ON THE GRID OR OFF THE GRID
Our energy should encourage small, close-to-home sources
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, February 25, 2001
WHEN THE GREAT Depression drained the nation, its people supported the building of our largest public power company – Tennessee Valley Authority’s massive 28,501-megawatt string of dams and power plants. The people traded stripped mountain sides for coal. The people embraced energy-conserving Daylight Savings Time and kept the home fires burning low – while conserving and recycling everything from paper to rags to cooking grease. Everyone worked long and hard, hoping good times would return, while producing a mountain of war-winning industrial stuff.
Today, the nation is more peopled than then, more depleted of easily dug, drilled or dammed energy sources, and more environmentally concerned, wealthy and technologically stuffed.
Today, the average home uses 1.5 kilowatts of power, the average business, 10 kilowatts. Today, we build nuclear power plants that generate a million times more juice than a single home needs. Today, many homes could generate enough power for their own needs – and that is where our energy should go.
To address the state’s energy shortage, our Get-Your-Volts Guv must return to the energy pioneers’ principles:
— Generate and co-generate locally: Thomas Edison envisioned a dispersed energy system where individual businesses generated their own power. By 1890, Edison had installed more than 1,700 small-scale electricity-generating plants.
Early in the 20th century, more than half of the electricity generated in the United States was generated by industrial facilities producing their own power, reusing waste heat and selling excess power to nearby customers.
— Technology breeds independence: By the 1920s, thanks to transformer and alternating and direct current technological breakthroughs, our nation had moved toward centralized, interconnected power traveling over long distances. Today, that system leaves once powerful California staggering. Yet, ironically, breakthroughs in photovoltaic “transformer” technology can provide us with clean, ample and independent power. Joe Sixpack’s south-facing roof can generate most of his power needs.
— Move to appropriately sized generators: Between the 1980s and 1998, the average generating capacity of a newly built U.S. power plant shrank from 600 megawatts to 21 megawatts. Gray Davis (as point man for states facing similar energy dilemmas) will be pressured to speed-build some big new power plants. However, if he follows the national trend in power-plant construction, he will allow not TVA-sized generators but small and dispersed plants, and indeed, has already allocated $30 million in incentives to get small plants online by July. Small is becoming both cost effective and beautiful.
California’s current major power sources are typical of many states (see chart at right). Davis needs to lead California, and ultimately the nation, toward energy sustainability by encouraging the use of the lightly used renewable energy resources (wind, solar, small hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass and micro-turbine generated power, which make up some 12 percent of California’s current energy mix. Doing so may also conserve blowing gigawatts of hot air between competing interest groups.
— Continuing to educate Californians about energy alternatives and conservation, even in moderately-climed California, where per capita energy use ranks us 47th among states.
— Providing and better publicizing more tax, business and research incentives to develop and use solar, wind, micro-turbine, fuel cell or other appropriate energy sources. Doing so will allow these cutting-edge energy businesses to invest more brain power and capital in developing better, cheaper products that more citizens will buy.
— Continuing to simplify the process that allows residences and businesses to sell their excess solar, wind and other micro-generated power into the utilities’ power grid.
— Innovating beyond the current subsidized energy programs for low-income residents. By partnering with businesses to fund a program that uses California Conservation Corps members in disadvantaged neighborhoods to assemble photovoltaic generating systems and/or solar water pre-heaters for residences and businesses with south-facing rooftops.
— Using his bully pulpit to drive home the advantages of a micro-energized society.
Citizens can help by practicing energy conservation and by:
— Pushing for governmental policies at local, state and federal levels that provide incentives for every home, business and new residential or commercial development to have efficient insulation, thermal pane (and open-able) windows, and to incorporate solar, microturbine, wind or other energy-generating systems.
— Involving yourself in the issue. Don’t imitate the ignorant frog who, when placed in warming water, loses the energy to jump out before he’s boiled.
— Demanding that your future is more reliant on simple, close-to-home sources of energy. This means fighting the idea that huge power plants stringing costly transformers everywhere is the best way to stay juiced.
— Investing, as a small investor, in good micropower ventures. You’ll be in good company – check out where aeronautical companies, auto companies, Bill Gates and mega power suppliers, such as Enron, who quietly recognize the future, are investing.
Tomorrow’s California should reflect tomorrow’s nation – millions of photovoltaic-covered southern rooftops; windmills sprouting on farms, prairies and passes; refrigerator-sized micro-energy generators quietly whistling in places like Silicon Valley; trains and buses fuel-cell powered and charged by photovoltaics; hydro-energy collectors capturing the energy of waves and currents surging through deep ocean caverns, such as those below the Golden Gate Bridge.
When politicians mouth let there be a thousand points of light, that people should be responsible for their own, that America does not want Big Government dictating, that creative Americans will find away, that people want the freedom to choose and that they trust the people. Tell them, “Live the words. Implement policies that make it easier to creatively, responsibly and cost effectively generate our own points of light.”
MICRO POWER SOURCES
— Wind power, with its fiberglass technologies, advanced electronics and aerodynamics, is the world’s fastest-growing energy source, increasing 24 percent annually worldwide through the 1990s. Germany currently supplies 2 percent of its own total energy needs with wind power; Denmark, 7 percent. Wind turbines are now directly competitive with new gas-fired plants in some regions of the United States, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy.
— Solar / photovoltaic power is the world’s second-fastest growing energy source. Advances in technology have made rooftop solar collectors and photovoltaic generators economical: In 1980, the world price for a watt of photovoltaic power was $22 and about 30 megawatts were shipped. By 1999, the price had dropped to $3.50 a watt and 1,200 megawatts went to market. These small systems, marketed by firms like BP Solarex, Astropower and Kyocera, typically generate two to five kilowatts each.
— Microturbines, which generate less than 10 megawatts, but can be installed in commercial and residential buildings. A number of firms are bringing microturbines to market.
— Fuel cells, electromagnetic devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water, are coming. The past decade has yielded designs that could lead to far lower costs. Thanks to a joint project of Mazda, DaimlerChrysler and the Nippon Mitsubishi Oil Co. and the Japanese government, test runs of fuel cell vehicles began this month on Japan’s roads.
Source: Dwayne Hunn
Mill Valley land development consultant Dwayne Hunn has guided solar projects through the development process and worked with Jerry Brown’s California Conservation Corps and on the People’s Lobby Clean Environment Initiative.