Renewable Energy Center

Solar Energy

Finding Enough Power

By Jean Dixon

Mehdi Etezadi-Amoli has a job that requires a great deal of specialized knowledge. His gift, however, is the ability to boil down concepts to their easily understood essence.

“The whole task of being able to give the customer reliable power is a really a big job,” he says, “We take it for granted. We switch on the light and it works.”

Etezadi, a professor of electrical and biomedical engineering, can tell you how a three-pronged plug works in an electrical wall outlet and then demystify a much larger topic, such as how the country’s power systems work.

“The meters in our houses now are not intelligent,” Etezadi says, “They just measure what we use.”

He says that net metering is currently available to customers who attach photovoltaic panels, for example, on the roofs of their homes.

“With net metering,” he says, “whatever power you generate will be discounted from your power bill. This is becoming a fashionable way for our customers to save money.”

A smart meter takes energy savings and efficiency a step further. If it were up to him, Etezadi says he would install a smart meter in his home immediately. But not all people are as enthusiastic.

“With a smart meter, the computer at the power company talks to the meter in your house, provides the energy cost on a continues basis, and tells your appliances the cheapest time a day to use power,” he says. “But it takes the owner to agree to allow the meter to do things on the owner’s behalf, like shutting down the A/C when nobody is home. Some members of the public think it’s too invasive. The customer would have to agree to this question: May I drop your non-essential loads during peak usage times such that you will not exceed a set maximum demand? If the customer agrees, the power company would give him/her a lower rate.

“If through contracts the power company could predict maximum demand by its customers for a year or two years, then a more economical generation commitment will be possible.. A smart meter would also break down power usage and cost with each appliance and with this knowledge, the customer could make choices to reduce their energy usage.”

“The idea is to reduce the energy use, ” he adds. “It’s not to change (or restrict) your life, but to help eliminate waste.”

The government’s current stimulus package includes money for funding renewable energy research, which could lead to more efficient and affordable products for personal home use.

"Renewable energy," Etezadi continues, "will help in reducing electric power generation from traditional fossil and nuclear fuel. The problem with renewable energy is a problem with intermittency: I have it, now I don’t have it. Predictability is important for the power companies.”

He suggests using renewable energy resources to supply approximately 20 percent of the country’s total energy needs.

“I don’t think we’ll have any significant problems with intermittency at that level because we will have reserves,” he says.

Transmitting renewable energy is another challenge.

“We didn’t spend money on building the infrastructure needed to keep up with the country’s power usage,” Etezadi says, “ and we’ve outgrown our transmission systems. It takes building transmission lines, for example, to collect the energy produced by the wind. We can go to the top of the hills and mountains and generate a huge amount of power from wind but we have to build the transmission lines to bring that power to the load center. That involves getting permission from property owners, and dealing with state and government rules and regulations, which are sometimes conflicting. The bottom line is high voltage transmission line constructions are time consuming and expensive.”

Etezadi says renewable energy is not a silver bullet, but it does take pressure off the current infrastructure. New discoveries for improved photovoltaic and wind generation will also help.

“We (the country) are the Saudi Arabia of wind!” he says. “I want to encourage people to conserve and incorporate renewable energy in their personal use. It helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil – and eventually we are going to run out of oil.”