Newsletter: Greed is good. Or is it?

Utility profit motives seem to clash with the public good in Louisiana.

Damage caused by Hurricane Ida in Louisiana (Entergy)
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Remember when Hurricane Ida crushed all the transmission lines that utility Entergy uses to supply New Orleans?

Canary Media contributor Andy Kowalczyk dug into Entergy’s history of building transmission lines and found some fishy stuff that likely left New Orleans more vulnerable to the storm than it should have been.

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Entergy is allowed to build smaller, less powerful transmission lines without any competitive bidding. But grid rules stipulate that larger region-spanning power lines (345 kilovolts and up, to be exact) need to be opened up to competitive bidding, which means Entergy isn’t guaranteed to make that money.

It turns out that Entergy has exhibited a strong preference for the smaller piecemeal grid upgrades that it’s guaranteed to make money on while thwarting bigger projects that someone else might win with a more compelling bid. 

After years of that behavior, the region desperately needs more of those bigger transmission lines, which, incidentally, are required to withstand the kinds of high-speed winds that Ida delivered. Instead, New Orleans was served by a medley of smaller, older lines built to lower safety requirements.

New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno, an Entergy critic, cited these concerns in a letter to MISO leadership this week.​“For too long, the region surrounding New Orleans has been served by a grid that was built in a piecemeal manner and without sufficient connections to other geographic areas,” Moreno says in the letter.​“Given recent stakeholders comments[,] I question whether our grid was designed and built by a utility that is more interested in protecting its own interests than those of its customers.”

It’s another case in which capitalism-loving Americans find themselves vulnerable to the whims of large corporations that aren’t subject to meaningful market competition. 

Hot hot heat, without the burn

Imagine if we could make cement with a super-sized electric toaster.

Certain industrial processes release lots of carbon because they burn fossil fuels to generate intense heat. Freelancer Ingrid Lobet found a startup, called Rondo Energy, that replaces that step with electric resistance heating. 

The company says it can take surplus renewable electricity, convert it into heat via resistance and store the thermal energy in insulated materials. That way, a limited number of hours of clean electricity each day turns into 24/7 super-high industrial heat, like in the thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. That could go a long way to decarbonizing crucial processes like cement-making.

Rondo finished a pilot project and is building a facility for a real live customer right now. If it works for that customer, we could see this concept popping up more widely.

It’s a clever way of taking the ups and downs of solar power and turning them into a dependable source of heat. And there aren’t a ton of other options showing up for this piece of the decarbonization puzzle.

Startup Heliogen says it can hit high temperatures by using AI to finely target a field of mirrors at a collecting tower. 

  • Since just a few hours of heat per day is a hard sell, the company now says it uses thermal storage to achieve round-the-clock service. 
  • It also claims to produce 24/7 clean power on top of that, but details are scant on how those pieces all fit together. 

Rondo’s approach sounds more geography-neutral; you don’t need a nice sunny field to make heat with electric resistance. But Heliogen is taking its precommercial concept to public markets with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), so it could end up with a big pile of money to grow its business.

Ready, set, FLOW

Remember the ragtag band of startups trying to break free from the limitations of lithium-ion batteries? One just got a big boost, at least on paper.

ESS is the Oregon-based startup that makes storage devices that pump a mixture of iron and water. They’re not flammable, and they ostensibly last a long time and don’t degrade the way batteries do. But customers hadn’t shown much interest in this particular alternative to batteries, or in the broader category of flow batteries,” for that matter.

That changed last week when SB Energy, a renewables developer owned by SoftBank, agreed to buy 2 gigawatt-hours’ worth of iron flow batteries from ESS for solar projects in California and Texas. 

That’s a huge vote of confidence in this unconventional technology, and it comes just as ESS is preparing to go public by merging with a SPAC. The customer also happens to be an investor in ESS, so both parties stand to gain from publicizing the purchase agreement.

But they’re not the only ones talking up their supply contracts. In a bizarre coincidence, I got a barrage of updates last week from companies telling me they’d acquired energy storage supplies.

This normally wouldn’t be something to brag to the press about. But that shortage of high-quality batteries that I reported on this summer hasn’t gone away. 

If anything, demand keeps rising. So the mundane ability to place large orders for batteries is becoming a point of differentiation among storage developers. They want people to know they have product lined up to fulfill their deals.

So while we’re at it: Hi, my name is Julian, and I’d like you to know that I’ve mitigated the risk of newsletter shortages in the near term. Canary Media does not anticipate any delays in the delivery of clean energy news at this time.

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.