Sunday, July 1, 2012

Another Case for Distributed Generation

It's been hard for me to come to terms with the fact that it's summer. You wouldn't know it if you'd spent the last little while in the Pacific Northwest, where Juneuary has dominated from Vancouver down to Portland; I understand that June 2012 in Vancouver may end up being one of the coldest on record. Personally, I prefer ice to fire--and as it turns out, that may be one of the advantages of having mountains to the east.

In that vast and sprawling land beyond the mountains, things aren't nearly as cool. Over the past few days, high heat and tinderbox-dry conditions fueled wildfires that still burn across huge stretches of Colorado. On Friday night, the area around Washington, D.C. was hit by powerful thunderstorms that clobbered the power lines; millions of people were left without power and states of emergency were declared in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia.

Power outages can be unpleasant at the best of times, but this one comes in the middle of a heat wave. On Friday, the temperature in Washington topped 40 degrees Celsius. As I write, at 11:30 PM ET on Saturday night, it's still 30 degrees there and the next few days promise more storms and more scorching heat. If that wasn't enough, it could be as much as a *week* before electricity is fully restored to the affected area. Given the fury of the summer storms that passed through, leaving enough knocked-down trees and other debris that the National Guard has been called in to clear it up, it's no wonder that the distribution systems have been interrupted.

Still, it's not like this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Everyone's been through a power outage, and with the North American infrastructure deficit getting bigger and bigger with each passing year. Those towers and wires don't stay up because it's just their nature to stay up, you know. It's a problem that will have to be addressed, sooner or later--whether it be because we want to, or because we have no choice but to.

Get a load of those kilovolts!

The modern power delivery infrastructure is pretty much unchanged from the dawn of the electrical age: we have central power plants, be they nuclear, hydroelectric, natural gas, or what have you, and from them power lines reach out to connect cities and continents. The interconnections of the power grid make it possible for electricity generated in one place to fill the demands of another, but it can also lead to cascading blackouts such as the one experienced in the northeast ten years ago. It's highly centralized, and centralized systems are highly vulnerable to disruption.

The potential of a decentralized power generation system is just that, right now; potential--still, it's more feasible now than it ever has been before. Solar and wind generators have been steadily dropping in price for decades, and as prices decrease and efficiencies increase their possibilities become more and more apparent. Even now, Canadian Tire sells a line of personal wind turbines for $800 before tax. Admittedly, that's a fair chunk of change, and the turbines only generate six hundred watts of power--but that's more than enough to run, say, a desk fan. During a sustained power outage in the middle of a heat wave, six hundred watts is a hell of a lot better than zero. For people particularly sensitive to heat, it could be the difference between life and death, and the greater the extent to which personal generating systems like these are adopted, the more the price will go down.

I'm not saying that power generation would be completely decentralized, of course--there will always be a need for consistent baseload generation of the sort that consistent generators like hydro, geothermal, and nuclear excel at. Nevertheless, if every house and apartment had its own wind turbine and solar panel, along with a battery bank to be charged when generating conditions are good, that would vastly decrease the strain on the system as a whole. A system that isn't strained is a system that can be more effectively maintained, and it's resilient. We shouldn't be satisfied with brittle, fragile infrastructures that are brought low by storms. We should tolerate them if need be, but only as long as need be.

1 comment:

  1. I'm totally onside with this. Just as a distributed Internet is stronger than a centrally controlled one, so would be our power systems.

    The power corporations see this as a threat to their monopoly and profits. I see it as sane and sensible planning for a more survivable future. National governments no longer seem to have the will or desire to make sensible decisions.

    Canada is now governed by a minority that rejects science if it doesn't agree with their personal beliefs.

    I'm in the process of throwing out high quality cold weather clothes and boots because I haven't used them for years. Meanwhile Exxon's CEO tells me that we'll adapt.

    I'm well adapted to cold, but not to all this heat.