Electricity generation systems are incompatible with 21st Century standards

Giant coal and nuclear power plants do not provide the high-quality, reliable electricity needed for the new digital economy, and are second rate compared to more environmentally and socially acceptable micropower technologies, says a new report by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington DC-based research organisation.

Power interruptions due to the vulnerability of large power plants and their associated transmission lines cost the United States as much as $80 billion every year, says the research,Micropower: The Next Electrical Era. In many developing countries, as much as 20 to 50% of the total power generated is lost through leaks in transmission and distribution systems. Combined with the fact that one third of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions come from electricity generation, according to the report, new sustainable solutions have to be found.

“We’re beginning the 21st century with a power system that cannot take our economy where it needs to go,” said Seth Dunn, author of the report. “The kind of highly reliable power needed for today’s economy can only be based on a new generation of micropower devices now coming on the market. These allow homes and businesses to produce their own electricity, with far less pollution.”

Described as micropower technologies, the report says that the future of electricity generation should lie with small-scale, less or non-polluting power production, such as fuel cells, microturbines, and solar roofing, which are as small as one-millionth the size of current coal or nuclear power plants. Already, says the report, the market potential of micropower has sent share prices soaring this year as investors rush to buy into the new companies.

Some micropower technologies generate electricity by combustion, such as internal combustion engines, traditionally fuelled by diesel, and now powered by the more efficient natural gas. Combined heat and power (CHP) systems which burn natural gas are also widely used in the UK, says Friends of the Earth (FOE). This is principally used in large public buildings, such as hospitals and airports, where gas is burned to produce electricity, and the high temperature produced, which is normally wasted, is used to heat the building. “In the future, micro CHP plants will be able to be used at the domestic level,” Mark Johnston, Friends of the Earth energy campaigner, told edie. Such plants will be silent, and with the added advantage that surplus electricity could be sold back to the community.

Non-polluting micropower systems, which do not rely on combustion, include fuel cells (see related story), which combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water, as well as solar cells and wind power. A decentralised energy system will also have a role for small geothermal, microhydro and biomass systems, says the report.

Reductions in particulates, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and heavy metals would range from as much as 50 to 100%, depending on the technologies used, says the report, even with the use of combustion-based systems using natural gas. Non-combustion micropower systems would also help reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, and the report estimates that United States power plant carbon dioxide emissions could be cut in half with widespread adoption of micropower. In developing nations such emissions could be cut by 42%.

As well as providing greater stability than a system powered by only one large electricity generator, a large number of small power plants can save consumers millions of dollars by avoiding costly new investments in central power plants and their distribution systems, says the report. This would be of huge benefit to the developing world, bringing electricity to rural communities, where a total of 1.8 billion people currently have no access to electrical services.

Currently, however, market rules in most countries favour the less sustainable centralised power generation system (see related story), and many electricity companies see new the new systems as an economic threat, blocking them by charging high connection fees and paying producers low prices for their power.

There is a high initial cost to these systems, Dunn admitted to edie. This means that at first micropower is likely to appear in places where either there is an effective energy source, such as wind power in Europe, or solar power in Japan.. Other incentives are factors such as where the potential cost of a power interruption makes the investment worthwhile, for example, in banks, or in developing countries, where grid extension is too expensive.

“But as they reach mass production, the cost gaps will eventually disappear,” said Dunn. “In fact, wind power is now directly competitive with gas-fired plants in some parts of the U.S.”

“It’s an important report which is welcomed by Friends of the Earth,”, said Johnston, explaining that micropower systems are the types of power supply that we should all expect to see in the future. “The threat of climate change means the world cannot ignore the urgent need to take action.”

“These kinds of technology are very much solutions-based. The companies that don’t see these changes coming will find themselves in trouble. The governments and regulators must not fall behind in creating the framework in which these technologies can flourish,” said Johnston.

Failure to move away from systems based on large centralised power plants, says the report, would result in the construction of a marginally improved new generation of power plants with questionable long-term economic and environmental value. The report points out that the consequences of this scenario would be far worse in developing nations, where a predicted $1.7 trillion will be invested in new power systems over the next 20 years.

“These nations have a golden opportunity to get the rules right the first time, and set up markets that support power systems suitable for the 21st century and not the 20th,” said Dunn.

Copies of Micropower: The Next Electrical Era, by Seth Dunn, can be obtained for $5 (plus $4 shipping and handling, $5 in Canada, $8 in all other countries) from +(800) 555 2028, from the Worldwatch website, by fax: +202 296 7365, or by emailing [email protected].

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