Blackouts and independence

We expected to write about some of the interesting presentations at the Illinois Renewable Energy Fair. However, the recent large scale blackout is of such significance that we decided to address it now.

Blackouts are to be expected. They happened before and they will happen again. Since the 1980s, our federal government has enacted rules that encourage shipping electricity ever greater distances. Increasing the interdependence of electrical service throughout the country enhances the opportunity for even larger scale failures.

Our first major blackout in 1965 affected 30 million people in the Northeast. A major ice storm in the 1990s brought an abrupt collapse of electrical service in the same area. People in parts of Ontario went months before electrical service was restored. The most recent blackout crashed electrical service for 50 million customers.

The California outages of a few years ago resulted from market manipulations by energy suppliers gaming the system. Power plants were shut down and phantom orders threatened to overpower connecting grids in an effort to drive up energy prices. The ultimate cost to California citizens probably approached $100 billion.

While the origins of the latest large-scale blackout are not firmly established, the solution being offered is essentially doing more of the same—build more fossil fuel-powered plants and modernize the electrical grid.

Another approach that could be implemented on the local level would enhance energy security. The most effective, fastest, and least costly way to enhance local electrical energy security is by building small, decentralized power systems in local communities. Increasing local electrical production decreases the need to ship power around the country. The less the need to ship electricity, the less likely the grid will be overwhelmed during times of peak power. If the grid collapses for any reason, independent power sources will be available to relieve some of the stress of not having electrical service.

One model for a more decentralized approach to power production comes from the computer industry. Years ago, the dominant computer service was a large centralized mainframe system. When personal computers entered the marketplace, they were viewed with bemusement and a sense of certainty that they would never be a major market factor. By investing in small local power production, a local community could find itself on the breaking edge of a major transformation in electrical generation.

There are many options today to enhance local energy security. Using less energy and making more efficient use of the energy we do use could save $300 billion a year. An electrical generating station only converts about one-third of the energy it uses to produce electricity, with the other two-thirds released as waste heat. A district heating plant could both produce electricity and use the waste heat to heat nearby buildings. A gas fired turbine could produce electricity and capture waste heat for use in a building, using up to 90 percent of the available energy.

We never tire of reminding people that an independent grocery store in Soldiers Grove, Wisc., has yet to turn on its gas furnace in more than 20 years of operation. By having high levels of insulation—R72 in the ceilling and R36 in the walls—and capturing heat from the sun and refrigeration compressors, the building meets all its heating energy needs. It is possible to build very energy-efficient homes as Mary and Keith Blackmore have done near Forreston. They reached insulation levels similar to the store in Wisconsin and burn only a small amount of wood to heat their home.

Through efficiency, co-generation, district heating, solar electricity, wind generation and fuel cells, local communities could become less dependent on distant decision-makers for electrical service. Individual homes, neighborhoods, schools, museums, park districts and government buildings could all develop a measure of energy independence with local electrical generation. Some could even be off the grid as John Berton of Chicago has done. Others could remain grid connected but have a battery backup system for when grid service is interrupted. Others might be grid tied and forego the independence of battery backup. Such an arrangement is less costly but still relieves pressure on the grid by supplementing local power needs.

Decentralized, or distributed power is not likely to displace the electric grid. But it does have benefits for the community. For example, by law, hospitals are required to have backup electrical power generating capacity and keep it in top running condition.

An increasing number of businesses that rely on high-tech information processing services are installing their own power systems. They view independent power as a worthwhile investment, since a few hours of power loss could result in major economic losses.

Many options for home and local power generation are readily available today. Others will require the political will to change the regulatory rules that lock us into very inefficient energy practices. Some technologies are in the early stages of development. One fascinating source of local power generation could be the myriad of vehicles already generating the electricity needed to power vehicle lighting, sound, heating and air conditioning systems. With a few modifications, hybrid electric cars could be plugged into outlets while people are at work, generating electricity to help lessen the need for grid-delivered electricity.

One fear is that the most recent blackout will be used to justify federal energy legislation that will dramatically increase our reliance on the vast interconnecting grid. Recent pronouncements have called for a $100 billion federal investment in upgrading it. Of course, the consumer or taxpayer will pay the bill.

Since ever-expanding grids widen the scope and implications of a grid failure, we must question the wisdom of increasing our reliance and vulnerability. While the possibility of the blackout coming from terrorist action was quickly ruled out, al Qaida claimed responsibility for it. With the energy bills stalled in Congress, the timing of the latest blackout gives one pause as well. It has often been said that what happens in California is a forerunner of what will happen in the rest of the country.

The efficiency and renewable option is a local opportunity to increase energy independence, provide local jobs, and strengthen the local economy. It is there waiting, available to individuals and the community. All we need do is seize the opportunity.

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