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.
Image: Bournville Station - electricity pylon and Dave billboard, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ell-r-brown's photostream
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.