Cover Story

An Energetic Agenda


Story 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 re­cep­tacle 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 consumption.

Imagine a future — to borrow a recent campaign concept — bathed in the warm, glowing balm of idealistic electric-energy change.

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 increase.

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 ago.

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:

     Very good energy-efficiency and conservation programs for electricity end-users;

     The cleanest base-load power that we can get;

     The addition of new renewable-energy generating sources; and

     An 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 it is.”

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 peaks.

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 Generation:

“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 energy.

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 electricity.

“These sources of power — base load and intermediate — have very predictable and stable output,” says Papadakis.

“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 load.”

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 advantages.”

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:

Energy Resource Guide for Virginia

U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

The Energy Star Program


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