Gridlock – Part 2

A major component of our energy woes today is the grid itself. A solution could be distributed, onsite generation with renewables.

Beginnings of the Behemoth

Centralized power generation evolved to address the realities of industrialization, including economies of scale and the fact the people simply didn’t want to work, live, or raise a family next to soot-spewing smoke stacks. Unfortunately, the logical solution of simply moving power generation into rural areas created a host of distribution challenges that had to be solved through the development of a massive, byzantine energy distribution network – the grid. In that sense, much of the grid is dumb, lacking sensors, electrical buffers, storage, or any form of intelligent monitoring to ensure efficient distribution of electricity. It’s much more like plumbing than an iPhone – which explains how one blockage at a switching station or downed power line could take out the power in entire regions.

Un-economies of Scale

The problems with a colossal, centralized mode of power production and distribution lie largely in the fact that it takes power to move power. Research indicates that nearly one-third of power generated is simply lost via electrical dissipation and the inherent resistance in transmission materials. Furthermore, by its very nature, the grid is highly inflexible, resulting in persistent mismatches of power distribution and fluctuating actual need.

For example, in 2011 the state of Texas experienced three separate occurrences where electrical demand very nearly exceeded supply resulting in blackouts. This was on top of rolling blackouts imposed by a number of other electrical providers on their customers in order to cull peak demand. Authorities operating under outdated modes of thinking quickly moved to propose measures that would encourage the construction of even more traditional power plants, despite the fact that for most of the year, power plants were actually operating well below capacity. The problem was peak demand, which the grid does not handle well.

On September 8th of last year, 1.4 million households in Southern California lost power in an outage purportedly caused by a single maintenance worker, proving not only that bottlenecks are endemic, but also exposing the incredible vulnerabilities created by our dependency on the grid. To make matters worse, much of America’s transmission infrastructure is aging – badly. Studies show repairing or replacing the grid over the next 20 years will cost American’s a mindboggling 3 to 3.5 trillion dollars!

Despite being referred to as a monolithic entity, the grid is really a messy patchwork quilt of ad hoc infrastructure and overlapping jurisdictions. The latter include the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation (NERC) at the federal level, a range of Regional Transmission Operators (RTO) and Independent System Operators (ISO) at the regional level, and the Public Utility Commissions (PUC) at the state level. This leaves grid operators the fearsome task of maintaining enough supply from this very complex system, within a narrow range of frequencies and voltages, to meet constantly fluctuating demand at all times all over the United States.

Enter Renewables

Centralized electrical power production based on the consumption of dirty fossil fuels was a necessity of the Industrial Age. In reaction to the immense amount of pollution emitted by carbon-based generators, power plants were forced to relocate outside of major population centers. However, in order to make up for electricity lost during the transmission from plant to end users, generators grew ever larger and consumed ever more fossil fuels leading to worsening problems of air quality, acid rain, and global warming. Since economies of scale in central power plants effectively topped off by the 1960’s, more and more resource-hogging fossil fuel-burning generators have had to be built in order to meet fluctuating peak demand – a task which a relatively fragmented, dumb, and bottleneck-prone national grid is not equipped for.

Renewables could break the vicious cycle. Since clean, renewable technologies, such as solar panels, are effectively emissionless once installed, generating equipment can be located on site rather than far away. This elegantly bypasses the grid and the associated 30 percent hit in transmission losses. A family in sunny Texas could simply install solar panels on their roofs rather than depend entirely on a relatively undependable grid.

Power to the People

Distributive power generation utilizing renewable solar tech literally and figuratively puts power back into the hands of individuals. Generators installed onsite can be used to meet the exact demands of the user, reducing waste, promoting stability, and thus saving enormous amounts of money. Individual photovoltaic arrays are considerably cheaper and easier to install than the construction of massive new, centralized plants and related transmission infrastructure. Once installed, the operation of such systems is very straightforward.

For example, forecasting adverse weather conditions is much, much easier than forecasting the complex equipment failures in centralized plants. Furthermore, if Americans relied more on distributed, onsite energy production, the threat of catastrophic terrorist attacks on power infrastructure would be greatly diminished.

Developments in the Housing Industry

Houses utilizing current technologies and employing solar panels to generate the energy they need, known as net-zero, are leading a market transition away from old paradigms. While not entirely off-grid, net-zero homes produce the most electricity precisely when the sun is hottest, and when traditional plants would otherwise be struggling to meet peak demand. In return, the grid meets any energy deficits that occur during particularly cloudy days and even buys any extra electricity produced during sunny days.

While the grid won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, onsite solar generation can offer Americans a model for relative energy independence. Ultimately, reliance on centralized fossil-fuel based means of energy production, of which the grid is a major component, is not a viable way forward in the long-term. When we fully take into account the enormous inefficiencies associated with a centralized generation paradigm, the far-reaching consequences of global warming, the effects of pollution on human health, and the dangerous geopolitics of energy dependency, it should be obvious which route offers the nation a better future. As more and more of our roofs become veritable power plants, the vision of a clean, democratized energy future can finally become a reality.

Live well. Think green. Build Native.

Read Gridlock – Part 1