Thursday, April 10, 2014
Potential energy future
There are some really promising developments in the field of alternative energy. In some markets, solar and wind are more competitive than fossil fuels.
The price of installing alternative energy is often times higher than the cost of the equipment. That tells me that those who can do it themselves can reap huge savings. How much of the job one is allowed to do depends on local and state laws. Even so, there are often work arounds, even in highly regulated areas. The problems are no longer technical but political -and politics can change.
Big energy companies have a business model that hasn't changed much in decades. It's a highly centralized system with tight controls. Picture a big power plant with power lines radiating out away from it. That makes sense where power is generated in huge plants or by massive hydro dams.
Alternative energy is diversified. For example, the sun shines everywhere. It makes more sense to generate power near where it's going to be used. No high power lines required.
When utilities dabble with alternative energy, they are still trying to do it within the centralized model. They put up massive wind farms and acres of solar electric panels. Then the power is transported across the grid.
Unfortunately, it's the grid itself that makes less and less sense. Transmission losses are huge. Utilities claim “smart grids” are more efficient and will be the solution. It's like putting lipstick on a pig. It looks a bit better, but it's still a pig. Making something that's inherently inefficient slightly less bad just doesn't cut it. Transmission costs are huge, so eliminating long lines is the way to go. Besides, the world has better things to do with all that aluminum and copper.
It's entirely possible that the economics of it will force changes. First to go will be the rural customers. Does it really make sense to run miles of power line for a handful of customers? Of course it doesn't, and if it wasn't for governmental intervention, rural areas would never have been electrified. It doesn't make business sense.
As bad as the numbers are now, just wait until more and more people disconnect from the grid and make their own power. The power lines will be just as long and expensive to maintain, but fewer people will be connected and paying into that system. Utilities know this and want to pass laws that protect their business. To me, it looks like back when the ice business fought and successfully delayed refrigeration. They can't compete openly, so they use their political power instead.
I can imagine a time when power companies retreat back to the cities, where denser populations can be served with shorter transmission distances and less power loss. Localized grids would also make sense from site specific power sources: hydro dams, tidal power, geothermal power, and some wind locations. Moving heavy power users like factories and computer servers near those concentrated power sources would be the logical thing to do.
For most people, for normal power needs, generating one's own power will be the only logical choice.