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TECH TALK: As India Develops: Energy (Part 3)

April 7th, 2004 · No Comments

The Economist wrote recently about the Energy Internet:

Transforming today’s centralised, dumb power grid into something closer to a smart, distributed network will be necessary to provide a reliable power supplyand to make possible innovative new energy services. Energy visionaries imagine a self-healing grid with real-time sensors and plug and play software that can allow scattered generators or energy-storage devices to attach to it. In other words, an energy internet.

The good news is that technologies are now being developed in four areas that point the way towards the smart grid of the future. First, utilities are experimenting with ways to measure the behaviour of the grid in real time. Second, they are looking for ways to use that information to control the flow of power fast enough to avoid blackouts. Third, they are upgrading their networks in order to pump more juice through the grid safely. Finally, they are looking for ways to produce and store power close to consumers, to reduce the need to send so much power down those ageing transmission lines in the first place.

In the long run, however, the solution surely does not lie in building ever fatter pipes to supply ever more power from central power plants to distant consumers. Amory Lovins, head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental think-tank, explains why: the more and bigger bulk power lines you build, the more and bigger blackouts are likely. A better answer is micropowera large number of small power sources located near to end-users, rather than a small number of large sources located far away.

At first glance, this shift toward micropower may seem like a return to electricity’s roots over a century ago. Thomas Edison’s original vision was to place many small power plants close to consumers. However, a complete return to that model would be folly, for it would rob both the grid and micropower plants of the chance to sell power when the other is in distress. Rather, the grid will be transformed into a digital network capable of handling complex, multi-directional flows of power. Micropower and megapower will then work together.

ABB foresees the emergence of microgrids made up of all sorts of distributed generators, including fuel cells (which combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity cleanly), wind and solar power.

Energy-storage devices will be increasingly important too. Electricity, almost uniquely among commodities, cannot be stored efficiently (except as water in hydro-electric dams) The most intriguing storage option involves hydrogenwhich can be used as a medium to store energy from many different sources.

Hydrogen could radically alter the economics of intermittent sources of green power. At the moment, much wind power is wasted because the wind blows when the grid does not need, or cannot safely take, all that power. If that wasted energy were instead stored as hydrogen (produced by using the electrical power to extract hydrogen from water), it could later be converted back to electricity in a fuel cell, to be sold when needed. Geoffrey Ballard of Canada’s General Hydrogen, and the former head of Ballard, a leading fuel-cell-maker, sees hydrogen and electricity as so interchangeable on the power grid of the future that he calls them hydricity.

India needs to think of a leapfrog energy platform. Incremental solutions will not get us anywhere. One possible option for the future energy needs of countries like India is hydrogen fuel-cell micropower. What are the challenges in making it a reality?

Tomorrow: Energy (continued)


TECH TALK As India Develops+T

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