The Energy Blog – War of the Currents Round 2

By Andy Silber

War of the Currents: Round 2

The War of the Currents was fairly fought over 100 years ago and the winner was the undisputed better technology; a technology that has served us well. Electricity has worked its way into every facet of our lives and into almost every corner of the country. To be off-the-grid practically means to be Amish or The Unabomber. It’s so critical that when we had an extended power outage here in Seattle in 2006 eight people died of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. So what has changed to make we want to take up arms and fight for the discredited Direct Current?

The first is the increasing complexity of the grid. When most power was produced near where it was consumed the grid was stable and AC fit the bill. But since electricity deregulation an increasing amount of power is produced by Independent Power Producers far from the load they are serving. Sometimes these are distant coal plants near the mine rather than the load (it is easier to move electricity through a wire than coal down a train track) and sometimes it’s a wind farm (most people don’t live near where it’s windy). Large amounts of power rolling from one part of the grid to another makes the delicate balancing act that is required to keep the grid stable much more difficult. This instability can lead to small problems becoming big problems (see 2003 Blackout).

The second reason for re-fighting the War of Currents is that we can now change the voltage of DC currents. Though this has been true for a century, the technology is now good enough to support a High-Voltage DC (HVDC) network across the country. This technology is more expensive, less efficient and less reliable than the ubiquitous AC transformer, but it is now good enough that for long-distance, high-power applications HVDC’s other advantages can be appreciated.

And what are those advantages:

  • Higher transmission efficiency (about 3% loss over 1000 km, about 30% less than with AC). Over short distances the lower efficiency of the voltage conversion dominates and AC is preferred.
  • Ability to carry more power over a given amount of wire, reducing the costs and impacts of towers and wires.
  • Ability to connect power sources (e.g. wind in South Dakota) with power demands (e.g. New York City) that are in asynchronous grids (remember from part 1 about synchronizing grids).
  • Much better underwater, possibly allowing some power lines to be built without any towers or NIMBYs.
  • Superconductors only work with DC power, so the meta-grid could use superconductors or copper.

My vision is that we split the Western and Eastern grids each into 4 smaller, easier to manage grids to increase reliability. These 9 smaller grids (leaving Texas as is) would only be connected by a national HVDC grid. At least initially, each AC grid would have one interconnection to the HVDC meta-grid that would allow it to sell power to anyone in the lower 48. Eventually multiple stations would be preferred to increase reliability.

For instance, during spring runoff utilities in the Northwest have huge amounts of power that they can’t sell.  We could use the existing AC network to get that power to our Meta Grid Hub where it would be converted to HVDC. From there it could be transmitted to another part of the country where it was needed.

Using roads as a metaphor, this is Eisenhower’s federal interstate freeway system. It connects cities, but is not designed to get around cities. There is no need for a new, high tech meter in your home or for your refrigerator to talk to the utility (that’s the city road system). Nothing at your home changes and only the power traders at your utility do anything differently. They will have one more place to sell power (the Meta-Grid) and one more place to buy power (the Meta-Grid). How those transactions work would be complicated (does the Meta-Grid buy and sell power, or only allow those transactions to happen between utilities and provide transmission), but the details aren’t critical to the concept and would only affect a few people inside the utility.

Since most of our renewable resources are in remote areas of the western half of the country (e.g. wind in North Dakota or solar in the Southwest) it is difficult to imagine without this type of grid the eastern half of the country being powered primarily by renewables. No single project is big enough to withstand the challenges of building transmission, and even if it did transmission linking a single source (e.g. a large wind farm in Kansas) to a single demand (e.g. Chicago) is not viable. What happens when the wind doesn’t blow or Chicago doesn’t need the power? The more sources you connect the higher the odds that one of them will be active. The more sinks you connect to the higher the odds that one of them will need your power.

This is not a new idea at all. I haven’t heard anyone else talk about breaking up the large AC grids, but the rest of what I’m talking about here is well within reach of current technology and thinking. It’s only a matter of political will and money. When someone says that we can’t get off fossil fuels without a huge scientific breakthrough, that just isn’t true. Sure more efficient and reliable AC-HVDC conversion or room-temperature superconducting wires 1000 km long at less than $1000 a mile would be useful. Inexpensive energy storage would improved things greatly (I might write an entire posting on energy storage). But there’s no need to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, especially since the perfect tends to be 20 years into the future and always will be.

King County Combined Sewer Overflow Hearings

King County Wastewater Division is hosting two information sessions which focus on projects to control combined sewer overflows.  The meetings are designed to answer questions to date, explain the project science and engineering.

Community members interested in learning more about King County’s proposals to control combined sewer overflows (CSOs) near recreational beaches on Puget Sound are invited to attend these upcoming technical information sessions.

The information sessions will focus on the science and engineering behind the county’s proposed alternatives to build CSO control facilities in West Seattle and North Beach neighborhoods.

Project managers and technical staff will answer questions the county has received to date from community members, including how flows were calculated, why parks are among the sites being considered for location of the new facilities, the feasibility of “green” infrastructure, how much storage capacity is needed to effectively control CSOs, and how a project might impact a neighborhood during and after construction.

People are welcome to come for the entire day, or attend individual sessions based on interest level. A detailed schedule will be posted on the project website at http://www.kingcounty.govCSOBeachProjects.

While the sessions will present a high level of technical detail, the presentations will be geared toward anyone with an interest in science and engineering. Online feedback forms will continue to be available on the project website for people unable to attend the sessions.

People are also invited to provide feedback by calling Monica Van der Vieren at 206-263-7301 or by e-mailing

A portal to information about the Wastewater Treatment Division, King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks is at

Review Plans for Westcrest Reservoir Park @ SW Community Center

Join your neighbors Saturday, June 26, from 10:00 am to noon, at the Southwest Community Center to review the plans and development schedule for the West Seattle Reservoir Park Design at Westcrest.

Come and participate in the fourth meeting for the development of 20 acres of new open space at the West Seattle Reservoir Park at Westcrest. At the end of this meeting you will have a good understanding of the design for this new park in your neighborhood.

Community ideas and direction have been incorporated into a final schematic design for the park. Seattle Parks and Recreation and Site Workshop will present the final design at this next meeting.

The West Seattle Reservoir is located at 9000 8th Ave SW. This park project is funded by the Parks and Green Spaces Levy approved by Seattle voters in November 2008.

Come and see how your input has directed the design of this park. For more information or if you require special meeting accomodations, please visit: or contact Susanne Friedman, 800 Maynard Ave S. Suite 300, or phone 206-684-0902 or via email at or visit us at


Parks Board to Review New Budget Proposals

The Board of Park Commissioners will meet next on June 24 at the Denny Park  Headquarters building, 100 Dexter Avenue North.  This meeting will be the first following the announcement of Park’s new budget proposal.  The Agenda is below:

Board of Park Commissioners – Neal Adams, Vice Chair, John Barber, Terry Holme, Jourdan Keith, Diana Kincaid, Donna Kostka, Jackie Ramels, Chair


June 24, 2010 Meeting

Seattle Park Headquarters, 100 Dexter Avenue North

Briefing papers are generally available on the Park Board web page the Friday before each meeting at  Site also includes agendas and minutes from 2001-present.

View Seattle Channel’s tapes of Park Board meetings, 6/12/08-most current, at

I. Call to Order 6:30 p.m.

Consent Items: Approve June 24 Agenda; May 13, May 27, & June 10 minutes; Acknowledgment of Correspondence

II. Superintendent’s Report 6:30

III. Oral Requests and Communication from the Audience 6:50

(for subjects that have not recently had or are not scheduled for a public hearing)

NOTE:  Speakers will be limited to 2 or 3 minutes each, to be determined by the chair and based upon # of people testifying.   A maximum of 10 minutes testimony will be heard during Oral Requests portion of the agenda.  Testimony in excess of 10 minutes will be heard prior to “Old/New Business”

IV. Briefing:  Seattle Parks Budget Update 7:00

Presented by Carol Everson, Finance Division Director, Seattle Parks

V. Briefing:  Budget Impacts on Summer Park Maintenance 7:30

Presented by Robb Courtney, Parks Division Director, Seattle Parks

VI. Briefing:  Center City Task Force 7:50

Presented by Nathan Torgelson, Real Property Manager, Seattle Parks

VII. Briefing:  Summer Programs 8:20

Presented by Sue Goodwin, Recreation Division Director, Seattle Parks

VIII. Old/New Business 8:45

Committee Reports

IX. Adjourn 9:00

*Times listed for all agenda items are approximate & agenda items may not be taken in the order listed

Please address all correspondence to: Sandy Brooks, Coordinator, voice mail – 206-684-5066,  email:, Board of Park Commissioners fax:   206-233-7023, Seattle Parks and Recreation  web address:, physical address: 100 Dexter Avenue North , Seattle, Washington 98109-5199.


New Transfer Station Hearing @ South Park

The next open house for the new south transfer station is scheduled for Tuesday, June 22, 5:00 to 7:00 pm at the South Park Neighborhood Center, 8201 10th Avenue S.

Join your neighbors for an evening with information, displays, and kids activities. Come learn about

  • The design for the new solid waste transfer station in South Park
  • Proposed public facility amenities, artwork and signs
  • Project schedule

The new station will replace the existing South Recycling and Disposal Station, but the existing station will remain open while the new facility is being built, therefore, there will be no change in services during construction. For more information, or email mail


The Energy Blog – War of the Currents

By Andy Silber

War of the Currents: Round 1

Before there was HD-DVD vs. BlueRay, Mac vs. PC, or Beta vs. VHS there was AC vs. DC. And if you think that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had a rivalry, check out Edison and Tesla, two of the greatest innovators ever and bitter foes in the War of the Currents.  This posting will be a bit more technical than I usually get, but I won’t assume you know anything about electricity and there will be no math.

Electricity is the flow of subatomic electrons through a conductor, like water through a river.  We use two values to describe the flow: voltage and current. Voltage is comparable to the speed of the water. If you know the voltage you know how much energy each electron is carrying (the actual speed doesn’t change). The current tells you how many electrons are flowing past a point.  The total energy carried by the electrons is the Voltage X Current (does that count as math?).

Two Systems – AC & DC

There are two kinds of electrical systems: Alternating Current (AC) and Direct Current (DC). In DC the electrons and energy both flow in one direction. It’s a pretty straightforward system, like a river. In Alternating Current the electrons just move back and forth, but energy flows. It’s like an ocean wave, where energy moves across the ocean’s surface and finally crashes on the shore, but the water just moves a short distance back an forth. One more key bit of physics; the energy loss through transmission (getting the electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed) depends on the voltage: for a given amount of energy higher voltage means less energy loss.

In the late 1800 Edison and his company, General Electric, built DC generation systems. There was no simple way of changing the voltage, so transmission was at the same voltage as was needed by the device that was being powered (at this time it was mainly for lighting). If you needed more than one voltage, then you would need extra wires. This meant that the transmission losses were significant and the power plants needed to be close to the demand. This ruled out the use of renewable energy sources (i.e. hydropower) since those weren’t close enough to the demand.

In 1884-1885 the invention of a simple AC transformer allowed power to be converted easily, cheaply and efficiently from one voltage to another, but only for AC power. This allowed generation at one voltage, transmission at another and use at any voltage that the device required.

Edison & Tesla Hail Different Systems

For about 10 years there was an intense rivalry between DC (Edison and General Electric) and AC (Westinghouse and Tesla). Edison claimed that AC was much more dangerous, since at lower voltages the AC electricity going through a person can disrupt the heart rhythms.  He even encouraged the use of AC electricity for executions to discredit the technology. Imagine the current climate change deniers working to have executions performed by hypothermia to prove the climate wasn’t warming.

An AC system was put into operation in 1896 taking power generated at Niagara Falls to Buffalo, NY. This system’s success in transmitting electricity (over what seems like a short distance today) basically ended the War of the Currents. There were some skirmishes, but any real interest in DC ended.

AC Grid Goes Continental

In the ensuing 114 years the AC grid has gone from transmitting energy 20 miles to transmitting power across half the continent. Some have described the North American Grid as the most complicated machine on the planet. It connects dams in the Northwest to homes in Los Angeles and coal-powered plants in Ohio with factories in Tennessee. With a few interesting exceptions where DC is used, it’s three giant AC grids. One grid connects the Western US and Canada, another grid for the Eastern US and Canada and a third grid just for Texas.

Now to mention some of ACs downsides: as I described above the electrons move back and forth. How much time it takes the electrons to move back and forth is their frequency (how fast they move) and their phase is at what point are they in moving back forth. Think of pushing a child in a swing. If you push forward while he’s moving back, then you’ll slow him down (out-of-phase). If you push forward while he’s moving forward he’ll speed up (in-phase). If you’re at different frequencies then sometimes you’ll be in phase and sometimes you’ll be out-of-phase. The implications for the grid is that every power plant in has to synchronize its output in frequency, phase and voltage or the grid becomes unstable. This is very difficult. The loads (e.g. air conditioners, elevators, and everything else) must exactly equal the sources (e.g. dams, nuclear power plants, wind farms) every second of every day. This is how a problem in Ohio in 2003 caused a loss of power across much of the Northeastern US and Southeastern Canada.

Next, why it’s time to refight the War of the Currents.  Continue on with Part 2…

Local Whale Expert To Speak at Duwamish Longhouse

The Whale Trail is hosting an exciting event featuring John Calambokidis, with an introduction by Kathy Fletcher at the Duwamish Longhouse on June 17, beginning at 7:00 pm.

The Whale Trail presents John Calambokidis speaking on gray whales and other large whales of the Pacific Northwest. Kathy Fletcher, People for Puget Sound, will give remarks on Saving the Sound: What We Can Do.

Advance tickets are available at BrownPaper Tickets with a $5 suggested donation

John Calambokidis is a renowned marine mammal biologist and founder of Cascadia Research. John recently conducted the necropsy on the gray whale that stranded on Arroyo Beach in West Seattle.

John’s talk will focus on the recovery and recent studies of the larger whales in the region, including the recent gray whale strandings in Puget Sound. He’ll also talk about the resurgence of humpbacks along the coast, and recent sightings and studies of blue and fin whales.

Kathy Fletcher, Executive Director of People for Puget Sound, will update us on the health of Puget Sound and efforts towards its recovery.

Come learn more about the great whales that pass through our waters, and what we can do to help them.

The event is presented by The Whale Trail, whose mission is to inspire appreciation and stewardship of whales and our marine environment by establishing a network of viewing sites along the whales’ trails through Puget Sound and the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest. The Whale Trail is a project of Coast Watch Society, a 501(c)3 organization.

John Calambokidis is a Research Biologist and one of the founders of Cascadia Research, a non-profit research organization formed in 1979 based in Olympia, Washington. He periodically (1991-2010) serves as an Adjunct Faculty at the Evergreen State College teaching a course on marine mammals. His primary interests are the biology of marine mammals and the impacts of humans. As a Senior Research Biologist at Cascadia Research he has served as Project Director of over 100 projects. He has authored two books on marine mammals ( the award-winning Guide to Marine Mammals of Greater Puget Sound from Island Publishers, with R. Osborne and E.M. Dorsey and Blue Whales from Voyageur Press, with G.H. Steiger) as well as more than 150 publications in scientific journals and technical reports. He has conducted studies on a variety of marine mammals in the North Pacific from Central America to Alaska. He has directed long-term research on the status, movements, and underwater behavior of blue, humpback, and gray whales. His work has been covered on shows by Discovery Channel and others and is featured in a National Geographic TV special and magazine article released in March 2009.

Kathy Fletcher is founder and executive director of People For Puget Sound, a citizens’ organization formed in 1991 to protect and restore Puget Sound and the Northwest Straits. She also sits on the Northwest Straits Commission and the Puget Sound Partnership’s Ecosystem Coordination Board.

For more information or questions contact Donna Sandstrom at


City Council Neighborhood & Utilities Committees Meet @ Sealth

You’re invited to join Councilmembers Bruce Harrell, Mike O’Brien and Richard Conlin for a Special Joint Meeting of the Energy, Technology, and Seattle Public Utilities and Neighborhood Committees.

Do you qualify for a discount on your water or electricity bill?

Join City Council Thursday, June 17 from 5:00 to 8:00 pm and learn about public and nonprofit utility assistance programs in Seattle.  The joint City Council meeting will take place at Chief Sealth High School, 5959 Delridge Way SW (temporary location at Louisa Boren School).

Information Fair 5:00 pm

  • City of Seattle staff and nonprofit organizations will provide information about utility, housing, food, child care and other assistance programs.

Committee Meeting 6:00 pm

  • City staff and St. Vincent de Paul representatives will discuss utility assistance programs, current trends, barriers, and future needs.

Public Comment 7:00 pm

  • Council will welcome testimony from the audience about current programs and future needs.


June Community Forum – Campaign Finance & Sustainability

Join Sustainable West Seattle at our next Community Forum, this coming Monday, June 21, 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm, at the Senior Center of West Seattle, 4217 SW Oregon Street, right around the corner from California Ave. SW & SW Oregon St.

How does Public Campaign Finance Affect West Seattle Sustainability Efforts?

What can be done to stop the corrupting influence of existing campaign finance rules from damaging our democracy, and preventing us from implementing the policies we need to build a sustainable future for our families and community. Read more

Walk-Bike-Ride Forum Scheduled @ Delridge

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s Walk-Bike-Ride Initiative is reaching out to the people.

On June 14th, from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm at the Delridge Community Center, 4501 Delridge Way SW, representatives from the Mayor’s office will be on hand to hear your suggestions and answer questions.

Walk Bike Ride is a multi-year initiative that will support projects and programs that make walking, biking, and riding transit the easiest ways to get around in Seattle. It will serve all people, regardless of age, income, ethnicity, or ability. It will use transportation investments to create quality places. And it will reclaim our streets for communities. Our long term goal is an interconnected network of walkways, bike paths, and transit routes that allow all residents to easily get around Seattle without a car.