How do electricity providers forecast electricity demand? On this week’s Energy Bite, Richard Huntsinger, a recent PhD graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, has some answers.

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HOST: How do electricity providers forecast electricity demand? On this week’s Energy Bite, Richard Huntsinger, a recent PhD graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, has some answers.

HUNTSINGER: Electric providers use computer models to forecast electricity demand at different horizons – the short-term horizon, say a day to a week ahead, the medium-term horizon—a month to a year ahead, and the long-term horizon—a year to many years ahead.  The different models are used for different purposes and forecasters rely on different information to make their predictions.  All the models have some elements in common, but generally, utilities must create their own unique models specific their own consumers’ particular electricity usage behavior, because situations differ across locations.

HOST: How are these different kinds of forecasts used and what information do forecasters rely on?

HUNTSINGER: Electric providers forecast demand for shorter horizons to decide how much electricity to produce or contract for, which must be committed to in advance of when it will actually be used. Forecasters rely on information about historical electricity usage, temperature, when holidays will occur, and other factors that are known to influence electricity demand. Forecasters predict demand for longer horizons to decide how much to invest in new sources of electricity. They rely on information about population growth, the economy, and other factors.

 HOST: Would you support electric providers investing more in new sources of electricity? Take our poll, see the results, and ask your energy questions at Energy Bite dot org.

Have you ever wondered why electric providers predict electricity demand? On this week’s Energy Bite, Richard Huntsinger, a recent PhD graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, has some answers.

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HOST: Have you ever wondered why electric providers predict electricity demand? On this week’s Energy Bite, Richard Huntsinger, a recent PhD graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, has some answers.

HUNTSINGER: Electric providers forecast electricity demand to guide them on how much electricity they need to distribute. If they plan for too much electricity, it will be wasted. That’s expensive – and bad for the environment. Unlike with other forms of energy, electricity can’t be used later; it must be used precisely when it’s produced or it’s gone. If companies plan for too little electricity, this means they have to obtain extra electricity from somewhere else on short notice, and that’s expensive, too. If companies predict for way too little electricity, there just won’t be enough even from somewhere else, and that means a blackout, a short- or long-term loss of electric power, can occur.

HOST: What are the latest advances in forecasting electricity demand?

HUNTSINGER: Forecasters of electricity demand are starting to use “big data” techniques, the ones already being used to make self-driving cars, predict consumer buying trends, and search for cyber threats. Big data techniques, of course, require a lot of data to work well, and fortunately, there is a lot of data starting to come from new smart grid implementations that can be used for this purpose.

 HOST: Do you think utilities do a good job of forecasting your electricity demand? Take our poll, see the results, and ask your energy questions at Energy Bite dot org.

Have you ever wondered where the first nuclear power plant built for domestic peacetime was located? On this week’s Energy Bite, Joel Tarr, a professor of Carnegie Mellon University has some answers.

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HOST: Have you ever wondered where the first nuclear power plant built for domestic peacetime was located? On this week’s Energy Bite, Joel Tarr, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has some answers.

JOEL: The Shippingport Atomic Power Station was the world’s first full-scale atomic electric power plant devoted exclusively to peacetime uses. It was located, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh and was built in 1957. The station was created and operated under the direction of Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was known as the father of the nuclear navy. It was decommissioned in 1982 because it couldn’t go on forever.

HOST: Are there any nuclear power plants near Pittsburgh today?

JOEL: Today, FirstEnergy Corporation operates the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station in Shippingport about an hour from the city near the Atomic Power Station site. The world’s largest supplier of nuclear technology is Westinghouse Electric Company, headquartered in Cranberry, Pennsylvania in the Pittsburgh Region.

HOST: Do you live near a nuclear power plant? Take our poll, see the results, and ask your energy questions at Energy Bite dot org.

What fuel did Pittsburgh’s first street lamps consume? On this week’s Energy Bite, Joel Tarr, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University has some answers.

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HOST: What fuel did Pittsburgh’s first street lamps consume? On this week’s Energy Bite, Joel Tarr, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has some answers.

JOEL: The first street lighting in Pittsburgh came in 1816 when a few whale oil lamps were distributed in the downtown area. In 1837, however, the first gas lights were installed in the city. They did not burn natural gas, but rather gas made from coal. The coal gas manufactured and processed involves distilling the mineral in a retort to drive out the volatiles to produce gas. Bituminous coal from western Pennsylvania mines was the best base to use to make gas.

HOST: How did we get to electric street lamps?

JOEL: As the use of electricity for lighting developed due to the efforts of inventors like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, competition developed among the gas companies and electrical companies over the lighting market. The first electric street lights installed were arc lamps followed by incandescent lights. The gas industry tried to meet the competition from electric lights by developing the Welsbach Mantle that provided a much brighter light than the normal gas light (Think of today’s Coleman lanterns used for camping). Eventually gas and electric companies combined. Over the years, gas was used less and less for lighting and used more and more for purposes such as cooking and heating of hot water.

HOST: Do you think understanding the historical context of energy developments can provide insights for the energy future? Take our poll, see the results, and ask your energy questions at Energy Bite dot org.

Have you ever wondered if there were ever natural gas wells within the city of Pittsburgh’s boundaries? On this week’s Energy Bite, Joel Tarr, a professor of Carnegie Mellon University has some answers.

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HOST: Have you ever wondered if there were ever natural gas wells within the city of Pittsburgh’s boundaries? On this week’s Energy Bite, Joel Tarr, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has some answers.

JOEL: Today, natural gas wells are forbidden within the city of Pittsburgh, but back in the 1880s, dozens of them existed. The initial ones dug were in the East End. In 1918, faced by a fuel shortage, Carnegie Institute of Technology – what is now known as Carnegie Mellon University – dug a natural gas well on its campus. The gas supply, however, was exhausted by 1922.

HOST: Why are cities attempting to limit natural gas wells within their boundaries?

JOEL: Communities are concerned with the environmental damage, noise pollution and possible health problems created by natural gas drilling and operation. When communities and natural gas drilling operations merge, it creates a sort of industrial district. The ability of communities to keep hydraulic fracturing outside of their borders has been a controversial issue. One year ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that zoning could be used to prevent drilling.

HOST: Would a natural gas well near your office influence your decision to work there? Take our poll, see the results, and ask your energy questions at Energy Bite dot org.

Have you ever wondered what cities used to be the nation’s centers for refining petroleum? On this week’s Energy Bite, Joel Tarr, a professor of Carnegie Mellon University has some answers.

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HOST: Have you ever wondered what cities used to be the nation’s centers for refining petroleum? On this week’s Energy Bite, Joel Tarr, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has some answers.

JOEL: In the 1850s, oil was discovered in northwestern Pennsylvania near what is today known as “Oil City.” Oil City is in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania in Venango County and it became the nation’s first oil producing region. Oil was initially shipped on barges down the Allegheny River to refineries in Pittsburgh. By 1870, there were at least 20 refineries in Pittsburgh.

 HOST: How have the location of refineries changed over the course of history?

JOEL:  Refineries sprang up in Cleveland and by the 1870s there were more there than in Pittsburgh.  The largest refiner, John D. Rockefeller, bought out the independent refineries and came to dominate the refining industry.  Oil was shipped to Cleveland via railroad and Rockefeller was able to negotiate with the railroads for cheaper rates. Pittsburgh refineries gradually lost out and Pittsburgh interests blamed the Pennsylvania Railroad for prejudice against the city in its rates. Today there is no oil refinery in the city of Pittsburgh although there are two refineries still operating in the Oil City region refining Pennsylvania crude.

HOST: Did you know Pittsburgh was once the nation’s center for refining petroleum? Take our poll, see the results, and ask your energy questions at Energy Bite dot org.

Have you ever thought about which fuel sources were the most important in Pittsburgh’s history? On this week’s Energy Bite, Joel Tarr, a professor of Carnegie Mellon University has some answers.

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HOST: Have you ever thought about which fuel sources were the most important in Pittsburgh’s history? On this week’s Energy Bite, Joel Tarr, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has some answers.

JOEL: Coal was the fuel that made Pittsburgh into a great energy center—but it also did a lot of environmental damage. For instance, there were many days when the street-lights had to be turned on downtown at mid-day because of smoke pollution.

HOST: What’s been the second most important fuel source in Pittsburgh’s history?

JOEL: Natural gas has been important at various times in our history. Local natural gas supplies were discovered in the late 1870s, but by the 1890s they had been deleted.  Then, after World War II, the pipelines named Big Inch and Little Inch brought natural gas from the Southwest into the city and helped reinforce Pittsburgh’s attempt to free itself from smoke. Now, in the 21st century, the technique of hydraulic fracturing has made large natural gas supplies available from local sources again.

HOST: Do you often think about the effects fuel sources have on cities? Take our poll, see the results, and ask your energy questions at Energy Bite dot org.

Is biomass a viable energy source? On this week’s Energy Bite, Daniel Posen, a recent PhD graduate of Carnegie Mellon University has some answers.

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HOST: Have you ever heard the term “biomass energy” and wondered what it is? On this week’s Energy Bite, Daniel Posen, a recent PhD graduate of Carnegie Mellon University has some answers

DANIEL: When we talk about biomass energy, we are talking about plant or animal products that are used to generate energy. Since the beginning of civilization, for example, we have burned wood to release the energy within it. Today, biomass energy sources include crops like corn, sugarcane and switchgrass, as well as wood residue from lumber, pulp and paper industries, or even garbage, food waste and sewage. There are many different ways to get energy from biomass. Often, we burn it directly or transform it into liquid transportation fuels like ethanol and biodiesel. We can even turn it into a renewable form of natural gas.

HOST: What are the pros and cons of using biomass for energy?

DANIEL: On the positive side, biomass is a renewable resource that easily stores energy, and is available as needed. This gives it an advantage over wind and solar power that rely on current weather conditions. On the other hand, biomass takes a lot of energy to process, and using more of it for energy can lead to deforestation, water quality problems and increased global hunger.

HOST: Do you think biomass should be used as energy? Take our poll, see the results, and ask your energy questions at Energy Bite dot org.

Have you ever heard the term “biofuels,” and wondered what they are? On this week’s Energy Bite, Daniel Posen, a recent PhD graduate of Carnegie Mellon University has some answers.

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HOST: Have you ever heard of the term “biofuels,” and wondered what they are? On this week’s Energy Bite, Daniel Posen, a recent PhD graduate of Carnegie Mellon University has some answers. 

DANIEL: Biofuels are liquid transportation fuels made from plant or animal products. The most common biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol is made by fermenting sugar—just like the alcohol we drink. The sugar can come from any number of crops like corn, barley, sugar cane or even tree bark and yard clippings. Biodiesel is made from vegetable oils, fats or greases. In the U.S. these biofuels make up about 5% of all energy used for transportation.

DANIEL: Biofuels are liquid transportation fuels made from plant or animal products. The most common biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol is made by fermenting sugar—just like the alcohol we drink. The sugar can come from any number of crops like corn, barley, sugar cane or even tree bark and yard clippings. Biodiesel is made from vegetable oils, fats or greases. In the U.S. these biofuels make up about 5% of all energy used for transportation.

HOST: And how are these fuels used?

DANIEL: You might be surprised to know that some of the very first cars produced in the 1800s ran on ethanol and biodiesel. Today, bioethanol is typically mixed with gasoline, which is why you will see signs that say “may contain up to 10% ethanol” when you go to a gasoline station. Similarly, you can blend biodiesel with regular diesel or use it directly in your diesel-fueled car in some regions of the country. Biofuel use is on the rise, primarily because countries around the world have adopted policies that require their use. Governments favor increased use in biofuels to support farming communities, reduce dependence on foreign oil, and because of the potential environmental benefits.

HOST: Would you be willing to buy a car that runs on a biofuel? Take our poll, see the results, and ask your energy questions at Energy Bite dot org.

Do you ever worry about the environmental impact of all the plastic we use? On this week’s Energy Bite, Daniel Posen, a recent PhD graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, has some answers.

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Do you ever worry about the environmental impact of all the plastic we use?

HOST: Do you ever worry about the environmental impact of all the plastic we use? On this week’s Energy Bite, Daniel Posen, a recent PhD graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, has some answers.

DANIEL: Every year, Americans buy products containing nearly 100 billion pounds of plastic. These plastics pose an environmental challenge throughout their life, from manufacturing to use and disposal. The question is – what can we do about it?  One place to start is what plastics are made from. For example, instead of making plastics from crude oil and natural gas, we can start making them from renewable materials, like corn or the plant, switchgrass. In addition, if the energy used to make plastics came from renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, there would be less impact on the environment.  In our research, we wanted to figure out what is best for the environment.

HOST: So, what did you find out?

DANIEL: Powering existing plastic-manufacturing facilities with renewable energy results in lower emissions and costs less than switching to the newer plant-based plastics. That being said, it probably makes sense to continue developing plant-based plastics. These plastics can have other advantages; for example, some plant-based plastics are biodegradable and reduce plastic waste. As a result, it’s hard to say what’s best because of the many ways plastics impact the environment.

HOST: Would you pay more for a product made from plant-based plastics? Take our poll, see the results, and ask your energy questions at Energy Bite dot org.