By Ron Young —
In a sinister plot to invade the planet, alien visitors demonstrated a remarkable form of blue energy they said was totally clean and so powerful that a single disc about the size of a dinner plate could power a large modern city. Once humans had converted all their energy sources to this new pure clean energy system the aliens shut it down. When they pulled the switch, or whatever they did to kill the power, it made a sound … kind of like a sniffle or like a baby’s cry … that’s it… a whimper!
Worldwide chaos and disaster resulted and as civilization crumbled, the aliens took over the planet. I am scrawling this with a piece of charcoal by fire light from a cave deep in the…
Oh, never mind. I was just kidding. That was an idea for a sci-fi novel I was going to write.
But really, in our present day world, it isn’t a big stretch of imagination to conceive of the power-grid going down and stranding us all in the cold, hungry dark. Our power generation is centralized and for the most part comes from single large power sources such as dams, nuclear power plants, and coal-fired generation. The way it’s supposed to work is if some catastrophic event causes our local source to fail, another nearby source automatically fills in the demand.
Our electricity supply comes from networks or grids radiating out from each central power source. The power grid from a hydro electric dam in northern BC can be connected to a power grid from a coal-fired generating station in Alberta that is connected to other power generation stations throughout the continental grid. It is a vast, complex, and aging system that has rarely been put to a major test.
Truth be told there are many in the know who concern themselves with the very real possibility of cascading failures, which can happen when one power grid fails and causes an undue strain on an adjacent grid causing additional failures that cause additional failures and so on. While that is a vast oversimplification of how the electricity grid operates it works to explain why central distribution can be a very bad idea.
In one notable example, a simple alarm failure in a control room of First Energy Corp. in Ohio back in 2003 resulted in a cascading failure that caused a blackout for 55 million people in Canada and the US. This was caused when unpruned foliage hit an overloaded transmission line and an alarm didn’t go off to tell the local operators to re-route power. The resulting blackout lasted for two days in many areas.
The opposite of centralized distribution is called distributed power and that is achieved by creating many smaller micro grids. With the refinement of solar and wind power technologies, distributed power is very much the future and takes the form of wind farms, solar farms, and individual smaller solar installations on roofs everywhere.
Many people are participating in the distributed power evolution by putting solar panels on their homes. The idea of generating your own power to feed back into the grid was a very strange concept just a few short years ago. Now it is a commonplace occurrence. Simply put, the way it works is you make power during the day, that power is fed directly to the grid by your grid-tied solar panels, and BC Hydro permits you to do that through a net metering agreement. The amount of power you generate reduces your monthly power bill and if you make more power than you use the surplus is kept in your account. If you end up with a surplus at the end of the year (or the anniversary date of your installation) that surplus is paid out to you at the going rate. You can get details at BC Hydro’s net metering page: http://tinyurl.com/k78xmch
In the words of Don Petit, a resident of Dawson Creek who installed solar on his home several years ago:
“… the investment now is so minimal. This whole system on my roof cost $17,000. Some people spend that much on a paved friggin’ driveway, or granite countertops in their kitchen with a few new cupboards. But this asset pays for itself—it’s eliminating my electrical bills.”
It’s possible to start with an even smaller investment, as low as about $3,500, to install a starter grid-tied system. My company will design the system, fill out the BC Hydro application, and arrange for an electrical permit. Once in place it is very easy to add to it over time; you can add one solar panel at a time if you like, and watch your electricity bill go down.
Ironically, the centralized electric grid in cities became commonplace right around the time T.S. Elliot wrote his poem, “The Hollow Men.” The poem ends like this:
“This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Remember what happened when those aliens killed the power? You never can trust those aliens. So, if you want to be part of the distributed power evolution and move away from the archaic and dangerous central distribution method we now use, it’s never been easier.
While you ponder that, here’s a little prize for anyone who drops by our shop and says “PV means solar.” PV is short for photovoltaic, which describes the process by which radiant energy (sunshine) is converted to electricity. Say “PV means solar” and you’ll get an awesome little LED flashlight.*
*offer is limited to the first 25 people, one per family, expires May 15, 2015.
Ron Young is a renewable energy professional that designs and sells and installs solar, wind, and micro-hydro systems. He operates the earthRight store in Williams Lake, BC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Ron Young 2015