We should comprehensively restructure our electrical system. Today, we use centralized electrical production then distribute it nation-wide. This is inefficient resulting in power loss and increased costs.

Thomas Casten and Brennan Downes make a case to decentralize electrical system.

I think this should be a major reform, on par with Eisenhower’s construction of the interstate highway system. As it stands now, the US electrical system is not cost-effective, it is environmentally destructive, and it is vulnerable to attack. The proposed decentralized system would reduce power costs 40 percent and cut carbon dioxide emissions by half.

Caston and Downes describe the current centralized system, and why it worked better with older technology.

Electricity was originally generated at remote hydroelectric dams or by burning coal in the city centers, delivering electricity to nearby buildings and recycling the waste heat to make steam to heat the same buildings. Rural houses had no access to power. Over time, coal plants grew in size, facing pressure to locate far from population because of their pollution. Transmission wires carried the electricity many miles to users with a 10 to 15 percent loss, a difficult but tolerable situation. Because it is not practical to transmit waste heat over long distances, the heat was vented. There was no good technology available for clean, local generation, so the wasted heat was a tradeoff for cleaner air in the cities. Eventually a huge grid was developed and the power industry built all-new generation in remote areas, far from users. All plants were specially designed and built on site, creating economies of scale. It cost less per unit of generation to build large plants than to build smaller plants. These conditions prevailed from 1910 through 1960, and everyone in the power industry and government came to assume that remote, central generation was optimal, that it would deliver power at the lowest cost versus other alternatives.

The centralized system has two problems. First, it loses power duing transmission and could not recycle heat. Second, there is a growing failure rate as electrical demand continues to rise. There were 105 failures between 2000 and 2003, including the major Northeast blackout. The outages shut down businesses causing even greater economic losses.

That’s quite a lot of power being lost and the costs add up. And to meet demand, even more coal has to be burned, which raises CO2 emissions.

In addition, I want to point out that a centralized electrical system is extremely vulnerable to system attacks. I suggested that the US can virtually be shut down by a series of attacks on its electrical system. Electrical power disrupted at critical hubs causes a cascade failures across the economy. Electrical systems are a common target in warzones for a reason.

New technologies provide an opportunity to change the system:

By 1970, mass-produced engines and turbines cost less per unit of capacity than large plants, and the emissions have been steadily reduced. These smaller engines and gas turbines are good neighbors, and can be located next to users in the middle of population centers. Furthermore, the previously wasted heat can be recycled from these decentralized generation plants to displace boiler fuel and essentially cut the fuel for electric generation in half, compared to remote or central generation of the same power.

We can use more local power plants and better tranmission lines to provide electric on demand across the country. A decentralized system will produce electricity on demand and near the consumer. Transmission lines will be much shorter and will reduce heat loss, inefficiency, and failure rates. This also allows heat recycling near the power plant.

In the US and EU, we are looking at shifting power production to pebble bed nuclear reactors, solar power, and small-scale fossil fuel plants. The chief benefits will be cost savings and reduced environmental impact.

In Africa and other parts of the world, we can build a decentralized network of very cheap coal power plants. Attempts to install centralized electrical production with transmission and distribution in Africa failed. There was too much corruption and lack of security for a centralized grid to work. That’s why Africa remains Blacked out.

There will be greater pressure on electrical systems in the US, so we should consider comprehensive reforms.

There are ongoing experiments with decentralized energy in Canada and the UK.

Here are some more advocacy sites: an essay by David Morris at the TomPaine site, and Greenergy.

How can we reform the system? Politically, I think this is a good opportunity for bipartisan reform. But who knows, really.

This could occur incrementally. New decentralized production plants come online and supplement existing central electrical systems. Gradually the load would be redistributed to the decentralized network. Since its incremental, we can experiment on a regional or state level and fix mistakes before converting the whole system. This isn’t an all or nothing reform.

I imagine this would require some amount of government intervention in the initial stages just to force the transition. Currently, there are no market incentives because centralized producers have virtual monopolies. As power is decentralized, markets will play a bigger role.

The government can offer cash prize incentives for new technologies, especially for potentially viable local generators like solar power.

But enough advocacy. I think we should look at the economic merits and demerits of the plan.

Advertisements