Saturday, January 28, 2017

It's time to move beyond the fossil fuel era

Electricity: The 21st century solution is here

by Leigh Pomeroy
Mankato Free Press, Saturday, January 28, 2017

Leigh Pomeroy is a member of the executive board of the Region Nine Renewable Energy Task Force.

On these cold winter days, I realize how blessed we are to have electricity … and how dependent we are upon it. Without electricity, we would have no heat and no hot water. Our refrigerators would cease to function. Many of us would have no stoves. All of us would lack TV, phone and internet.

How would we survive?

Obviously, earlier Minnesotans did. Otherwise, most of us wouldn’t be here!

When I taught on the campus of Minnesota State University, I would sometimes challenge my students: Imagine yourselves in this location, exactly where you are sitting, 200 or 300 years ago. What would life be like? Obviously, there would be no classroom, but what would there be? Certainly, there’d be no electricity.

Our current electricity distribution system is based on a model of few sources — mostly large coal, nuclear and natural gas plants with some hydropower — and many users — homes, businesses, industries, etc. On the other hand, the internet, for example, is set up based on a model of many sources and many users.

Those brilliant minds who designed the internet created a system called packet switching. A bit of information sent by one computer can take many different paths to its destination, depending upon what route is available. If one path isn’t available, the information will take another path.

The few-sources, many-users model offers fewer path options, thus leaving the electrical grid vulnerable to interruption due to weather, earthquake, terrorist attack or even something ordinary, even mundane. Witness the major blackout of the East Coast grid in 2013, which was triggered when an overheated powerline sagged into a tree. A software error led to a cascading effect, resulting in 50 million people in eight states and the Province of Ontario losing power for up to four days.

Today we have the option of creating a many-sources, many-user model of electricity generation and distribution using all the above, plus wind, solar, geothermal and other renewables. In 2013, the Region Nine Development Commission completed an energy study that showed that south central Minnesota could produce all the energy it needs principally with wind and biomass (ethanol and biodiesel).

Since then, the promise of biomass has waned in this part of Minnesota because of technical and cost challenges, but so much biomass is used in Sweden, for example, that the country is completely fossil fuel-free except for transportation fuels.

In place of biomass, solar has become the new go-to source of energy as costs of photovoltaic cells and other solar technologies have plummeted.

We installed solar panels on our house this year, and our electricity cost has fallen to $8 per month. We figure that the panels will pay for themselves within four years. Compare this to the cost of a 30-year mortgage.

At this point Region Nine is considering updating its energy study to include our solar potential in the region. If so, I am confident the results will show that southcentral Minnesota could be a net energy producer.

Consider this: Little or no local dollars going to outside energy sources. All energy related jobs staying within our own area. Our own localized smart grid of many-sources, many-users as our primary energy source with the national grid as the backup should our grid suffer from a weather-related event.

And just the same, our grid would be able to provide backup to other grids when they face similar outages.

Large power plants will probably be with us for a while, with coal-fired plants slowly being phased out in favor of natural gas and large wind and solar arrays. Few large nuclear facilities will be built due to their high costs and environmental and safety challenges. But there is the promise of smaller, scalable nuclear plants using safer fuels that don’t present the same waste issues that current plants do.

But the real innovation will be more smart microgrids providing locally produced and consumed energy along with a highly interconnected and equally smart mega-grid as a backup, all using solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and other environmentally safe and increasingly less expensive modes of electricity production. Then, as battery technology continues to improve, our ability to store energy will make us less vulnerable to the requirement of having to produce instant-on peak power.

From the days of Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla and other electricity pioneers of the 20th century, the growth of the few-sources, many-users model has served us well. And many in the new U.S. administration and Congress want to keep this model going. But intuitively we all know that 20th century solutions to 21st century problems won’t work.

If anything, the world has looked to the United States to be a leader in scientific and technological innovation. We cannot disappoint them and ourselves. It’s time to make the change to 21st century fuel sources and electrical power distribution systems. The technology is there. The costs are right. It only requires the political commitment from our local, state and federal governments.

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