We don’t need more electricity, just cleaner, more reliable electricity

July 7, 2011

If you have not heard Jeremy Rifkin riffing on distributed energy, put that on your to-do list.

And, if you haven’t read the post below, on India Leapfrogging the grid, read that next.

John Farrell, by way of Minnesota Public Radio,  asks, “Can we in the US advance beyond the obsolete, centralized grid, to a distributed energy system that matches our distributed information system?”

The United States doesn’t need another nuclear or coal power plant. Instead, it’s time to abandon our 20th century electricity system, dominated by large, centralized utilities, for a 21st century electricity system: a network of independently owned and widely dispersed renewable energy producers.

The 20th century electricity grid was mostly a tale of “bigger is better.” Utilities built ever-larger fossil fuel and nuclear power plants in pursuit of the cheapest possible electricity. For a 20th century society, it worked. But the paradigm has changed.

Since the year 2007, national electricity consumption has leveled off. In many states, it has declined. Coupled with new state policies to promote energy efficiency, it’s possible to halt the growth in electricity use.

We don’t need more electricity. We need cleaner electricity.

Wind and solar power are providing that clean energy. Over the past five years, wind power has made up an average of 35 percent of new power generation in the United States, 60 percent in 2009 alone. In Germany, citizens are putting enough solar on rooftops to replace a nuclear power plant every year.

Clean energy can power the grid, but only if it can connect to the grid. For years, utilities have had a “grid-lock,” a near-monopoly on getting new power onto the grid. When it came to legacy power plants, the grid-lock was unimportant because few folks other than the utilities could handle the cost and complexity of building and supplying big coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants. But unlike coal or gas, wind and solar power projects can be sized to the community, making them easier to finance, build and connect to the local grid. The community-sizing — democratizing — of energy also means more local economic benefits, especially when the community can actually own the wind turbine or solar panels.

This kind of renewable energy development — also called “distributed generation” — is good for communities, but also for the electric grid. Having many smaller power plants makes the grid more resilient than having a few large ones.

For example, 1,000 community-scale solar plants (each able to power about 100 homes, or about 500 kilowatts) dispersed across the region could have prevented the massive Northeast blackout of 2003, saving the economy $6 billion. Solar also helps utilities during so-called “peak demand,” pouring out sun-provided electricity at times when hot weather (and lots of air conditioners) put stress on the grid. Wind power’s higher nighttime production will provide the perfect match for fueling up our cars as we switch to driving on electricity instead of imported oil.

In the age of terrorism and asymmetric warfare, a centralized grid is vulnerable.

Despite the litany of benefits to the economy and electrical grid, utilities have used their grid-lock to restrict the ability of new wind and solar projects to plug into the grid. Antiquated rules make it hard for wind and solar projects to evaluate their chances to connect and to get loans to finance projects. Long applications and wait times string them along. For example, as many as 97 percent of renewable energy projects trying to get a contract and grid connection under California’s renewable energy law fail to do so, stranding millions of dollars in development costs.

The 20th century paradigm of large, centralized power plants and utilities is dead, but utility companies are still trying to maintain their grid-lock. It’s time to break that hold. Renewable energy is available everywhere, and can be cost-effectively harnessed in our communities with enormous benefits to the electric grid and local economies.

John Farrell is a senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which describes its mission as “to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development.” Farrell’s report on democratizing the electricity system is available here.

8 Responses to “We don’t need more electricity, just cleaner, more reliable electricity”

  1. danolner Says:

    That previous Rifkin vid of yours made me wonder how come more libertarians and free-marketeers aren’t fighting hard for distributed power, since – in Hayek’s case at least – one of the main argued benefits of the free market is precisely to make sure power doesn’t centralise too much. Why aren’t more people arguing for breaking the symbiotic relationship between big political power and big energy power?

  2. danolner Says:

    Interesting, the healthcare connection in the vid. The healthcare stuff in the US gave me quite a gestalt shift: as far as I can see it from here, if you’re employed by a firm with good healthcare policies, you’re covered (though it’s up to the firms to decide if you’re worthy to have it.) Corporations have their own little welfare states going on, and that’s acceptable. People then literally owe their lives to them. The gestalt shift was seeing how companies want to determine welfare as separate entities; there’s a shift in sovereignty at the heart of it.

    Not a new argument, and perhaps a little hyperbolic, but I can see how if I didn’t have the NHS (which is hanging on by its fingernails under a rightwing assault here) I’d want/need to get myself/my family esconsed in a decent-size corporation as fast as possible (and of course have the right skills to make me worthy for the corporate benefits.)

  3. Luke Peters Says:

    Sometimes you’ll hear the argument that distributed production leads to system instability, and that this is one reason why utilities oppose its introduction. Do you have any information on this?

  4. Where did the first graphic come from? I’d like to learn more about what it means.

  5. prokaryotes Says:

    The Pace of Progress – Chris Huhne: The UK electricity market has to change, so that we escape the cycle of fossil fuel addiction! http://climateforce.net/2011/07/08/chris-huhne-the-uk-electricity-market-has-to-change-so-that-we-escape-the-cycle-of-fossil-fuel-addiction/#respond

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