It would be tough to imagine a worse month for fossil fuels than April was. Coal mines collapsed and killed miners. An oil rig sank and is still leaking. Events like these make us angry. We demand answers. We cry out for our apparent lack of progress on the energy front.
No matter what is in tomorrow's headlines, this country and the world is going to have to take a hard look at where our energy comes from, in our cars and at our light switches.
It's amazing to me how little even the most well-educated people among us think about energy. We don't think about electricity until the utility bill arrives, or when there's an outage. Many of us don't think about the true cost of our gasoline unless the car just hit "E" and we pull into a station.
But the best ideas we have for changing the way we consume energy make us ask even more questions.
For example if I buy an all-electric, plug-in car, how do I know the electricity I'm pumping into it every night is cleaner overall than filling it with gas? If I live in the Pacific Northwest or parts of Canada, much of that power comes from hydroelectric power plants. If I live in the South, it may come more from coal-fired plants, or nuclear plants.
That's not even to mention the fact that widespread use of plug-in electric vehicles would be the most demanding new technology for the utility industry since the invention of air conditioning. Even if only one in four people had one, it would still fundamentally change the supply-and-demand picture for companies that generate and transmit power.
For another example, someone told me we have to stop burning fossil fuel for electricity. We just have to. Now. But what if we shut down all of the coal plants in the country tomorrow? What is going to provide the other 50% of our electricity that doesn't come from coal?
Don't get me wrong. I'm not taking up for coal or other messy sources of energy. Coal is as foul and as dirty as it gets. But that's not all. It also produces a shit-ton of energy for our cell phones, iPods, lamps, TVs and margarita blenders. The 50 percent (or more, in some areas) of our energy mix that comes from coal is cheap and reliable. Many of the alternatives are neither.
If we have 10,000 megawatts of coal-fired power that we want to take off the grid and replace forever, it's not as simple as just building an equivalent amount of, say, solar or wind power. That solar and wind power also has to be as consistent as that coal power was, or else we wind up in the dark. This is what people mean when they refer to the "intermittancy" of wind power and solar power. While intermittancy is sometimes used to dismiss renewable energy out of hand (it should not, of course), it is a real problem.
While many are capable of producing back-up power on-sire with generators, things like factories, hospitals and schools can't go without power forever. People will eventually lose their jobs, or potentially even their lives. As convenient of a solution as it would be, we're not likely to stop being so reliant upon electricity anytime soon. In fact, we're much more likely to lean even more heavily upon it. So we have to make sure tomorrow's energy mixture is just as strong and reliable as today's -- only more clean than today's.
How can we do this? Well, investing in every form of renewable energy that we can build is an excellent idea. I say "all forms" because there are too many partisans in the energy sector. The solar people look at the wind people and say, "Wind is too variable! The wind doesn't always blow!" And the wind people retort with, "Well the sun doesn't always shine! Also, your mother's a whore!" And so forth. The biofuel, geothermal, hydropower and marine energy folks are no classier. Put them all together and you get a bar fight.
It just doesn't make sense to be an energy partisan. Every technology has its strengths as well as its shortcomings. And what makes sense for one area of the country might not make sense for another. This is one thing that makes drafting a one-size-fits-all energy policy for the entire country so difficult. Well, that, and industry pressure groups. ;-)
As if the generation side wasn't complicated enough, we also need to update the way electricity gets from the power plant to the light switch. This is the sector known as transmission and distribution. The industry has a host of new technologies that each promise to make the bulk power grid better at delivering power.
As more and more states and regions make laws and policies that attempt to get us using less electricity from our end, utilities and power producers begin to think more and more about energy efficiency. There's a lot of different ways to accomplish this goal, but it boils down to using up less stuff (coal, gas, nuclear power, whatever) so we don't have to produce as much of it. The best energy improvement of all is not using up any more than we have to, after all. Just like the best way to recycle is to not use that next plastic bottle.
To do this, utilities might offer rebates to customers who cut their usage. Or the federal government might give you a rebate for using more energy efficient appliances and air conditioning. A power company might send you free compact fluorescent bulbs as part of a program.
Or, getting away from the end-user area, a power producer could increase its own efficiency by building more transmission lines that allow them to send power with less loss. Or upgrade a unit at a natural gas-fired unit that uses less fuel. Or invest in a new controls system at an old power plant.
Again, there are a lot of ways to do this. However, the industry faces the serious problem of basically reversing the same business model is has always used. When we use more energy, they get more money. Now they're trying to convince us to use less juice? You can see where this might be a little difficult. But if they can't continue to meet our needs by building out more generation sources (whether because of money or regulatory red tape), then energy efficiency is going to have to be one of the solutions.
Our electrical grid itself hasn't changed that much since Thomas Edison invented it. Sure, it's gotten bigger. But the way it functions is definitely something old Tom would recognize. We've been doing it the same way for more than a century, and in a world where almost everything is digital now, the electric delivery system is still primarily electro-mechanical in nature. Steampunky even.
What promises to change this around is the smart grid. The smart grid is a set of technologies and applications that will change the way electricity is generated, delivered, measured and used.
A lot of smart grid stuff is theoretical, but some of it is already happening. The system will use advanced electrical meters, or smart meters, so that both you and the utility can know how exactly much power you're using, and when. Not in a Big Brother sort of way, but so you can use that information to change your energy habits, and so the utility can reward you for it with cheaper prices, rebates, etc. If you agreed to it, these meters would even shut off certain appliances in your home during the times when electricity is scarcest, and most expensive (these are called "peak" times).
The transmission side of the smart grid could use superconducting power lines that use up less power transporting it from one spot to another. On the generation side, the smart grid would be decentralized -- using electricity generated from small wind turbines, solar parks, and even stored inside utility-scale batteries.
I have to say, utility-scale energy storage systems capable of storing power on the megawatt level would be the biggest game-changer for the electricity sector imaginable right now. If you could store, say, 50 megawatts of wind power at a time when the wind was blowing hard and people didn't need the power that much, then dispatch it when the wind wasn't blowing and people were just coming home from work and cranking their A/Cs, then that's a significant breakthrough!
Basically, the smart grid would allow less energy to be lost in transit from place to place. It would integrate renewable sources of energy and use those technologies at their optimal efficiency. It would provide we the consumers with the true price tag of our energy use. It's hard to imagine anything greener.
So, when we talk about energy, it's easy to see all the problems that exist out there. But if you pry into things a little bit further, you can see there are also a lot of answers forming. It's an exciting time to be talking about energy. In an industry that has done things the same way since the invention of the light bulb, there is suddenly a sea change brought on by technology, more engaged consumers, and a changing culture.
I hope this has been helpful, and will spark some good discussion in the comments section. Please take a second to vote in the poll, and let me know if you'd like me to keep writing about electricity -- and if so, on which topics.