Forget big generators...
in ten years' time we could be making and even selling
our own electricity. We might even save the planet.
By Fred Pearce
THE NEW SCIENTIST MAGAZINE
January 7, 2001 - LONDON's fabulously successful
Tate Modern art gallery has wowed the public. Now it
seems that the gallery, housed in the disused Bankside
power station, has captured the industrial zeitgeist,
too. Power stations, the behemoths of the industrial
age, could be on the way out.
As politicians in the Hague this week thrash out
ways of limiting the amount of greenhouse gases in
the atmosphere, industry strategists are forecasting
the demise of giant, centralised generating stations.
The environmental benefits could be immense.
The people that spread thousand-megawatt power plants
across the planet now see the future in small generators,
each little more than a millionth as powerful, in
basements and backyards round the world. One of the
biggest enthusiasts is Karl Yeager, who heads the
US industry-funded Electric Power Research Institute
in Palo Alto, California. By 2050 he thinks that most
of our electricity will come from millions of microturbines,
solar panels and, most importantly,
hydrogen-powered fuel cells.
"Within five years I'll be able to go down to Wal-Mart
and pick a microgenerator off the shelf to power my
house," says Yeager. "I will take it home and connect
it to the gas pipe. It will generate power as well
as heating my house and producing hot water. And it
will be much cheaper than using the power grid."
Existing national power grids won't disappear. But
Yeager believes they will operate more like the Internet,
as part of a complex web through which people will
supply electricity as well as downloading it. And
countries that don't have large-scale power networks
will cease to need them. The result will be
greater efficiency, less pollution and an end to power
Dan Rastler, a researcher at the EPRI, thinks his
boss is being conservative. He notes that natural-gas
fuelled microgenerators for the home are being tested
this year. "I anticipate some market penetration as
early as 2002," he says.
The cost of a 5-kilowatt kit-which would provide
more than enough power for most houses-will
be about $2500. Some will buy bigger and sell to the
grid; others will buy smaller and top up from the
grid when they need to.
Seth Dunn of the Washington environmental think tank
the Worldwatch Institute shares Yeager's vision. In
a new pamphlet, Micropower: The next electrical era,
he writes: "An electricity grid with many small generators
is inherently more stable than a grid serviced by
only a few large plants." And it will be the perfect
way to introduce renewable energy. It will also, as
it happens, be much like the world Thomas Edison envisaged
when he opened his first power plant in downtown New
York in the 1880s and forecast that soon every community
would have one.
Two technological developments are driving the revolution.
First, the new generation of clean and cheap electricity
generators small enough for domestic use. Second,
the emergence in recent years of "intelligent" grids
able to collect as well as distribute electricity
at every node. These will allow people to sell their
surplus electricity or even trade regularly in electricity.
Besides natural gas-powered electricity, the world
is on the verge of adopting cheap fuel cells, electrochemical
devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce
electricity and water. A big thrust for this research
comes from car manufacturers looking for a more efficient,
less polluting alternative to the internal combustion
Yeager sees the involvement of the car industry as
a big plus. Its manufacturing capacity dwarfs that
of the electricity generators. Every two years it
makes internal combustion engines with a combined
power capacity equal to all the world's electricity
generating stations. Replace those car engines with
fuel cells and it takes no great leap of the imagination
to envisage millions of similar cells being manufactured
to power homes. The fuel cells will run on hydrogen,
and Rastler says he sees homes receiving piped supplies.
Power from Cars
It is even possible that cars and homes might share
the same power source. "When you get home at night
you will be able to drive into the garage and plug
the fuel cell into the home circuit to power the microwave
and the TV," forecasts Yeager. "There is no reason
why the auto shouldn't be a power source for your
home when you are not driving it. In fact, vehicles
could provide an extensive power generation and storage
network." A million fuel-cell vehicles plugged into
the grid could generate up to a tenth of US electricity
Hydrogen will have to be manufactured, of course,
and for this there are two routes. One involves splitting
water molecules using electricity. It requires much
more electricity than you'll get back from the fuel
cells, so the gain only arises when that electricity
is made using non-polluting sources, such as solar,
wind or hydroelectric power. The alternative is extracting
hydrogen from a hydrocarbon such as oil, methanol
or natural gas. Either way there can be real environmental
gains in terms of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
On top of that, a big spur is the growing problem
of power cuts. The ageing and underfunded grid system
in the US is creaking. Dunn estimates that power cuts
cost the country as much as $80 billion a year. Losses
of power lasting as little as a few hundredths of
a second can cause mayhem, says Yeager, "crashing
servers, computers, life-support machines and automated
"In the digital economy you need ultra-reliable power,"
says Dunn. "It's got to be better than 99.9999 per
cent. Conventional utilities just cannot do that."
That's why, says Yeager, California's computer companies
are all developing their own power systems. No wonder
share prices for the pioneers of micropower and fuel
cells surged earlier this year in the US.
Countries with national power grids will continue
to find them useful as devolved power networks. But
places that don't have extensive grids-like much of
the developing world-shouldn't bother building them.
Currently, 1.8 billion people, almost a third of humanity,
don't have access to any more electricity than they
can get from a car battery. Rather than copying 20th-century
technology-as many countries are often expensively
and inefficiently attempting to do-their governments
should "leapfrog to the higher efficiencies of the
digital age", says Yeager. Local networks running
on solar cells will provide all the electricity that
most consumers need, says Dunn.
But the biggest gain for the world could be in curtailing
global warming. EPRI researcher Steve Gehl anticipates
that by 2050 disconnected communities will gain access
to basic electric power of the kind available to Americans
in the 1920s. Taken together with trends in the rich
countries, that would require a global generating
capacity totalling three times today's. Doing the
job the 20th-century way would mean building a new
1000-megawatt power plant somewhere in the world every
two days for the next 50 years. And that would send
carbon dioxide emissions soaring way out of control.
The world's governments know that they need to do
vastly better than the Kyoto agreement if they are
to prevent CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere exceeding
the safety ceiling of 550 parts per million being
suggested by the world's scientists. That's twice
pre-industrial levels and 50 per cent above today's.
It is not consistent with a business-as-usual electricity
Yeager says it is possible to electrify the poor
world while staying below the 550 ppm ceiling. But
it will require drastically cutting the volume of
CO2 emissions for every unit of electricity generated.
He says that by 2050 we must cut average emissions
to a fifth of those from a modern, efficient coal-burning
power station and to less than half those from natural-gas
plants. And to remain below the ceiling till the end
of the century will require moving to an essentially
carbon-free energy economy.
Some people don't believe the job can be done without
massive disruption to the world economy. Yeager and
Dunn both say it can be -- and the first step is to
overthrow the tyranny of the multi-megawatt power
This article is excerpted from New Scientist, a weekly
science and technology magazine based in London (vol
168 issue 2265, 18/11/2000, page 16). © 2000 New
Scientist/RBI Magazines. It was published on January
7, 2001 in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
See also: "Global
Power: The Electric Hypergrid" by Fred Pearce