Thursday, November 1, 2012

Let there be light

It’s raining, It’s Pouring. This old man was snoring.  I was fortunate that the Superstorm Sandy had nary an impact on me – other than a deluge while walking the dogs.  (That happened in St. Paul too, but that soaking came with a sound and light show.)  Sandy’s devastation has been significant – and the most telling impact is in how people prepared.  Some got water, prepped food, put out sand bags, etc.  Others, like me, went to great efforts to make sure that the laptop, the phone and the Kindle were charged.  I even have a hand crank gizmo that I can wind up to generate a charge for a device.
Approx. 8.2 million households went dark during the height of the storm – and huge numbers of people won’t see power return for days or even weeks.  Hollywood has kept us entertained over the years imagining a world without electricity. Reality is the scariest storyline of all.
The U.S. electric grid is described as a “complex matrix of transmission and distribution lines.”  The U.S. Energy Administration actually has a simple map:  there are 10 geographic grid distributors.  It’s rather unnerving how simple it would be to disable connectivity for the country – a handful of incidents and the U.S. is plunged into another age.  Everything we do is reliant on electricity – not just our devices and obvious things like lights – but pumping gas, flushing toilets and doing laundry.  That Americans are so reliant on a centralized source for power is counterintuitive to the idea of rugged individualism.
Having a centralized power grid allows for certain efficiencies, but also contains dangers as well.  In September 2011 5+ million in the Southwest were without power due to an equipment issue.  In India this July half the country went dark.  Disabling the handful of nexus points in the U.S. system would be debilitating.
What would a private grid of networks look like?  It would localize the power consumption and generation so that if something happened in one state, dozens of other states wouldn’t be affected.  It would add a huge amount of available power for purchase – the ultimate way to further reduce cost since it’s the essence of a free market economy.  It’d be cumbersome and prone to problems.  Regulation would have to be streamlined, but not eliminated.  Democracy is messy and so would having an electric grid that reflected it.  The plus is that there would be more power and it would be cheaper. 
Fixing the electric grid is a national security issue.  Imagine what California would be like if then Governor Gray and his successor Arnold Schwarzenegger had put the huge amounts of capital (political and economic) into solar instead of building additional power stations in the state after the Enron fiasco.  It doesn’t make sense for government to fund the building of private power stations – since that decision had already been made and it was going to expend that money anyway – what would the Golden state be like today if millions of people had received rebates to put solar on their houses? There’d be hundreds of thousands of power generating plants – even giving back to the grid.  When the next natural disaster occurred the entire region wouldn’t be impacted.

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