The latest claptrap ricocheting off the walls of the business and environmental media echo chambers is word of the inevitable decline and death of the electric grid…or not. It is more likely to succumb to neglect, along with the rest of our infrastructure, than to technological displacement by renewable technologies any time in the foreseeable future.
Nonetheless, the subject is a tug-of-war between two rival camps of idiocy. One is comprised of the fossil fuel feudalists and their various front organizations who are fighting the growth of renewables at any scale as a perceived threat to the inevitable decline of cheap and easy carbon. The other camp is a combination of visionaries and eco-huckster capitalists who believe in a Disney World (both capitalist and fantasy) future but ignore the social and economic inertia that impedes reasonable progress at best, and their wildest dreams, to be sure. The utilities themselves in varying degrees are more inclined to be on the side of the Feudalists than the Fantasy folks.
The following quote is indicative of the kind of siloed, echo-chamber consensus that propagates the illusion of inevitability:
“Utilities are afraid that solar power will be to the electrical grid what PCs were to mainframes, or e-mail to the Postal Service: a technology that will simply kill its predecessors. Coal and nuclear power are both doomed, and the profit-making power grid with it. That’s all to our benefit.”
The writer may not realize this, but personal computers have not dispatched the mainframe; they have merely augmented it. The Mainframe of yore has morphed into the server farm of now; Big Iron still lives. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be The Cloud and Big Data. And, while information is more widely distributed than in the ’70s through the internet, ironically it is every bit as centralized and concentrated as previously. Just ask your government, or Jeff Bezos, or Eric Schmidt or Mark Zuckerberg.
And email has assuredly impacted the Post Office, but it has not rendered it to the dust bin of history yet, nor is it likely to in the near future. Congress has reserved that privilege to itself. The Post Office can still evolve, adapting its network to new and evolving needs, if allowed. But the same sclerotic forces that would kill renewables are doing their best to slay the postal service and any other institutions of social and economic unification.
The electric grid is most definitely in transition, but it is by no means a ‘dead man walking’ for the next half century for three very simple reasons.
1) The technology to replace it with renewable energy is not there, will not be sufficiently developed by the end of this decade, and will take three to four decades or more to propagate to scale.
2) Much of the generation of renewables will be on industrial scale wind, wave and solar farms (the equivalent of mainframes, if you will) in places of best advantage, for transport to places of greatest need. Hence, the grid, on some scale, in some configuration, lives. And some power consumers will never have the means to deploy stand-alone renewables without augmentation from the grid.
3) The ultimate system will be a hybrid of distributed and industrial scale generation integrated in a truly intelligent grid because neither option by itself will meet a variety of circumstances than can compromise each.
The Grid is The Net, It will evolve technologically, but it is unlikely to be replaced. The fact that phone companies are seeking to dis-own their land lines as subscription declines is not the death of the telephone network; it is simply moving to wireless technology, but it is still a centrally managed and financed network.
What is disconcerting in this nonsensical rumination about the inevitable death of The Grid is that it distracts us from the real issues affecting the grid and its constituent utilities: an orderly technological, financial and regulatory transition to a differently configured and operational reality.
The notion of ‘going off the grid’ for most of us is more a fantasy than a future. For those of you with solar panels on your house, ask yourselves: if your system was wiped out by a hurricane, along with many others in your town, how quickly would you be able to replace your panels and get back to business? Alternatively, how long would it take the utility to re-string lines to your house? Aside from storms, how many office buildings are likely to meet their own needs from home-grown renewable generation any time in the intermediate term future? Can we get Metro-North to run its trains on anything but industrial grade electric generation in the intermediate term?
And finally, much as many of us would welcome the demise of coal, it is notable that a growing number of thought leaders in the climate change community are becoming resigned to the need for carbon sequestration technology, given the growing consensus that coal will be with us much longer than our fondest hopes would allow, for a variety of reasons.
Among the major concerns that the utilities and everyone else should be concerned about are:
– resurrection of the grid that is from its current state of decay due to deferred maintenance;
– armor the grid against cyber-attack or otherwise mitigate the risks of conventional sabotage;
– armor the grid against probable extremes and transitions in climate;
– create a grid that is more modular in design and thereby more scalable and adaptable to the various fluctuations in energy generation, distribution and utilization technology and patterns of usage:
– evolve a more enlightened management capable of managing a more sophisticated grid;
– evolve a more sophisticated citizenry willing to accept that this is an infrastructure that we will all depend on in varying degrees, and therefore we must all support.
The Grid is not dead or at death’s doorstep.
But we must not let it linger in agony, or its agony will be our own.