and photos by Bill Sherrod, Editor
JMU professor and energy management and
policy expert Dr. Maria Papadakis spreads the
gospel of energy efficiency as part of a four-pronged approach to solving
future energy challenges. Having saved thousands of dollars as the result of
a lighting experiment conducted by Papadakis, Shenandoah Valley poultry
farmer Chuck Horn (left) is a believer.
Imagine a future where you could plug your fully charged electric car into a
to help supply the national grid.
Imagine a future where your appliances
would know when not to run to avoid building a peak demand that would
overtax the available supply
Imagine a future where wind turbines and
solar technology provide a heapin’ helpin’ of your daily energy
Imagine a future — to borrow a recent
campaign concept — bathed in the warm, glowing balm of idealistic
Foolish optimism? Not really. Change in
the way we produce and use electrical energy is inevitable. It’s as
certain as the fact that demand for electric power will continue to
Yes, on the way to that distant,
beckoning destination of a changed world — as we perfect better ways to
manufacture electricity and more efficient ways to use it — we’ll
continue to need increasing amounts of the crackly magic stuff. We will
still get up in the morning, eat breakfast, take hot showers and go to do
jobs where electricity is a necessity that we hardly think about until
it’s not there.
In recent months, influences ranging
from the presidential campaign to looming rate increases have sharpened
awareness of all things electric. Talk of energy efficiency, alternative
fuels and carbon footprints has become part of the common lexicon. Virginia
is blessed with a guru of sorts, an unassuming expert quietly conducting
research and working toward solutions to tomorrow’s energy challenges.
This guru is Maria Papadakis, a James Madison University professor and
specialist in energy management and policy.
Hokie class sparks
Interest in Energy
Born in Virginia, Papadakis grew up in
Indiana but returned to her native state to attend college at Virginia Tech.
While a Hokie, she took an energy engineering course, and the die was cast.
“That’s where my interest began,” she notes. After graduating from
Tech, Papadakis earned a Ph.D. in political science at Indiana University.
Her energy expertise evolved from more than 20 years of work in technology
assessment. She settled in the Shenandoah Valley to teach at JMU 14 years
About a year and a half ago, Papadakis
began conducting agricultural-energy research on the economics of
energy-efficient, dimmable compact-fluorescent lamps (CFLs) in Shenandoah
Valley poultry houses.
“We did a study on possible savings
comparing dimmable CFLs and traditional bulbs,” notes Papadakis. “The
study showed considerable savings.”
Since then, she has been working with
the Shenandoah Resource Conservation and Development Council and the Dept.
of Mines, Minerals and Energy to develop a farm energy-audit pilot program
to identify future energy needs and energy-savings opportunities for the
state’s agriculture sector.
Energy-savings opportunities are central
to what Papadakis sees as the course to our energy future. “The reality is
that we consume an extraordinary amount of electricity. And every
energy-supply choice has an environmental consequence.”
According to Papadakis, a good energy
strategy has four points, all equally important:
good energy-efficiency and conservation programs for electricity end-users;
cleanest base-load power that we can get;
addition of new renewable-energy generating sources; and
improved electric power grid.
“The buzz these days is on the
‘smart-grid’ concept,” says Papadakis. “This idea is tied to the
nature of the electric power that comes into the grid, and how decentralized
The Smart Grid
A smart grid would manage variable-power
input coming from sources such as solar panels and wind-power generators. A
smart grid would also accommodate demand-control for smart appliances, to
reduce demand during peak power-use periods.
“The grid is a real-time system,
meaning the amount of electricity coming onto the system is roughly the same
as the amount going out,” says Papadakis, “so we try to match power
generation to the amount being used.”
The amount being used is the big
variable, one that utility forecasters can predict.
What can’t always be predicted are the unexpected peaks because of,
for example, unseasonably hot days. The grid has to be able to meet these
Demand-control programs, such as the
water-heater switches used by many electric cooperatives, are used to reduce
peak demands. “A smart grid can enhance the utility’s ability to do
these types of demand control,” Papadakis says.
One interesting smart-grid possibility
would involve use of plug-in hybrid vehicles. “The mathematical modeling
is being done now,” notes Papadakis. In principal, the hybrids would be
plugged into the grid for recharging at night, during the off-peak period.
Potential vehicle-to-grid technology would allow such vehicles plugged in
during the day to give some of their stored power back to the grid.
Basically, the hybrid cars would act as a huge aggregate battery-storage
system for the grid.
“Base load is power generation that is
constant — it’s running all the time, at full capacity, to ensure that
the grid always has enough electricity to keep things going,” says
Papadakis. “The only time it’s not at full capacity is when it’s shut
down for maintenance or repair.” Because of its nature, base-load power
must be the cheapest available. Historically, coal, nuclear and, where
available, hydroelectric power have been the primary sources of base-load
Base-load energy generators are not responsive
to small changes in demand: “You typically
can’t turn a base-load generator on and off — it’s not efficient,”
says Papadakis. “To supplement base-load, utilities have generators that
can respond more quickly. These tend to be powered by natural gas, and when
you turn them on, you get electricity in a hurry.” These intermediate or
peaking-power generators are typically up to 160-megawatt sources, while
base-load generators are typically 800- to 1,500-megawatt sources of
“These sources of power — base load
and intermediate — have very predictable and stable output,” says
“The renewable sources are where
things start to get complicated. Wind and solar power are intermittent and
variable — not continuous sources of energy. The electric grid doesn’t
‘like’ a variable energy supply. It likes stable current,” she adds.
This is where development of a “smart grid” would help. We’re headed
in that direction, but patience is required.
“To most effectively use large amounts
of variable energy, we need technology to help stabilize it. Right now, we
don’t have the technology to use wind and solar power as ‘base load’
or intermediate load. Large-scale battery storage is the focus of much
research, as is renewable ‘firming power,’ such as solar and hydropower.
A basic amount of electric power needs to be on all the time as a
predictable and continuous supply — our grid cannot function without base
The Department of Energy estimates that
in 20 years, 14 percent of our energy will come from renewable sources,
meaning that 86 percent will still be from traditional types of generators.
“We’ll still add gigawatts of base
load from mostly coal and nuclear sources,” she says. “Building base
load takes a long time, five to 10 years for design, permitting and
construction. So you have to plan today for what’s projected as need 15
years from now. And the planning has to use technology that is available
today. For those concerned with the environment, we need to think about
slowing down the need for base load. This requires effective economic
incentives and public policies that will promote that outcome.”
It’s critical for utilities to assess
the cost-effectiveness of efficiency and conservation programs versus
construction of new facilities, according to Papadakis.
Building smaller plants as opposed to
one large base-load facility is another possibility for future power supply,
she adds. “Small-plant advantages are that you can get the plant closer to
the load center, so you don’t lose power shipping it long distances over
transmission lines. And small plants can potentially produce electricity
with less pollution; so there are economic gains as well as environmental
New coal-fired base-load plants use the
latest environmental-protection technology and are more efficient and
cleaner compared to those of 20 or 30 years ago, Papadakis adds. “And
there’s a lot of renewed interest in nuclear power as a source for
base-load energy,” she notes. Other fuels available
for base-load generation on a limited basis range from biomass to landfill
methane. “A utility has to consider its customers’
needs a decade or more into the future,” says Papadakis. “And
construction costs are a very sensitive component of these models.” In
the final analysis, a sound plan for ensuring an adequate supply of electric
power will involve a variety of approaches which, when condensed, define the
essence of Papadakis’ four-point strategy.
“There’s simply no ‘magic
bullet’ to solve our energy challenges for the future,” she concludes.
For more information,
see the following online resources:
Resource Guide for Virginia www.energyguide.ext.vt.edu
Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
Energy Star Program