MAILBOX: The Power Grid: A Beautiful Thing

Beginner

I have been a reader of Home Power and a big fan of renewable energy for many years. I have solar panels, a small wind generator, and small hydro system, all charging batteries at my house. Take it from me, batteries can be a huge pain to deal with. They are big, expensive, and require constant care. And in the end every battery will fail. I understand that in many cases batteries or a fossil fuel generator is the only choice. But many solar systems are tied directly to the power grid. What a great and awesome privilege it is to use the grid as a battery bank.

I have been an electric lineman for almost 24 years. I have a perfect understanding of how amazing the U.S. power grid is. A lot of people have no clue what it takes to make the power grid work. A lot of money, resources, and very hard work go on 24/7, 365 days a year, to make grid power happen. Think about life without the power grid—we would have no light, no heat, no A/C, no fresh food, no clean water, no internet, no smartphones, no stock market—and the list goes on and on. The off-grid folks would have no solar panels, deep-cycle batteries, gasoline, propane, and so on. Think about the amount of energy and nonrenewable resources it takes to make solar panels, deep-cycle batteries, wind turbines, and a coal or natural gas power plant. Every form of energy requires some form of nonrenewable resource. Hydro is the best thing we have. Once it is built, it can provide carbon-free, 24/7 base-load power; no batteries needed. One day, I think we will wish we had built more hydro power plants. The West is drying up, and we will have wished we saved as much water as possible. More dams in the right places might be a good thing.

One day, I hope to install a grid-tied PV system at my house and use the grid as my battery bank. I will be more than happy to pay whatever my local power company charges to hook the system to the grid. I know that will be a way better deal than dealing with the nightmare and expense of batteries. And I will gladly take whatever payback they give me. My money will go to help maintain the grid, to keep it at its perfect 60-cycle 120-volt AC. As more and more consumer generation hooks up to the grid, it will be harder to maintain it. In Texas, for example, backup generation cannot come online fast enough when the wind stops as wind farms serve hundreds of megawatts of load on the grid. This causes the grid to become unstable and shut down, causing a huge power outage. It takes awhile to get it all back up and running.

The power grid has a hard time dealing with intermittent consumer generation. But it can handle some. That’s why we need to pay our share to help maintain the grid. I think before consumer generation becomes a problem for the grid we will find a way to make it all work together, but it will cost us. The power grid needs to evolve and change to deal with large intermittent sources of energy. And that will not be cheap. But I think it is possible. The U.S. power grid is the single largest, most impressive machine on the planet and there is nothing else like it—and we need to keep it that way.

Dan Oberosler • Crested Butte, Colorado

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