A Greater Grid

(c)JC Shepard 2009

(c)JC Shepard 2009

Renewable Energy is causing some interesting movement in industry and environmental coalitions.   On the one hand, environmentalism has been mostly focused on conservation in the last 100 years—standing atop history and yelling STOP!  Oh, wait, that’s Conservatism, not to be confused with Conservation (dripping irony here, if I’ve used the term correctly, but that’s all a topic for another blog entirely….)  Anyway, where environmentalism has been a protective enterprise (Save this! Save that!), the rise of global warming and climate change theories has led many folks into supporting renewable energy as well as reducing energy use.

Renewable energy is generally understood to encompass energy sources which are derived from natural resources rather than fossil fuels:  Wind energy conversion systems.  Solar power cells.  Geothermal extraction from the ground. Ethanol and bio-diesel fuels from corn, soybeans and other annual and woody crops.

These are all good things in general.  It’s the details of how these things get done where general agreements break down.  Governing magazine this month captures two aspects of this break down and resulting policy debates between and within the energy generation and environmentalist communities, in a special report titled “A Greater Grid”.

The first article, “Desert Storm“, describes the pull and push for solar, wind and geothermal energy projects in the cities and wildlands of Southern California.  It is a case similar to other areas where people struggle to balance conservation of special places and landscapes with the desire to change how we produce energy.

What’s unfolding in Southern California is a fundamental debate about what the “green grid” should look like—or whether it should be built at all. Similar discussions are unfolding all across the country, especially in the 26 states that have set ambitious goals for increasing the share of energy that comes from renewable sources. So far, there has been more argument than compromise. L.A.’s DWP is in its third year of trying to find a politically acceptable route for Green Path North. San Diego Gas & Electric has run into similar opposition to its proposed “Sunrise Powerlink” line, which would connect proposed desert solar installations with its customers on the Pacific Coast.

It’s not always clear that the ‘Green Grid’ solution creates more problems than it solves.  Reliable, redundant systems are a worthy goal, but is the price of renewable energy worth the cost of turning natural areas into industrial landscapes?  Is the coal mine any less destructive to the mountain than covering the desert floor with solar panels?  I don’t know.

The second article, “Get Smart“, is a great summary of the Smart Grid idea to modernize the national electrical transmission system:

For all of technology’s recent advances, the electricity business has escaped the sort of radical disruption that has revolutionized telecommunications and other industries. After Thomas Edison built the first central generating station to serve New York City 120 years ago, the electric-power industry evolved in a patchwork style. By the 1960s, separate utility grids had been linked into regional networks of high-voltage transmission lines, transformers, substations, and the local distribution lines that carry power down rural roads and underneath city streets. It’s an old but durable infrastructure: Utilities continue to operate the grid with electromechanical switches and other clunky instruments that date to the mid-1900s. “It’s still an analog industry,” says Matt Baker, a public utility commissioner in Colorado. “Edison could walk into a control room and he’d recognize almost all of the equipment. He invented a lot of it.”

The idea behind the smart grid is not necessarily to re-wire America with a new electric infrastructure. It’s to take what we have and retrofit it to work in new ways. For example, the old grid operated in one direction, delivering power from giant plants to homes or businesses. The smart grid would work in two directions. Consumers could generate their own power—from rooftop solar panels, for example—and put the surplus back on the grid for others to use. Indeed, a big goal of the smart grid is to accommodate both the promise and fickleness of using renewable energy on a mass scale. When clouds block sunshine from solar plants or breezes quit spinning wind-turbine blades, utilities could shut off consumers’ appliances or draw on power stored in electric-vehicle batteries. That would save the expense of firing up oil and natural gas generating stations that power companies may need only a few days a year.

I don’t usually pay too close attention to most free-to-the-industry magazines, taking them as general trend mongers more than serious journalism.  (Kinda like blogs, now that I think about it.)  However, now and then I’ve found some good stuff in Governing magazine, like an article last winter on social networking in the workplace.  There’s a lot of really smart people working on these issues, and it can be a bit difficult to find information that’s been translated from engineer-ese.  These two articles cleared a bit of that mumbo-jumbo in my mind.

Sometimes you get what you pay for from the media.  Sometimes, tho, you find the needle in the haystack.


(Note: I’m not sure if Governing.com website will keep the article url consistent when the current issue moves to past issues.  If you notice the link down let me know!)


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