Is it in Question?
Recently, Rod Adams had a thought-provoking discussion about the electric grid on his blog, Atomic Insights. In it, he points out the fallacies of the argument that the electric power grid is becoming obsolete. I would like to take this opportunity to reinforce many of the points he made, and perhaps add a few of my own.
There is certainly greater interest, both by homeowners and by companies, in off-grid power generation. Just today, the Wall Street Journal described the efforts of Walmart and other large chains to generate some of their own power.
Nevertheless, all the "off the grid" concepts that I have heard about or can envision are unworkable for one reason or another. They are either too unreliable, too expensive, or--if you have personal, fossil-fueled generators as backups--polluting and inconvenient.
On an individual basis, they are unreliable if they depend solely on the sun or the wind--or even on a combination of the two. They are expensive if they incorporate enough storage to bridge the sometimes lengthy periods when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing. Or, they depend instead on fossil-fueled backup sources, which in addition to being polluting, require individual homeowners to deal with maintaining and operating the generators and fuel safely.
In fact, most of the renewable energy concepts depend very heavily on the existence of a reliable electric grid in one way or another. Some of those who promote individual solar and wind systems believe that one alternative to having individual backup generators is--you guessed it--the much maligned grid.
In this view, the individual homeowner operates independently of the grid when there is sun or wind and perhaps even has the right to sell power to the grid if when there is a temporary excess. However, when their own sources are insufficient, they would expect to draw power from the grid. (If this happens on a large scale, it has potentially serious consequences for the economics of the grid, and we will have to price power use differently, perhaps with an element to reflect peak use, so that intermittent users pay their fair share of the costs of having the grid available when they need it.)
Taken to the extreme, increasing the use of renewables could actually increase the demands on the electric grid. A few years ago, I heard Amory Lovins speak at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In his address, his response to critics who question the reliability of renewables was that the sun is always shining or the wind is always blowing somewhere, so power can be moved around--you guessed it--over the grid.
This, of course, would require a far more advanced and integrated electric grid than we presently have, able to deal with rapidly changing power inputs, especially from the wind, and to be able to direct it instantaneously to where it is needed, which might be hundreds of miles away. This would be true whether the solar and wind inputs came from the roofs of individual homes or, more likely, whether they came from wind or solar farms.
The truth is that, short of returning to caves and really living on only what we can gather or grow individually, we cannot live in isolation. Even if we move into a world of more distributed power generation sources, we will inevitably need to link them together to achieve the reliable energy supply needed for a modern society to function.