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Does a Big Economy Need Big Power Plants?
Amory B. Lovins, Freakonomics (blog), New York Times
If I told you, “Many people need computing services, so we’d better build more mainframe computer centers where you can come run your computing task,” you’d probably reply, “We did that in the 1960’s, but now we use networked PC’s.” Or if I said, “Many people make phone calls, so we’d better build more big telephone exchanges full of relays and copper wires,” you’d exclaim, “Where have you been? We use distributed packet-switching.”
Yet if I said, “Many people need to run lights and motors, Wii’s, and air conditioners, so we’d better build more giant power plants,” you’d probably say, “Of course! That’s the only way to power America.”
Thermal power stations burn fuel or fission atoms to boil water to turn turbines that spin generators, making 92 percent of U.S. electricity. Over a century, local combined-heat-and-power plants serving neighborhoods evolved into huge, remote, electricity-only generators serving whole regions. Electrons were dispatched hundreds of miles from central stations to dispersed users through a grid that the National Academy of Engineering ranked as its profession’s greatest achievement of the 20th century.
This evolution made sense at first, because power stations were costlier and less reliable than the grid, so by backing each other up through the grid and melding customers’ diverse loads, they could save capacity and achieve reliability. But these assumptions have reversed: central thermal power plants now cost less than the grid, and are so reliable that about 98 percent to 99 percent of all power failures originate in the grid. Thus the original architecture is raising, not lowering, costs and failure rates: cheap and reliable power must now be made at or near customers.
“Central thermal stations have become like Victorian steam locomotives: magnificent technological achievements that served us well until something better came along.”
Power plants also got irrationally big, upwards of a million kilowatts.
(9 February 2009)
Small is ugly if it means we keep burning coal
Gar Lipow, Gristmill
Big is beautiful if it breaks our dead-dinosaur addiction
I've heard arguments lately for local photovoltaic solar power (PV) from rooftops, roadways, and parking lots as a primary source of electric energy, mostly accompanied by arguments against long distance high-voltage transmission lines (HVDC). I keep picturing a revised Treasure of the Sierra Madre with bandits telling Humphrey Bogart: "Transmission lines? We don't need no stinking transmission lines!"
I think the key to this argument is whether you are satisfied with slow incremental growth in renewable energy that gradually rises to providing 20 percent of electricity use, or if you want renewable electricity use to grow large enough to displace coal, natural gas for electricity, and even natural gas for heating and oil for transport (via ground source heat pumps and electrified transport).
(10 February 2009)
Big Gav's smart grid round-up
Big Gav, Peak Energy
Smart grids and smart meters continue to be the hot area of the energy world this year (whereas the news flow in most other areas I track is pretty slow lately).
The New York Times has an article on Google's first step into the "smart grid" market - Google Taking a Step Into Power Metering.
(10 February 2009)