.
Sumi: It's just being stored up for later use.
Sumi: So one day, people can drive their car into their garage, plug in and then what happens from there?
Jennifer: Well, what happens from there is that it is programmed to begin charging at midnight, when energy demand is lowest. The energy is cleanest and there is more renewable energy available, particularly in California when the wind tends to blow mostly at night.
Then in the morning when they wake up and they are ready to drive to work, their car is fully charged. Perhaps they have more energy charge to their charge to their vehicle than they are necessarily going to use for their daily commute and whatever errands they have to run.
Sumi: PG&E is also piloting a program to us hybrid trucks in its fleet. The new diesel utility trucks could avoid the release of two tons of carbon dioxide each year.
So we're standing in front of this bucket truck, but this is not your ordinary bucket truck. Tell us about it.
Jennifer: No, it isn't. It's a diesel electric hybrid bucket truck. We're participating in a nationwide pilot program. We're one of 14 utilities testing one of these vehicles in our fleet. It's working in and around San Francisco. So, it works very similar to hybrid vehicles, in that it has a battery capacity that is able to get additional mileage out of the fuel that is put in there.
Sumi: And does it work just like a regular bucket truck beyond that?
Jennifer: Well, usually you have bucket trucks work is that even when they're not in driving mode, often the engines have to be on when our linesmen are doing work to repair power. The great benefit about this bucket truck is the additional battery capacity.
So when we are doing work in neighborhoods to repair power, we can turn off the diesel engine, which can be very loud and still run the tools that we need on the energy from the battery.
Sumi: Noise pollution is just one of the benefits. What are the others?
Jennifer: Well, the other benefits are the cost savings. There's about 40 to 60% cost savings that we've experienced with this particular hybrid bucket truck. It costs approximately $3 a gallon, so we've experienced about $3, 000 to $5,000 in fuel savings for a year.
Sumi: So that's considerable.
Jennifer: It's great and on top of that, there's the emission reduction benefits. So it's not only great for our customers and our employees, but also for the environment.
Sumi: While PG&E is working on ways to stop our dependence on petroleum based transportation, they are also working on clean tech solutions for homes and businesses.
Sumi: [Background "moo"] One idea is converting cow manure into power. This how it works. Cow manure is extracted into methane gas. The gas that is produced is the same as the natural gas that moves through the regular pipeline to customers.
Sumi: We're standing in front on PG&E's service center. And what you see behind me are solar panels. Now, what makes these solar panels unique is that they've actually been built on the side of the building.
Jennifer: These solar panels truly take advantage of where they are located, which is the south facing wall on our service center building in the mission which is really the sun pocket of San Francisco. This wall gets slammed with sun all day long, so these panels are situated perfectly to get as much solar energy as possible.
Sumi: Now across the street from here you have a parking lot and basically there are solar panels on top of sort of carports and they tilt with the sun. Tell us the difference between those. It seems like those would really take advantage of the sun as well.
Jennifer: Well, they do as well. They aren't south facing. They are a carport, so they provide shade to the cars and then they track the sun throughout the day to get as much solar energy as possible.
Sumi: And what kind of savings are we talking about here?
Jennifer: Well, all of the energy that's capture with these solar panels goes right into the grid and then goes out to our customers. So these panels collectively produce approximately 396,000 kilowatt/hours of sunlight every year and that's enough to power approximately 100 California homes.
Sumi: We've seen how the sun is a great source for converting energy. But PG&E is also looking at another very important natural resource, the ocean.
Sumi: PG&E has partnered with Finavera Renewables to harness the ocean's energy and convert it for utility purposes. It's known as "wave power."
So how does this work, exactly? I mean, I understand that there's great force behind the waves, but how do you harness that?
Jennifer: Well, there's a variety of technologies being developed right now. One technology, the company that we signed the purchase agreement with, uses buoys that float in the water. The up and down action of the water drives a set of pumps that then pressurizes sea water which turns a turbine, generating electricity.
Sumi: How much power can you actually generate?
Jennifer: The California Energy Commission estimates that there's potentially 8, 000 megawatts of energy that could be captured. The Power Purchase Agreement that we signed is for two megawatts. This is a very nascent technology, but very promising. So we are proceeding with great earnest.
Sumi: Will businesses eventually be able to buy this type of power, wave power?
Jennifer: Definitely. Any wave power that we generate is going to be added to our grid, which goes to all of our customers throughout northern and central California, from Eureka down to Bakersfield.
Sumi: So, not just businesses, but individual homes.
Jennifer: Residents, too. Exactly.
Sumi: As you've just seen PG&E is researching and deploying the latest green technologies within their company and for their customers. Stay tuned. In the weeks ahead, we'll show you what other companies are doing to green their enterprise.