History is full of teachable moments to inspire us. I was intrigued by the history of the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), the Regional Transmission Organization (RTO) that was formally established in 2004 and “ensures reliable supplies of power, adequate transmission infrastructure, and competitive wholesale prices of electricity.” (Definition derived from the Smart Grid Dictionary.)
The informal history goes well beyond that. The SPP came into existence on December 14, 1941 when 11 regional utilities agreed to pool power to deliver 120,000 kW of reliable electricity to Jones Mill – an aluminum plant co-located next to the largest bauxite mine in the nation back then. Aluminum was needed to build planes for the war effort. War was declared on December 7, 1941. It took just seven days, in an age before the Internet, computers, faxes and cell phones for eleven utilities to overcome all technical, regulatory, and organizational issues to make a handshake deal to guarantee the power to the mill. It’s easy to recognize the motivators for this admirable accomplishment – necessity, national security, resource scarcity, and patriotism. The origin of the Southwest Power Pool eloquently illustrates what Americans can do when we are motivated to action.
Smart Grid technologies can help integrate utility-scale and small-scale renewable sources of electricity generation and dramatically reduce our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels for power generation and transportation. Face it, fossil fuels are not renewable and they are definitely not clean – or cheap. The BP deep water oil spill is merely the latest, and most dramatic evidence that our economy and society go to ever greater risks to obtain a fluid that is ever more difficult (and environmentally costly) to extract.
Tar sands are a great example of insanely complicated and expensive oil extraction. The oil-imbued sands must be mined, and then the oil is separated and upgraded to produce oil fit to send to a refinery. It takes several barrels of water just to produce one barrel of oil, and not all of that water can be recycled. Where does the unrecyclable (ie thoroughly polluted) water reside? In toxic containment ponds that kill birds that land in them.
Even on land, oil obeys the “spill, baby, spill” rule, as the recent Red Butte Creek spill in Utah sadly illustrates. Another ecosystem damaged – another inconvenient externality that is not factored into the price of petroleum.
So what about natural gas? Increasing evidence shows that hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” of the earth to obtain natural gas also has devastating environmental results. Fracking uses vast amounts of water and chemicals similar to Drano in toxicity to extract natural gas. In Pennsylvania and New York, reliable and long established household wells are now pouring out flammable water. Yes, you read that right. Water that you can light on fire.
The Smart Grid enables the integration of domestically-produced clean and renewable sources of energy that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels through electrification of our cars and public transportation systems. Smart Grid technologies also help us consumers to intelligently manage and reduce our consumption of electricity and therefore retire aging generation plants that use dirty fuels. Ramping up domestic renewables to integrate into the Smart Grid is a war effort, and the motivators are the same as cited in the example above – we need to confront the resource realities of fossil fuels and do it out of necessity. We need to recognize that domestic renewable energy sources in the Smart Grid provide the right economic and national security foundations to ensure American prosperity.