City of the Future: Affordable Electrification | Podcast Episode 09 [CC]

City of the Future: Affordable Electrification | Podcast Episode 09 [CC]


Vanessa Quirk: At the turn of the 20th century,
life in cities around the world changed in a profound way, all thanks to a new invention:
electricity. [Sound of sparks] Eric Jaffe: It didn’t happen all at once. In 1900, only 2 percent of American homes
had electricity. So the U.S. government gave utilities the
green light to build huge power plants to electrify the entire country. Vanessa Quirk: In a span of 50 years, America
went from 2% electrified to 80 percent. And then by 1955, just five years later, 99
percent of American homes had electricity. Eric Jaffe: But that expansion caused a problem
for the utilities. Because once every home had electricity, the
only way they could make more money was if those households used more electricity. Vanessa Quirk: So over 300 utilities banded
together to launch a campaign: Live Better Electrically. [Music clip of “You can make your families
lives much brighter / You will find your work much lighter / It’s as easy as it can be
/ When you live better electrically!”] Vanessa Quirk: The biggest player in the campaign
was General Electric. They used the host of their TV show, “General
Electric Theater,” to show off how electricity could improve your life. [Clip of Ronald Reagan “Tonight, we’re
going visiting at the Ronald Reagans again in their new home to see how their many wonderful
electronic servants are helping them, just as they’ll help you live better electrically.”] Eric Jaffe: GE decked out the California home
of future governor Ronald Reagan with all the gadgets electricity could power. [Sound clip of “With the steady heat and
the exact timing of my new automatic skillet, even a souffle is easy and safe to make! My electric appliances do everything. You really begin to live when you live better
electrically.”] Vanessa Quirk: As part of the campaign, the
utilities also launched the Gold Medallion Home program, which provided literal gold
medallions that people could proudly place in front of their electric homes. [Sound clip of “This medallion, the mark
of beauty, comfort, safety, and convenience in electrical living.”] Eric Jaffe: The Gold Medallion homes were
heavily marketed as a modern, yet affordable, living option. The message: The more electricity you use,
the cheaper it is! [Sound clip of “Electricity is today’s
biggest bargain, steadily increasing in use, and steadily going down in average unit cost.”] Vanessa Quirk: By 1970, almost a million American
families were living in Gold Medallion homes. Eric Jaffe: But by the turn of the 21st century,
electricity costs became less predictable, often surprising Gold Medallion homeowners
with a huge bill. Vanessa Quirk: Gas, on the other hand, was
cheap and reliable — even if it was worse for the environment. And so today, many houses use gas to power
not just our stoves but our heating and cooling systems too. Theme music starts. Eric Jaffe: Gold Medallion Homes might be
a thing of the past. But for the good of the planet, the all-electric
home must make a comeback. Vanessa Quirk: Welcome to “City of the Future”,
a podcast from Sidewalk Labs. Eric Jaffe: Each episode, we explore an idea
or innovation that could transform cities. Vanessa Quirk: We’re your hosts, I’m Vanessa
Quirk. Eric Jaffe: And I’m Eric Jaffe. In this episode, we’re thinking about an
idea that could prepare our cities for a more sustainable future. Vanessa Quirk: Affordable electrification. Vanessa Quirk: The all-electric home was all
about encouraging homeowners to consume more and more. Eric Jaffe: There just wasn’t any concern
for efficiency — and certainly not for sustainability. Vanessa Quirk: But today, electrification
holds the key to both. Charlotte Matthews: As a society, we are overly
reliant on fossil fuels for our energy supply. Upbeat music begins. Eric Jaffe: That’s Charlotte Matthews, our
sustainability expert here at Sidewalk Labs. Charlotte Matthews: No matter how efficient
a gas car or gas burner becomes, they will always emit carbon as an output of the combustion
cycle. Electricity, on the other hand, is already
clean in many places and generally getting cleaner everywhere. So by coupling wind power and solar power
and nuclear and hydro with storage, like batteries, electricity can basically get down to zero
carbon, while fossil fuels can never get there. Which means, at a minimum, any new development
should be fully electric to set us up for that cleaner future. Vanessa Quirk: Ok, so let me just make sure
that I’m following this. So let’s say that I have two houses. Charlotte Matthews: Uh-huh. Vanessa Quirk: And I have one house that has
the natural gas furnace. Charlotte Matthews: Yeah. Vanessa Quirk: And then in the other house,
I have this electric heat pump. So why is the house with the heat pump house
more sustainable? Charlotte Matthews: Well, the house with the
gas furnace, that gas furnace has about a 20-year lifespan. So over that 20-year lifespan, it is pumping
out carbon emissions. While the electric heat pump, which is hooked
up to the power grid that’s getting cleaner and cleaner, you’re going to be contributing
far fewer emissions, particularly as we move into the future. Because there’s a path to getting to carbon
zero with electricity that doesn’t exist with fossil fuels, we should be investing in clean,
green, electric infrastructure. Upbeat music ends. Eric Jaffe: There’s a term to describe this
pathway to carbon zero. Beneficial electrification. Charlotte Matthews: Beneficial electrification
is electrification for the purposes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by getting away from
fossil fuels. Vanessa Quirk: Just beneficial for the environment? Charlotte Matthews: Yeah, to the extent that
we can electrify, or rather, to the extent that we can green our electricity supply and
then electrify, that is a real strategy toward a green economy and way of life. Eric Jaffe: In order to achieve beneficial
electrification, we have to green our electricity supply. But what does that take? Vanessa Quirk: Well, to find out, I reached
out to an expert who gave me some insight into a piece of infrastructure that you and
I interact with every single day. A little something called “The Grid.” Gretchen Bakke: I’m Gretchen Bakke and I’m
a professor of anthropology and I wrote this book called, “The Grid: The Fraying Wires
Between Americans and Our Energy Future,” Which sounds like a snooze fest, but is actually
very exciting. Music begins. Gretchen Bakke: It’s been called a thriller
for nerds, which is my favorite comment anybody has ever made about it. Vanessa Quirk: To start off — I mean, the
grid. I think most people understand that there
is a grid, it exists, but they don’t necessarily have a picture of what the heck that means. So, I mean, is it a real grid? What are we talking about exactly here? Gretchen Bakke: Yeah, it’s funny that it’s
called the grid, right? Because it’s not gridded. Vanessa Quirk: Hmm. Gretchen Bakke: It’s really a giant sort of
mass of machines that produce electricity. So, power plants. Big, high-voltage wires that bring electricity
from where those power plants are to people. And then a low voltage network, which is the
one we normally see — the wooden poles that they have in neighborhoods. And then it goes into your house and it goes
through your meter, which is a little tiny piece of the grid that counts how much electricity
you use. And now actually counts how much electricity
you produce, if you have solar panels. And then it goes into your wall and it goes
out your outlet and it goes into your toaster. Vanessa Quirk: Are you suggesting then that
my toaster is actually part of the grid? Gretchen Bakke: Yes. The toaster is absolutely part of the grid. And if you push down your toaster, what you’re
saying to the grid is, “Look, there’s an easy way over here.” Vanessa Quirk: So, when I’m pressing down
on my toaster, what I’m actually doing is opening up a little doorway for the electricity? Gretchen Bakke: Exactly. You’re opening up a little doorway that is
like not super smooth, because as the electricity passes through the toaster, the toaster is
slowing it down and as it slows it down, it produces heat and that’s what toasts your
bread. Music ends. Gretchen Bakke: The thing that has to be said,
which is completely impossible and totally true, is that the amount of electricity that’s
being produced has to equal the amount of electricity that’s being used. Vanessa Quirk; Wait — so, that means the
grid has to be balanced all the time? But how does it know when I buy a new toaster? Gretchen Bakke: [Laughs] Right. Vanessa Quirk: Like, how does this miraculous
system figure out that, “Yeah, there’s more things coming on!” Gretchen Bakke: Right. So the system as it used to be before we started
to introduce renewables, there were a couple of data points that…let’s just say…they’re
mostly guys, so I’m going to say guys — that the guys who ran it, the utility guys who
ran it, had what season it was, how many people lived on their system, and what the average
use had been the year before. Vanessa Quirk: Okay. Gretchen Bakke: So, the season mattered because
it’s darker in the winter and it’s colder, so people use more power then. Or in the summer, now we have a lot of air
conditioning. But you could do it, statistically, you could
figure out how much, at the time of day, you needed to be producing in order to cover the
needs of the people who were there. And what you see are voltage swings. And some of them are predictable, right? Like, the sun starts to go down and electricity
use goes way up. Vanessa Quirk: Right. Curious music begins. Vanessa Quirk: So it sounds like we humans
are pretty predictable creatures when it comes to energy! I mean, at least in the aggregate. Gretchen Bakke: Yes, for example, in England,
when there’s a soccer match, there’s often a giant surge in electricity at the very end. Because they’ll be an ad on TV and everybody
will get up and they’ll plug in their electric kettle to make a cup of tea. Vanessa Quirk: Ah! That’s so British. [Laughs] Gretchen Bakke: Right? Exactly, it’s so British! But at the same time, like, there’s a real
worry that the grid will actually crash, because there will be so much demand, so that what
you’ll get is a blackout, right? And that’s peak demand. And so, yes, indeed, you do have to bring
on power plants that would normally not be running in order to cover these four minutes
of English people making tea. Vanessa Quirk: So peak demand then is just
the technical term for the times of day when tons of people are using power at the same
time? Kind of like rush hour for electricity? Gretchen Bakke: Yeah, absolutely. It used to be, before we really had computers
and before we had a lot of competition and before we had the energy crisis of the 1970s,
the grid had this like, very stable three or four decades. And during that time, there was I think 15-20
percent extra capacity. So if there was a really hot day, there were
all these power plants that could get turned on. And as competition and different rules of
economics enter the story, the utilities began running a much tighter ship. And that margin of extra capacity has gone
way, way, way, way down. And that’s one of the reasons that it does
now happen that we’ll have a blackout simply because there isn’t sufficient capacity. Music ends. Vanessa Quirk: But what about all these new
sources of power? Like solar and wind? I mean, doesn’t that help us add capacity? Gretchen Bakke: Yeah, so there’s a financial
problem for the utility, which is that the more people that are making, sort of, I like
to call it homemade electricity, right? Vanessa Quirk: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Gretchen Bakke: The more homemade electricity
you have going onto the grid, the less money the utility is making, while still needing
to maintain the system. If you have ten people making solar power,
this isn’t really an issue, but if everybody’s making solar power, then suddenly all of these
people put on solar, nobody’s consulted the utility about it, they have all of this
electricity flooding into their system during the day, no electricity coming in exactly
when you need it, which is in the evening. The biggest use is in the evening, right? When all that solar starts to not be useful
anymore. Vanessa Quirk: Right. So basically renewables — they complicate
things because they don’t provide the power when we need it and we’re used to a system
where we have power, whenever we need it. Gretchen Bakke: Yes. It points to the fact that our relationship
to electricity is also cultural. Music starts. Gretchen Bakke: For example, in France, all
of the hot water heaters, they heat up at night. So French people run out of hot water during
the day, which is something that doesn’t happen to Americans. And they’ll often say, “Oh, don’t take a
shower, you know, so-and-so already took a shower. Can you take one tomorrow?” Vanessa Quirk: [Laughs] Gretchen Bakke: Because they know that then
there’s not going to be any hot water. The system is designed in the U.S. for this
sort of like capricious consumption. And actually encouraged consumption, right? And then the idea was it would always supply
enough power to meet that demand. Part of what we have to learn how to do is
start thinking about other ways to balance The Grid. Eric Jaffe: OK, I get that we have to start
thinking big about how we can balance the supply and demand of electricity. But if we start electrifying everything, and
developing whole new all-electric neighborhoods, demand will just go through the roof! Vanessa Quirk: Mmhmm, and this is a huge problem
that Charlotte and her team are thinking about, especially for this Toronto project that we’re
working on. How will all the electric appliances and the
electric cars and the electric buildings have energy when they need it? And you know, there is one obvious answer,
I guess, which would be, you know, “Let’s just build up a ton of more power plants!” But there’s a very big problem with that
solution. Eric Jaffe: You mean, apart from the fact
that it’s the opposite of beneficial for the planet? Vanessa Quirk: Right, it’s not beneficial
for the planet and it’s not beneficial for your wallet either. Because if utilities have to pay for all these
new power plants, then that means higher electricity bills for you and me. So Charlotte and her team have come up with
a strategy for Toronto that’s aimed not at increasing the supply, but rather, at bringing
down demand. Charlotte Matthews: Our aspiration is that
the neighborhood of Quayside in particular generates no GHG emissions through its use
of energy, but that the electricity bills are not increased as a result of that. Music begins. Charlotte Matthews: So we created this term
affordable electrification, which builds off the existing term beneficial electrification. Our focus through all of this is about eliminating
energy waste and then managing the peak demand to keep energy bills down. So first, we really reduce the heating cooling
demands of the buildings by putting in very efficient systems and most importantly, a
very efficient envelope. So we’re using Passive House principles to
design our buildings which makes them really well insulated. Eric Jaffe: Right — an efficient envelope
meaning that the buildings would have airtight construction so that no heat could leak out
of them. Charlotte Matthews: Yes, and then we also
have a thermal grid. So for instance, we’re capturing heat from
the wastewater from the buildings. And that heat can then be harnessed for us
for domestic hot water production, as well as heating in the winter. Eric Jaffe: OK, so we have plans to eliminate
energy waste and create cleaner energy. But let’s get to this idea of managing peak
demand. Vanessa Quirk: According to Charlotte, the
key to reducing peak demand is changing the way electricity is priced. Charlotte Matthews: Utilities are paid for
delivering electrons, and so they either get paid more based on selling you more electrons
or on the capital investments that they make and that is generally new wires, new transmission
lines, new distribution lines, more. But in the future, the business model should
be that utilities make money based on how well they manage demand and carbon emissions. Ends music. Charlotte Matthews: We’re proposing that the
cost of power actually changes in a dynamic fashion based on how much power is being used
on the grid. Vanessa Quirk: So from a consumer angle, I
think this dynamic pricing would mean that you pay more when energy is more expensive
for the utility to provide slash more unsustainable. Charlotte Matthews: That’s right. You’ve got to actually have the price of power
track with demand on the power grid. Vanessa Quirk: OK, so like, this makes sense
to me. It’s like instead of a fixed price, it’s
like surge price, and the surge price doesn’t just represent price, but how clean my energy
is. But I’m also thinking that could actually
be pretty complicated. Because if I don’t know when this price
is surging, my utility bill could kind of accidentally go through the roof. Charlotte Matthews: Right, we believe that
we can provide a predictable utility bill with a Home Scheduler, as we call it. Music begins. Vanessa Quirk: The home scheduler that Charlotte
and her team are developing is like a digital assistant. It would talk to your thermostat, to your
toaster, your TV. Eric Jaffe: And it would know how much energy
you’re using at a given time and how clean the energy is at that moment. Vanessa Quirk: And you’d see all of that
on a simple app. So, if I want to save money and also be, you
know, energy responsible — I would say that I want my bill to be, I don’t know, like
let’s say, $100 a month. How does the Home Scheduler help me keep to
that $100? Charlotte Matthews: The system will learn
when in order to meet that energy budget, something in the home has to change, something
has to be turned off or the thermostat has to be adjusted, and the person is given an
option. And the person would then say, “Okay. Actually, turn off the television. I wasn’t watching it anyway.” The interactions will likely be more often
in the beginning as you’re getting feedback and the Home Scheduler is learning the preferences
of the resident, and then over time it should probably fade into the background, and if
there’s absolutely no interventions, then the Home Scheduler could prompt, “Do you want
to reduce your energy budget? ” At which point the person may be like, “No,
thanks, this is good.” Vanessa Quirk: [Laughs] Charlotte Matthews: Or they may say “Yeah! Let me save ten bucks more a month!” Music ends. Vanessa Quirk: OK, but what if I’m only
home at peak times? It would be really hard to stick to a low
budget in that scenario, right? Charlotte Matthews: Right, exactly. There’ll be people who are home during that
time who are vulnerable to high utility cost and thus, we want to insulate them from that
high cost of power, by giving them the opportunity to buy shares in the community-sited battery
and solar. In the same way that not everyone can put
a solar array on their apartment roof and own a piece of it, not everyone can fit a
battery in their home and all the electrical infrastructure that would go along with that,
and so we can actually centrally-site large batteries and large solar and then offer people
a share of that battery. So it’s as if they have batteries in their
own home, but in fact they’re owning a piece of the centrally located battery. Dreamy music begins. Eric Jaffe: So if your budget includes a share
of this local battery, then you can rely on that battery if you’re home at a peak time. I mean, for example, if you want to override
your Home Scheduler and run your dishwasher at a peak moment instead of really late at
night. Vanessa Quirk: In this way, batteries will
help reduce demand on the grid. And for cities to hit their sustainability
and affordability goals, batteries are going to be critical piece of infrastructure. Charlotte Matthews: Batteries are the future
because they’re enabling you not to size infrastructure to meet the peak. During the times that the infrastructure is
not being fully utilized, at night, when power has low GHG emissions and it’s inexpensive,
you can actually charge your batteries and then deploy them during the peak time, so
you don’t have to build all the generation capacity and all the transmission and all
the infrastructure to meet that peak demand. Vanessa Quirk: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. It’s the sustainability and the efficiency
coming together. Charlotte Matthews: [Laughs] That’s right. Vanessa Quirk: [Laughs] Dreamy music ends. Vanessa Quirk: The last big breakthrough in
batteries was lithium-ion technology. That was about 28 years ago. But major advances in battery seem to happen
about once every three decades — so we’re ripe for a new one. Eric Jaffe: Battery start-ups and community
batteries are popping up all over the world. Of course, it stands to reason that as the
cost of batteries goes down, you are going to start seeing them everywhere. Vanessa Quirk: In fact, we just got one in
our office in Toronto. Did you know that, Eric? Eric Jaffe: I do now. Vanessa Quirk: [Laughs] Well, I actually just
got to go see it. Playful music begins. TK Gesner: Let me see if I can get in here. [Sound of bottle dropping] Here we go. Vanessa Quirk: Woo! TK Gesner: That’s all of it. Vanessa Quirk: I see phone jacks and wires… TK Gesner: I know, there’s not a lot of
razzle dazzle to these. [Laughs] Vanessa Quirk: There’s not much to it in
looks, but in what it does, it’s kind of neat. TK Gesner: Exactly. It does the coolest stuff though. Vanessa Quirk: That’s TK Gesner, the Associate
Director of our Toronto workspace, 307. He showed me the new batteries hanging up
on the wall, connected to the solar panels set up in the parking lot. And on the beautiful day that TK showed them
to me, they were soaking up the sun. TK Gesner: All the cells are collecting right
now and of course, this is a bifacial installation so it’s collecting energy from topside and
bottom side as well. Vanessa Quirk: Do you know like how much electricity
the battery can store? TK Gesner: Off the top of my head, for sure,
we’d have a day’s worth for the appliances that we have connected to this battery. So, we have those appliances set up in our
main hall as well. There’s a washing machine, a dryer, and
two small vacuums, one of which is a robot. All of them can be charged on this system. Vanessa Quirk: And if we had more solar panels,
could we use the battery, you know, not just for the appliances but as backup for the whole
building? You know, on a cloudy day or if there was
a power outage or something? TK Gesner: That’s the idea. Exactly right. We would want to store that energy in the
battery so that if anything happened to our power supply here, we could rely on it to
carry us through. Think of this battery and this installation
as the first step towards the future here at 307. Having the entire building powered, or at
least with backup power on these batteries, and potentially with the ability to serve
power back to the grid. Playful music ends. Vanessa Quirk: TK’s last point is really
important — batteries, like the one at 307, could one day serve power back to the grid
and help provide cities with the clean electricity that they need. But…we’re not quite there yet. Curious music begins. Eric Jaffe: Today, more communities and cities
are installing solar panels and batteries, but they’re plugging them into the same
old grid we’ve had for decades. A grid that wasn’t designed for them. Vanessa Quirk: But cities and regulators around
the world are currently working towards new business models for electricity. And a new business model would make it possible,
like Charlotte imagined, for utilities to focus on reducing demand, rather than on building
new infrastructure. Eric Jaffe: And that kind of model would actually
help us get to a new kind of grid. Vanessa Quirk: A grid that incentivizes utilities
to let communities create as much local, home-made electricity as they want. So that they can do their part in the fight
against climate change. Eric Jaffe: A grid that’s sustainable and
efficient. That’s all about less, not more. Vanessa Quirk: A grid that would let you live
better, yes… Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk: [in unison]
…electrically. Curious music ends. Theme music begins. Eric Jaffe: Thank you for listening to City
of the Future, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs. Your hosts are Vanessa Quirk and me, Eric
Jaffe. We are produced by Benjamen Walker and Andrew
Callaway. Vanessa Quirk: Mix by Zach Mcnees. Special thanks for this episode go to: Gretchen
Bakke, Charlotte Mathews, TK Gesner, Rebecca Craft, and Chris Edmonds. Eric Jaffe: Our art is by the great Tim Kau. Our music is composed by Adaam James Levin-Areddy. If you want to hear more of Adaam’s work,
you can check out his band, Lost Amsterdam. Vanessa Quirk: To learn more about Sidewalk
Labs, visit our website, where you can subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of the page. And you can follow us on Instagram. Eric Jaffe: See you in the future. Vanessa Quirk: Bye!

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