Local, small-scale energy doesn't mean "every man for himself"

Today, most of our electricity is made by facilities that can power millions of homes at a time, and which are located a long way away from the people who use that power. For instance, the Kansas is currently embroiled in a long-drawn-out controversy over whether or not to build a new coal power plant in the far southwest corner of the state. If it gets built, that power plant will be 200 miles, in any direction, from the nearest town with a population greater than 30,000 people. But the power plant could produce enough electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes—an earlier version of the design could have powered millions.

It works that way because, like most things, it's both cheaper and more resource efficient to produce electricity in bulk, rather than a little bit at a time here and there. That Kansas coal plant is meant to produce electricity for seven different Western states. Not just Kansas.

For a number of reasons—but particularly because of the high, NIMBY-influenced costs of building the transmission lines that bridge the gap between these big power plants and the people who use them—we now have some opportunities to produce electricity at a smaller scale and still have it make sense. But what exactly does "small" mean? Depending on who you talk to, you'll get a different answer. And that answer has big implications for electric reliability and how our grid infrastructure operates.

At the Atlantic.com, you can find an excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out, my new book, that discusses this difference, and the benefits and detriments of shared systems vs. energy independence.

When I talked to scientists and utility industry experts about decentralized generation, what they pictured was power production on the scale of Verdant Power's hydroelectric turbines beneath the East River or a gas-fired cogeneration plant that produced heat and electricity for a university campus. They thought of biofuels, and imagined a stationary central refinery, much smaller than the facilities that process oil into gasoline for the entire country but large enough to be industrialized. Electric capacities would be between 1 and 100 megawatts--enough to power hundreds or thousands of homes at a time. Economies of scale would still apply. The energy would still have to travel--whether by tanker truck or power line--to reach the people who wanted to use it.

Yet when I talk to my friends and family about decentralized generation, their minds immediately jump to something very different. To them, decentralized generation isn't only a somewhat smaller version of a system that already exists, like a scale model in a toy train set. Instead, they thought of decentralization as the creation of an entirely new, entirely separate system. They imagined a world where they didn't have to pay the electric company every month, because a one-time investment would allow them to make all of the electricity they needed with the help of the sun or the wind. No more rate hikes. No more ugly electric power lines threaded through their lives. That's what my friends and family were excited about. They wanted energy on site, something they could feel that they made by themselves. They loved the idea of the Madelia Model's traveling biofuel machine. Cogeneration plants bored them.

I think that this disconnect boils down to an issue of control. Scientists and utility experts have always been at the helm, guiding energy production. At least, they have been for as long as energy has been a scientific industry, for about a hundred years or so. When the rest of us turned energy production over to this small group, we got some benefits out of the deal.

Read the rest of the excerpt at The Atlantic.

Learn more about decentralized generation, and how the grid works, by reading my book Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Bournville Station - electricity pylon and Dave billboard, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ell-r-brown's photostream


  1. “I think that this disconnect boils down to an issue of control.”

    Is it control, or lack of technical knowledge?  I don’t say that to be mean or imply anything in a negative way.  I have a degree in electrical engineering and most of my friends and relatives have little understanding of what electricity is, what something like a kilowatt is, and why it is easier to produce thousands (or more) of those kilowatts at one time in one location.  They just see the big overall picture of it, coal can be dirty, nuclear can be unsafe, wind/solar/green energy is expensive, ect..  Yes a lot of it is what they hear is from the media, but the media also produces information that is small in easily digestible chunks (even if it is full of half truths and whole lies).  There is nothing wrong with wanting better technology, but people can’t be naive about what we have and use today until we get it.

  2. I think the only thing I can get excited about is conservation. We need a trend line where the load is decreasing year by year. Solar panels and wind generators aren’t going to supplant big power. Only reduced usage will get us there and even that is a maybe.
    Jumping to another topic I think the use of itoys and the required server farm expansions will quickly hit the wall.

  3. For any place remotely near other people, you’re going to have both. Just about 100% of the time.

    If you have the option to pull grid power, what’s the point in not having it available? There’s nothing saying that you have to tap it. But it’s there, in case you buy another AC, or your panels crap out, or you forgot to oil your turbines.

    Grid hook-ups also gives you the option to sell your excess power, which I imagine would be a pretty big plus once you explain it to someone.

  4. There are many ways America could have Smart Power. You could build a Smart grid that shifts power to where it’s needed WHEN it’s needed. You could taps the power of tides. More hydropower. Rent out the interstate mediums to private contractors with windmills and solar panels. And yes, Oil, Natural gas, & Coal and Nuclear(but in declining amounts) . But if people can generate their own power and possibly sell some of it back to the grid, it would be a much better world. Anyone who tells you different is probably trying to get or stay rich making or selling power the Old way.

  5. Dear Maggie,
    While I appreciate your eagerness for a future of a diverse array of distributed power sources, there are a few things I think you may want to consider on your quest of energy independence:

    1) Scale. You mentioned your grandfather cutting his own wood. Thank god he does not still. If 310 million people were cutting down trees we would have massive and instant deforestation. The only current way you can have the America Way of Life x 310,000,000 is to have massive infrastructure projects aided by many smaller sources and “peakers” you can ramp up and down to meet demand.

    2) Reliability – Do you know what happens to electronics during a brownout or a surge? Do you know what happens to a chip factory or a hospital if power is interrupted even for one second? Many very important things are dependent on reliable, constant voltage. How do you propose to maintain this 24/7 reliability with so many inputs? 

    3) Infrastructure – The existing transmission infrastructure was built to service the existing plants, they are simply not designed for a system of many small, unreliable, inputs.

    4) Resources – Batteries are expensive and take up metals we only have a limited supply of, far short of what would require to get society completely on solar power.

    5) Function – It is NOT a power company’s job to push energy independence. If you want to design a house that can power itself and spin off extra, or appliances that can handle voltage changes, that’s the job of an entrepreneur. Utilities’ jobs are to keep the lights on, they will never think the way you think because their priorities are simply different.

    At any utility company, there is a team of 5-20 people who’s sole job it is to run extremely complicated power load requirements models that include weather forecasts, historic temperature trends, plant output data, etc. The only way they can run these models is because they are dealing with a limited number of inputs and outputs. If you start letting everyone do what they want, it will be impossible for them to do their job. If they don’t do their job, then voltage isn’t constant and everything explodes.

    Another team of people, the traders, split themselves into desks. Power must be produced at the time it’s consumed, so they trade quarterly, monthly, daily and hourly in order to fill in each little block of required energy they think they will need. Each trade has the force of law that if you don’t deliver that energy to a certain transmission point at a certain time you can get thrown in jail. Do you want to submit your solar panels to this same legal scrutiny?

    Sustainable energy is an admirable long term goal, and I think that individuals and companies should pursue it, but start with the household level and getting independent WITHOUT massive boondoggle government subsidies and then maybe you have a market, until then smaller natural gas plants are a good choice for the modern utility industry.

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