The energy infrastructure of the United States is aging. Since the beginning of the 1900’s and Edison’s light bulb delivering reliable power has been a major industry. One researcher estimated the economic impact of Edison’s inventions had a current value of $19 billion.
The power utility industry generates power and delivers it for hundreds of millions of consumers around the country. And they do a really good job. We have electric power 24/7 barring unusual circumstances. The industry has reduced the cost of power delivery to 11 cents per kilowatt hour or less in many states. Quite a deal.
The power utility industry provides complex and expensive resources to produce peak power when needed. Like hot July afternoons. The rest of the time the system has to be managed in such a way that only the amount of power needed is being generated. Therein lies the problem.
Energy consumption is not predictable, so excess capacity is always available. And we have concocted a complex network and control system for moving power where it’s needed. It’s called the Grid. The Grid is a network of relays and control systems that controls the flow of power throughout the US.
The problem with alternative energy sources is that they are intermittent. Wind power only generates power when the wind is blowing. Most often at night when demand is low. Solar power only generates power when the sun is out. Clouds can slow solar power generation significantly as well. So it’s hard to integrate the alternative power solutions with the existing Grid without some kind of storage to buffer the power availability.
Generally, that means batteries. Or flywheel storage. More stuff, very expensive.
Solar power works well to supplement the grid during the summer when air conditioning loads kick in. There have been numerous studies showing the correlation. Not that we couldn’t figure that one out.
The question is; is it cost effective? Even with all the cost reductions over last 2 years, solar is still not cheaper than the mix of sources provided by the utility. And if the solar resource is used for peak demand, is that really cost effective?
The crises for the US power infrastructure is that demand for power is increasing, slowly, and conventional power plants are aging out and will have to shut down. Not a good recipe for the future. The last thing anyone needs is rolling blackouts.
There is a lot of talk about re-engineering the Grid. What we don’t need is to re-engineer it and have it come out the same as it is today. Grid 2.0 will certainly incorporate a lot of high speed communications and monitoring. But what we need to do is decide how we are moving forward as a society on power generation first. If we choose a mix of low cost, high reliability clean sources like nuclear power and natural gas fired powerplants, what are the implications for the Grid?
More next week.