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Principal Author and Editor 21st Century Tech Blog

Futurist, Writer and Researcher, now retired, former freelance writer for new technology ventures. Former President & CEO of Len Rosen Marketing Inc., a marketing consulting firm focused on...

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  • Jun 16, 2020
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The countries and continents of the world are marked by all kinds of highways. One of these is dedicated to the distribution of electricity. Electrical power transmission corridors are less invasive than other transport infrastructure but they too have an impact on the natural environment. If you don't believe me, remember the PG&E infrastructure fiasco blamed for California's recent wildfires. That's the dark side of putting up wires carrying kilovolts of current over long distances. Transmission comes at an energy cost with an average 5% loss from source to consumer. New superconductor materials in cables could deliver near zero-power loss but at a considerable cost. But another solution would be to move to a distributed energy system of microgrids and renewable, and modular nuclear power generation that could operate both with and off the main grid.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 17, 2020

"But another solution would be to move to a distributed energy system of microgrids and renewable, and modular nuclear power generation that could operate both with and off the main grid."

That would be a nice solution to move to, Len, if it was practical or affordable. Here's what's happening in practice:

  1. Affluent people in gated communities are buying natural gas or diesel generators. They're taking no responsibility for their emissions, and locking in dependence on fossil fuel for decades to come.
  2. Some will buy solar arrays while there's still a federal investment tax credit, but the ITC ends in 2022.
  3. Fewer customers shrink PG&E's revenue base, leading to higher costs for grid customers and less funding for grid maintenance.
  4. Elimination of efficiencies of scale results in even higher emissions and even greater risk of fire (ask an electrical engineer).
  5. By the time problems are recognized, there's no turning back. Does any American, in 2020, voluntarily give up a personal freedom in the name of public safety? (Hint: look at gun control).
  6. Practical grid batteries remain a naïve fantasy.

Electricity Outages Lead to Substantial Backup Generator Purchases

Microgrids? Been there, done that. Forgotten disasters from over a century ago have apparently become lessons we're doomed to learn again.

Larry Farmer's picture
Larry Farmer on Jun 17, 2020

An interesting thought-experiment. Although transmission will look very different at the end of the century than it does today, it is still likely to be have a place in our electrical infrastructure. We do need to take a hard look at our relationship to this infrastructure and challenge existing norms and assumptions. Challenging our current mindset by asking us to contemplate a world without an electric grid is a good first step.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 17, 2020

Larry, except for some details, contemplating a world without an electric grid wouldn't be challenging at all. It would look very much like the world of the 1870s: subsistence farming and emissions-intensive energy consumption.

The main difference? 8+ billion people will be consuming and emitting.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 17, 2020

We do need to take a hard look at our relationship to this infrastructure and challenge existing norms and assumptions

Well put, Larry. The utility industry has long been filled with inertia and married to the technology and strategies that have always worked, but now that change in the sector is coming from outside forces (in tech, in markets, etc.), they are having to reckon with with the future will look like one way or another. It will be interesting to see which become the most agile and flexible to address the next century's challenges rather than cling to the way things were done for the past century!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 19, 2020

"The utility industry has long been filled with inertia and married to the technology and strategies that have always worked..."

You seem surprised that an industry is married to technology and strategies that have always worked.

If the #1 priority is still making reliable electricity available to everyone, maybe we should keep those technologies and strategies, and figure out how to reduce their carbon emissions.

Len Rosen's picture
Len Rosen on Jun 17, 2020

I love the comments appearing here. There is no doubt the energy mix in 2100 will bear some resemblance to the past but there will be far more that is different. I suspect that renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal provide greater flexibility, working I believe even better in a distributed infrastructure, than the current grid. Microgrid deployment to me can work best with renewables and modular nuclear. And the beauty of these new ways is they really are returning to an older electrical distribution system when power generated was close to the point of consumption. For the Developing World it would seem that national grids may still be around but much of the power generation will devolve to decentralized, distributed energy systems in close proximity to consumers. That would compliment widespread use of rooftop solar and home geothermal. 

Bob, I tend not to look at future solutions through a domestic lens. Since I am north of the 49th parallel, I tend not to see solutions in American terms, but rather global. There is no doubt that distributed energy will disrupt the keepers of the grid in North America and elsewhere. It will alter the business model and thoroughly disrupt existing pricing per kwh. Add zero-carbon ambitions as a necessity to mitigate climate change, and you will see further financial disruption.

Larry and Matt, I think you are right that we need to be recognizing that the way we have been distributing power needs to be rethought for a century where our focus will be existential in nature as we come to terms with a warming atmosphere and planet.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 19, 2020

"I suspect that renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal provide greater flexibility, working I believe even better in a distributed infrastructure, than the current grid."

Len, how does being 100% dependent on the weather for electricity provide greater flexibility? In my view it's the antithesis of flexibility.

I've never understood how a distributed infrastructure would be an improvement over a centralized one. Electricity is very much like water, or the postal service...a fundamental need that benefits everyone in society. Who will regulate emissions, after microgrid owners realize it's cheaper to pollute the air with diesel generators, than buy electricity from a well-regulated, central source?

 

Len Rosen's picture
Len Rosen on Jun 19, 2020

Hi Bob,

The argument that renewable cannot be 100% dependable is a canard. With a variety of storage technologies to address intermitticency the dependability issue goes away.

Addressing the problem with diesel generators as a backup is counter to the notion that we are working to meet a zero-carbon future by mid-century.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 20, 2020

"The argument that renewable cannot be 100% dependable is a canard."

Actually that's the truth, Len. With a 100% renewable grid, we're 100% dependent on unpredictable weather for our electricity needs.

"With a variety of storage technologies to address intermitticency the dependability issue goes away."

There's your canard. Not a single grid in the world (or even a microgrid) runs on renewables + batteries. It's a fantasy, and for very good reasons.

"Addressing the problem with diesel generators as a backup is counter to the notion that we are working to meet a zero-carbon future by mid-century."

Maybe so, but addressing the problem with diesel or natural gas generators is what works. The notion of a zero-carbon renewables future has been a half-century away for more than half a century. No more time to waste.

In the figure below, the slender yellow line represents global output of all wind and solar combined in 2017 (IEA). The dark green line above it represents all hydropower.

If we double the graph's span by adding another thirty years, do you really believe those lines will expand to displace all coal, oil, and gas?

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