The Future Will Be All About Electricity

If you’re like me, you’ve pretty much taken electricity for granted. However, after a couple of recent extended power outages in our neighborhood, I really began thinking about just how much our lives are based on those little electrons flowing into the devices that make our standard of living possible.

As if I needed more evidence of the importance of electricity, once the power was restored, I happened upon an episode of the television series, Revolution, the premise of which is that all electric power in the world suddenly goes out permanently. In the series, civil society devolves into warring factions on horseback with bows and arrows. Fiction? Yes. But, consider everything you use during an average day that runs on electricity or required electricity for its manufacture. The generation, distribution, conservation, storage and cost of electricity are becoming more and more critical, not only in our personal lives, but for our entire economy.

Our largest local economic asset is the port. Take a look at that port, especially at night. Imagine how much electricity it takes to keep operations running safely and smoothly. Without a constant, consistent flow of electricity, all the goods that come into the port, and all the jobs they represent, are in danger of going elsewhere. The challenge, therefore, is to ensure that, as the port grows “green,” the supply of clean electric energy grows with it.

Electricity can be generated in numerous ways. Some methods use fossil fuels to run turbines. The obvious downside is that fossil fuels are not green. Nuclear power generation has its own environmental and safety problems. Solar, wind, fuel cell, hydroelectric, thermoelectric and wave action generation are more environmentally sustainable, and some combination of these renewables will likely be the future of electricity generation. The challenge, however, is that there are still significant technological and cost factors to overcome. Likewise, finding ways to store large amounts of that generated energy for use at a later time remains an elusive goal.

Electricity is distributed to users through a grid system. Our current grid infrastructure is in dire need of upgrading to keep pace with the exponential growth in electricity demand. It also needs to become “smarter” in order to do things such as smoothly integrate intermittent sources of electricity – like solar and wind – into the overall flow and also enable prioritization of distribution-based critical need.

Finding solutions to the above challenges is a high priority with our research and entrepreneur communities. One recent week, I witnessed just two examples: Through PortTechLA, I met Dr. Rajit Gadh, Director of UCLA’s SMERC (Smart Grid Energy Research Center). Dr. Gadh demonstrated for us how, using his smartphone, he monitors and controls 15 multi-plug electric vehicle charging stations on the UCLA campus. He is able to, among other things, stop and start charging of any vehicle, time charging to use off-peak rates when possible, and prioritize which vehicle gets charged first, based on when it is going to be needed. Combining the electric grid, wireless Internet, advanced sensors and smartphone technology in this way will revolutionize how future fleets of electric vehicles are controlled. The same week, I was part of a tour of one of the port’s terminal operations where advanced, more efficient, less expensive LED lamps are being tested as a replacement for the old high-pole sodium lamp “wagon wheels” we’re used to seeing every night. These lamps could save terminal operators thousands of dollars and produce better lighting for safety purposes. Even more energy efficient plasma lamps are just coming available, too.

Bottom line: While we can’t take electricity for granted, and there are challenges ahead, some really exciting things are happening in the world of electric power. spt

Herb Zimmer owns PriorityOne Printing in downtown San Pedro.

and is chairman of the PortTechLA technology business incubator.