Decentralizing Electricity Production

by Howard J. Brown on April 19, 2011

Smart Grid by DOE

In the coming years, electricity generation, like many forms of manufacturing, will be more and more decentralized, moving closer to users and even making most users into producers.  Every building and house will become both a supplier as well as user of electricity.  This is the way technology is developing and is consistent with the way nature distributes energy around the earth.  It is the obvious future of electricity.

In 1983, I edited a book called Decentralizing Electricity Production, which grew from a conference I organized on the subject at Wesleyan University.  Contributors including Amory Lovins, physicist Bent Sorenson, economist David Huettner, and renewable resource consultant Lisa Frantzis collectively addressed why and how decentralizing a power grid would work.  They demonstrated that changing the grid from a one-way distributor of central power to a multi-directional absorber and distributor of power would improve overall grid performance and allow for the effective use of alternative sources.  This kind of grid, which you can think of as more of an organic model than what we have currently, would constantly adjust to changing conditions, supply, and demand.  The underlying thesis of the book was that having a large number of smaller producers was much more advantageous than having a small number of large producers.  The benefits of re-conceptualizing the grid this way are many:

  • Fewer line losses.  Nearly two thirds of the fuel energy used by power plants is lost before it gets to the end user.  Moving generation closer to users (and making more users into producers) would reduce the amount of energy lost in transmission.  Indeed, Sorenson’s analysis showed that as users become renewable energy producers, transmission losses would decline significantly, saving energy and reducing fuel mass.
  • Less financial capital (and mass capital) required for back-up reserves. When there are a small number of large plants supplying a region, the amount of back-up capacity has to be large.  When a plant goes down, there needs to be an equivalent amount of reserve plant capacity available to make up for the loss.  But with more points of generation incorporated into the grid, the likelihood of large scale failure declines.  It is less likely, for example, that 30 percent of 3,000 small systems will go down at the same time than it is that 30 percent of three large systems will go down simultaneously.  So, as the number of generators increases, the grid requires a smaller proportion of reserve capacity (backup systems not in use at any given time).  In addition, it is now easier to precisely match supply and demand with a larger number of small producers using new nano sensor technology.
  • Increased reliability and decreased risk of failure.  Diversity and decentralization improve stability.  A large-scale failure is less likely due to a greater diversity of energy sources (wind, sun, hydro, gas, etc.) and a larger geographic distribution of those sources.  Using a mix of different renewables and traditional fuels together in a grid reduces risk because the sun might be shining when the wind isn’t blowing and vice versa.  In addition, the sun may be shining in one part of a regional grid when not in another.
  • Economies of scale. As the number of smaller systems increases, the economies of scale shift from a small number of huge energy generation plants to the mass production of smaller plants.  A more robust maintenance and repair industry that creates employment and other local economy benefits will also result.  In addition, many renewable technologies work well in distributed applications at smaller scales that are not practical for large companies to operate.

When we wrote the book, there were few small-scale energy generation technologies available and none were cost-competitive.  There were certainly no sophisticated sensors and information technologies that we now know can literally allow an electrical grid to diagnose, learn, and regulate itself.  And there was certainly no talk about a smart grid.  That’s all changing now.  The technologies that will enable decentralized electricity generation look different from the technology we’re accustomed to.  There are small systems that can deliver more power from their mass than large-scale generators.  These technologies will allow electricity generation to happen almost anywhere.  Entire building surfaces will become small-scale solar electric generators.  Biofuel from algae can be grown in decentralized systems.  In wind power, the number of large-scale, three-rotor wind turbine farms will level off as a new generation of innovative, smaller-scale technologies become available and are incorporated into the evolving smart energy grid.  More wind systems will be integrated with building designs that can actually amplify wind.  After all, buildings create as well as change wind currents.  Innovative designs for turbines using building-influenced wind are much more effective at harnessing available wind, using lower wind speeds, taking advantage of rapidly changing wind directions, and are cheaper and quieter than large systems.

We are already seeing thousands of businesses across the US and around the world installing wind and solar systems as a hedge against increasingly volatile fuel prices and uncertain supplies.  As more and more products and services are being transformed using biomimicry (copying the way living systems solve problems), it’s time to apply biomimetic thinking on a large scale, such as designing electric grids that mimic the way organisms regulate themselves to deal with constantly changing conditions and needs.



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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim Wessels May 16, 2011 at 4:49 am

Of course the chance of any of this happening in our lifetime is very unlikely. We are in a long term declining economy that will generate little to no growth due to the irreversible decline in global net energy. So-called alternative energy sources should be viewed as “fossil fuel extenders” as the EROEI of most alternatives is so low that they can only with subsidies from fossil energy sources.

“Stoneleigh” of The Automatic Earth wrote what I think was one of the best blog postings about our “alternative energy future” and why it will not happen in our lifetime. Here is the url to her writing on this subject.

http://tinyurl.com/kwavju

One more thing… We should really stop lying to ourselves that “energy independence” is possible if only enough “political will” and “financial capital” was invested in alternative energy. The lie of “energy independence” was first mouthed by President Nixon and continues to be mouthed by the current President Obama. The fact is we are broke and so deeply in debt that the amount of credit expansion it would take to continue economic growth and the repayment of debt will not be forthcoming. Industrial civilization has peaked in oil production, which means it will be physically impossible to continue economic growth. And since economic growth has been the solution to all of our social problems, we are going to find ourselves on the brink of major social instability as our standard of living falls. We will be lucky if we don’t find ourselves waging a nuclear war to kill off our competitors for the remaining energy and mineral resources on the planet.

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Kristin Aldred Cheek May 18, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Hi Tim,

Thanks for reading and commenting. For more on our perspective regarding the dilemma we face and the need for new, positive strategies, you can read “Why dMASS?” here http://www.dmass.net/index.php/why-dmass/ and this related post: http://www.dmass.net/index.php/2010/08/10/dmass-a-21st-century-strategy-for-sustainability/

You might also find pieces on energy storage (http://www.dmass.net/index.php/2011/04/29/energy-storage-the-latest-dmass-newsletter/) and energy harvesting (http://www.dmass.net/index.php/2010/11/09/thinking-bigger-is-better/) interesting.

– Kristin

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Tim Wessels June 3, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Hi Kristin,

I’ve known Howard Brown for a long time and I spent most of the 1970s working for Buckminster Fuller, so the theory and practice of “design science” is familiar to me. I think at the time Bucky “designed” an electricity transmission grid that would connect each of the continents. Why? Well, Bucky was smart enough to see that material resources were scarce in a geologic sense and cost money, but could be re-cycled (minus entropic losses) if energy was essentially free to drive the cycle. I think his whole notion of “ephermeralization” was predicated on energy not costing anything or at least being “too cheap to meter.” Bucky seemed unacquainted with the concept of net energy, which was developed in the early 1970s by systems ecologist H.T. Odum in his book “Environment, Power and Society published in 1971. Nor was he acquainted with the ground-breaking work of economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen whose magnum opus “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process” was published in 1972. If you take the work of Odum and Georgescu-Roegen and couple it with the work of the Systems Dynamics group at MIT (Meadows, et al) who created the computer model that resulted in “The Limits to Growth” study (1972) you have pretty much all you need to know about how the future would likely play out for industrial civilization over the next 75 years. To that I would add a good dose of evolutionary psychology to explain why we do what we do and an understanding of “capital” because capitalism has been the dominant mode of social power for well over a century.

Bucky was uniquely insightful in many ways and I believe his investigations into “nature’s coordinate geometry” will remain valuable and a source of inspiration to others. However, I don’t think the world problematique will yield to “solutions” that nibble at the margins of our our moral and ecological problems. Unfortunately, time is short and we are in more trouble than we can possibly imagine.

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Howard J. Brown June 20, 2011 at 11:21 am

Tim, thank you for your thoughtful comments. It is interesting to me that I can agree with so many of your observations and insights, but not necessarily with the conclusions you draw from them. For example, you point out that our dependence on fossil fuels is so pervasive that even alternative energy technologies can be seen as “fossil fuel extenders.” I agree with you, if we keep doing everything else the same way. I also agree that the time available to make needed changes is limited. There is no way that alternatives can simply replace fossil fuels while we keep on doing things the same way as in the past.

Yet I do think that there is a development pathway out of our predicament. It is a design revolution, one that has already begun. Its success is not a fait accompli. But it holds the potential to drastically reduce the amount of fuels and material resources needed to support each human being. Groundbreaking technologies being developed around the world right now can reduce the resources needed to produce wellbeing for billions of people on a sustainable basis without big factories, blast furnaces, mining, or waste and pollution.

I used to tell my students that if you try, you might not succeed. But if you don’t try, you definitely won’t succeed. That’s the pragmatic alternative to both complacency and despair.

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wind turbine failure June 24, 2011 at 12:30 am

Colleges will play a huge role in our future energy endeavors as a country. It’s very important that our universities contine to train students for a greener future

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Tim Wessels June 25, 2011 at 5:01 am

Howard,

I don’t think there is enough time left to alter the collapse of industrial civilization. Conventional oil production peaked (2005) and we’ve been moving along on a production plateau for the past 5 years. At the same time world demand for oil has outstripped the ability to produce oil. And the decline in net oil exports from from oil exporting countries will soon deliver a crushing blow to oil importing countries, like the United States. See the work of geologist Jeffrey Brown on his Export Land Model.

A “business as usual” approach will result in World War III and a tremendous die-off in the human population. Human population overshoot is the “800 pound gorilla” that cannot be spoken about in public. It is a politically and culturally taboo subject.

The only chance we have to avoid World War III and a massive human population die-off is to replace capitalism and dismantle the fantastically wasteful market system. We need another “planned” system to distribute necessary goods and services to people without destroying the planet for profit. As Karl Polanyi observed…laissez-faire was planned; planning was not.

Our current financial crisis is really a political crisis. We are no longer governed by a moral elite working for the common good. We are governed by an elite controlled by corporations and banks for private profit. Our only hope is to replace the capitalist corporate government with a people democracy government. It would likely take having millions of people on the streets of Washington, D.C. for weeks in order to do this.

I think choosing a “Technocracy” style government imbued with the principles of “design science” could provide us with a comfortable standard of living while we “wind down” the size of the human population. Only a fraction of the current population would need to be “gainfully” employed in order to provide the necessary goods and services for everyone. Think about working one out of every three or four years. Our genetic drive for status-seeking would be re-directed toward culture, art, social service, environmental restoration but not towards making money. Governance would be informed by scientists (design scientists) and not by economists, lobbyists or religious figures.

I remember Bucky once explaining that only the best design scientists would be on the “production team” for planet Earth. Yeah, there could be something like an expanded “Buckminster Fuller Challenge” to find the best and most promising design scientists in the world.

I’ll grant you that there is a very slim chance that we could find a way to avoid collapse and die-off but corporate capitalism must be ended and the market system must be dismantled and replaced with a new system for distributing goods and services to people. And we get a government that governs for the common good and not for private gain at the expense of the planet and everyone else.

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renewable energy world September 10, 2011 at 5:35 am

very good post, i actually love this website, carry on it

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