Monday, March 14, 2011

Improving our Electricity Network

Alberta's Electricity Generation Plants
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Most Canadian homes are retrofitted with your run of the mill electric meter on the side of the house, and most homes are connected via hundreds of kilometers of electricity transmission cables to a remote power plant.  Some places like Alberta generate the majority of their electricity through coal fired plants. 

Electricity Generation by Source for Canada's Provinces
Coal plants have to be located far away from your urban center in order to avoid poisoning the very people you are trying to provide power for.  Hydro dams and wind farms are typically located far away since these power plants generally have to be in very specific locations to take advantage of a river or high winds.  The remote locations mean that you will have to transport your electricity very large distances through transmission wires, accounting for 7-8% of power losses.  Not only that but these power plants are generally designed to produce large amounts of power.  Since a municipals electricity demands are constantly fluctuating throughout the day due to the million different activities of its inhabitants, it is very hard for our power plants to match the consumption in such a way.  This large scale power generation is going to lead to some inefficiencies, since they are producing power blind.  This means that our power companies are basically guessing how much power they should generate, as they do not have a system in place that provides instant feedback concerning electricity requirements.  So if a power plant produces more power than is consumed, we are wasting that electricity. 

What is the alternative?  Is there an alternative?  Yes as always there is an alternative.  In this case you can upgrade your electricity network to a smart grid, and develop a more distributed power generation network. 

A smart grid consists of installing a digital smart meter for every household.  This smart grid would replace or hook up to your existing utilities meters, and would come with a display screen inside the household.  This display would not only present you with real time information of your utilities usage, but it would provide information on how much of a strain the power plant is under a given period of time.  This sort of system serves to benefit both the producer and the consumer with savings. Power providers are provided with instant power usage information, and can adjust the power generation to reflect the usage.  This will eliminate the need for our power providers to produce excess power just so to account for unexpected power usages. 

Your household display would also allow your utilities provide to provide you with the amount of usage at different periods of time.  It is more efficient to run one generators at maximum capacity as opposed to three at a third capacity.  With the smart grid users are provided with the best times to use power to avoid the need for utility providers to run generators at lower levels of efficiency.  This way someone can look at their display screen and decide to run their dishwasher at night time when everyone is sleeping. 

Households would also be able to see on their display screens exactly how much electricity a particular device is using at any given moment.  This would allow residents to detect phantom power draws, devices that still draw power even they are shut off.  Residents would then have no excuse not to unplug a device when it is not in use, as you know it is drawing power.

Urban Wind Mill
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The other part of the solution is to distribute the power generation more.  I mentioned previously that the majority of our power comes from large centralized power plants, and there are significant losses.  These losses come as a result of resistance in transmission lines since most power plants are located hundreds of kilometers from urban centers.  If you are producing your power on your roof the electricity does not need to travel through hundreds of kilometers of wires and losses will be minimal.  You would still be connected to the grid so if your power source cannot generate enough electricity you can sap from other sources. 

The best defense against no power generation is to diversify the power sources.  If you install urban wind mills and geothermal plants for every community, and solar power panels on every roof, then when it is cloudy or windless you will always have an backup power source.  This system also has a guaranteed redundancy built in, where if one households solar panel system breaks down the other 1 million households will still be generating power.  With a centralized power plant you are putting all of your eggs into one basket, if the steam turbine at the power plant breaks down it is not only expensive but it also presents the possibility of knocking out the power for large portions of a city. 

Towns have made deals with power companies such that the presence of a wind mill brings more benefit to the community that simply providing power.   These towns usually set up deals such that the wind mills are owned by the town and excess power is the property of the town and can be sold off.   This extra money is then used to put money back into the community.  So essentially you have the ultimate local economy being propped up by your power source.

1 comment:

  1. I found a pretty interesting idea. It takes two lakes, one narrow and deep, and the other shallow but wide. A pipe connects them and has a pump that has a regenerative power capability. Whenever too much power is being made, the pump pumps a bunch of the water from the deep lake to the shallow lake and keeps it there. When power is needed, the pump goes in reverse and acts like a generator using gravitational potential stored energy. It's pretty clever, is quiet and clean, can have grates to stop fish and animals from getting caught in it, could function a bit like a nature reserve and have a well supported biosphere around them, can be located near urban areas, and deals with the problems of wind and solar energy as well as excess production in general.