Welcome

I write about anything I come across that I find thought-provoking. Please feel free to leave comments.

– M.

Advertisements

Year 2

38236717_495982624197558_8700698701892419584_n

Year 2 was a big year. I was six. I had my first crush on a boy called Jonathan. He was tall, dark, and handsome for a six-year-old. I got my first pet: a rabbit called Roger, who died within a month. My mom sent me to school with a note to the teacher, Miss Harpin, saying that my rabbit had just died and that I might be upset. I cried, partially out of sadness for the loss of my pet and partially out of obligation since I’d brought the note. My classmates comforted me and I relished the attention.

Year 2 was the year we received book bags. Mine was a pink tote with my name written in marker on one side. It was the year I discovered Roald Dahl and wondered why the illustrations were so ugly, but enjoyed the stories nonetheless. Each of us had a little blue “contact book” for the teacher to write notes to our parents, including updates on how we were doing in school. In one update, Miss Harpin praised my writing, my construction of complex sentences and use of adjectives. My mom saved the note and would proudly quote it for years to come. One time, she heard that Miss Harpin’s mother was visiting from England and offered her the car and driver. Afterwards, Miss Harpin gave me a mulberry paper bag to bring home to my mom. Inside was a card and a big box of rose scented powder. My mom never used it and it sat on her dresser for years, but I loved it. On days when I was feeling particularly fancy, I would shower and dry off before lifting the delicate lid, sliding my fingers through the faux rose-adorned ribbon of the powder puff and dipping it lightly into the fragrant powder. I delighted in the velvety softness of the puff as it brushed my skin and how the speckles of glitter in the powder made me sparkle. It felt ridiculously luxurious.

I aspired to become friends with a girl called Gabby, who was only really nice to me when Becky wasn’t around. One day, the three of us paraded down to the Year 1 playground and faced a group of Year 1 boys on the other side of the fence. A yelling match ensued. I observed in solidarity and offered the occasional jeer of support for the girls’ team as insults were tossed back and forth across the fence. Then I noticed that after an impressively long barrage from the boys’ side there was no rebuttal from ours and turned to see that the other two girls had long since left. They were already halfway up the corridor, the backs of their checkered uniforms fluttering as they ran, leaving in their wake the humiliating realization that I’d been the sole recipient of that last tirade.

Year 2 was also the first time I saw a boy’s penis. Kit was embroiled in a fierce tickle fight with another boy on the square carpet of our classroom. Amid his fits of giggles and writhing limbs, I—along with probably half the class—caught a glimpse through the wide leg openings of his uniform shorts and realized he wasn’t wearing any underwear. I don’t know if he noticed the whispering and snickering that followed; but if he did, he might still be having nightmares about it to this day. Another time, Kit had told the class that it was his parents’ anniversary. I had no idea what anniversary was, but my parents’ anniversary and my birthday happen to be on the same day, so it was only natural that I went up to him afterwards and said “Happy Birthday!”

My birthday is in the summer, during which my friends, if I had friends, were away on vacation with their families. Birthday parties in later years would be attended by the children of my parents’ friends who brought lame presents and blew out my birthday candles, but that’s a pitiful story for another time. In Year 2, in an attempt to endear myself to my classmates, I brought in Ringpops to share for an early birthday celebration. But, imprudently, I forgot to save myself a good flavor, like grape or cola, and once I’d given them all out, was left with orange. Nobody wants orange. I went up to Becky and asked to swap. She said no. The ungrateful bitch.

As Year 2 drew to a close, I learned that Jonathan was leaving. He sat sandwiched between Gabby and Becky who had an arm each and was clutching it tightly, pleading him not to go. On his last day, Jonathan handed out friendship bracelets to the class. I held out my hand to receive one and my heart sank as he reached for what was objectively the ugliest one in the pile. There it was: the culmination of a first crush. A token of defeat. A symbol of unrequited love in a narrow woven rag of purple and orange.

 

 

 

Coming Clean: Busting the Reliability Myth of Renewable Energy

RE

One of the most commonly offered-up reasons for not incorporating higher levels of renewable energy (RE) into our power system is this: Renewable energy is intermittent and unreliable, subject to seasonalitysunshine, wind speed, rainfalland therefore can’t replace fossil fuels completely. Even relatively more predictable RE sources like hydropower, some argue, are susceptible to drought.

Well, Costa Rica has done it: over 99% of its electricity is generated from RE (check out this awesome TED Talk). And with the rapidly declining costs of RE, especially for technologies like wind and solar, integrating more RE into the energy mix is becoming increasingly economically attractive.

I recently attended the Asian Clean Energy Forum (ACEF), an annual conference hosted by the Asian Development Bank which brings together top players in the clean energy field, including policymakers, donors, academics, and private sector developers. This year, discussions centered around how to integrate higher levels of RE without compromising stability of the power grid, and how to procure RE more efficiently and competitively.

Balancing the Grid

The cost of utility-scale solar photovoltaics (PV)the technology that converts sunlight into electricity—has fallen by 73% between 2010 and 2017, while for wind power, the cost reduction has been almost 25%. Speaking at ACEF, the Vice President of JinkoSolar, a Chinese solar developer, claimed that the latest solar prices in China now match those of local coal. These cost declines make the economic case for switching more of our electricity generation away from fossil fuels and towards wind and solar.

However, unlike biomass and hydropower (or fossil fuels like natural gas and coal) which can generate electricity on demand—a characteristic known as ‘dispatchable’—solar power can only be produced during the daytime (on sunny days) and wind power can only be produced on windy days. This intermittency threatens the stability of the power grid because in order to keep running, the grid must maintain a certain frequency: around 60 Hz. If the frequency drops too low or goes too high, it can cause power outages.

To illustrate frequency, this article uses a clever analogy of a person riding a bike, where frequency is the rate of pedaling, and the demand and supply of electricity determine the slope of the hill the bike is on. If demand exceeds supply, the slope gets steeper and more power is required to pedal uphill at the same rate; conversely, if supply exceeds demand, the slope becomes a sharp downhill and the biker pedaling at the same rate can go crashing to the bottom. Large amounts of intermittent power, e.g. from solar, connected to the grid can cause a great degree of uncertainty and threaten the stability of the grid’s frequency. Soaring solar production during the day would flood the grid (sending the biker speeding downhill) and drop off by sunset (steep uphill).

How can we take advantage of free and clean renewable resources while making sure the lights don’t go out?

Grid Flexibility

Taking on more variable renewable energy (VRE) without threatening stability requires increasing grid flexibility. Since production of wind and solar depend not only on the time of day but also uncertain weather conditions, the power system needs to be able to respond quickly to changes in output from those sources.

Ramping

One solution is to improve existing power plants’ ramping abilities; that is, the ability to be turned up or down, as well as the speed at which it can be done. This requires upgrading power plants, like upgrading a stove from simply having an on/off switch to one that has a dial for adjusting the heat level. When solar or wind power output is high, existing fossil fuel-based power plants can respond by ramping down production.

Let’s look at a case study of India: according to a representative from India’s largest power utility, coal-based generation—which accounts for 58% of India’s energy mix—can be made more flexible to accommodate higher levels of solar coming online. Below is a crude illustration I put together with my rudimentary Power Point skills.

Screen Shot 2018-06-16 at 12.10.29 AM

By making coal power plants more flexible, the amount of solar power curtailed can be reduced

Under the conventional model (left), coal-fired plants would run at a constant output level throughout the day. In the absence of storage (which I discuss later), solar generation in excess of demand is curtailed, resulting in significant wasted capacity. However, if coal power plants are cycled such that they turn down generation during peak solar production hours (right), less solar capacity is wasted and green house gas emissions are reduced.

Hybrids

Another solution for reducing intermittency of VRE is hybridization. Last month, India finalized its wind-solar hybrid policy to promote not only the construction of new combined wind and solar plants, but also additional installations to existing wind or solar farms.

India has yet to formalise a hybrid wind and solar policy, so group-captive off-takers are the primary option at present. Credit: Solar Media

India’s first wind-solar hybrid plant in the state of Karnataka, developed by Delhi-based firm Hero Future Energies. Image source: PVTech.org

Thailand’s recent attempt to circumvent the intermittency issue was last year’s Small Power Producers (SPP) Hybrid-Firm auction which—though the name misleads—allowed but did not require participating projects to be hybrids. It did, however, require projects to supply firm power, defined as guaranteed capacity during certain periods. In Thailand this meant that, once in operation, each plant would deliver 100% of the contracted capacity during peak hours and 65% during off-peak hours. But not only did the policy do little to encourage the development of hybrid projects (most winning bids went to single-technology biomass plants), it would also potentially only increase stability and reliability at the individual plant level, rather than strengthen the power system as a whole.

Storage

The biggest buzz in the RE field recently has been around storage. Combining RE with storage is a form of hybridization—one that could potentially solve the problem of intermittency in wind and solar technologies. One of the winning projects in the Thai auction, and the only one to utilize storage, combines a 100kW solar farm with 130kWh batteries, allowing it to procure firm power. In Chile’s latest auction, a Spanish developer won a bid to supply solar PV power at night, presumably by combining PV with batteries. Chile’s power auction is divided into three distinct time-blocks in a 24-hour period, so by bidding for the night shift, this developer was able to circumvent competition from other solar developers who bid for the daytime block.

The biggest barrier to utilizing storage, however, is cost. Batteries remain expensive, but one would expect that over time the cost will become increasingly competitive, as has been the case with solar and wind technologies. Another obstacle is storage capacity. A recent episode on NPR’s Planet Money podcast explains the problem faced by California, which is generating a lot of solar power with no means of storing it all for night-time consumption. Lithium batteries alone can’t provide enough storage capacity. The solution, the podcast concludes, may lie in pumped storage: solar power is used to pump water from a lower reservoir to an elevated reservoir. When electricity is needed, water from the upper reservoir is released through a turbine, generating electricity, and back into the lower reservoir.

pumped storage

A pumped storage system

This large-scale pumped storage could help balance output not only of the individual plant, but potentially at the system level. Of course, as with the construction of any dam or reservoir, the impact on aquatic biodiversity and the surrounding ecosystems is significant. The question is whether or not the benefit from displacing fossil fuel-generated electricity with clean renewable energy will outweigh the ecological cost, or whether there is a way to employ existing hydro facilities to store solar and/or wind power. These are questions that no doubt will continue to be debated at length.

Highlights from SETA 2018: Innovative Renewable Energy Policies and Procurement

xillus-home-hero,402x.png.pagespeed.ic.ED-Dlm2ujg

Sustainable Energy Technology Asia (SETA) is an annual conference and expo organized by the Thai Ministry of Energy to discuss trends in sustainable energy and technology in ASEAN countries, with participants from around the region, particularly CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam). This year, USAID Clean Power Asia—where I work—hosted an event called “Innovative Renewable Energy Policies and Procurement.” Summarized here are some of the highlights from the day:

The cost of renewable energy (RE) has fallen drastically in recent years, particularly in wind and solar photovoltaics (PV). According to a 2017 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, the cost of electricity produced by utility-scale solar PV has fallen 73% since 2010, to 10 USDcents per kilowatt hour (kWh) in 2017. For onshore wind generation, the cost has fallen by around 25% over the same period, to about 6 USDcents per kWh.

Auctions

In my previous post on electricity, I mentioned the phasing out of feed-in-tariffs (FITs), which guarantee a fixed price to be paid to RE producers for the duration of the power purchase agreement (PPA). This is a trend across markets now that RE can be procured more cheaply; FITs are being passed over for more market-based competitive methods of RE procurement. One popular option is auctions. But unlike typical auctions, where multiple buyers bid for an item and the highest bidder wins, RE auctions occur in a context where there is a single buyer. Whether it is the utility that wishes to buy RE power for distribution or a private corporation that wants RE for its own consumption, sellers compete by bidding down the price of energy. Hence, RE auctions are also often referred to as reverse auctions.

The criteria for evaluating bids, however, doesn’t always depend solely on price. When the buyer is a state-owned utility, consideration is often given to the value of economic activity the project could generate. For instance, if a bidding project developer plans to employ a lot of local labor to build the facility, then that may boost their chances of winning the contract. Furthermore, by basing the evaluation criteria on price alone, there is always the risk that a developer won’t be able to deliver the project as promised. As a result, some RE auctions are designed to have two rounds: a pre-qualifying round, where potential developers submit a feasibility study to demonstrate the technical and economical soundness of the project before they can advance to the bidding round.

During a panel discussion on auctions in Thailand, a representative from the Energy Regulatory Commission of Thailand took heat on the issue of fairness. The latest round of auctions (SPP hybrid firm/VSPP semi-firm, which I won’t get into but you can read more about here) did not distinguish by RE technology. Panelists from the developer side expressed concern that biomass cogeneration plants that utilize agricultural byproducts have lower production costs than other RE technologies, making it difficult for solar or wind developers to compete in the auction. Private sector stakeholders urged the government to separate auction quotas for cogeneration from other RE production quotas going forward.

Case Study: Singapore’s SolarNova Program

One of our guest speakers, Dr. Stephen Tay of the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore, gave a presentation on the SolarNova program: a government-funded program that includes R&D grants; a carbon tax of S$5 per tonne for five years from 2019 with a plan to escalate eventually to S$15 by 2030; net metering—a policy which allows installers of rooftop PV to offset their electricity bills by selling the excess solar energy they produce back to the grid; and 350MW of PV installed on government building rooftops by 2020.

Another interesting aspect of the Singapore case is their level of public engagement. The Singaporean government is moving towards a liberalized energy market and is expected to achieve full liberalization by the second half of this year. Similar to purchasable renewable energy credits in some countries, Singaporean households are now able to purchase RE as a percentage of their electricity bill (note, however, that this purchase is virtual, since it is impossible to distinguish electricity units once they enter the grid).

Corporate Procurement of RE 

For all four Lower Mekong countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam), the state-owned utility is the sole buyer and distributor of power, including power produced from renewable sources. There are exceptions in which private-to-private sale of electricity is allowed; for instance, industrial parks often have their own power generating facility, or an entity that buys wholesale electricity from the utility and resells it to the industrial park tenants. This facility, coupled with its own distribution network comprise a sort of microgrid. Another exception is onsite RE systems financed by a third party; for example, rooftop PV systems (more on this below). However, there is no broad policy that allows for direct power purchase agreements (DPPAs) between private-sector entities and there is increasing pressure on governments to allow RE producers to sell to a wider group of end-consumers.

Direct Power Purchase Agreements (DPPAs)

DPPA is a broad term encompassing all direct sales of electricity from a private producer to the end-consumer. While in the example above, the industrial park power producer would sell electricity to its tenants under a DPPA, its market is limited to the industrial park; it wouldn’t, for instance, be able to transmit its power to customers outside of the industrial park. The latter is what many private power producers would like to do. A broad DPPA policy may allow producers to transmit (or “wheel”) electricity via the utility’s existing transmission infrastructure to the end-consumer, and in return pay a wheeling charge to the utility.

DPPAs are also relevant for rooftop PV because the main interest of most rooftop PV consumers is saving money, not producing electricity. Take a factory that runs 6 days a week: it wants to install solar PV on its roof so it can reduce the amount of electricity it has to buy from the utility. However, installing rooftop PV requires significant upfront investment (reinforcing the roof, buying the solar modules, inverter, etc.) which the factory may be unwilling or unable to put up the money for. As a result, it may turn to an investor who can install the system on the factory’s roof and sell power to the factory at a rate discounted from the utility’s price.

Leasing Model for Rooftop PV

Rooftop systems financed by a third party are technically not (yet) allowed under the existing legal frameworks in Thailand or Vietnam, but many projects have gotten around this by adopting a leasing model. Instead of a power purchase, the factory owner could instead lease the services of an energy services company (ESCO). The ESCO provides energy solutions that increase efficiency and reduce energy costs using any number of measures such as remodeling, switching to LED lightbulbs, or installing equipment such as (you guess it) rooftop PV modules. In practice, the ESCO leasing and PPA models look basically the same, but instead of an electricity tariff paid per unit of electricity, the ESCO is paid a leasing fee.

Policy, Regulation, and Other Government Support

Notwithstanding the absence of a broad DPPA policy, existing DPPAs in Thailand have a term of 15-20 years. Since producers cannot distribute power via the grid, off-taker risk—that is, the risk that the buyer will default—is concentrated. For example, what happens if the factory that is buying power closes down or relocates unexpectedly? Here is where the regulatory environment can play a role in derisking. Liberalization of the wholesale market and allowing producers to wheel power could bring down the cost to consumers even further, since producers can take advantage of economies of scale.

As mentioned previously, net metering is a policy that allows consumers to offset their electricity consumption with solar electricity they generate themselves. At the end of the billing period, consumers are charged for net consumption. For example, if they consumed 100 units from the grid and exported 25 units from their PV system, they would pay for just 75 units in that period. This differs from net billing, where the units flowing to and from the grid are priced at different rates, with the sell-back price typically lower than the retail electricity tariff.

Nevertheless, under either policy, the factory in our example would benefit from the ability to sell excess solar power. Since it only runs 6 days a week, the solar electricity generated on the seventh day would otherwise go unused. Because exporting solar to the grid is not allowed yet in Thailand (the net metering policy has been in limbo since the appointment of a new energy minister), owners of PV systems are also required to install reverse power relays that block electricity from flowing back to the grid, posing an additional cost of installation.

BOI incentives

One of the existing supports in Thailand are incentives granted by the Board of Investment (BOI), a government agency. Under current BOI policy, producers of electricity from renewable resources (solar, wind, biomass, biogas), as well as ESCOs can qualify for the following:

  • 8-year corporate tax exemption
  • Exemption of import duties on machinery
  • Exemption of import duties on raw or essential materials used in manufacturing export products for 1 year (extension is possible)
  • Other non-tax incentives

Investors of self-financed rooftop PV (“machinery replacement or upgrade to save energy, to introduce alternative energy into the project, or to reduce environment impacts”) can enjoy:

  • 3-year corporate tax exemption not exceeding 50% of investment capital
  • Exemption of import duties on machinery

But applications for the incentives must be submitted before December 30, 2020 and the project must be implemented within 3 years from the date of approval.

Resources

For more information on USAID Clean Power Asia, go to http://usaidcleanpowerasia.aseanenergy.org/

BOI documents can be found here.

 

Tides

6a00d8341cdd0d53ef0168ebaf74a4970c-500wi

“Blow out the candles, Robert, and make a wish. Want something!
Want something!”—Stephen Sondheim, Company.

**************************************************************

Surely, she knew love. Had she not felt it—been so convinced of it—many times before? How often she had let those words slip from her lips and watched eyes widen, first with surprise, then confusion, then, finally, distress. How time and time again she’d desperately tried to redact those unforgivable words. You don’t have to say it back. 

And it was true—it was never a need to hear them echoed. It was simply that her body could no longer hold those words; they surged upwards, threatening to suffocate, pressing up against mouth clamped shut, seeping through fluttered lids, permeating flesh hot with delirium. Until, inevitably, they spilled forth, bringing mortification with relief.

Was that love? Or was that surging warmth an internal tide searching for an object to bathe and envelope? Any object that lingered long enough to become familiar, long enough to draw the tide with neither warmth nor affection—a cold, silent, steady presence was sufficient. And the tide always came, reaching towards that object with arms outstretched.

Had she known love? To think that her affections gushed and swelled to an inner rhythm, independent of the external, and overflowed onto anything that would receive it. That was a terrible thought.

 

 

The conscious mite that lived on the moon

moon

A Short Story

Contrary to what Earth’s leading scientists believe, there is life on the moon. Moe lived with her family amongst a small colony of mites in one particular crevice on one particular corner of the moon. Which particular corner or which particular crevice, she wasn’t sure. In fact, she wasn’t sure either who were her family. She just assumed that the two older, grayer-looking mites that intermittently sifted through the moondust and lobbed a speck of juicy moonfungus in her general direction did so out of affection. And when she looked at either of them, she did feel a sort of pleasant sensation, perhaps comparable to warmth, wash over her cold, bloodless body. She twiddled her whiskers and cooed a moonmite coo, expressing her love in the only way she knew how, but they just stared past her and continued sifting through the moondust.

Moe couldn’t recall how she came to live here. All she knew was that her recollections since long ago came like the gradual arrival of light in the sky: she never noticed it happening, but before she knew it, she could see the shimmer in the moondust appear beneath her spindly legs. But unlike the light, which dimmed, went out, then returned, her feeling—thinking—seemed to stretch far backwards, uninterrupted, for what felt like a long, long time, falling eventually into the thick, dark folds of the unknowable. There was a time, though, when she too had scurried, it seemed, but she couldn’t remember where she was scurrying to, or why. It didn’t seem like her—Moe. In fact, “Moe” was her own assumption of identity, created and labeled as such simply because of the small, almost imperceptible sound that escaped her body when she opened her mouth to coo. “Moe”. 

At first, she remembered, the sound, though quiet, had startled her, bringing her newfound consciousness into sharper focus. It confirmed her existence. None of the other mites seemed to take notice, however, and never paused their scurrying and sifting. She watched the coming and going of the light in the sky, and the shimmer in the moondust, with ever growing fascination. The members of her colony, including her family, scurried around in silence with neither urgency nor sloth. When she tried to approach any one of them, their spindly legs would swiftly rotate, sending the body they carried scurrying on a new trajectory. Moe sensed no animosity—one of many feelings that she had gradually come to know since the beginning of awareness—just a placid, effortless avoidance of collision. Over time, self-conscious surprise and fascination at her surroundings gave way to disappointment. Her coos grew louder, more insistent, and each echo more desperate as it dissipated across the desolate moonscape.

Moe looked up at the sky and watched the looming circle of blue, white, and gray. She didn’t know what it was, but she liked it. The moonscape varied in shades of shimmer, but the circle in the sky—it was different, but not in shade (color was not a part of her awareness). Sometimes, she couldn’t find the circle, no matter how hard she searched among the sparkles. It would disappear from the sky for a while and then reappear, just like the light. Moe twiddled her whiskers and wondered if her existence was a good thing. She looked around at her scurrying colony and considered this. Sometimes, she was glad to know herself as Moe. But other times, she wished she didn’t know. She wished she could be just like the other moonmites, scurrying around, sifting moondust. Not happy, but not unhappy. Not questioning why she had to know, think, feel. Blissfully unaware.

End of Summer

IMG_3522

A moment’s hesitation. The inevitable
Tearing open the cocoon of dreams and chatter.
That crease of a smile subsides.
The face once familiar twists and dissipates into emptiness.
I find myself at the shores of a black lake,
Its silent surface ablaze with a million stars above.
I search the dark expanse but there is nothing
And no one.

Falling short of sexual assault

cello-lessons

When I was around 13, I started taking private cello lessons at home. My teacher was (and still is) the principal cellist of the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. He was a big man with a booming baritone voice, didn’t smile very much, and I was scared of him. I remember him telling me about another female student of his who he said was very beautiful. He also said I’d be really pretty if I didn’t wear glasses. He always used the formal, adult pronouns for you and I in Thai which I was not used to. I always addressed him as “teacher” and myself with the humble Thai word that most kids use when talking to their elders.

One time, he criticized my posture and placed his hand on my upper chest, the area between my neck and my breasts. Then he put his hand at the back of my neck and ran it all the way down to the small of my back, while explaining something about my posture. Afterwards, he instructed me to play while he sat directly behind me where I couldn’t see him, presumably to observe my posture.

How does one react to behavior that isn’t overt? Even now, more than a decade later, I can’t find the right label for that incident. In my mind, sexual assault conjures up a violent image. This was not violent; I wasn’t groped. Neither was it done in a sensual manner, which I would have definitely interpreted as creepy behavior. Instead, he was rough, such that the initial physical contact jolted me, and he spoke in a tone that was gruff and serious rather than lascivious. I thought that perhaps that was his style of teaching and felt ashamed for thinking that it could have been sexual. But it made me extremely uncomfortable.

My experience is mild, compared to what many people endure and I’m not necessarily traumatized by it. It just occasionally pops into my head and makes me angry. But the fact that I catch myself questioning if it was really a big deal, or whether I had misinterpreted his behavior, makes me think that yes, it is always intentional. The grey area—or at least what is perceived to be a grey area—that extends beyond what feels comfortable, but falls short of overt sexual assault, is there to be exploited. It is there to create doubt and redirect shame back to the person who conjured up such dirty thoughts, for suspecting that there was anything other than innocuous intent. Be wary of the grey area. Be wary of terms like “sexual assault” and particularly “sexual assault survivor”, which seem to rule out all non-violent and non life-threatening offenses. Don’t rule them out.