Hot Button: Wake-Up Call On Electricity Needs
Grid and bear it
The answer lies in investing in new power technologies,
not finger-pointing over outmoded systems
Peter Asmus, author of "Reaping The Wind,"
says wind turbines only generate electricity a third
of the year, but they tend to produce energy in California
when consumers most need it during summer peak
The electricity crisis threatening California and
the West today, and the rest of the nation tomorrow,
is a profound wake-up call. It's time for executives
in business and government to come to grips with the
gap between the needs of the New Economy and the environment
on one side and the level of electricity service our
outdated and stressed energy infrastructure provide
on the other.
Gov. Gray Davis has an opportunity to make history
if he stops pointing fingers and acknowledges that
the core problem in California is not deregulation
per se, but the monolithic technologies that the current
regulatory system still encourages: large, central
station power plants fueled by natural gas.
And savvy Silicon Valley CEOs should realize that
the right response to this crisis is investing in
new technologies that can transform our grid into
a big plus for doing business in the Golden State.
The run-up in electricity prices and heating bills
is caused by the fact that 90 percent of all new power
plants are designed to run on natural gas, which was
the cheapest electricity supply source. But now its
price has hit record levels unimaginable just one
year ago, and electricity generators powered by gas
are far more expensive than when they were originally
Obviously relying on one fuel for heating and electricity
is folly especially when it's a fossil fuel that
releases carbon dioxide, a suspected prime ingredient
of global climate change, when combusted.
Using so much natural gas has other problems:
- The state doesn't have the transportation
infrastructure to deliver enough natural gas to
fuel all of the proposed gas-fired electricity generators.
- Air quality. Power plants that burn
natural gas still pollute and state law requires
they "offset'' this air pollution by reducing
pollution at other businesses. The cost of these
offsets has skyrocketed and existing power plants
are being shut down because they violate state air
- There's a scarcity of cooling water
for all of these power plants, which typically consume
4 million gallons per day. That's enough to serve
about 6,000 households.
- The cost of generating electricity
from a natural gas plant today ranges from 9 to
60 cents per kilowatt-hour. In contrast, the cost
of electricity from a new wind turbine, which releases
zero emissions, is 4 to 6 cents/kWh and is expected
to fall below 3 cents/kWh within the next five years.
These numbers underscore why wind power is the
world's fastest growing power source. When the
California Energy Commission issued an emergency
appeal for new non-fossil power plants to come
online by next summer, one wind power company
came forward with proposals to add more than 400
MW, more than any other power generation technology.
The short-lead time for wind power in this
case a four to five months compares to the three
years it takes to site and build a natural gas plant.
Although wind turbines only generate electricity a
third of the year, they tend to produce energy in
California when consumers most need it during summer
peak price spikes.
California now has the tools and technologies
necessary for an energy revolution that mimics
the evolution in scale evident in telecommunications
and computer industries. Solar photovoltaics,
which convert sunlight directly into electricity,
and fuel cells, which rely upon chemical reactions
from a variety of fuels to create power, allow
companies to generate premium-grade clean electricity
right on-site without any air pollution.
These new technologies wind power, solar photovoltaics
and fuel cells are the equivalent to wireless
cell phones and portable laptops that replaced
traditional grid-connected phones and huge mainframe
Let's face the facts. Our electricity grid is
an artifact that dates back to the beginning of
the last century. It is dramatically out of sync
with information technologies. The architecture
of the existing transmission grid is the anti-thesis
of distributed networks being made possible by
If Silicon Valley executives learned anything
from the evolution of their own industry, they
would recognize that the best way to insure reliability
and reduce long-term costs is to incorporate these
smaller and more efficient clean energy generation
technologies into their own energy management
These power sources are frequently referred to
as distributed generation since the sources are
distributed throughout a region. They can be connected
to the grid or operate as distinct, stand-alone
systems, or be part of new micro-grid systems
offering premium power quality. In each of these
examples, these state-of-the-art distributed generation
sources offer some measure of reliability during
times of blackouts and supply interruptions.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory underscored
the benefit of installing the latest generation
of solar PV panels, which at today's electricity
prices are suddenly cost effective, last year.
Seven major outages including one affecting
San Francisco last June were analyzed from
the perspective of the quality of the solar resource
during the exact times of the power losses.
Not surprisingly, in all but one of the outages,
conditions for optimal solar electricity generation
were above 90 percent. This makes inherent sense.
It is typically sunny days that lead to heat waves
that stress our electricity delivery infrastructure.
Why not rely on the same sun that helped create
the crisis to solve the power supply problem?
Interestingly, solar conditions were close to
perfect (99 percent) for generating electricity
from the sun on June 14, 2000, the day 100,000
customers in San Francisco lost power. When power
outages cost Silicon Valley firms millions of
dollars per minute of downtime, relying upon solar
energy during sunny peak periods of demand is
almost too logical. They also diversify our fuel
mix without generating air pollution while helping
to bring our electricity grid into the 21st century.
Smart New Economy companies should recognize
these trends and take a leadership role by incorporating
these non-polluting energy sources right here
in Silicon Valley where much of the state's
electricity supply problems originated.
The answer to the current crisis in energy in
California is to transform our archaic electricity
grid into a catalyst for integrating increasing
amounts of wind and other renewable resources
into our fuel mix. If Davis is bold enough to
push a radical revamping of our grid, California
can offer the rest of the world a model of a smart
power generation and delivery system that serves
both the New Economy and the environment.
Peter Asmus is author of "Reaping The
Wind," a new book published by Island Press,
and is a senior associate with the AHC Group of
Saratoga, N.Y., an environmental consulting firm.