Power Plus: When There is No Grid

2 09 2012

Previously: I reintroduced this series, and presented my core thesis.

In this installment, I will spend a few moments talking about “the grid” and why we don’t necessarily have to think in “grid” terms when considering energy options for the future.

A common fallacy about “the grid” is that it is necessary to distribute electricity in real-time because, to quote some, “you can’t store electricity”. My retort: Hmm, tell that to my car. Or my camera. Or my guitar tuner.

The benefit of a grid-style distribution system is that massive amounts of electricity can be generated (such as from a power plant) and sent out to a given area that may or may not require massive amounts of electricity. In my case, I live in a modest 2-bedroom apartment and theoretically could turn on every single electric device that I own (or is native to the apartment such as the light fixtures) and not cause a blackout. Yes, my bill will rise or lower accordingly based on use, but suffice it to say that the only energy that I need to expend to run all of these devices is the effort required to flip on a light switch or to stick a plug into an outlet.

But what if you’re “off the grid”? It doesn’t require much effort to do so. Simply step outdoors. Unless you’re plugged in to a power source, any electric devices that you wish to operate require electricity that has to come from somewhere. Usually, when we’re mobile, that means batteries.

What if you want to travel somewhere without walking? Again, options are available, but the energy has to come from somewhere. Pedaling a bike means that you’re providing the energy, but in turn something has to provide you with the energy to pedal, such as food.

When we stick a plug into an outlet, the electricity has to come from somewhere too. In the USA, the top 3 energy sources are coal, nuclear power, and natural gas. I don’t say this to be insulting to one’s intelligence, but the fact is that we have to constantly come up with these energy sources to meet demand. Aggregate demand, in the case of a grid-based network.

But here’s the thing: What if my personal electricity requirement is, mmm, 100 watts? What if I solely need to power my alarm clock and a reading lamp? For food I’ll just go out to eat every day, thus no fridge or stove. Do we need to dig up tons of coal just in case I get the urge to plug in a radio for some music? Perhaps. Or, I could find a way to generate the electricity that I need, for what I need it for.

Does this sound like hippie-dippie fantasy? Maybe. But cities and towns across the USA are already doing this.

Next time: How cities and towns across the USA generate electricity where it is consumed.




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