The Economist writes:
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.
This is a topic explored in depth in a new book by Vijay Vaitheeswaran: “Power to the People.”
NYTimes has a story on GE’s interest in solar energy, after it acquired the major assets of the largest American-owned maker of solar equipment (AstroPower).
Solar energy is profitable in numerous niche markets, including powering satellites and providing electricity for oil rigs and devices like rural water pumps, road signs and emergency telephones that cannot be conveniently linked to power grids. But it is still regarded as too expensive to be widely adopted for powering homes and businesses now supplied by utilities. That has left even deep-pocketed manufacturers like Sharp, Sanyo Electric, the Kyocera Corporation and the solar subsidiaries of BP and Shell Oil dependent on governments and power companies to subsidize sales.
None of the big solar players claim to be profitable and some former participants remain dismissive about the potential. “Even if it grows at 20 percent annually, it will contribute less than 1.5 percent to global energy needs by 2020,” said Tom Cirigliano, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, which has estimated that it invested more than half a billion dollars in solar energy, going back to the 1970’s, before withdrawing.
But analysts and solar manufacturers figure G.E. is responding to signs that rising prices for hydrocarbon-based fuels and improvements in solar products and manufacturing technology have laid the foundation for large-scale producers to finally start making steady profits – even as major supporters like the Japanese government and California reduce subsidies to consumers.