Decentralized Energy Helps Prevent Terrorism
The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (known as “FERC”) – the agency in charge of electricity in the country – just released a major report showing that terrorists could plunge the entire U.S. into darkness if they took out just 9 of the country’s 55,000 electrical generating substations on a hot day.
The dystopian, post-electricity world of NBC’s sci-fi show Revolution may be a less fictional possibility than you thought, according to the results of a major federal study on vulnerability in the electricity grid reported Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, the risk of a terrorist attack on a substation is not merely hypothetical:
In last April’s attack at PG&E Corp.’s Metcalf substation, gunmen shot 17 large transformers over 19 minutes before fleeing in advance of police. The state grid operator was able to avoid any blackouts.
The Metcalf substation sits near a freeway outside San Jose, Calif. Some experts worry that substations farther from cities could face longer attacks because of their distance from police. Many sites aren’t staffed and are protected by little more than chain-link fences and cameras.
Grist points out:
If the agency had chosen to cooperate with the Journal‘s reporter, it could have told her about the former chair’s formula for protecting America from an epic blackout: install lots of solar panels, all over the place. “A more distributed system is much more resilient,” then-FERC chair Jon Wellinghoff said during an energy summit last April.
In other words, if power generation and transmission is decentralized, then terrorists won’t be able to so easily take down the entire country’s electrical system. Perhaps they could take down a neighborhood or a county’s power grid, but not the whole country’s.
Likewise, if terrorists attack a huge nuclear plant, they could destroy a large geographic area. But if they attack a neighborhood-size micro-nuclear plant (see details below), they couldn’t cause nearly as much damage.
The U.S. Wastes More Energy Than it Uses … Largely Because of the Centralization of Power
While most people debate whether nuclear, coal, oil, gas, solar, wind or hydroelectric are the best form of energy, the real debate is centralized versus decentralized power generation.
As shown by the following graphic from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the U.S. wastes a lot more energy than it uses:
America uses 39.97 quads of energy, while it wastes 54.64 quads (i.e. “rejected energy”).
As CNET noted in 2007:
Sixty-two percent of the energy consumed in America today is lost through transmission and general inefficiency. In other words, it doesn’t go toward running your car or keeping your lights on.
Put another way:
- We waste 650% more energy than all of our nuclear power plants produce
- We waste 280% more energy than we produce by coal
- We waste 150% more energy than we generate with other petroleum products
According to the DOE, California lost 6.8% of the total amount of electricity used in the state in 2008 through transmission line inefficiencies and losses.
The National Academies Press notes:
By the time energy is delivered to us in a usable form, it has typically undergone several conversions. Every time energy changes forms, some portion is “lost.” It doesn’t disappear, of course. In nature, energy is always conserved. That is, there is exactly as much of it around after something happens as there was before. But with each change, some amount of the original energy turns into forms we don’t want or can’t use, typically as so-called waste heat that is so diffuse it can’t be captured.
Reducing the amount lost – also known as increasing efficiency – is as important to our energy future as finding new sources because gigantic amounts of energy are lost every minute of every day in conversions. Electricity is a good example. By the time the energy content of electric power reaches the end user, it has taken many forms. Most commonly, the process begins when coal is burned in a power station. The chemical energy stored in the coal is liberated in combustion, generating heat that is used to produce steam. The steam turns a turbine, and that mechanical energy is used to turn a generator to produce the electricity.
In the process, the original energy has taken on a series of four different identities and experienced four conversion losses. A typical coal-fired electrical plant might be 38% efficient, so a little more than one-third of the chemical energy content of the fuel is ultimately converted to usable electricity. In other words, as much as 62% of the original energy fails to find its way to the electrical grid. Once electricity leaves the plant, further losses occur during delivery. Finally, it reaches an incandescent lightbulb where it heats a thin wire filament until the metal glows, wasting still more energy as heat. The resulting light contains only about 2% of the energy content of the coal used to produce it. Swap that bulb for a compact fluorescent and the efficiency rises to around 5% – better, but still a small fraction of the original.
Example of energy lost during conversion and transmission. Imagine that the coal needed to illuminate an incandescent light bulb contains 100 units of energy when it enters the power plant. Only two units of that energy eventually light the bulb. The remaining 98 units are lost along the way, primarily as heat.
How do we increase energy efficiency and reduce loss?
There are many ways. But one of the most important is decentralizing power generation and transmission.
As the Rocky Mountain Institute writes:
Often the cheapest, and most reliable, distributed power is the power produced at or near the customer. Distributed energy — often called micropower – refers to a variety of small, self-contained energy sources located near the final point of energy consumption.This is in contrast to a more traditional system, where power is generated by a remotely-located, large-scale plant and electricity is sent down power lines to the consumer — often over vast distances.
RMI’s extensive research (culminating in “Small is Profitable,” the Economist’s 2002 Book of Year) on distributed energy resources found that properly considering the economic benefits of ‘distributed’ (decentralized) electrical resources typically raises their value by improving system planning, construction, operation and service quality.
Centralized electricity systems with giant power plants are becoming obsolete. In their place are emerging “distributed resources” — smaller, decentralized electricity supply sources (including efficiency) that are cheaper, cleaner, less risky, more flexible, and quicker to deploy.
Electricity production at or near the point of use can greatly improve efficiency and reduce the costs and energy losses associated with the national grid while increasing security and reliability.
Decentralized Energy Helps Protect Our Health … and the Environment
Fukushima – which is getting worse and worse, and whose radioactive plume is starting to hit the West Coast of North America – was allowed to happen because of ulterior energy and war-fighting reasons.
There will be more giant nuclear accidents unless we change course.
Micro or distributed power (also called “micro generation”) can take the form of local solar, wind power, hydro, geothermal … or even making alcohol out of stale donuts to run your car. (See this book and this website for more information on using alcohol as fuel.)
Decentralized Energy Helps the Economy
A Nobel prize winning economist – Ed Prescott – has said that the main problem is too much centralization.
Too much interconnectivity – i.e. not enough diversity – also destabilizes systems.
Decentralizing power – and having a diversity of ways in which people generate power locally – will make electrical system and our economy healthier and more stable.
Decentralized Energy Helps Prevent Tyranny
Fascism is the centralization of power (the word fascism comes from the “fascia”, a bundle of sticks wrapped around an axe, with the sticks representing the people all held together by the axe — the leader).
Decentralization is the opposite of fascism.
Using alcohol as an example (but locally-generated wind, solar or hydro power would be similar) there would be no invasions of other countries to steal their booze. Since alcohol is so low-tech and easy to make, everyone can make their own fuel.
And anyone who doesn’t want to go to the time to make their own can just buy it from a local alcohol fuel farm or cooperative. When enough people learn that alcohol can run cars and other machinery cheaper and better than gas, alcohol production will spread everywhere, the price will drop even further, and it will be easy to buy in your own hometown.
Again, alcohol is just an example … but the same holds true with other local sources of energy. There would be much less concentration of power – and mischief – if we decentralized energy production, transmission and storage.