A recent article in Scientific American describes the advantages of the “Smart Grid” we keep hearing about. One problem with wind and solar power is that they are not constant like a big coal or nuclear power plant. When the sun goes down those solar panels stop delivering power, and if the wind dies down at the same time, how do you get power except from batteries or fossil fuels? There are two answers to this issue: a highly efficient power grid that can carry electricity to where it is needed at lowest possible cost, and the ability to regulate the load on the system. The Smart Grid is an electricity transmission system that may appear quite similar to the high tension lines that now make a web across the country, but include digital communications capabilities. The communications side of the Smart Grid will allow utility districts to share information and efficiently switch power to where it is needed, and will also permit the grid to temporarily shut off properly equipped water heaters, refrigerators, air conditioners, HVAC systems, and similar equipment. In that way the system can be balanced to prevent power outages and enable alternative energy sources that are inherently variable to play a bigger part in supplying our energy needs. Load regulation is a direct tradeoff with system capacity, and has the potential to lower electricity costs substantially. Will the average consumer get on the bandwagon soon, or will economic conditions have to become much worse to get the average person to make changes?
Some people won’t want their power usage monitored in detail, or their appliances controlled by someone else. We already have a system like this, as electric power companies have long given a discount to customers who installed a remote switch for the power to their air conditioner. The power company uses it to turn it air conditioning equipment off temporarily during peak usage periods. As more appliances are equipped with “Smart” capabilities, consumers who register those items with their electricity supplier could receive significant discounts. While it may take a decade to see enough such products in the market to make a significant difference to power demand, this or a similar system may be needed in order for wind and solar power to gain widespread acceptance.
Geothermal and hydrokinetic power generation systems will provide more constant power. Like the fossil fuel power plants, geothermal and falling-water power sources will be pretty constant. Wave-derived power generation will be a bit more variable since it will be based on wind speed and direction, but it still won’t change as rapidly as solar or wind power. Al of these sources will combine with fossil fuel sources to provide a base level of available electricity while demand above that level will be handled through carefully managed energy transmission and load regulation.
Fossil fuel systems will be phased out as those resources increase in cost. While renewable energy isn’t currently cost effective compared with fossil fuel, that will eventually change. The recent oil well blowout and resulting ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico point the direction of the future for fossil fuels – that we’re not paying the full cost of their ecological risks. We’re also not paying the cost of released atmospheric carbon, which has the potential to greatly increase costs of everything we use if it causes climate change. As the easily-harvested oil and coal fields are exhausted, the development of new deposits will be increasingly expensive and risky to extract. When the cost of dealing with spilled oil, coal sludge, and nuclear waste become high enough, and are sufficient to drive up average cost to consumers, consumers will change their habits.
The sooner we move to a better-managed power grid with home appliance support, the sooner renewable energy will be cost-feasible. The promise of renewable energy resource development won’t be fully realized until the electrical grid becomes part of the system, as it will make the variety of alternative energy sources practical and enable them to carry a much larger part of the overall load. In the end the adoption of the Smart Grid will be driven by cost, as always. Consumers will make the change when they can see a financial benefit, and hopefully it won’t require gasoline to rise to $10 per gallon to get consumers involved.
The other (and possibly most important) enabler of renewable energy is conservation. Energy not used is better than free, as it reduces the need for extra power plants and transmission and storage facilities. While many people are upgrading the insulation in their homes, for example, most are looking at a very long payback that makes similar changes unjustifiable for commercial ventures. While the use of outlet strips to shut off appliances that use power all the time, such as wall transformers and any device with a remote, can save a lot of power few people have the understanding or discipline to use them. Commercial entities have a greater ability to achieve savings with this kind of conservation since they typically have centralized controls for their facilities, and those facilities use a lot of energy.
Major investment in efficiency and alternative energy production will be held back until higher costs justify them. When energy prices have risen high enough, and public understanding of our energy challenges has increased enough, conservation will become a bigger factor. Those installing geothermal furnaces and solar and wind-based power systems are still facing payback periods in the 30-50 year range. Given that the equipment involved probably won’t last that long, the numbers alone don’t justify consumer investment in such systems. If we wait until energy costs become high enough to justify such investments the effect on the economy may already be too severe, and we may have to struggle with a long-running recession and greatly reduced standards of living.
Big energy companies’ dependence on fossil fuels provides motive to undermine alternative energy initiatives. Every time fossil fuel costs see a big rise, many alternative energy projects get started. Unfortunately the fossil fuel companies are likely to want to avoid competition, and are quite familiar with the impact of fossil fuel costs on alternative energy products. Even if the energy costs rise significantly, as long as the prices recede to a lower level before alternative energy plans can get off the ground, most of such projects will be put on hold or killed, and the amount of alternative energy generated will remain quite small. This is a case where government complicity with big energy companies works against everyone. By moving slowly in encouraging alternative energy and the smart grid, the government can enable big energy companies to continue to make huge profits from fossil fuels, even though the eventual outcome will be hard times for the average citizen. The boom and bust price cycle will significantly delay implementation of alternative energy sources on a practical scale.
Habits will change and investments will accelerate as fossil fuel costs rise. Sooner or later fossil fuel costs will rise, and won’t cycle back down to levels that will make all alternative energy projects infeasible. Alternative energy programs will begin a period of substantial growth as energy costs justify the investments.
Current individual efforts will continue, justified largely by the notion of “doing the right thing” for our descendants. When energy prices have risen high enough for cost savings to be significant, and public understanding of our energy challenges has increased enough, conservation will become a bigger factor. For now I will continue turning off the outlet strip next to my bed every morning, thus turning off the assorted wall transformers and remote-equipped devices that would otherwise soak me for electricity they use while I am out of the house. I will also keep turning off lights or water anywhere I use it and coasting my little car on freeway off-ramps, among other things. It is important to keep in mind the power of numbers: if each person turned off the water while brushing their teeth, the US could save perhaps 100 million gallons per day. (This reveals the power of educational and consci0usness-raising efforts.)
If you don’t ask for government incentives for conservation and energy research, you won’t likely get it. The only entity powerful enough to stave off energy corporation market manipulation and create proactive conservation and alternative energy efforts on a large scale is the government, and the only certain influence on government is a simple one: no matter how much money big organizations give politicians, a few of them still need YOUR vote, and that gives them an incentive to listen to you. Please contact your government representatives at every level and let them know that alternative energy and the smart grid are important to our future life styles and those of our descendants. Ask specifically for more funding for basic research, not just applied research, and for our country’s resources to be focused on our future welfare as far as energy and population-related problems, rather than wasting hundreds of billions of our taxpayer dollars fighting poorly defined wars in places where no war has ever been won.
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading this — Tim