The other day, a letter to the editor by a Mr. Bob Bruninga regarding the Keystone pipeline, appeared in The Sun. He suggested that instead of investing billions in the pipeline to move outdated and decline reserves of fossil fuel the country should invest “in long distance electric transmission lines to move our unlimited, renewable 100 percent American electricity resources from where they are plentiful to where they are needed.”
This certainly sounds like a relatively new idea but in reality it isn’t. Not that it matters from a pragmatic point, it was suggested by one of my favorite individuals, Buckminster Fuller, many years ago, 1938.
This now feasible, intercontinental network would integrate America, Asia and Europe, and integrate the night-and-day, spherically shadow-and-light zones of Planet Earth. And this would occasion the 24-hour use of the now only fifty per cent of the time used world-around standby generator capacity, whose fifty per cent unused capacities heretofore were mandatorily required only for peakload servicing of local non-interconnected energy users. Such intercontinental network integration would overnight double the already-installed and in-use, electric power generating capacity of our Planet.Telegram to Senator Edmund Muskie, Earth, Inc., 1973, Fuller.
Effectively his idea was to link the world into a gigantic distribution system whereby, generators working under less loads due to the time of day, could contribute the demands of areas requiring greater power. While his ideas were ‘generator’ based, not ‘renewables,’ the idea is much the same.
To bring the concept up to date, however, more inclusive ideas for routing of “renewables” are presented by Jeremy Rifkin in his book The Third Industrial Revolution. The book is a futuristic view of power creation and distribution as it will likely exist in the not so distant future. It focuses on the emerging ‘renewable energy’ market, its long term development, and resulting increases in efficiencies, uses, and declining costs.
Mr. Rifkin postulates that electrical distribution systems will become like the Internet. Power, created by countless points of generations, will flow like date from sources of creation to points of consumption. Like the Internet and its data, the flow will be metered (download and uploads…) but unlike the Internet, costs will be “bi-directional” meaning that power consumption will be charged at a fee which is then offset by a credit for supplying power. (This is commonly being implemented now with grid connected, home based, photoelectric systems.)
The difference here, however is one of scale. Mr. Rifkin visualizes societies where such power sources exit on or at each home, parked car, roof, treated windows and walls, geothermal source, wind generator, etc., etc. ad infinitim. And, he believes that the power sources and points of power consumptions will be monitored and tracked with countless computer connections, perhaps like our countless URLs, ultimately creating a billing structure to support the system.
Of significance here, especially in light of the above mentioned letter to the editor is one of scope. While the writer, is suggesting a national system, Mr. Rifkin thinks along the lines of Mr. Fuller. Mr. Rifkin thinks in geographic terms, connecting the countless of source of one area or continent to the consumption requirements of another, often based upon time of day, but also based upon the availability of the power, eg. large solar expanses or constant wind or massive hydroelectric generation (think Iceland).
In his book, Mr. Rifkin explores such systems that are currently being developed to connect “continents” not just communities. India to Australia for example.
Unmentioned in any of the above is the technology that is needed to create electrical distribution systems of this nature. While we have all seen the high voltage lines and towers that crisscross the country, few of us realize the problems inherent in them, save for the issue of potential electrocution.
When electricity is transmitted from one location to another, power is lost. It is that simple! Minimizing this loss is a necessary key component to these systems and the above ideas.
Greater quantities of power (load) require increasing sizes of wire or cable. To counter this, AC electrical distribution became the norm long ago. Using AC, voltages may be changed relatively easily through the use of transformers such as seen on utility poles and switch yards. Such provides a great deal of flexibility. Through these transformers, AC power may be transmitted long distances at very high voltages, which decreases the required cable sizes tremendously. But still, there is waste, often substantial waste, based upon distance, voltage, load/cable size and temperature.
Aerial cables have the advantage of being air cooled to a major degree and of course cable insulation is not a problem except where the towers are located, hence those large insulators seen on the towers. But people do not want new towers and cables in their back yards and are calling for greater underground distribution. To move to long distance, underground, high voltage distribution is going to be costly. Underground cable construction must have separate conductor insulation, which is missing from aerial cables, and their confinement together and underground will generate significantly more heat. This will increase projected power loss, requiring larger conductors, i.e. cables. The added costs of the insulation and conductors is significant. To fight loss due to increasing temperatures, cables can and are sometimes cooled with nitrogen among other things, adding to the cost.
In closing, we are at the cusp of a new way of dealing with electrical energy and the road is going to be both rocky and VERY INTERESTING. We will see utilities trying to resist the trends while striving to appear supportive of them. And we are likely to see as many changes here as we have seen in the computer industry over the past 20 years.