Were you one of the 100+ million fans watching the Super Bowl yesterday? How about that 34 minute power outage? It was a potent reminder of the reliance we place on an uninterruptible supply of electricity to maintain our lifestyles, our entertainment, and our economy.
I’m reading an interesting book which (slightly tongue in cheek) catalogs everything we should worry about. This is my short and quite serious list of things we should worry about with our energy infrastructure policies for electricity.
1. Energy surety. This is similar to energy autarchy – a concept and practices that ensure national self-sufficiency and independence. For some, transitioning from imported sources to domestic sources of oil and natural gas delivers energy surety. That’s a correct assumption only if we decree that domestic oil and gas cannot be exported overseas, which gets to an extremely intertwined item number two in my list of energy concerns. One of the primary objectives and benefits of the Smart Grid is the incorporation of domestic renewable sources of energy that build true energy autarchy and independence from polluting commodity fuels.
2. Economic surety. Fuels that are importable, like oil and gas, are also exportable. And guess what? These commodities go to the highest bidder – on or offshore. That’s how capitalism works. Some American manufacturers like Dow Chemical, which consumes significant quantities of electricity for their operations, are already raising concerns that American natural gas will go up in price as more infrastructure is in place to make it easier to export. Sixteen applications are sitting with the Department of Energy to build export terminals to ship natural gas to countries that don’t have free trade agreements with the USA. Promoters of unrestricted exports include companies like Exxon, one of the beneficiaries of the annual $4B in subsidies lavished on them by our current federal tax code. What odds would Las Vegas bookies put on the current low price of natural gas remaining steady? Or is it’s currently low price merely a temporary reprieve for a fuel that has shown extensive volatility over the years? Utilities aren’t betting on it as a single source of energy for electricity.
If we really want intertwined energy and economic surety, we need to seriously bulk up on energy sources for electricity that are not exportable. Sun and wind are two prime possibilities, and biomass and water – whether innovative tidal or traditional dam – are others. And in the cases of solar and wind energies, the extraction costs are relatively stable or even declining.
3. Grid brittleness. Our electrical grids, and even our grids for supplies of natural gas to power plants are extremely vulnerable to disruptions from weather as well as from cyber attack. The recent devastation wrought by superstorm Sandy is just the latest illustration that reliance on remote generation or extraction sources can play havoc on communities and regional economies. And when it comes to natural gas, our current supplies overwhelm the existing infrastructure, creating new congestion points and requiring pipeline buildouts. These undertakings are not fast nor cheap, and likely to be slowed down by legitimate concerns about pipeline safety. Building distributed energy resources (DER) that range from locally produced and consumed renewables generation, energy storage, and negawatt plays in energy efficiency and demand response can deliver resiliency as well as increased reliability into our grids to withstand and recover from natural or human-caused disruptions.
Widely and massively distributed and small scale energy resources that use or store electricity produced from domestic renewables address this short list of concerns. We have a good understanding of the range of technologies, policies, and financing that are required and will be topics of future articles.