Smarter Ways Forward with The Ray

Frequently, PACE talks about consumers’ interest in transportation from a fuel supply angle (oil pipelines) or integrating new technologies (electric vehicles). Many big thinkers are attempting to envision how, when and at what cost energy, telecommunications and transportation will converge. Many laudable “Smart Cities” projects and pilots with broad scopes of inquiry are underway.

While sweeping inquiries are useful, it’s also beneficial to focus more closely on a set of questions and issues. More discrete sets of information often have a better chance of getting and holding people’s attention. Those who live and work far from cities should also be engaged in growing familiar with the future.

That sort of thinking and leadership is present at The Ray, an independent non-profit program of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. The Ray is using a dedicated stretch of Interstate 85 in West Georgia to pilot a variety of new transportation and energy-saving technologies and methodologies.

The Ray’s Executive Director Allie Kelly talked with PACE about how she and her team are providing consumers and policymakers an accessible vision for the future of smart transportation that saves energy, creates energy, saves lives, and values the environment.

Question: What are the most prevalent technologies in place along The Ray?

 Prevalent and visible technologies on The Ray are our solar, renewable energy projects. Renewable energy generation presents vast opportunities for the transportation sector. We call this the energy-transportation nexus.

As electric vehicles continue to gain market share, the need for a reliable, cross-state charging network is critical. At The Ray, we’re demonstrating how clean, renewable energy can provide an 80 percent charge to an EV in under 30 minutes. The Ray’s first technology demonstration was a DC fast charging station anchored to a small solar array, known as PV4EV. The installation of this single charging station addressed a critical gap in charging infrastructure between Atlanta and Montgomery, two state capitals, that had previously prevented most EV drivers from using I-85 to enter Georgia.

In December of 2016, The Ray and Georgia DOT installed a 50 square meter pilot of Wattway, a solar pavement, in an interstate access lane coming from one of Georgia’s gateway visitor centers. This demonstration is the only drivable solar road in the United States and generated nearly six-megawatt hours of clean, renewable energy in just one year for Georgia DOT’s operations.

Part of what makes the energy-transportation nexus such an obvious win-win is the sheer acreage of available, underutilized land. The unpaved real estate in transportation, including medians, shoulders and large diamond interchanges, can multitask, all while providing a place of safe harbor for drivers in distress. This year, Georgia will deploy a one-megawatt solar farm in and along the shoulder of the interstate, following successful pilots in Oregon and Massachusetts. This ROW solar project on The Ray is a broad P4 partnership between Georgia Power, the Georgia Department of Transportation, the state’s public service commission, and The Ray. But perhaps the most eye-catching feature will be the pollinator-friendly flowers and grasses that will cover the ground of the entire solar farm. Imagine driving down a highway past thousands of solar panels situated in a sea of native flowers.

 Question: What aspect of The Ray’s work has drawn the most attention from consumers? From policymakers?

 At The Ray, sustainability and safety go hand-in-hand. There’s nothing sustainable about roadways where over 40,000 deaths occur annually – in the United States alone. Our current and future safety focused innovations have, by far, drawn the most attention from both those riding The Ray and transportation officials across the country.

That’s why hosting the first-in-the-world WheelRight tire safety station was so important. WheelRight is a convenient, drive-through tire safety station that simultaneously measures tire pressure and tread depth, and scans for sidewall damage. The driver never leaves the vehicle, and the data analysis generated by in-road sensors and a computer visioning system are available in just seven seconds. This information arms drivers with the knowledge they need to make smarter decisions about tire maintenance and when to replace their tires. Imagine the impact of tire safety stations across the country at freight depots, school bus parking lots, and bus transit systems.

The future of transportation safety is exciting. This year, The Ray and Georgia DOT are working to launch autonomous and connected vehicle projects. We see great potential in turning big data into big, meaningful and actionable information that will enable DOTs to make better traffic management decisions, and to respond more efficiently and safely in emergency situations.

Taking connectivity a step further, we believe that smart cars and trucks should not be the only source of real-time, real-place information available from the road. To enable the road to “talk” to us, we’ve created and patented technology to create the world’s first smart road dot.

White and yellow painted lines mark road lanes. In those demarcations, we see tremendous safety potential. Our smart, solar powered, LED-lit road dots will share information and report the roads’ status to connected and autonomous vehicles, to state DOTs, and to oncoming traffic. Following an accident, the smart road dot could light amber to warn and slow approaching drivers. In intense rain and fog conditions, bright white LEDs could guide drivers safely to their destination. And dangerous black ice could be identified by the road itself and demarcated in real-time and real-place. This technology is moving through its beta testing and design process, which will inform the demonstration pilots in the future.

Question: How do solar and EV technology companies that The Ray is partnering with assess the potential for consumer cost-savings?

There are several ways that the technologies piloted on The Ray can lead to more dollars in consumers’ pockets.

The first way is that The Ray is helping to develop a robust, long-term EV charging infrastructure. Without a doubt, EVs are less expensive to maintain and operate than gas and diesel-powered vehicles. Why? Because there’s no oil to change, brake pads to replace, or alternator to fail. EV batteries today are lasting five years or longer, and battery technology continues to improve. Our challenge is to develop a charging infrastructure outside of major metropolitan areas. As autonomous vehicle technology becomes the norm, we’ll see a parallel increase in electric vehicles because autonomous vehicles are electric vehicles.

WheelRight also plays a large role in our consumer-focused goals. Earlier, I mentioned the critical safety benefits of WheelRight. What I didn’t mention was that underinflated tires also artificially handicap your car’s fuel efficiency. Every year, the United States wastes two billion gallons of fuel because of worn down, underinflated tires. That means that you end up going to the pump more often and paying more to get where you’re going.


A Tale of Two States - Deregulation in Texas

Last month, the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power (TCAP) released an update to its regular report on Texas’ deregulated power market. TCAP is a not-for-profit that helps aggregate electricity purchases for dozens of cities in Texas, and so has a vested interest in monitoring the state’s complicated and ever-changing electricity markets. TCAP’s analysis can help you decide whether the Texas deregulation “miracle” is a tall tale.

I became a TCAP fan last summer after identifying them as one of the nation’s few organizations able to discuss “capacity markets” in plain English.

Since Texas is so frequently held up as an example of the virtues of electric wholesale and retail deregulation, it’s worthwhile for other states to track and understand the tale of two populations – the deregulated, largely in the state’s huge population centers, and the unregulated, usually in rural areas served by electric co-ops and a range of towns and cities with community-owned utilities.

Using both Energy Information Administration (EIA) data and in-state resources such as the Texas PUC, TCAP has followed electricity prices and trends since 2002, the first year of deregulation’s implementation.

First the good news – “the 16-year-old deregulated retail electric market in Texas is delivering some of its best results so far for residential consumers.” Some competitive retailers in 2017 and 2018 have developed service packages that will deliver lower prices for some deregulated consumers.

However, as TCAP shows, over the 16 year experiment, “Texans consistently have paid higher average residential electric prices in areas with deregulation, as compared to prices in areas exempt from deregulation.”

Averages and percentages are one thing, but for citizens and policymakers, dollars speak more loudly. A review of “Lost Savings” shows that across the deregulated market, Texans could have saved more than $27 billion in “lower residential electricity bills from 2002 through 2016 had they paid the same average prices as Texans living outside deregulation. In 2016, lost savings amounted to nearly $800 million.

Ok, but Texas is such a big state. Surely those amounts blended over millions of people added up to pocket change? And that loss of pocket change was more than offset by the fun and freedom of choosing your own electricity provider.

Hardly. A “typical residential customer under deregulation (defined as a customer paying average deregulated prices and consuming 1,300 kWh of electricity each month) would have saved more than $5,500” over the fifteen years. For $5,500 saved with compound interest over time, a family could begin to afford a home battery storage system.

The next time PACE takes a tour through Texas, we’ll look at what deregulation and lower reserve margins mean ahead of what could be a long, hot summer.


DOE's Hard Work and Always-On, Clean, Affordable Power

While media attention focuses on events at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, federal agencies and dedicated employees all over the country are quietly making progress on energy issues. This week, PACE takes a look at just one week’s output of good news from the Department of Energy. Sec. Rick Perry believes in all of the above, while championing renewable energy, and his philosophy shines through in work done each day by DOE divisions and partners.

On May 15, DOE announced a sizable grant of $72 million to “advance high-temperature concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies,” continuing U.S. leadership in the space. CSP “uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto a focused point where it is collected and converted into heat.” CSP is part of the long-term solution to having solar available on demand because it incorporates thermal storage.

A great deal of research and development is required to ensure high enough temperatures (700 Celsius is the goal), reduced risk, and consistent results. Now, five national labs, four universities and other expert organizations can pursue projects that will help advance the technology and reduce costs in hopes of reaching a 2030 goal of 5 cents per kilowatt/hour for baseload.

While valuable R&D continues apace on renewable energy, the world will still need coal-based generation. As Sec. Perry noted on May 16, in remarks to the World Coal Association, “coal produces about 40 percent of the world’s electricity supply.” Nations as diverse as Brazil, India, Japan and South Korea are using U.S. coal. For some, coal is still the least expensive and most reliable baseload energy source. In Asia particularly, where natural gas markets are suddenly rather volatile and some nations are seeing a 3-year high in prices, coal may extend its stay.

So, another DOE announcement also merits attention. Modular plants aren’t just a new nuclear concept. Now, DOE is scoping out plans to develop small (50 to 350 MW) modular coal plants. If all goes well, we could see pilot plants by 2025. While carbon capture research is still worthwhile, small super-efficient plants may make for prudent investments in areas that need coal to ensure affordable and accessible energy.

DOE also partners with utilities to ensure that power is reliable and secured in the event of physical or cybersecurity events that can impact grid infrastructure. A new cyber strategy “identifies the goals, objectives, and activities that DOE will pursue over the next five years to reduce the risk of energy disruptions due to cyber incidents.” DOE has many years of experience helping other federal agencies and the White House understand how cyber defenses integrate with the actual operations of utilities which have “always-on” obligations.

Consumers often don’t know what government is doing to help essential infrastructure and service providers power the economy and improve the environment. Each one of these developments merits more than the 500 words PACE can give here. You can learn more about Department of Energy efforts by following them on Twitter @ENERGY or at their revamped website.