Smart Grid? Try No Grid

Imagine turning off a main road onto the quiet street of a new suburban housing neighborhood. Down the road waits tree-lined streets of energy efficient homes with their organic gardens and hybrids parked in the driveway, but no electric meter hanging on the wall. On the right you pass a building with few windows and judicious planting. Instead of a development “clubhouse” with a substandard weight room that no one uses and cabinets holding communal board games, the structure is actually an anaerobic power plant that takes the food waste of the neighborhood and turns it into the power for their homes. Throughout your trip you travel under no high tension wires. You dip under no telephone poles.

Impossible? Maybe not.

In choosing how to allocate our country’s round of stimulus cash, the President pointed to our aging utility infrastructure as a way to promote jobs towards something that needs to be refurbished and upgraded anyway—a sensible move. Around $10 billion will be directed at “Smart Grid” technology with nearly half targeting power grid innovations. While a more efficient grid may be the next logical step, what we should be pushing towards (especially in cities) are buildings that satisfy their own power loads and have no need for an omniscient grid system.

At first glance the goal may seem counter to Intercon’s focus—severing existing connections instead of highlighting and creating more—but distributed power connects back to society with numerous advantages. Aside from no longer paying a power bill, reliability of power is disconnected from the waxing and waning stress on our national grid. Regional blackouts would be a thing of the past. Towers of high tension wires currently transport large amounts of our nation’s power, but without the need for interstate energy distribution we could remove them and their respective utility right-of-ways. Tens of thousands of acres of land could be returned to its natural state or sold off to new property owners providing only more revenue for energy upgrades.

Micro Grid Diagram

A key benefit is the net increase in efficiency. Right now, the grid is a bit clunky and kind of like a leaky pipe. For many power plants, pointedly the throng of aging coal plants in the US, as much as 66% of the energy produced can be lost right out of the stack in the form of heat. An additional 7-10% is lost in transmission so collectively three quarters of the energy we produce can be lost before it even gets used. The Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park, designed by Cook+Fox Architects, proves to be perhaps the best example to date of tapping into onsite generation. A 5-megawatt, natural gas-fired cogeneration plant provides two thirds of the buildings electrical demand and is expected to reach 77% efficiency (zero transmission.) This building may become the model for large, urban towers.

This is a well known shot from Richard Box, but it always merits being shown again. Lights lit with no wires, only radiation of power.

This is a well known shot from Richard Box, but it always merits being shown again. Lights lit with no wires, only radiation of power. Leaky pipe indeed.

A number of technologies are striving to attack the goal of small-scale power production. New solar companies trying to make photo-voltaics more affordable and efficient are popping up every month. Clarian is developing a consumer grade, vertical-axis wind turbine dubbed “The Jellyfish” claiming it will be able to generate up to 40 kWh per month and cost less than $400. Another budding possibility is anaerobic power that targets the decomposition of food and animal waste in oxygen-deprived chambers. As organisms break down the organic matter methane gas is created and can be burned to produce power—some landfills and farms have begun to tap into this process for excess power generation. Fuel cells are another promising innovation like those produced by FuelCell Energy Inc. that can continue their trek towards affordability.

So what are the barriers to a decentralized energy economy? Beyond cost effiectiveness, in the end  we still need to surmount the important factors of reliability (a consistent baseload of power) and dispatchability (the ability to quickly respond to fluctuations in demand.) All of these techonology options are still only at the levels of reliability to serve as supplemental sources of energy. Unfortunately, coal power has a very high rate of dispatchability which adds to its popularity with energy providers. Conversely, on their own solar PVs are not dispatchable but are “must-run” systems (we can’t control sunlight in relation to demand.) While these things may make an immediate transition to fully distributed power impossible, the best way to reach this goal is continuing to fund research into these clean-tech power ventures to facilitate system advancement as well as make every effort to lower our regular power consumption.

Photo Credit: Richard Box