Friday, April 11, 2014

The future of electricity: More like the internet, less like cable tv.


We're still in the cable tv era of electricity. It's centrally produced and wired up to our homes and businesses. It is very hard to imagine modern life without it.
There are lots of incentives for energy companies to maintain the status quo. The disruptive peer to peer model of energy production and consumption threatens their business model.
We use a lot of energy, most of it in buildings and as transportation fuels. No one solution is going to fix it all, but transitioning to sources of energy without ongoing input costs will provide stability for future prices, while reducing the carbon burden on the atmosphere.
As far as fossil fuels are concerned, the scarce resource isn't the fossil fuels. We've proven resourceful at continuing to find ever more remote sources of fossil fuel. 
The scarce resource for all carbon-based fuels is in the ability of the atmosphere and the ocean to absorb the CO2.
The solution is, of course, multifaceted. Structural reduction in energy use is an essential step. Green sources of energy is the obvious part, but coupled with a storage and exchange system that rewards green generation and allows people to profit from participating.
Use less energy. Remembering to turn out the lights is a part of this, but it's really at the tail end. Instead, renovate cities and buildings so that the whole system uses much less energy. Existing buildings can be renovated to use less energy and serve new purposes. These retrofits are often a great deal financially and environmentally, because those costs for the structure has already been paid.
Harnessing a broad mix of renewable energy options is the next step.
Wind power can produce lots of power on appropriate sites. The bigger the turbines the better the energy return on investment is. Financially, the wind will always be free, which makes predicting financial return much easier than guessing at the future price of natural gas or coal.
The same goes for solar photovoltaics. Of course solar and wind need to produce enough energy to pay for their creation, but once that's done, they're carbon free sources of energy.
Solar thermal is a great, often overlooked, source of energy savings. The sun can heat up your domestic water.
Storage and the smart grid are key elements of this transition. Storage can be boring like a rack of batteries or interesting like a Tesla electric car set up to sell its battery power to the grid when you can make money doing so.

That's where the data connections and the software come into play. Software can place a value on a watt of power anywhere in the system. Location matters. Your house could be configured to charge your car with the sun, and when the price of energy is cheap, then sell it back to the grid around supper time when the spot price goes up. If this sounds greek to you, don't worry. Once the pieces are in place, the neighbour kid will set you up.

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