Admiral (ret.) Dennis McGinn Makes the Case (Security, Resilience & Mission Assurance) for Integrated DER

Denny McGinn

As California officials continue to plead with the Trump administration to recognize the immediate and growing dangers of climate change, VXNews spoke with former Assistant Secretary of the US Navy and Rocky Mountain Institute’s  AdmDennis McGinn on the energy supply challenges confronting the state’s power grid. While record-breaking heat waves and wildfires compromise the reliable provision of electricity statewide, the Admiral (Retired) shares the potential for smart, behind-the-meter IT to stabilize demand peaks and enable deployment of renewables + storage at scale. He also highlights the market-shifting opportunities for federal investment in storage incentives, clean hydrogen, and offers his advice for getting the nation’s clean energy transition back on track

Admiral, one takeaway this month from the energy supply challenges facing California during extreme heat events seems to be that renewables without sufficient storage may not be ready for all circumstances. Some are suggesting that a cache of fossil-based, dispatchable resources are necessary for reliability, particularly for critical infrastructure. Is California possibly moving too fast towards renewable targets?

Denny McGinn: No, I don't think we are. There's always some degree of disruption and uncertainty whenever you change your energy mix at scale. I think that's what we're seeing now. However, I don't think we should be stepping back at all or slowing down the deployment of renewable energy; we should instead be pushing for technical and policy initiatives that will make clean, reliable and affordable energy even better—things like battery storage, offshore wind, the deployment of information technology to more granularly measure and manage electricity demand. In specific geographical areas, smart digitization can better match supply and demand so that you're always able to bring in the best value, least cost, cleanest form of energy. In order to do that well at this particular point in our energy evolution, we need to shape energy demand. And you can certainly do that a lot better with batteries on both sides of the meter.

As the former US Assistant Secretary of the Navy, elaborate on the climate leadership opportunities in this administration or a future administration to shape, through partnership with the US Department of Defense, the market for clean, distributed energy.

Based on the size of the energy demand that the military has for installations, the Department of Defense can be a real market leader. Military installations around the country can become key nodes of energy resilience in partnership with utilities and local communities through public-private partnerships. In many cases, a military base is effectively a campus that has land resources which can be used to deploy distributed energy production and storage resources. The resulting increase in energy security and resilience benefits both the primary military mission and the surrounding civilian community.

As an example: at Kings Bay Nuclear Submarine Base in Georgia, in partnership with Georgia Power, we built 42 megawatts of solar power on the base. That power goes to the electrical grid for use by all customers. However, in the case of an emergency with large scale grid outages, that power could be used primarily by the Navy to directly support the mission. The next needed step for that particular project—as it is with many installations that already have renewable energy resources—is to add sufficient battery storage to enable a smooth transition in the event of a power outage caused by a natural disaster, equipment failure, or even a cyber-attack. That distributed energy resource, in this case a solar power and battery combination, keeps critical mission functions going forward during a widespread grid outage.

I use the term distributed energy resource, which is the smart combination of battery storage and renewable energy. Acting in an integrated way, the distributed energy resource acts like small scale hybrid power plant. If there is a sudden spike in demand or loss of supply in a geographical service territory, with smart IT control systems, you can quickly bring these resources into action so they help to stabilize voltage, control electricity frequency, or act like a small power plant to meet the demands in a particular area. Hybrid or virtual “peaker” plants are clean, fast, and, unlike natural-gas powered turbine plants that require spin-up time, they turn on instantly, enabled by the thoughtful integration of information technology.

The Clean Energy Group in August proposed 20 federal strategies to advanced battery storage markets. They assert battery storage is the key to market expansion of renewable energy technologies, especially with new behind-the-meter technology combinations that will provide the end user customer with greater efficiency, resiliency and energy cost reductions. Address these behind-the-meter technologies and how they enable battery storage improvements?

Let me give you an example. Let's take a complex of office buildings, either urban or suburban. If you have battery storage that’s behind the meter, throughout the day those batteries are being charged at the same time the electricity demands of that building are being met by grid power. During the peak demand hours, say between 4:00-8:00pm locally, when there may be less available solar power as the sun sets, the installed batteries can help shave or flatten out the spikes in demand from that building or from an entire building complex. If you scale it up in an area so that many buildings have this type of behind-the-meter capability to smooth out peaks, you don't have to rely on gas-powered peaker plants that are very costly, not just to build and run, but to maintain and have available. So, when the cost of electricity starts going up during peak demand, the battery does its thing and shaves or flattens that peak, which saves a lot of money, for customers and for utilities. It increases the reliability of the electrical service for that particular building or building complex, and in aggregate, it lowers the cost to all utility users on that distribution grid.

In that Clean Energy Group report, they recommends the federal government consider an energy storage tax credit, setting storage capacity goals, pricing goals, and the like. What are your thoughts, having been an experienced member of the Obama administration, on whether such a federal incentive is politically possible and worthy?

A federal incentive structure is very possible because there's so much value for so many stakeholders. It's an investment in our electrical infrastructure in many ways. It encourages exactly the right kind of market behavior that will increase our resilience against power disruptions. Having an incentive to really invest in storage capability on both sides of the meter just makes so much sense. This applies not just to California but anywhere where disruptions to power are possible. If you're in a fire-prone area, instead of the lights going out completely, the provision of localized battery power can decrease the demand on centralized power generation and transmission lines that have to bring it to the various load centers around the electrical distribution grid.

So, federal incentives for power infrastructure investment really make a lot of difference. There's also an important social equity aspect here too. For low- and medium-income businesses or families, this can really help to reduce costs and increase the reliability of electricity for everything we need it for these days. Imagining incentives for low- and medium- income areas, you could use a lot of the existing economic zones to site some of these hybrid-type of power plants with solar and batteries. There's a lot of good to be gained by many stakeholders in a federal incentive structure for battery storage deployment at scale. Obviously, when we talk about large scale, we start achieving multiple market benefits of increasing clean energy jobs, lowering costs of manufacturing and the distribution efficiencies that come with that; it's a very virtuous cycle.

What successes, in your opinion, were achieved in the eight years of the Obama administration’s Defense Department investment and procurement of renewable energy; i.e. What was achieved during your tenure?

Probably the most long-lasting benefit was opening peoples’ eyes and removing organizational blinders to the advantages of renewable energy. The fact is we don't have to continue a business-as-usual model relying on a centralized power generation and long transmission and distribution lines, just as it was conceived and started in the time of Thomas Edison.

The main idea of mission assurance through greater energy security and greater resilience really does make a difference. Just like a financial portfolio, when you diversify your investments in how and where you get your energy, it is an inherently more resilient, and productive, portfolio. The Department of Defense and the Services no longer have to rely exclusively on grid power all of the time or fossil-fuel generated central power plants.

I'll give you one example from the Navy: we partnered with the Western Area Power Authority for a 150-megawatt solar farm in Arizona, about 50 miles west of Phoenix. It provides, day in and day out, one-third of the total power that is required by the 14 Navy and Marine Corps bases in California. It really benefits everybody in the Southwest area by adding diversity of electricity generation. The principal value was gaining knowledge and, to an even greater extent, comfort with the idea of achieving greater mission assurance through renewable energy. We were able to see and experience the huge potential that is an essential part of a future clean and reliable energy grid.

Speak to the contribution of our national labs and what more could be accomplished if they were prioritized.

There's a lot of really good work that is going on in the national labs. The National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado has a tremendous facility. One of the things it can do is “hardware in a loop” testing in a large scale grid model.  Using a world-class artificial intelligence-powered system researchers and manufacturers are able to test energy technologies at full power in real-time grid simulations to safely evaluate performance and reliability. You can actually model things like what would happen if we changed the software that manages demand, so that you would always be able to have available power going to your critical loads.

That capability already exists at NREL, and it needs to be leveraged even more. In fact, there are truly outstanding scientists and engineers throughout our national lab system that, given the right mandate and resources, could really accelerate the clean energy transition.

As another example, Oak Ridge National Lab is doing some early research and development work on how to squeeze more efficiency out of advanced solar panels and convert photons to electrons in a much more effectively or in a different form factor. At the Idaho National Laboratory, they're doing grid-scale, microgrid work developing system control software algorithms to really gain a lot more reliability and efficiency out of microgrids. The Pacific Northwest National Lab is coordinating across the country with other labs to advance technology for clean power generation, transmission, reliable grid management and the electrification of our transportation system.

Admiral, you've participated in the VerdeXchange many times and often been on panels with Jonathan Weisgall of Berkshire Hathaway Energy. He often references the fact that nobody's asking his company for more coal-fired power. In fact, they've been investing lately in offshore wind and looking at other technologies, including hydrogen.  Speak to what the energy mix of the future will include?

 The potential benefits of hydrogen are, in my view, starting to really gain traction in that people are beginning to realize its future impact for both longer-term storage and emission-free power production. The key is to be able to, as efficiently as possible, create what is called green hydrogen. We can create hydrogen just by brute force; fire up fossil fuel plants, crank those electrons out, and power your way to production of hydrogen electrolysis. But if you do it really smartly with solar power, for example, or wind power, you can cleanly produce hydrogen, store it, and have it available for all kinds of clean energy needs.

If you need thermal energy, you can use hydrogen fuel; if you need electricity, you can use the hydrogen in a fuel cell, or you could actually use it to power some sort of a hydrogen powered turbine. In short, hydrogen is really going to come into its own over the next ten years. You may know that when we have the pandemic-delayed Olympics in Tokyo next year, the Olympic Village will be 100 percent powered by hydrogen, for all energy needs including transportation.

The other thing about hydrogen is that it can be stored for a very long time. If I have a green production plant and I wanted to build a hydrogen transportation system that is compatible with the physics and chemistry of this element, it's going to have to be different than a lot of the pipelines we use today for natural gas. That will eventually happen, but in the near term, we already know how to transmit and distribute electrons. So, if you have a green hydrogen production facility, turn it into electrons on site, then you can send electricity on the transmission  and the distribution grids as you continue to work on the material science to be able to actually pipe the hydrogen or push it to wherever you need it.

If you were invited to sit down with a new U.S. President to share your priorities for climate change or renewable energy, and knowing that a President’s attention span and time is limited, what would you prioritize?

One thing that would be a sure thing in my mind would be to have a carbon tax. There’s one that's been kicking around up at the Hoover Institute and it's been led very nicely by former Secretary of State George Shultz. Basically, the more carbon you use, the more you pay, and the money goes back to citizens in the form of checks. In other words, it doesn’t create a slush fund for the government to use, it goes right back to people. A carbon tax would be one of the first items of business, because it would have very strong market driven effect on our choices about how we generate and use electricity.

Another key initiative would be to seize the opportunities for the smart application of Information Technology across our grids. My vision would be to create a ‘grid of grids,’ where you have more and more distributed energy resources that are tied into the needs of the end-user. I would put some real investment incentives for the private sector to really do something about improving our electrical infrastructure. I also would stress the tremendous untapped resource of offshore wind. It’s starting to happen a lot faster on the East Coast than on the West Coast. But the West Coast can really benefit from offshore wind, because, just like battery storage, it complements solar power in particular. They help reinforce one another resulting in greater energy security.

Elaborate, please.

Let me tell you a story. In 2010, I was in Hawaii attending a climate change conference, and outside the plenary room there was a great big old GMC SUV. What the heck was this thing doing at a climate change conference? They had dropped the internal combustion engine and replaced it with a hydrogen-powered fuel cell. They had four one-pound cylinders of compressed hydrogen in the back where the fuel tank would normally be, and which provided 200 miles of range. But my question was, where do you get the hydrogen? Well, they got the hydrogen from a small solar power plant at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam. The solar array produced electricity to produce hydrogen and compress it into those small fuel cylinders. And it really struck me as an engineer that this entire production process was so inefficient in order to change states chemically from one form of energy to another. But the key revelation was that when that energy is coming effectively at no cost from the sun, who cares how inefficient the process is? You can concentrate it wherever you want to create hydrogen.

The other key insight I had was that this big old GMC SUV, now powered by sun-produced hydrogen, had not had any other technology changes performed. There was no drive-train optimization; it still had all of this heavy transmission and suspension structure and everything else needed by an internal combustion vehicle. But in electric vehicle design, if you go from the ground up, as Tesla has done for example, you optimize and reduce the weight of the drive train and suspension, and the range just keeps going up and up. That's what's happening across the electric vehicle business.

Another key Administration initiative should be on electrification. Obviously, electrification of our transportation, not just individual sedans, but everything—light to medium and heavy-duty trucks. You ought to task the Postmaster General with converting postal delivery vehicles to all electric within three years, just as Amazon and UPS and FedEx have started down that road. That will have two effects, it will reduce significantly pollution in urban and suburban areas—that's a health benefit right there—but it will also let people know that, no kidding, electric vehicles are real. It will help introduce a much more robust electric vehicle charging infrastructure for utilities, and it’ll have a lot of beneficial effects across the economy.

 I think we saw in the early stages of the pandemic what clean air locally and regionally really meant. It was like going back in time 50 years. There were cities in northern India that were seeing snowcapped Himalayas for the first time in decades; Los Angeles, Denver and all urban areas that had been fighting local and regional air pollution have realized that while this pandemic is terrible it has reminded us what a healthy environment can be. So, I think that the electrification of transportation, and in some cases, the electrification of some commercial and industrial capabilities would make a lot of sense.

Bottom line: the technology and financial models to move far and fast into the clean energy economy are there. We now need the political will to achieve greatly improved energy, economic and environmental security and the prosperity, social justice and quality of life that will bring.






"This idea of mission assurance through greater energy security and greater resilience really does make a difference. Just like a financial portfolio, when you diversify your investments in how and where you get your energy, it is an inherently more resilient portfolio”—Dennis McGinn
"The potential benefits of hydrogen are, in my view, starting to really gain traction, in that people are beginning to realize its future impact for both longer-term storage and emission-free power production.”