Creative planning needed as the move ‘off grid’ accelerates

Shades of Green GreenShades
by David Lagerman

The picture for renewable energy production is changing here, and in Wisconsin generally, (although our formerly “progressive” state is now lagging behind its neighbors in this, as in other things.)

In my rural Sheboygan County neighborhood, close by, there are three households that I know of with solar electric panels.

Nearby are dairy farmers Dan and Jackie Kraemer with their huge wind turbine.

Converting sunshine into electricity is getting cheaper much more rapidly than was forecast. The trend toward “distributed generation” is accelerating to the point where the electric utilities are beginning to see this as a problem.

Utilities have fixed costs, to build and maintain the infrastructure; the wires, the transformers, the controls, on and on. They pay for all this by selling electricity.

What happens when they are selling less, and also buying from us “home generators” our excess juice? They then see less revenue, and yet they are obliged to keep the system up and running, essential for everybody.

Now utilities are agitating for changes in the rate structure, an increase in the fixed charge to us every month, to keep them in the black. That’s not unjust, although there is the matter of the potential overreach, as in WE Energies intent to charge the Milwaukee Sewer district a huge increase. (The district is making a lot of its own electricity, generated from biowaste.)The District manager claims WE has not been able to demonstrate the need for a change of the magnitude they intend to impose.

A long-term result of the trends could be more people abandoning the utilities completely.

The Rocky Mountain Institute , in a piece titled “Distributed Defectors,” said that there could be more and more departures from the grid, leading to a “utility death spiral,” as utility power becomes more expensive and therefore even less competitive with homegenerated juice.

An industry CEO is quoted as saying that the death spiral is not in anyone’s interests, really. It’s bad for society as a whole.The situation calls for understanding.

This should not be an “us against them” kind of thing.

What is needed is to evolve a system that includes utility power, takes advantage of the harmonizing potential in distributed generation, and is fair to everybody.

Regulation will need to be visionary and so will utility policy and behavior, to find the best way through this time of transition, which may run for 50 or 75 years.

I’ve been told by Plymouth Utilities and WPPI that they are aware of the problem and working on solutions. I hope so.

Solar electric (PV) panels are getting cheaper all the time, so the biggest hurdle continues to be energy storage. That is going to change too, and that’s a stark prospect for the status quo.

Another industry figure said, “Utilities definitely feel threatened. But that threat should be looked at as an opportunity.Storage is not a threat to the grid; it’s a value to the grid.”

Right now lithium ion batteries are the storage king.They are in hybrid cars, and in your cell phones and iPads and such. They’re expensive, bu I predict that battery improvement is going to continue dramatically, in terms of cost, especially. Why?

Let me tell you a little story: Edison’s first light bulb used carbonized thread as a filament. Marginal? I’ll say. The lab people knew they needed to do better. A metal filament, yes! But the best candidate for that would be tungsten. And tungsten is about the most obstinate, tough, uncooperative metal in the periodic table.

How in the world could you draw tungsten into a fine, fine wire, curl it into coils, perform all the shenanigans needed for the various developing bulbs? Well, because of all the incentive to get this done, they not only figured out how to do it, they figured out how to do in in a number of different ways!

So, I think, with the intense incentives to develop better, cheaper battery storage, it’s going to happen.

In that case, the last obstacle to independent sun power largely having gone away, many people, businesses , schools, you name it, will just defect, go off the grid entirely, unless there is ongoing cooperation to make sense of the new reality unfolding.

Now, mass defections would be a death spiral for the utilities indeed, and it would be, not to put too fine a point on it,bad for society as a whole.


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