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Aug 6, 2013

An Ultrarunner’s Guide to Efficiency, Renewables, and Resiliency


When I’m not behind my editor’s desk at Rocky Mountain Institute you can often find me on the trails of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, typically running, and usually for long distances. By long I mean longer-than-a-marathon-or-two long. For example, my training run this past Saturday was a 32-mile trail run on a loop through the Indian Peaks Wilderness, with more than 16,000 vertical feet of elevation change that included climbing and crossing the Continental Divide twice.

I’m a trail/mountain ultrarunner, a breed of runner—often accused of some form of insanity—that focuses on runs (and for me, about half a dozen times per year, races) of any distance longer than the 26.2 miles of a traditional marathon. Most of my races are between 50 kilometers (31 miles) and 100 kilometers (62 miles), and as I write these words I’m seriously contemplating my first 100-miler in 2014. But I digress.

Runners—and especially ultrarunners, I think—are acutely aware of issues involving fuel and energy, of sustaining output over the long haul, of making upfront investments that pay back-end dividends. We have to pay attention to these things; our success depends on such factors.

As the U.S. grapples with an energy transition, with media accounts of “battles” between utilities and solar, and with the behemoth of global climate change, there are lessons we can learn from the seeming absurdity of ultrarunning. In fact, mountain ultrarunning offers a number of valuable reminders—many of them familiar, if stated here from an atypical perspective—that we’d do well to pay attention to.

The scale of your input should match the scale of your output

In his landmark paper “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken”—published in a 1976 issue of Foreign Affairs—RMI cofounder and chief scientist Amory Lovins likened the disparity between energy generation in and energy end use out to “cutting butter with a chainsaw.” Energy should be matched in scale and quality to end-use needs. I’ve seen just such an energy mismatch many times during races. When an uphill climb gets steep enough, smart racers “downshift” from a run to a power hike. Inexperienced racers, meanwhile, often try to maintain their run up the hill, moving only marginally faster than a power hiker yet expending significantly more energy for more or less the same output. The smart use of energy is to scale the input—switch to the power hike and spend far less energy for pretty much equivalent output.

Efficiency is prudent

RMI often notes how efficiency is one of the cheapest and most readily available sources of energy. A focus on efficiency likewise shifts our thinking from one of energy supply and consumption to one of judicious end use. Ultrarunners are keenly aware of such an emphasis on efficiency. Our muscles store and run on glycogen, derived from carbohydrates, and each person’s body has a limited supply … about 2,000 calories or so, give or take. You’ll easily deplete those energy stores in the course of an ultramarathon, which then requires constant replenishment via energy gels and other foods. In other words, we become dependent on energy consumption. But there’s another way: fostering metabolic efficiency. With appropriate diet and training, ultra runners can activate a fat-burning metabolic pathway. Even in elite, lean athletes, fat stores can total tens of thousands of calories worth of energy. In other words, it’s basically a limitless supply that reduces the dependency on glycogen. Fewer calories of glycogen per mile equals greater metabolic efficiency and a more successful athlete. As Ed Ayres, founding editor of Running Times and former editor at the Worldwatch Institute, writes in his book The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance, “energy efficiency [is] a far bigger factor than energy supply in determining a man or woman’s ability to run over rough terrain all day and all night.”

Renewables are abundant

Compared to the finite fossil fuel stores on Earth, the supply of renewables such as wind and solar is basically infinite. If you’re going to plan a long-term (or long-distance) energy strategy, you’d do best to plan on the abundant source, right? Ultra runners certainly think so. Remember the balance between limited glycogen stores and abundant fat stores in athletes I just mentioned in the previous example? What would you rather depend on: 2,000 calories of easily depleted glycogen or 70,000-plus calories of nearly inexhaustible, healthy fat? I’ll take the abundant source. Efficiency and renewables for the win.

Required investment pays big dividends

I know that sometimes a switch to energy efficiency and renewable sources can require upfront investment, but that initial investment pays big dividends. It’s much the same in my ultra running. As much as I’d like to, I can’t just switch on metabolic efficiency overnight. There’s no button I can press to instantly activate my fat-burning pathways preferentially over my glycogen-dependent ones. Doing that requires commitment and investment: a heavy training load at moderate intensity, often on a deliberately empty stomach and glycogen-depleted muscles. But such investment is worth it. Once my metabolic efficiency is up and my fat-burning pathways active, the transition starts paying major dividends in my running performance. Similarly, for example, RMI’s Reinventing Fire noted that an incremental investment of $0.5 trillion through 2050 for building efficiency could yield $1.9 trillion in energy cost savings.

Plan for resiliency

Runners know all too well about “bonking” or “hitting the wall.” Consider such a situation a catastrophic loss of power, such as if your muscles are burning glycogen, you haven’t replenished those energy stores, and they suddenly run out. Your body shuts down, and it isn’t pretty. Thus ultrarunners plan for resiliency: they foster metabolic efficiency, reduced dependence on glycogen by activating fat-burning energy pathways, and they plan for a variety of energy sources that span high- and low-glycemic index carbs, protein, and fats. Do all those things, and your chance of total system power loss are greatly diminished. A combination of energy efficiency and largely distributed renewable energy sources similarly fosters a more inherently resilient electricity system, one that overcomes the vulnerabilities of the grid’s current hub-and-spoke model based on centralized thermal generation and long-distance transmission.

Of course, the challenges for the U.S. energy landscape are far more complex than they are for me as an individual runner. Where I can shift my training and diet to promote a more efficient, renewable, and resilient metabolism, a greater energy U.S. shift requires addressing myriad challenges, ranging from utility business models to the soft costs of solar to driving greater financial investment in energy efficiency and renewables, and more.

But with thousands of miles on the trails as my guide, I’m as resolved as ever that we must make the transition. The alternative of keeping to the status quo just doesn’t make sense, not when you’ve seen another way. And just as in running, progress involves doggedly putting one foot in front of the other, with a vision of the distant finish line firmly planted in your mind and your metaphorical sights. We can get there. We must.

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August 8, 2013

Renewables and the investor own utility's spin on intermittency
The utility industry has a history of publicizing solar and wind intermittency as being detrimental and costly to spinning reserve equipment. But new research from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) tells a different story. Moreover, it echoes information given 6 years ago, by Karl Pfirrmann, Interim President and CEO of PJM Interconnection

In 2007, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future interviewed Pfirrmann on the subject of wind intermittency. PJM is the world’s largest grid operator, and responsible for keeping a network of public and private utilities running smoothly across 14 states in the northeaster and southern US. Pfirrmann noted that wind did not pose significant costs as a result of its variable nature because the transmission system is sufficiently flexible and can readily accommodate changes in power flows. As to the impact on spinning reserves (standby generators) to mitigate intermittency, Pfirrmann said that costs were modest and deducted from payments wind generators received for energy deliveries. So even then, renewables paid for any impact to spinning reserve equipment. Moreover, he observed that most generators are sufficiently flexible and can be backed down with minimal effects on their operating efficiency.

Confirmation of Pfirrmanns’s observations were just published by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in a two-phase project, “The Western Wind and Solar Integration Study (WWSIS)”, one of the largest regional wind and solar integration studies to date. Phase 1, published in 2010, analyzed the operational impacts of high penetrations of wind and solar power on the Western Interconnection power system of the United States. It found “no technical barriers to the integration of high penetrations of wind and solar power (up to 35%), if certain operational changes could be made. The two most important changes are increased balancing authority coordination and sub hourly scheduling between balancing authority areas.”

In 2012, NREL completed Phase 2 (WWSIS-2) after examining new data and address utility concerns about damage to fossil-fueled generators as they vary their output to manage intermittency from renewables. This was in response to the claim from utilities that heat rates and emissions from fossil-fueled generators could be higher during cycling than during steady-state operation. At the time of Phase 1, there was little available information on wear-and-tear costs because this information was considered proprietary by plant owners. For Phase 2, researchers worked with industry partners to analyze data collected from cost studies on 400 fossil-fueled plants over several decades. The simulations and analysis conducted for WWSIS-2 determined that “the impacts of wind-induced cycling are minimal and capped the wear-and-tear costs at 2% of the value of wind and the emissions impacts at +/- 3%. Although there are wear-and-tear and emissions impacts from generator cycling, these are modest compared to the overall benefits of replacing fossil-fueled generation with variable renewable generation.”

So, according to the latest findings from the NREL, it’s a case of strong evidence of weak consequences. But according to Ken Skylar, manager of renewable services at PJM, there is an issue facing distributed renewables. But it relates to the design and age the transmission infrastructure of the grid. “Upgrades are needed to the distribution system because it wasn't designed to accommodate large amounts of variable frequency resources on these individual feeders,” Skylar explains. “There could be significant changes in voltage on a feeder and reverse power flows on the lines if a system isn't designed to handle that. A lot of the PJM members that own distribution systems have indicated that it's a big concern for them.”

Ultimately those upgrades would occur as utilities adopt smart grid technology, and smart grid technology offers a good return on investment to utilities, and government programs that help fund the upgrades. For example, a recent study by the US Department of Energy (DOE), “Economic Impact of Recovery Act Investment in the Smart Grid,” found that smart grid projects funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) resulted in roughly $7 billion total economic output, 50,000 jobs, and a return of $1 billion in government tax revenue. The study reviewed $1.48 billion in ARRA investments from the Smart Grid Investment Grants and Smart Grid Demonstration Program programs, plus $1.48 billion in matching investments from grant recipients in the private sector between August 2009 and March 2012. In short, $3 billion in smart grid project funding returned $6.83 billion in total economic output.