All of these energy sources when employed in large-scale, centralized facilities feed into the electrical grid for distribution, and all of the rate paying customers are connected to that grid to gain access to the generated power. This is the Achilles heel of the system.
Moving electrical power through these transmission lines causes a loss of power over distance, which reduces the efficiency of the systems that generate that power at the head end. Further, the electrical grid is a construct that had its beginnings more than a century ago and has never been completely modernized, but instead has had additions cobbled onto it over the span of that century.
The grid also requires complex control systems that require a great deal of maintenance and in spite of their designed in redundancy are subject to unpredictable failure or human error resulting in the occasional catastrophe, like the 2003 black out of the northeastern United States and part of Canada. In an age of cyber warfare, the electrical grid is perhaps the largest and most tempting target for an adversary or terrorists since its built in vulnerabilities and large-scale, but not completely centralized, control systems are so easily accessed by hacking the computerized controls.
Get Rid of the Grid?
It's not likely in the near term, and possibly much longer. The electrical grid with the centralized large-scale generation of electricity has its place in providing economical distribution for extended geographical areas like municipalities and large volume and high voltage users like large manufacturing facilities or downtown high rise office buildings.
Can we reduce the vulnerabilities of the grid? I'm glad I asked, because we can, with an evolutionary solution.
The solution is to create a diffuse network of small-scale facilities, spreading out generating capacity by having individual homes or small business and industrial facilities maintain their own generating capacity on site.
The technology for this approach exists now, and most of it has existed for a long time. A combination of photovoltaic generation in combination with small, high efficiency wind turbines can provide for most needs of homes and small-scale facilities. There are also small multidirectional water turbines available where a stream with a flow of as little as four knots can be accessed.
Such democratized electrical generation can diminish many of the disadvantages posed by dependence on a distribution grid.
- First, having the generating source so close to the point of consumption eliminates much of what is lost in transmission over the grid, increasing transmission efficiency overall. It is hoped that further development of these systems will ultimately overcome the efficiencies of scale enjoyed by many of the large-scale generating systems.
- It would reduce the demand on power provided by the grid, lightening the load, and reducing or eliminating demand spikes that stress the system.