Blackouts Come from Dim Planning Decisions By Amory Lovins / Rocky Mountain Institute
Blackout Shines Light on Solar, Renewable Alternatives By SolarAccess.com News
Renewable Energy Stocks Rise after Largest Blackout in US History By ECON Corporate Services
September 12, 2003
Blackouts Come from Dim Planning Decisions
By Amory Lovins
CANADA (August 21, 2003) The Globe and Mail -- The usual suspects -- politicians, regulators, deregulators, utilities, and environmentalists -- were promptly rounded up when the August 14 blackout lost 61 billion watts of capacity in nine seconds. Yet the real culprit was none of the above -- just as in 1965, 1977, and other regional blackouts that I described in a 1981 report for the Pentagon, Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security.
|Soft Path Energy Visionary Amory Lovins ©Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org)|
The real cause is the overcentralized power grid. Its giant machines spin in exact synchrony across half a continent, coordinated by frail aerial arteries and continuous, precise technical controls. Usually, it works well. But every few years by mishap, or anytime by malice, it can fail catastrophically.
A fixed-wing aircraft can glide to a safe landing without engines, but without instantaneous active control and a tail rotor, a helicopter drops like a stone. The grid is more like a helicopter. Seeing this demonstrated may inspire terrorists to make it happen more often.
After previous major blackouts, more giant power plants were linked by more, longer, and heftier transmission lines. Some of these changes relieved local power shortages, but most were unhelpful. Ontario's latest power woes were prolonged because nuclear plants dislike sudden shutdowns and don't restart gracefully: They're the opposite of a plant providing power at peak times -- guaranteed unavailable when most needed.
New power lines, plus wholesale competition, have also spawned huge new long-distance power sales. That much power traveling that far can slosh around uncontrollably if a stray squirrel roils the flow and circuit breakers don't instantly open. But the unimaginably complex grid's "fault tree" of potential failure modes is growing new branches faster than we lop off old ones. The well-meaning operators are always surprised -- but if they keep building the same architecture, it will keep failing for the same basic reason.
Modernizing with fast, solid-state switches and advanced controls may help block blackouts, and often boosts existing lines' capacity. Market structures whose rules require and reward high reliability are thus essential (and missing in much of the US). But as one utility executive notes, the emerging policy consensus -- that we need to build more and bigger power lines because usage has outpaced capacity -- is as wrong as prescribing bloodletting for a patient with a high fever. It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what is amiss.
In fact, more wires may make cascading failures more likely and widespread. And they're almost always slower and costlier than three functionally equivalent alternatives: using electricity efficiently, letting customers choose to tailor their usage to price, and decentralized generation.
The cheapest, fastest way to save energy dollars and pollution is to use energy efficiently. (My household electric bill is $7 [Canadian] a month for a 372-square-metre living space, before counting my larger solar production, which I sell back to the local electricity power co-operative at the same price -- now allowed in 38 states.)
Ottawa just earmarked $1-billion for conservation (and to meet Kyoto obligations). Each saved kilowatt-hour (kwh) saves three kwh of coal at the power station. In the 1970s, Canada had world-class energy-efficiency programs; now they're unimpressive, any incentives to use energy more efficiently removed by rules that reward distributors for selling more electricity and penalize them for cutting customers' bills. Ontario has corrected this perverse incentive for gas but not electricity distributors, and doesn't let efficiency bid directly against generated electricity. This "inefficiency tax" on every home and business hurts competitiveness.
A second key option, "demand response," signals participating customers (electronically or by price) to avoid unneeded use when power is scarce. This needn't inconvenience anyone: If your electric water heater or air conditioner were off for 15 minutes, you'd never know.
Ontario lets this resource compete conveniently against supply only for big customers (and in pilot-project communities). Yet new "smart meters" now make load management profitable for homes as well as businesses -- and, like efficient use of electricity, the strategy frees up transmission capacity without building more. A few hundred megawatts of load management, as well as properly opening breakers, might have averted the blackout.
Demand response also stabilizes electricity prices and markets. If California in 2000 could have dispatched load management equaling just 1 percent of power demand, then when nutty rules led suppliers to withhold supply and boost prices, entrepreneurs could simply have shorted the power market, dispatched their load management, and taken $1 billion of the suppliers' money -- enough to deter such antisocial behaviour.
In the US, where inefficient gas-fired turbines make nearly all peak power, demand response saving just 5 percent of US peak electric load would save about 9.5 per cent of all US natural gas. That could quickly return natural gas prices from around $6 to $7 per gigajoule to just a few dollars for years to come, on both sides of the border -- and quickly. Between 1983 and 1985, the 10 million people served by Southern California Edison Company used efficiency and load management to cut the decade-ahead forecast of peak demand by 7 percent of actual load per year, at only 1 per cent of the cost of new supply. Today's technologies and delivery methods are far better.
A third option: Decentralized (also called "distributed") generation is unaffected by transmission failures. Last week in Ontario, Markham, Hamilton, and Sudbury District Energy, among others, isolated their engine-generators from the collapsing grid; they kept running. So did some New York-area industries with microturbines and homes with solar cells.
These islands of light in a sea of darkness were powered by local generators that had been installed mainly to save money, but delivered reliability, too. A megawatt generated where it's needed is far more reliable than a megawatt generated far away -- yet Ontario prices them the same, with no credit for reliability.
Throughout electricity's first century, power plants were costlier but less reliable than the grid, so ever-bigger power plants backed each other up through the grid. But new power plants are now cheaper and more reliable than the grid, so delivering reliable and affordable power now means generating it at or near the customers (see http://www.smallisprofitable.org).
Central thermal power stations stopped getting more efficient in the 1960s. They stopped getting cheaper in the 1980s, and stopped getting bought in the 1990s: Now utility orders are back to Victorian levels. Yet public policy continues to favor central plants and big transmission lines. Transmission is still centrally planned, and needn't compete fairly with its cheaper alternatives.
Our problem isn't too few power lines; it's obsolete rules, rewarding perpetuation of an inherently vulnerable grid.
Letting all options compete fairly -- whether they save or produce energy, no matter how big they are, what kind they are, or who owns them -- would gradually and profitably build a power system as resilient as the Internet. Then major failures, instead of being inevitable by design, would become impossible by design.
Physicist Amory Lovins is CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute headquartered in Snowmass, Colorado. This article appeared as the lead opinion-editorial the August 21 edition of Canada's Globe and Mail. This article uses research from RMI's managing director, Kyle Datta, former leader of US utilities practice for Booze-Allen & Hamilton, and Joel Swisher, RMI energy team leader.
Rocky Mountain Institute is a 20 year-old entrepreneurial nonprofit organization. RMI's staff shows businesses, communities, individuals, and governments how to meet their goals in ways that create more wealth and protect the environment simultaneously-often by meeting goals more efficiently. For more on our work, please visit our main website at www.rmi.org
RMI's energy experts are working nonstop to interview, consult, and write articles in response to the East Coast blackout. They have been featured in publications ranging from the Denver Post to Time magazine to CBC News. To read those stories, please visit
Blackout Shines Light on Solar, Renewable Alternatives
WASHINGTON (September 4, 2003) -- As the House Committee on Energy and Commerce begins two days of hearings on last month's massive failure of the electric grid, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is urging Congress to do more than increase grid capacity as it seeks to prevent future blackouts.
SEIA cited several key reforms that should be part of the energy bill's efforts to address the blackout, and which could be done for one-tenth of the estimated $100 billion grid fix price tag. Chief among the recommendations is to direct investments to technologies that allow businesses, homeowners and farmers to generate their own electricity, known as 'self-generation' or 'distributed generation.'
"Blackouts don't start in the middle of the night, they start in the afternoon, when everyone is using electricity at once," said Glenn Hamer, SEIA's Executive Director. "That is when solar power works best. Solar and other self-generated energy sources help on both the supply side and the transmission side. We reduce peak demand, and we also reduce grid stress, because solar bypasses the transmission system entirely, producing electricity right where it is consumed."
SEIA, the national trade organization representing solar electric and solar thermal manufacturers, component suppliers, and distributors, recommends a move towards a "smart grid" that includes time-of-day pricing. "3 a.m. power should cost less than 3 p.m. power," Hamer said.
SEIA wants to see financial incentives for homeowners, businesses and farms to deploy solar and other energy sources that provide reliable back-up and emergency power, and which provide power when energy demand peaks: a $3 per watt consumer rebate that phases out over time; or a 15 percent residential solar tax credit capped at $4,000 and a 20 percent solar investment tax credit.
SEIA also recommends the inclusion of the amendments of Representative James L. Oberstar (D-Minnesota) and Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-California), as the amendments could help government agencies keep running in the event of grid failure by allowing them to purchase solar systems.
In addition, SEIA recommends national net metering legislation so solar users can supply their excess energy to the grid.
"By all means, let's strengthen the grid," Hamer said. "But let's do it in a lasting, forward-looking way that includes a significant role for clean, self-generated power. By ensuring that just 10 percent of the funds required for grid upgrades be directed to advancing technologies that promote self-generation, like solar and fuel cells, Congress can address the blackout with a 21st century solution."
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Renewable Energy Stocks Rise after Largest Blackout in US History
ECON Corporate Services
WASHINGTON (August 15, 2003) PRWEB -- ECON Corporate Services (ECON) http://www.Investorideas.com reports investors are reacting today to the largest power blackout in US history by turning to the renewable and alternative energy sector with strong gains in key industry players. Ballard Power was up over $0.60; FuelCell Energy, Inc. spiked over $1.00 and Hydrogenics Corp. up over $0.30 to list a few. With Industry leaders including DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota, the investor community is paying close attention to the future of hydrogen and fuel cell technology.
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