Alternative power sources have upended the electric grid. Ivan Penn, who covers the beat, discusses the changes and how he keeps track of them.
How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Ivan Penn, who covers alternative energy for The Times from Los Angeles, discussed the tech he’s using.
Q. A lot of alternative energy is basically technology. What are some of the most unusual ideas around alternative energy you’ve seen break out over the years?
A. Much of the energy sector these days focuses on energy storage — that’s where a lot of innovation is taking place. Because solar and wind energy are intermittent, utilities look for ways to capture the unused power for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Lithium-ion batteries are commonly known, but engineers are also working on storing compressed air generated by using excess solar and wind and releasing it later to power a turbine.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power proposes to turn Hoover Dam into a giant battery by making it a hydro-pumped storage plant. The dam already generates electricity, but the utility wants to pump water back into the upper reservoir to produce more electricity using solar and wind electricity to power the pump — another form of storage.
But storage isn’t the only focus. Engineers continue to study other forms of energy, like capturing the power of ocean waves. And some countries are using the internet for peer-to-peer electricity trading of the solar power they generate.
Battery technology is something that everyone wants to see improve. What are the challenges to broader deployment of batteries in the energy sector?
The biggest issue has been cost. Batteries have been very expensive, but that’s changing fairly quickly. Just as with the rapid drop in price in solar panels, batteries to store electricity have rapidly declined in cost, most likely making them more affordable within the next few years.
California is also likely to be a major driver in the expansion of battery storage. The State Assembly recently passed a measure to provide about $1 billion to help homeowners purchase batteries for their homes. The state created a similar program for solar that led to one million solar roofs and helped make California by far the leader in residential solar installations.
So battery technology is likely to get a big boost by California’s legislation and subsidy program. Batteries will still need to continue becoming more efficient. Researchers are exploring various technologies that also will provide alternatives to the common lithium-ion battery that is used in electric vehicles and as energy storage batteries today.
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How has tech changed the power grid as a whole?
Just in the last decade, the 100-year model of utilities producing electricity and selling power to consumers was turned on its head. Improvements in solar panel efficiency and lower product cost enabled consumers on a wide scale to produce their own power and sell it back to the electric grid.
The grid was never designed to be a two-way street. So that has led to a reimagining of it. Utility companies must rethink the services they provide. No longer just power companies, utilities provide new services like vehicle charging stations for the growing number of electric cars.
Along with producing their own power, people now benefit from improvements in energy efficiency, which has resulted in flat or reduced electricity use across the country — another adjustment for the power companies. Light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, highly efficient appliances and smart technology have changed the way we use power.
What kind of tech setup do you have for work?
The alternative energy beat often is data driven, so tech is critical. Google Sheets and Excel help me manage data from the United States Energy Information Administration, the Solar Energy Industries Association and the California Solar and Storage Association.
I also check some of the latest developments in alternative energy on Greentechmedia.com and Utility Dive. And I consult the Electric Power Research Institute.
Outside of work, what tech do you and your family love? How do you use it?
Our house is full of computers, mostly Apple — MacBooks, iPads and iPhones — though we use other tablets as well. The gadgets get their fair share of schoolwork activity, but they’re also tools of social media, music, art, websites, programming, Hulu and Netflix.
Entertainment is big. So there are several gaming systems, old and more recent, like various Nintendo systems as well as Xbox.
But as if all of that weren’t enough, my sons built their own computer with money they made during the summer at a fast food chicken restaurant so they could play and make video games they hope to sell. So far they’re planning more than developing, but perhaps that might fall under the category of research.
How has the tech industry swept into Los Angeles? And how has the city changed as a result?
Without a doubt, energy technology is a staple of Southern California, given that the state is the leader in solar power. Residential solar is prolific.
But technology is really changing transportation. Of course, there are Uber and Lyft, but electric vehicles have also given rise to new companies like Tesloop, which will take you from Los Angeles to San Diego in a Tesla for as little as $29 (snacks included). Prices go as high as about $84, and all users have to do is register and request a ride online. My daughter sometimes uses the service to get to and from the University of California, San Diego, where she goes to school, or uses ride shares through social media.
And the Bird app, which connects people with electric scooters, has become increasingly popular, and perhaps annoying to some. Some areas have banned riding and parking the scooters in their communities. It has changed much of how people live, move and interact.
Ivan Penn is a Los Angeles-based reporter covering alternative energy. Before coming to The Times in 2018 he covered utility and energy issues at The Tampa Bay Times and The Los Angeles Times. @ivanlpenn