The energy grid here in Maine is old and much like the rest of the country it is in need of upgrading to keep up with demand. But it also needs to be able to handle newer energy sources more efficiently, such as onshore and future offshore wind power. In my thinking about the enormous challenges of upgrading our energy grid system, I have came to a conclusion about how we may be able to overcome this.
First, I’ll start with the current grid. If you are not familiar with the word “grid”, here is a brief description. The Grid, or Energy Delivery Grid is the thousands of miles of power lines, sub-stations, transformers and energy producing equipment that deliver electricity to our homes and businesses. Not a small thing. Central Maine Power, the only power company in Maine, is responsible for the maintenance and operation of our grid. The current technology of power transfer over lines has been around the same amount of time as electricity itself. The problem with this method is called resistance. Resistance in electrical lines is equivalent to friction, meaning that it takes over powering the resistance to deliver the goods. This may not sound like much, but think about this example; When you plug a lamp into a wall socket at home, the resistance from the socket to the lamp is little because of the distance the electricity had to travel. Now think about how far the electricity travels from the power station to your home before it gets to the lamp. Quite a lot of resistance in this case. So much in fact, that roughly 70% of the original power generated is lost through transmission lines alone. Staggering isn’t it? That means we are actually producing 3 times more electricity than we use as a whole, as well as 3 times more pollution from carbon based production systems than we have to.
The challenge with upgrading our grid is obvious; money. Last year, CMP’s corporate parent Ibedrola committed to a $1.4 billion upgrade to Maine’s power grid, stating that the new smart grid would create 2,000 new jobs a year until 2015 when the project is set to be completed. The upgrades include 620,000 highly controversial smart meters, 450 miles of new transmission lines and 5 new sub-stations. The upgrades will double capacity of the grid according to Iberdrola. Paying for it themselves, the company plans to recoup the costs through New England ratepayers.
You may be asking yourself; OK, so what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing. It is great that these upgrades are happening, absolutely wonderful. This is the one of the greatest investments in infrastructure that has happened in Maine. Infrastructure is the foundation for which our modern society and business can thrive. All important and necessary. But when you factor in that the upgrades do little to overcome power loss due to resistance, do not address power storage, do not reduce carbon emissions, and only covers some of the upgrades needed to become truly ‘smart’, it shows another side of what we will certainly face in the not so distant future. If the electricity generated at power plants across our state actually reached our homes at at higher percentage, we would see a dramatic drop in prices as well as carbon released by the generation itself. A decrease of the loss rate to 50% of actual power produced would make a substantial change to efficiency. Could you imagine if only 25% was lost? The efficiency of the power grid itself would contribute to slowing down carbon emissions.
How we can overcome the obstacle of our power grid.
So how can we get past the inefficiency of the grid, smart or not? In short, every building should be a power producing station in itself, period. If each home in a neighborhood produced some or most of its electricity, efficiency would take a huge upswing. Times that by all the homes and businesses in a neighborhood, community, town, city and all the sudden you have a surplus of energy that travels very short distances to where it is needed. I know this is no easy task either, but we have to start somewhere. In our nations history, we have been obsessed with growth to larger scale systems. Driven mostly by profiteering corporations this enormous scale, as we are now seeing, is cumbersome and in serious need of updating to meet the current demands for energy; never mind the ever increasing needs in the future. The downfall with large scale is that when one part breaks or needs updating, it affects the whole. If our systems were smaller and more local, this becomes less of a problem, all the while keeping our dollars in the neighborhood.
Current methods for producing this power on homes and businesses are mostly limited to solar and small scale wind. Solar being the most efficient of the two in most cases has the best potential immediately. Before you say that the sun does not shine at night or on a cloudy day, think of this; if solar produced 50% of the electricity that your home or business used in a year, how much less would you spend on your power bill? What about 75% or more. For me that would be a substantial savings, as my 2,000 sq. ft. house with five occupants spins the meter pretty fast. Now times that 50% reduction by the amount of carbon that would not go into our atmosphere, as well as all homes and businesses doing the same thing, and you see my point.
The largest hurdles; opinion, cost and implementation. How feasible is transforming our society into a forward thinking green machine on a local and national scale? Well we have the option to speculate, but the longer we do, the more pollution we pump into the air. We also pump our dollars into a foreign economy by continuing to rely on fossil fuels from far away states and lands. Opinions about how renewable energy could save our economy vary greatly, but the reality is this; opinions aside, we must quickly transform our way of living to support our local economies as well as drastically reduce our carbon output. The cost of doing so on the scale in which I speak is not cheap. But we cannot afford to not do this. There is too much at stake. Before it sounds like I am getting into doomsday global warming meltdown, I want to say this; I am very passionate about this, and I believe that we can avoid continuing in the wrong direction by taking our future into our own hands and making the changes necessary right in our own homes. Waiting for government to save us or corporations to lead the way will only give us more of what we already have.
To get back on point, the current approximate cost for a 3 kWh solar array for your home or business is around $10,000 installed (after rebates and tax credits). The average U.S. home uses 30 kWh per day, in Maine the average is around 20 kWh per day. Now take the 3 kWh solar array and times it by 8 hours of sunlight (average) and you have almost no energy consumption from the grid. Being sunlight dependent, the solar arrays would more than likely feed the local grid, as most of us are at work during this time. This can power the town you live in creating a series of smaller energy producers that help each other. Electricity travels shorter distances thus increasing efficiency.
Implementing this type of system is a huge challenge, if you are thinking on a national scale. It scales back a bit if you bring it down to a state level, but that is still quite a large task. Take it down to the city or town level, and now you have something that is a little easier to envision accomplishing. Just as much as going green is a national and world movement, the real changes must take place in your neighborhood. It promotes unifying communities once again, as we have sadly moved into a society that rarely knows its neighbors. Creating a local movement also keeps local economies strong and often creates new opportunities that did not exist before. This smaller economy then becomes more resilient to global changes, as it does not depend so heavily on outsourced products and services that are affected by such. Could you imagine every building in Portland having a relatively small 3kWh solar array on its roof? In the office buildings downtown, this size system would be soaked up by the demand of the building. But times that by all buildings, some using less than others, and you could make quite a difference. For less than most pay in property taxes each year, building owners could contribute to strengthening our independence and create jobs all the while making effort to tread a little lighter on our environment. Now include all the homes and you really have the makings of something great.
How can we start? If you are a home or building owner, find a reputable solar installer such as Revision Energy and get a quote on installing a photovoltaic system on your property. If you are in the business of building or renewable energy, educate your customers about the advantages of adding solar power to their project. Talk to your neighbors, landlords, friends and relatives. The power to change is ours. Use your voice to spread the word, and your hands to do the work.
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