your power flicker or go out this past summer? Is your utility
company talking about building new power plants in the next few
years? If so, you're not alone: tens of millions of Americans,
on campus and off, face tough decisions about whether to add new
generating capacity. The projected US need for new power over
the next few years is enormous. Unfortunately, there is little
talk of an intense nationwide conservation effort to reduce the
need for new power plants. Utilities have by and large ended homeowner
and industry subsidies for conservation efforts. Mostly gone are
the days when the average citizen could get free water heater
blankets or window treatments from her utility. Instead, energy
deregulation has turned discussion to the permitting of large
"merchant plants," entrepreneurial endeavors designed
to generate and sell power to the grid at hours of peak need.1
still makes economic and environmental sense to "generate"
what Amory Lovins called "negawatts" (energy saved through
conservation measures). Conservation creates jobs, prevents pollution,
and is far cheaper than building new power plants. According to
the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency, an
investment of $1 million in an energy efficiency measures (with
a ten-year life span) can translate to an energy cost savings
of approximately $3 million, the creation of 58 job-years, and
emissions avoidance of approximately 100 tons of sulfur dioxide,
70 tons of nitrogen oxides, and 45,000 tons of carbon dioxide.
Making even relatively minor changes (e.g., replacing incandescent
bulbs with LEDs or compact fluorescents) can supplant the need
for new facilities, or allow us to transition away from coal and
nuclear power. But there will be instances where, given the booming
economy in the United States, new generating capacity is needed.
In those cases, we ought to install the small, modular, distributed
systems known as "micropower" technologies.
devices-including fuel cells, photovoltaics, miniturbines and
small windmills-can be sized to meet the power needs of the average
household (1.5 kilowatts) or business (10 kilowatts). My argument
is that institutions of higher education should be early adopters
of micropower (and should help further develop the technologies
in the process); colleges and universities should lead the rest
of society by installing micropower technologies to meet future
energy needs because they are cleaner, more reliable, and more
economical than conventional fossil fuel-fired, centralized grid
power systems. I defend this argument in the following four sections:
by describing the history of micropower; by illustrating its environmental
and reliability benefits; by demonstrating other advantages of
micropower; and through some concluding remarks.2
THE RISE, FALL AND RETURN OF MICROPOWER
Electricity generation began as micropower. Thomas Edison's first
power station, constructed in New York City in 1882, was sized
to power but a single square-mile Wall Street neighborhood, including
the offices of the New York Times and the Drexel-Morgan building.
Within a few years, coal-fired steam boilers running internal
combustion engines, and recycling their waste heat, were powering
and heating individual buildings and neighborhoods in cities across
original heyday of micropower was, however, brief. Technological,
economic and regulatory factors conspired to replace micropower
by megapower. Westinghouse's alternating current devices overtook
Edison's direct current technologies; the transformer permitted
transmission of electricity over long distances, and the turbine
bested the reciprocating engine. Crafty marketing increased the
demand for electricity that led to construction of larger centralized
power plants. Prices fell and demand grew yet further. Increasing
power demands came to be seen as an indicator of a healthy, growing
economy. Governments cemented bigger-is-better technological developments
and economic trends by assigning monopolies for the generation
and distribution of electricity.
nuclear power plants both epitomized and brought the bigger-is-better
era to a close. Nuke plants symbolized the dangers of technocracy,
big business and shortsightedness. With the entry of independent
power producers into the market following the oil crises of the
1970s, megapower could no longer hold out against the combined
onslaught of limits to efficiency, environmental opposition, overcapacity
and the economic and ecological failure of nuclear power.
stage was set for the return of micropower. Wind turbines popped
up on drafty ridges in California. "Cogeneration" (the
use of waste heat from electricity generation for heating and
additional power generation) exploded during the1980s. Small aero-derivative
natural gas turbines (in the 10-90 megawatt range) came to be
preferred over megaplants powered by dirty-burning coal. At the
same time, support grew for energy deregulation--the ordered dismantling
of the monopolistic utility behemoths. Deregulators could point
to the benefits reaped by consumers following deregulation of
the telecommunications and airline industries. As competition
returned to the electricity business, the average size of a new
power plant fell from 200 megawatts in the mid-eighties; to 100
megawatts in 1992, to 21 megawatts in 1998 (about the same size
as a plant in 1915).
AND MORE RELIABLE
Micropower technologies, systems less than 10 megawatts, come
in a variety of shapes and sizes. From superior internal combustion
engines, to gas turbines, to fuel cells, to more familiar renewable
generators, micropower systems are proliferating in diverse applications.
Homesteaders use microhydro generators in their creeks, Midwest
farmers earn extra income from windmills on their property, green
developers build houses with photovoltaic cells (PV) integrated
into the roofing tiles, fuel cell companies hope someday to power
cars, homes and even appliances with several technologies that
may ultimately generate power from hydrogen emitting only water.
Already, here in upstate New York, Plug Power, a fuel cell pioneer,
is using a washing machine-sized fuel cell to provide power to
the premier benefits of micropower is its environmental friendliness.
Micropower emits lower quantities of air pollutants: particulates,
sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, mercury and
other heavy metals, in all phases of the power generation life-cycle
from construction to installation to operation. There is no insoluble
and eternal waste problem as with nuclear power. Renewables generation
avoids the destructive mining impacts of coal, oil, and uranium.
We know that burning fossil fuels is the foremost contributor
to climate change. The sooner we move to renewable micropower
technologies, the sooner we can reduce the loading of the atmosphere
with industrial gases thus forestalling possible catastrophe.
By merely meeting demand for new power in the US using fuel cells,
renewables and microturbines, we could cut power plant carbon
emissions by fifty percent or more.
cells are nearly silent, eliminating noise pollution. Even the
current fuel cell prototypes, many using natural gas, produce
considerably fewer greenhouse gases than combustion engines. PVs
have experienced a quadruple cost decline in the past twenty years,
now making them the world's second-fastest growing energy source.
Even with the highest life-cycle emissions of noncombustion micropower
technologies (due to the energy demands for making silicon), solar
PV emissions are still far below those of combustion systems.
technologies have grown increasing reliable. The latest reciprocating
engines can run for fifty thousand hours without maintenance.
Small plants are unlikely to all fail simultaneously; when a major
plant or transmission system fails, hundreds of thousands or even
millions of people may be affected. Micropower systems have shorter
down times, are easier to repair, and are more geographically
dispersed. Micropower systems mimic the strength of biologically
diverse ecosystems; they exhibit "technological diversity."
and scientists have learned the hard way how unreliable centralized
grid power can be. Refrigeration-dependent cancer and AIDS researchers
have lost valuable experiments due to power outages. When the
power fails at a large e-commerce firm or a major bank, the losses
can run into the tens of millions of dollars per hour. Computer
networks can tolerate disruptions no longer than eight one-thousandths
of a second before crashing; utilities do not even classify this
as a "failure." The Electric Power Research Institute
estimates that distribution system failures-the cause of 95% of
power outages in the US-cost the economy upwards of $30 billion
annually. Fuel cells may provide the answer to the power needs
of the new economy; they run at 99.9999 percent availability while
reducing air emissions substantially.
BENEFITS OF MICROPOWER
Micropower's human-scale makes many of the technologies modular.
Fuel cells and PVs can be easily added and subtracted. Sized to
meet the average household's needs, 2-5 kilowatts, photovoltaic
arrays are easily multiplied to meet growing demand. Fuel cells
will likely be stackable, and are slated to shrink in size. Some
analysts foresee fuel cells replacing batteries in consumer electronics
and other applications before long.
coupled with municipal power (citizen-owned utilities), micropower
allows for local choice and control. Communities can rely on local
fuels (biomass, solar gain, wind, etc.) rather than imported fuels
(gas, oil, coal). They can have direct control over questions
of scale, technology, and rates. This spurs local economic development,
and reduces costs to consumers. In New York State, municipalities
with their own power systems have always had much cheaper rates
than the seven investor-owned utilities, often by as much as a
third. While some of the cost savings are due to greater access
to cheaper federal hydropower, municipal utilities tend to have
lower administrative costs and avoid the 15% or higher profit
margins sought by investor-owned utilities.
plants often take years to permit and construct due to their size
and complexity. Micropower technologies can be planned, sited
and constructed relatively quickly. Speedy installation avoids
building more capacity than needed, and the aging of best available
technologies before they are even operating. Small facilities
can help avoid the enormous costs of large plants and may minimize
the need for grid extension or new connections. These and other
advantages of small-scale power tend as well to avoid the community
resistance common to megaplants.
Here at Rensselaer, we are hoping to spark administrative interest
in renewable micropower. A team of students in my Fall 2000 "Environment
& Society" course is working on a plan to install a PV
array, a small windmill, and a microhydro generator (in a local
stream) on campus. This is the course we use every year to advance
new and existing campus greening initiatives. The students' idea
is to demonstrate to campus citizens that small-scale green power
is affordable, practical and feasible. Their research requires
literature searches, fieldwork (to assess the desirability of
various candidate installation sites) and regular interactions
with renewables experts and administrators.3 They
are working closely with Professor David Borton, a physicist who
teaches a solar devices course in the Department of Mechanical
Engineering, Aeronautics and Mechanics. The students intend to
design plaques to accompany the technologies to explain how the
microsystems work and why they are a smart energy choice.
The National Academy of Engineering recently identified electrification,
the spread of vast networks of electricity that power the world,
as number one on the list of the top twenty engineering triumphs
of the twentieth century. It may well be that a hundred years
hence, engineers will look back on the replacement of megapower
by micropower as a crowning achievement of the twenty-first century.
University citizens, foundations, elected officials, civil servants,
entrepreneurs, investors and many others can work together to
make this hope a reality. There are few sociotechnical shifts
with such far-ranging benefits as the move from unsustainable
energy to clean, green micropower.
deregulation has to date been anything but an unalloyed success.
While stimulating the development of micropower, it has not lowered
residential rates. Public Service Commissions can further accelerate
the installation of clean micropower systems by establishing renewable
portfolio standards. Power generators can be required to have
a small percentage of their power-that grows over time-produced
from renewable energy sources.
the guise of energy deregulation, states have allowed the electric
industry to split up into companies that own power plants and
companies that own the wires that distribute electricity. Utilities
have been able to exact a surcharge on the price of electricity
they deliver from other companies in order to recover the costs
of their failed investments (e.g., stranded costs for nuclear
plants). With an exemption from such surcharges, the playing field
might be more level for micropower generators.
are a host of other reforms and initiatives that might move us
smartly into the era of renewable micropower. The World Bank might
finally end its support for ecologically and culturally destructive
megahydropower projects in the developing world. Governments might
curtail the myriad subsidies for nonrenewable energy from oil
depletion allowances to liability limits for nuclear plants. Micropower
station permitting could be expedited. Citizens could choose the
green power option proffered by their energy services company.
Research foundations, public and private, might allocate more
funds to renewable micropower R&D. Perhaps most importantly,
university sustainability advocates might push for small-scale
green power systems on campus and off.
of university sustainability projects can help make micropower
a reality by directing their resources to demonstration and pilot
projects. When these projects prove their multifaceted worth,
even the most ecologically innocent university administrators
will chose to adopt them for economic and reliability reasons.
They will come sooner to appreciate the benefits of micropower
and be more willing to make the necessary investments if the sustainability
advocates on their campuses educate them and urge them on.
Much of the factual information about energy deregulation
in this article comes from personal communications with Mark
Much of the factual information about small-scale power in
this article comes from Seth Dunn and Christopher Flavin,
"Sizing Up Micropower" in Lester Brown, et al.,
State of the World 2000 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), and
the sources cited there.
They have found the resources available through Real Goods
very useful for the project (the Solar Living Sourcebook,
Steve Breyman is Associate Professor of Science and Technology
Studies, and Director of the Ecological Economics, Values &
Policy Program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New
York, where he is a leader of the Greening of Rensselaer initiative.
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