!! History Commons Alert, Exciting News

February 7, 2013: Expert: Difficult for Utility Companies to Modernize

Solar expert David Roberts, a columnist for the online magazine Grist, writes that like most modern industrial systems, the traditional electricity generating utility is extraordinarily “over-engineered,” which he defines as “built to be prepared for maximum demand even though maximum demand is, by definition, rare.” Over-engineering is not necessarily a bad thing; for example, an SUV can be considered “over-engineered” until it becomes involved in a collision, when its capability of protecting its passengers comes into play. The electricity system is also over-engineered, Roberts says, mostly because there is no simple way to store electricity. Demand for electricity must be met by generated electricity; it cannot be stored. “That imposes a certain logic on the system,” he writes. “There must always be enough power generation capacity available to handle the maximum possible demand (what’s called ‘peak load’). The result is that most of our power plants, like most of our cars, spend most of their time parked, idled. They are there for those few minutes of the day when everyone gets home from work and turns on the TV.” Because of the “real-time” nature of the electrical grid, it is susceptible to blackouts. On occasion, less responsive grids are prone to cascade failures, leading to hundreds of thousands of customers being without power. In contrast, Roberts writes, the data grid operating the Internet is “fault-tolerant,” with built-in responsive features to handle blockages, slowdowns, and errors. The Internet uses buffering to increase the durability of the system and reduce the need for overcapacity, and has the capability to isolate and route around faults and failures. Electricity systems generally have neither. These capacities can be built into modern electrical grids, and the costs of such upgrades is declining. But most utility companies do not install such upgrades. Why not? Because, he writes, “the oversight system governing the utilities does not provide incentive for upgrades. These costs must be shared directly with the ratepayer and public service commissions have been reluctant to approve such measures.” Public utility commissions (PUCs) are obliged by law to have utilities provide power at the lowest cost to the consumer, and as a result there is no incentive for utilities to spend more money than necessary upgrading and improving their systems. “There is no way build a new power system while also providing lowest-cost electricity from moment to moment,” he writes. “It’s impossible. The legal and regulatory system is practically built to prevent long-term systemic change.” As the energy production and transmission systems of the United States transform themselves into a 21st-century model, systems will need to be redesigned. Roberts concludes: “We could be doing that with our electrical system. We would be doing it already if we had open, competitive markets for electricity services. Instead we have quasi-public quasi-monopolies practically mandated by law to stick with what they know and nibble around the edges. Until that legal and regulatory system changes, we’ll be stuck with the dumb, over-engineered, wasteful system we have today.” [Grist Magazine, 2/7/2013]

Entity Tags: David Roberts

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

Ordering 

Time period


Email Updates

Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database

 
Donate

Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
Donate Now

Volunteer

If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.
Contact Us

Creative Commons License Except where otherwise noted, the textual content of each timeline is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike