Belmont Club

Power To the People

An experiment to incorporate “Green Energy” sources into the electric grid may cause the utility frequency to shift, according to a warning covered by the Associated Press. “The group that oversees the U.S. power grid is proposing a change that has the potential to disrupt electric clocks in schools, hospitals and other institutions … It may also mess with the timing of traffic lights, security systems, sprinklers and some personal computer software and hardware.” But don’t worry; there are alternatives. If your electric clock starts running fast or slow you can always call a government telephone number to ask the time.

“A lot of people are going to have things break and they’re not going to know why,” said Demetrios Matsakis, head of the time service department at the U.S. Naval Observatory, one of two official timekeeping agencies in the federal government. …

In the future, more use of renewable energy from the sun and wind will mean more variations in frequency on the grid, McClelland said. Solar and wind power can drop off the grid with momentary changes in weather. Correcting those deviations is expensive and requires instant back-up power to be always at the ready, he said. …

But Tim O’Brian, who heads the time and frequency division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, expects widespread effects.  He said there are alternatives if people have problems from the test: The federal government provides the official time by telephone and on the Internet.

One potential problem is damage to appliances. Some devices will not operate correctly or even safely if the utility frequency fluctuates greatly. In Africa the problems with utility reliability are so great studies show that large firms prefer to install their own in-house generating equipment. Problems like equipment shutdowns, loss of microprocessor memory, wandering motor torque and insulation breakdown are among the several inconveniences experienced by those whose power quality leaves much to be desired.

A study by the DEWI GmbH Deutsches Windenergie-Institut in Germany described the difficulty. “Up to now the experience of the electrical characteristics (power quality) of other renewable energy generation is only low,” and work was required to ensure that such sources could be safely and effectively brought into the grid. But this is the price of progress towards Green Energy and will surely be overcome, given enough money and political will. One way around these fluctuations is investment in a “smart grid” where the distribution system is much more aware of the the sources and uses of electrical power and actively works to maintain power quality in a rapidly fluctuating environment. Some sources have also reported that it can selectively deny power to uses deemed unacceptable during peak load. According to Wikipedia,

In the United States, the Smart Grid concept is defined as the modernization of the nation’s electricity transmission and distribution system to maintain a reliable and secure electricity infrastructure that can meet future demand growth and to achieve each of the following, which together characterize a Smart Grid:

(1) Increased use of digital information and controls technology to improve reliability, security, and efficiency of the electric grid.

(2) Dynamic optimization of grid operations and resources, with full cyber-security.

(3) Deployment and integration of distributed resources and generation, including renewable resources.

(4) Development and incorporation of demand response, demand-side resources, and energy-efficiency resources.

(5) Deployment of `smart’ technologies (real-time, automated, interactive technologies that optimize the physical operation of appliances and consumer devices) for metering, communications concerning grid operations and status, and distribution automation.

(6) Integration of `smart’ appliances and consumer devices.

(7) Deployment and integration of advanced electricity storage and peak-shaving technologies, including plug-in electric and hybrid electric vehicles, and thermal-storage air conditioning.

(8) Provision to consumers of timely information and control options.

(9) Development of standards for communication and interoperability of appliances and equipment connected to the electric grid, including the infrastructure serving the grid.

(10) Identification and lowering of unreasonable or unnecessary barriers to adoption of smart grid technologies, practices, and services.

The bad news is that your electric clocks may run unpredictably for a while and your other appliances may go haywire, but in the end the government will know so much more about what you’ve got plugged into your house and how you use it. A video from 2009 explains what is being done to make sure your future is Green, and the one below it describes the industrial combinations working with government to usher your family into the 21st century.

The UN, in a document called World Economic and Social Survey 2011 wrote that while Green Energy has focused primarily on power generation and delivery, it will ultimately encompass all aspects of life and involve lower per capita energy use. “the world’s average primary energy use per capita can decrease from 71 to 63 GJ from 2010 to 2050, with average per capita gross domestic product (GDP) still tripling (in constant dollar terms). This implies an improvement in eco-efficiency by a factor of 3.2, which is almost as ambitious as the ‘factor 4′”. It will not come cheap. “Globally, the replacement cost of the existing fossil fuel and nuclear power infrastructure is at least $15 trillion-$20 trillion.”

Among major global scenarios, the Global Energy Assessment mix scenario appears to be roughly in line with the focus and targets proposed here. The scenario foresees cumulative global energy-related investments of $65 trillion between 2010 and 2050, or about $1.6 trillion per year. About $23 trillion of this amount would be needed for improving efficiencies, $12 trillion for smart grids (transmission and distribution), $8 trillion for renewable electricity.

Green Energy is a massive undertaking which will fundamentally transform lifestyles and political power distribution on the planet. That it will slow clocks and cause appliances to hiccup is but the first of its effects. But it is not the last.


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