Friday, October 10, 2014

The Future of Electricity

I probably wrote too much on this subject in Facebook, so I'm moving my thoughts here. What started this discussion was a Popular Science story on how all those solar panels people put up to reduce strain on "the grid" actually aren't as helpful as they could be. My friend Angela referred me to a somewhat longer piece by the New York Times on the same subject. Here follows my response, with a couple extra links/comments:

Okay, so I went back and read the NYT piece. I don't know how various systems ARE handling electrical power, but here's my slightly more-informed take on the issue:
1) A useful electrical grid should be focused on demand, not efficiency, even if that
means redundancy. The general public is concerned with two primary issues when it comes to electricity: price and availability. I could be wrong, but my guess is that we're willing to pay slightly more for 100% availability.
2) The grid also should provide overlapping/surge capabilities to meet demand as required (e.g., regular business hours, the hottest part of summer days so people don't die of heatstroke, or during the coldest part of a winter night up north when temps drop to Antarctic levels).
3) Future solar panels can be built/added to the west sides of people's roofs/yards. If the government is serious about maintaining/improving electrical power during peak loads, they can offer incentives to help people pay to move their solar panels.
4) Another useful thing that could be done with roofs
(for addressing climate change) is to paint them white or reflectively to increase the amount of sunlight being reflected into space instead of being absorbed by the ground.
5) If individuals have the wherewithal to provide themselves with electrical power through solar, generators, etc., they should be allowed to opt out of the grid. If there's a major disaster, such as a hurricane, the individual would have an equal or better chance of having power.
6) Consistent-output power systems (nuclear, natural gas, coal), should continue to provide base-load power. Solar and wind are just too fickle to depend upon for base power. The sun might be shining just brilliantly or the wind blowing like crazy during a peak-load time--in which case everyone wins. If there's a peak load and a cloudy, windless day or night, all those solar panels don't matter much.
7) Capacitor technologies are improving, as are other energy storage technologies (e.g. flywheels). If those can be made to harness the energy collected by solar/wind as generated and dispensed as needed, I can see a better system evolving--one that keeps environmentalists reasonably happy while continuing to allow our high-tech civilization to function and prosper.

My $.04.

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