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Published on July 7th, 2011 | by John Farrell

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We Don’t Need More Electricity, Just Cleaner Electricity

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July 7th, 2011 by
 

Originally published at mpr.org

The United States doesn’t need another nuclear or coal power plant. Instead, it’s time to abandon our 20th century electricity system, dominated by large, centralized utilities, for a 21st century electricity system: a network of independently owned and widely dispersed renewable energy producers.

The 20th century electricity grid was mostly a tale of “bigger is better.” Utilities built ever-larger fossil fuel and nuclear power plants in pursuit of the cheapest possible electricity. For a 20th century society, it worked. But the paradigm has changed.

Since the year 2007, national electricity consumption has leveled off. In many states, it has declined. Coupled with new state policies to promote energy efficiency, it’s possible to halt the growth in electricity use.

We don’t need more electricity. We need cleaner electricity.

Wind and solar power are providing that clean energy. Over the past five years, wind power has made up an average of 35 percent of new power generation in the United States, 60 percent in 2009 alone. In Germany, citizens are putting enough solar on rooftops to replace a nuclear power plant every year.

Clean energy can power the grid, but only if it can connect to the grid. For years, utilities have had a “grid-lock,” a near-monopoly on getting new power onto the grid. When it came to legacy power plants, the grid-lock was unimportant because few folks other than the utilities could handle the cost and complexity of building and supplying big coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants. But unlike coal or gas, wind and solar power projects can be sized to the community, making them easier to finance, build and connect to the local grid. The community-sizing — democratizing — of energy also means more local economic benefits, especially when the community can actually own the wind turbine or solar panels.

This kind of renewable energy development — also called “distributed generation” — is good for communities, but also for the electric grid. Having many smaller power plants makes the grid more resilient than having a few large ones.

For example, 1,000 community-scale solar plants (each able to power about 100 homes, or about 500 kilowatts) dispersed across the region could have prevented the massive Northeast blackout of 2003, saving the economy $6 billion. Solar also helps utilities during so-called “peak demand,” pouring out sun-provided electricity at times when hot weather (and lots of air conditioners) put stress on the grid. Wind power’s higher nighttime production will provide the perfect match for fueling up our cars as we switch to driving on electricity instead of imported oil.

Despite the litany of benefits to the economy and electrical grid, utilities have used their grid-lock to restrict the ability of new wind and solar projects to plug into the grid. Antiquated rules make it hard for wind and solar projects to evaluate their chances to connect and to get loans to finance projects. Long applications and wait times string them along. For example, as many as 97 percent of renewable energy projects trying to get a contract and grid connection under California’s renewable energy law fail to do so, stranding millions of dollars in development costs.

The 20th century paradigm of large, centralized power plants and utilities is dead, but utility companies are still trying to maintain their grid-lock. It’s time to break that hold. Renewable energy is available everywhere, and can be cost-effectively harnessed in our communities with enormous benefits to the electric grid and local economies.

You can read more about the 21st century electricity paradigm in Democratizing the Electricity System, recently released by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

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About the Author

directs the Democratic Energy program at ILSR and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. His seminal paper, Democratizing the Electricity System, describes how to blast the roadblocks to distributed renewable energy generation, and how such small-scale renewable energy projects are the key to the biggest strides in renewable energy development.   Farrell also authored the landmark report Energy Self-Reliant States, which serves as the definitive energy atlas for the United States, detailing the state-by-state renewable electricity generation potential. Farrell regularly provides discussion and analysis of distributed renewable energy policy on his blog, Energy Self-Reliant States (energyselfreliantstates.org), and articles are regularly syndicated on Grist and Renewable Energy World.   John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at jfarrell@ilsr.org.



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  • Ben Edelbrock

    Good points around the need for clean energy! The future of solar and wind will come through new emerging technologies around each. These advancements in efficiency and cost will be the required changes to rationalize the business case for large installations of both. The business case must be there for the utility to move forward with enabling technologies and facilitate a true distributed generation. Feel free to read my blog http://www.infosysblogs.com/smart-utilities Ben Edelbrock Infosys

  • Wesley Foster

    Amplified electricity does not pollute, only the fuel powered motor does on the generator.
    Amplify the voltage, then split voltage in half, put one half through a resister to convert it to ampherage, reconnect to cause voltage to multiply ampherage to make power go up. Amplified voltage equal to Ampherage multiplies to a very high number of watts, P=IE when the voltage (E) and ampherage (I) are equal. Electricity

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