Whenever Peter Fox-Penner needs time to mull over the future of the world’s power grids, he retreats to his outdoor study: a converted barn at the back of his historic Falls Church house on the outskirts of Washington DC.
“I call it the Fox Den. It’s my refuge. It has my music system, CDs, my technical materials on power infrastructures and my political memorabilia,” says Fox-Penner, 57, a global authority on electric power and chairman of the Brattle Group, an economics, finance and energy consultancy.
Built between 1850 and 1854, Fox-Penner’s pre-civil war house lies along the old Leesburg turnpike and down the block from the colonial-era church once frequented by George Washington. “Washington was a vestryman. He used to ride back and forth to church. The church has an old graveyard and soldiers of the revolutionary war are buried there.”
Fox-Penner cites George Washington as an inspiration for trying to create an early infrastructure for local energy and transportation needs. “Down the road is Great Falls, upstream of Washington DC, where there are waterfalls. One of Washington’s ventures was a company to dig canals around those falls and let river boats navigate up the Potomac River and to the Ohio Valley. The venture failed.” Ugly squabbling between states over rights and tolls, says Fox-Penner, prompted Washington to insert the interstate commerce clause into the constitution. “He thought that in the future, all commerce should be regulated by the federal government.”
Washington’s struggles, says Fox-Penner, are relevant today for the European Union, as it tries to harmonise its member states’ electricity grids. “There’s an interesting parallel right now. Last year, the European Commission proposed for the first time that every external electricity or gas supply deal be negotiated jointly with Brussels instead of allowing individual states to cut their own deals. We have global scale energy problems, so we’re going to need co-ordinated regional activity. The question is how.”
Fox-Penner and his wife Susan Vitka, a philanthropic adviser, bought their house, which they share with their 17-year-old daughter Emily, in 1993. “We fell in love with it,” he says, pointing to the painted clapboard exterior by the front door. Fox-Penner says that the front-door lock is original. “It’s very secure and you can open it from the inside but not the outside. We were going to change it but the locksmith said, ‘It’s so beautiful. It would be a shame not to keep it. Go in through the back door.’”
Inside, the entrance hall has also remained unchanged. “You can see it with the darker floors. The new ones are red oak. These were hard pine.” The living room walls have been painted light blue and decorated with Inuit artwork. In the dining room, the furniture includes a Thomas Moser table. “It’s supreme wood craftsmanship from workshops in Maine. We got it after some political dinner guests started arguing and pounding on our old table. They broke it. We needed a solid table.”
Downstairs, a finished basement provides Fox-Penner with a space for drumming practice. As a student, Fox-Penner founded a recording studio, Pogo Records, in Urbana, Illinois. “We did it from our college,” he says of the University of Illinois, where he majored in engineering before going on to get a PhD at the University of Chicago. “It’s the oldest recording studio outside of LA and New York. It specialises in combining modern and antique recording equipment. There’s a computer with a 64-track Pro Tools set-up next to a vintage 1960s sound-mixer.” It was as a student that Fox-Penner developed an interest in electric power grids.
So what exactly, I ask, as I follow Fox-Penner back up the stairs, is the electric power grid – and is it fraying?
“The grid is the huge mesh of power lines that begin at the power plants, go through high-voltage towers and end in your home and office. In the US there are 225,000 miles of high-voltage and 6m miles of low-voltage lines,” says Fox-Penner. “The US grid is ageing in some places but overall is performing well and expanding significantly. The good news is that much of the grid expansion is to accommodate renewable energy like wind farms. That’s also true in Europe as well as Brazil and India. Wind installations for the grid grew almost 50 per cent in China last year although coal installations also grew.”
Isn’t the grid vulnerable to attacks? “Cyberattacks and hackers are a constant threat but cybersecurity is finally getting some attention,” he says. “Protective measures are being developed. But it’s too early to say that the problem is solved.”
Out in the garden, yard-work has turned up shards of civil war-era pottery and pieces of coal. Fox-Penner reflects on the irony of trying to envision a high-tech, low-carbon future from a house that originally burned coal for heat. “Obviously, coal is still being used globally for the grid. We have to learn how to clean it up or eventually phase it out.” Still, despite looming threats from rising carbon dioxide emissions, Fox-Penner is hopeful the grid can be modernised in time.
“Overall, the expansion of the grid is going in the right direction. The question is, can we adopt low-carbon energy sources fast enough to meet the threat of climate change?”
In the Fox Den, the veteran of Democratic conventions, who was also co-founder of the political action group Environment 2004 and played an active role in the last US presidential campaign, displays his impressive collection of political stickers and badges. So does it matter to the future of the grid who gets elected next? And hasn’t the Obama administration, from failure on the Copenhagen agreement to delay of stronger smog standards, disappointed the environmentalists who helped the president get elected?
“In the grid sector, Obama has actually accomplished a lot. The Department of the Interior, usually very slow, has given out permits for 6,000 megawatts of renewable-sourced power on federal land, up from virtually nothing. That’s the equivalent of six giant nuclear power plants. The Republican candidates are vowing to reduce support for renewable energy and roll back EPA regulations. The difference is pretty dramatic.”
Leaving the Fox Den, Fox-Penner stops to inspect a delivery of solar panels. “I was testing them out but the spot was too shady. I’m trying to find a sunny spot. I’m thinking of the other part of the house. I have to remind myself that the bulkheads of houses from this era were once coal chutes. Now we’re putting solar panels on the roof. It’s a bellwether of the future.”
“One key to good energy policy is efficiency. My other favourite thing is a gadget that you can use from your computer or iPhone wirelessly, that tells you what you’re using and how much it costs. You can be halfway across the world and turn down your thermostat. This is a starter technology kit you can buy online; a do-it-yourself version of the smart grid that will eventually let all consumers respond to prices and control energy use. All intelligence in this gadget will be built into the grid. Across the world, we’re in transition to a smarter, greener power grid.”