Alternative Energy and the Giant Robot
Monday, March 10, 2008 at 05:45AM
Toby Considine in Microgrids and Distributed Systems, Zero Energy Buildings

Last weekend, I was pulled into some discussions by concerned well educated individuals who wondered why alternative energies are unable to come to market. One cited studies by the well regarded Research Triangle Institute (RTI) that much more energy can be generated by solar energy. Other argued passionately for wind. Others came up with muddled theories that oil companies, with expertise in geological extraction, as well as certain classes of organic chemistry, were somehow responsible for these quite different technologies. Most of the participants shared one common fallacy—that the market as it has been is the market that we will use for new energy in the future.

The North American power grid is the world’s largest robot, and the robot does not handle unpredictability. Renewable power sources are less predictable, the robot cannot handle more than 15% renewable power sources without losing its ability to guard against unreliability. On February 26, a cold front blew through West Texas temporarily lifting wind production. When the winds dropped, turbines slowed and productivity dropped by 80% to 300 megawatts from about 1,700. TXU is now investing in “improving wind forecasting” to prevent a recurrence. Personally, I am not optimistic that wind predictions, unable to prevent billions in storm damage, will suddenly become as accurate as needed to control the robot.

The component of the power market that is most obsolete is the notion of the grid as the be all and end all. The Grid will never be able to provide you with the quality and reliability that modern electronics demands. Adding unconventional power sources will make the problems worse. Build your generation and storage locally. Expand reliability and quality to the microgrid. Buy from the grid when you must or the prices are compelling.

Soon, buildings will take responsibility for their own reliability. Buildings can accept variability that the grid cannot. Buildings have different options for manipulating energy, energy not bounded by the requirements of long term transmission. Our future energy strategies revolve around energy storage and conversion – and the national power grid will be only one part of it.

To get the energy reliability of the future, we must adopt new technologies. More importantly, we must move beyond are presumptions of how the market is put together. We must re-think the processes by which we manage the entire energy life cycle, not by bolting on renewable technologies onto the head-end of the giant broken robot that is the power grid.

Article originally appeared on New Daedalus (
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