The smarter energy network of the future, Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) believes, will incorporate a diversified pool of resources located closer to the consumer, pumping out low- or zero-emissions power in backyards, driveways, downscaled local power stations, and even in automobiles, while giving electricity users the option to become energy vendors. The front end of this new system will be managed by third-party “virtual utilities,” which will bundle electricity, gas, Internet access, broadband entertainment, and other customized energy services. (This vision is reminiscent of Edison’s original ambition for the industry, which was not to sell lightbulbs, but to create a network of technologies and services that provided illumination.)
Now, the digital networks will be called upon to remake the grid in their own image. By embedding sensors, solid-state controllers, and intelligent agents throughout this new supply chain, the meter and the monthly bill will be swapped out for something more robust, adaptive, interconnected, and alive: a humming, real-time, interactive energy marketplace.
Swiss engineering giant ABB surprised the world in 1999 by announcing that it was off-loading the business of building nuclear plants to focus on renewables and distributed generation, an umbrella term for various smaller-scale methods for producing electricity closer to the consumer. Distributed generation isn’t a new idea – it was Edison’s first template for universal electrification, with neighborhood steam plants furnishing power and heat for 1-square-mile lighting districts. Seth Dunn of the Worldwatch Institute uses a more felicitous term for distributed generation: micropower.
Green resources such as photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines fall into the micropower category, as do reciprocating engines, fuel cells, Stirling engines, and gas-fired microturbines. Micropower is surging in world markets, both in industrialized countries and in regions with no electricity, where distributed generation offers rural communities and local entrepreneurs access to power without waiting for the costly grid extensions promised long ago by national utilities.
In many countries, where supplies of sunlight and wind are enormous and inexhaustible, the primary energy source for the poor is high-carbon biomass. These fuels – crop residues, scavenged wood and charcoal, and cattle dung – take significant tolls on the health of those who burn them, and add to the impact of first-world power profligacy in heating up the atmosphere. In India alone, indoor air pollution created by high-emission fuels causes half a million premature deaths a year.
In countries that already have access to electricity, micropower resources will provide ways to reduce carbon emissions, improve energy efficiency, and ease the strain on stressed grids by providing supplemental power during periods of peak use.
The micropower/cogen technology with the most commercial potential – and some of the greatest environmental benefits – is the fuel cell. Employing electrochemical combustion of hydrogen with oxygen, fuel cells are powered by gas, and will eventually be run by supplying hydrogen directly, producing stable streams of current and emitting only water vapor and heat. Unlike gas turbines, they are silent and require little maintenance. When hooked up to water electrolyzers – like fuel cells run in reverse – they can also store electricity as hydrogen, for energy that can be poured back into the system during times of high demand. When photovoltaic panels and gas turbines are networked with fuel cells, their efficiency and reliability soar.