After a couple of days without power, I wanted to discuss a subject near and dear to my heart – distributed generation. Distributed generation is spreading out electrical generation with solar, wind, and other small generators over a wide area.
This past summer, plans for new high voltage power lines to deliver electricity from planned renewable energy sources in northern California, Oregon, and Washington to the Bay Area and Sacramento. Despite the promise of moving toward wind and large solar production of electricity, the drawback to large energy generation systems comes back to the same issue time after time. No matter what the source, Hydroelectric, Wind, Solar, Biofuels, or Biomass, large energy production facilities all have the same requirement. To get the power you can produce to the user, you have to have transmission lines. Does this mean I support the installation of new high voltage transmission lines? No. Instead, I think we need to move past the Not In My BackYard (NIMBY) syndrome and be responsible for producing more of the power we use – locally.
This weekend’s storms showed once again how vulnerable we are when our energy must be shipped from place to place. Widespread power outages were caused by things as simple as high winds whipping power lines together to cause system fuses to blow. As we grow ever more attached to our electricity and dependent on electronics in our daily lives, can we really afford to ignore where our power is coming from?
I’m not suggesting that everyone can plant solar panels on their roof or should erect a wind turbine in their backyard. In truth, without localized storage, most of our alternative energy production suffers from reliability issues. Solar panels still only make electricity when the sun shines, so are little use to heat a house on a cold winter night. Wind turbines have similar issues where power production is tied to windy weather. In a perfect world, perhaps the wind would come up every evening and die back down in the morning so a combination of solar and wind would be able to replace commercial scale generating capacity. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so while commercial scale electrical generation is tied to transmission lines, small scale local or distributed generation is tied to the need for energy storage.
Today, batteries continue to be the only real option to even out the production and load spikes of distributed generation. SMUD is working on Smart Grid technology to help, but even with smart and connected appliances that can be cycled on and off or up and down to adjust to changes in power output from distributed generation, some of our changes in electrical use may make us more, instead of less, dependent on commercial scale electrical generation.
I know what you are thinking, what about energy conservation? Yes, conserving energy helps. If you don’t need it, don’t use it. After all, that is one of the basic tenants of Sustainability Theory – don’t use more than you need today so there will be something for tomorrow. But look around at all the new electrical uses we keep inventing. I’m not suggesting we need to return to the hand crank Victrolla, but between the iphones, iPods, and IPads, it seems we keep finding more and better ways to depend on electricity. So, until we can come up with a better solution to local electrical storage, or convince ourselves that large centralized Wind and Solar Farms, more Hydroelectric Dams, and Biomass burning power plants located near our forests deserve new transmission lines, we may have to think about and accept that our desires to have and use electricity, at our convenience, requires generators in our own neighborhoods. Natural gas, Biodiesel powered, it make little difference. In time, the price of fuel cells may come down in price to where they provide an alternative, and even here, electrical generation to “fill in” when power is not available from cleaner technologies such as solar and wind does not let us collect excess energy production. Still, these are steps in the right direction and, if we really want to use electricity, shouldn’t we be willing to have the power plant in our own backyards? After all, is part of Sustainability to ignore things we find unpleasant?
Sustainability should include thinking about the unpleasant things. After all, it is often the unpleasant things that pollute the environment, change our climate, and makes life less pleasant for others, somewhere.