Obama: It's time to invest in our electric grid


No, it’s really not. It’s time to invest in personal, distributed solar and let the grid rot.

I’m worried the power utilities are going to figure out how to get bought out by the public just about the same time they go obsolete.

The “innovative technologies” being touted are a lot of transmission solutions to what is essentially a distribution problem. There’s a huge difference. Want to really solve outages? Let utilities prune trees. In every storm (snow, ice, hurricane), it’s the trees that bring down the lines. And when utilities try to prune trees, or set their wires high so they’re less vulnerable, the outrage never ends.

I’m afraid that, while personal solar would help, it wouldn’t be the complete solution. Here in Seattle, we’d need to augment with other sources of energy. Personally, I’d like to see thorium pebble-bed reactors approved for neighborhood use (something like this)…

Charge we can believe in.

How exactly do you plan to distribute that energy? Door-to-door electron salesmen?

(getting foot in door): Madame, please allow me to show you my joules.

It’s pretty easy to distribute that energy from the roof to your batteries, and then the rest of the house.

Dense downtowns and heavy industry will probably still need to be fed power for some time. But as the ROI of solar panels continues to improve compared to other investments, I expect there is a tipping point some 5 to 15 years from now where it will just take over light to medium density areas over the course of a summer or two.

When half your neighbors have solar and are neutral on their energy bills, the fixed costs of that grid have to be shared by those who haven’t bought in yet – making solar an ever more attractive option as more and more of your neighbors have it.

If this prognostication proves correct, we need to see the current paradigm of long distance power distribution as an increasingly niche product in a future where your neighborhoods of single family houses, duplexes, malls and corner stores won’t have any need of it.

Distributed solar and other small-scale renewable sources are great as long as you have a reliable grid in place to distribute the power. “The Grid” doesn’t just mean “large-scale power plants,” it means all the wires and transformers and substations and whatnot to make sure that everyone has steady access to energy even in adverse conditions (i.e. if your neighborhood hasn’t been especially sunny this week).

We’ll probably never live in a world where every household and business produces exactly the amount of electricity it needs at all times, which is why “letting the grid rot” is a horrible, terrible idea unless you want all your neighbors to buy portable generators.

I’ve stated my expectation, given current trends in the costs and efficiencies of solar and batteries, that the need for distributed power becomes increasingly niche as we look forward in time. I’ll avoid words like “every” and “never”, and I could be miscalibrated in timing or extent, so feel free to make your case. Why, in say 20 years, with the advancement in solar and battery technology we can expect by then, would anyone with generous enough roofline care to buy a generator instead?

Solar is great but I think you vastly overestimate its ability to make it possible for the majority of people to live without a reliable grid. In my neighborhood several people have solar, but few if any get all their energy that way. Sometimes it’s dark, sometimes it’s cloudy, and a whole lot of the time there’s just a lot more demand than small-scale panels can supply.

If anything a modernized grid would make small-scale production more appealing because it would bring efficiencies and incentives that “every home for themselves” can’t match. If you’re away from home then your solar panels could be providing energy for your neighbors instead of sitting idle. If your area is dark you could be getting extra energy from a nearby wind-powered generator. Everybody wins.

Solar and wind power both have four common pitfalls: production is unreliable, power can’t easily be stored, distribution is a pain, and all of those make the job of reliable distribution slightly harder. The last issue is one of least obvious and important.

Power lines are not just conductors. They’re conductors lying side by side for miles and miles, which makes them pretty significant capacitors. To get transmission going on a newly-connected cable, you have to “charge the line” and overcome it’s natural capacitance, so switching connections in and out is not trivial. They also are significant inductors. Any change in current is resisted, so sudden changes in current would be impossible if we didn’t do some sort of power matching. The idea of power matching is that you can design a system so that at exactly one frequency the impedance from capacitance and inductance cancel out. This is why all power is at a constant frequency (60 Hz in the U.S., 50 Hz most other places).

Most power is produced by some sort of turbine, which means that to keep power at exactly 60 Hz (say), you have large pieces of machinery rotating at a multiple of 60 cycles per second. You can’t just shut these down and spin these up at will. Any time you increase the load or lighten the load, you have to either disconnect turbines (which means waste from connecting them again later), or sink significant amounts of power into speeding or slowing them to keep power at your matched frequency. The fact that this works even remotely well is amazing. The fact that we do it reliably and precisely even more so. (It is so precise, in fact, that most wall clocks used to just rely on the 60 Hz cycle of power for timekeeping.) This is also why the Obama administration proposed lightening the rules on frequency accuracy in a recent pilot program: transmission efficiency would drop, but the savings from not having to juggle around turbine speeds might make up for it.

So now we get to heart of the problem: the physics of distribution is not tolerant of change. More than anything, the grid needs a steady, constant demand. Introducing irregular sources of power and sudden drops in demand can put just as much strain on the system as sudden spikes in demand. And the prohibitive capacity/size of capacitors and inefficiency of batteries means that all but a negligible amount of power must be consumed as it’s produced.

Right now, they try to use fuel sources that have long lag times (coal, hydropower) all the time, and sources that require less lag (natural gas) to help ease the transition between peaks. They’re also trying to sculpt demand, which is basically all a “smart” thermostat does when it refuses to turn on the AC at peak hours. That’s about as smart as we’ve gotten on a large scale. In general, production cannot change until distribution changes. Distriubtion cannot change until storage changes. Storage cannot change until we solve hard (perhaps intractably hard) problems in physics and chemistry.


I advocate the Wigner/Weinberg Thorium Molten
Salt Breeder Reactor Technology as the path to
resolve our energy issues, as Dr James Hansen
does. Funding is within the utility bills for storage
of spent fuel and reduction of Nuclear weapons
would more than pay for the R&D and deployment.

There are several companies that have valid suggestions
but one of the best is the coal2nuclear.com site. These
reactors are of the small modular design allowing them
to be sited at the LWR, or coal turbines local exploiting
the existing grid. There is the 550 billion ton CO2 legacy
which demands sequestration.

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