Distributed Energy Soars at Last

Finally, after 130 years or so, we’re thinking about a better way to handle electricity than with strings strung on sticks. (Wikimedia Photo)

For those of us who have been arguing into the wind for years about the urgent need to abandon our total reliance on the electric grid in favor of distributed energy — making it where you use it — it’s a sight for sore eyes. An enormous government program is building tens of thousands of direct-current microgrids to power homes and businesses and towns all over the country, providing people with electricity that is far less expensive and more reliable than is provided by the grid.

The program began field testing its microgrids just three years ago. For a single household it consisted of a solar array, a basic battery, and a 12-volt wiring harness. By staying in 12 volt, the microgrid avoids the expense and inefficiencies of inverting the power to 120-volt, and makes use of the increasing availability of 12-volt lights, motors, computers, TVs and appliances.  By the end of of this year, 100,000 microgrids will be up and running, with no slowdown in sight.

Another triumph of American ingenuity? Hardly. You can have America’s grid when you pry it from our cold, dead hands. This is a triumph of Indian innovation.

With its one and a quarter billion people — four times the population of the United States — India is the second largest country in the world. Since achieving independence from Britain in 1947, the massive and long-subjugated country has moved with surprising speed toward a position of world leadership; it is, for example, one of the few countries in the world to possess nuclear weapons.

But progress has been uneven. Poverty, environmental degradation, corruption, and plain vanilla incompetence lay across the country’s many accomplishments like a toxic fog. This is especially true when it comes to energy: one fifth of the population has no access to electricity at all; half of those who are connected to the grid find it so unreliable and expensive they may as well not have it at all

For years India has been pouring money into bigger generating plants, bigger and longer transmission lines, and myriad electrification projects. Yet of its 29 provinces, only four can boast that all of their households have electricity. The only meaningful gains have been made by the recently inaugurated microgrid program initiated by the Indian Institute of Technology at Madras.

Now, tens of thousands of homes are making enough power — reliably and cheaply — to power their lights, computers, phones, televisions, fans and certain other appliances. Whether the microgrid is alone or working in tandem with the grid, it allows people for the first time to count on being able to read at night, cool themselves with fans, communicate, and watch entire TV shows uninterrupted.

That might not seem like much to you and me, and we may not see the point at first of doing microgrids here. That’s because you and I think of the grid as sturdy and reliable, and most of us consider investing in backup power only if it lowers our electric bills. But the grid is not sturdy and reliable, it is elderly, leaky, outdated and infirm [See “Rage Against the Dying of the Lights,” The Daily Impact December 5, 2014], and one day soon it is going to fail us entirely.

On that day we are going to regret deeply all that time and money we spent grafting wind “farms” and solar “farms” and nuclear plants and coal plants and natural gas plants onto our rusting forest of sticks and strings. There is nothing sustainable, or renewable, or common sensible about gathering a gazillion watts of “renewable” energy in the middle of a desert or on a remote mountaintop and them having to ram it through an aged, leaky, decrepit grid to its eventual destination. We will also deeply regret, for example,  saving a few bucks by installing solar panels with built-in inverters to 120 volt — inverters that must be connected to the live grid for the solar panel to work.

We will regret letting the industry convince us that the only way to make energy is to burn fossil fuels in huge plants, the only way to distribute it is through strings strung on sticks (wait, hook it to the Internet and call it a “smart” grid), that high costs and frequent outages and increasing vulnerability are just the way it is. We may even, if we have the time while trying to survive, take a moment to regret that Thomas Edison lost his argument with Nikola Tesla, and Edison’s vision of an America of neighborhoods served by small DC generators never came to be.

Until now. In India.      

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18 Responses to Distributed Energy Soars at Last

  1. Tom says:

    Nicely done, with the twist there after getting the reader all hopeful and such, Mr. Lewis.

    You’re so correct about the grid. Last year when we went without power for almost 5 days in the biggest snowstorm of the season, I thought it was all over in my house. There was no way to get warm, the electric well pump didn’t work, the only way to eat was to use the barbecue grill in freezing temperatures (after disconnecting the electric garage door opener so I could open it), little distraction besides endless sleep, dead cell phones, no news or music, it was exactly as I foresaw civilization’s collapse to be.

    No fun, the adversities keep mounting (like flush toilets with no water), depression and/or anxiety mounts, and after 4 days you’re ready to pull the car into the garage, close the door, roll the windows down and leave it running while sitting in it (or lying down on the back seat).

    It’s only a matter of time now, with abrupt climate change manifesting all over the planet, before food becomes too difficult to grow (especially to scale) and all the other factors, of which the collapse of the electrical grid is but one, converge in a perfect storm (of our own making) to kill humanity off by myriad means (not the least of which will be the violence resulting from all these innumerable factors).

    Thanks for shining a light on this, while we still have light . ..

  2. Mike Kay says:

    Tessa died alone and impoverished. Having been successfully used by JP Morgan and the banksters, their empire had no use for his vehicle powered by the ethers, his free energy, or his vision of gifting it all to humanity.
    The entire effort toward industrial production was always a scheme to distribute resources toward a tycoon based social order.
    If one objectively views human behavior under the influence of cheap and readily available energy, one begins to wonder if such a gift is truly a gift at all.
    Good luck, India.

  3. Mike Kay says:

    Argh, editor again…Tesla, not Tessa. Seriously heading for trouble when the so called smart people design overrides that are this nonsensical…

  4. Wes Loder says:

    Not sure what the problem is with inverters to go to 120. We’ve lived off-grid for seven years with solar panels, inverter and batteries. No problems. Agree that more people in this country need to get off the grid and take control of their own power usage and lives.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      No problem when you bring the 12-volt current from the solar panel to the inverter; the problem is the new panels have the inverter built in to the panel, and the panel’s inverter is powered externally from the grid. Without power from the grid, the solar panel is dead.

      • Liz says:

        Ah, that explains it. A friend was just looking at a panel ($820) and immediately wondered why it apparently has to be plugged-in to work. Some people scoffed at the question, but he was right. The cutsie product photo makes it look as if the panel just feeds power into your wall outlet:

        All this makes me wonder how much power the inverter itself draws, but then I’d be a lousy consumer for asking questions.

        • Tom Lewis says:

          I’m told that every time the juice runs through an inverter, you lose around 15%. Keep in mind that a lot of electronic devices run on 12V — they have an on board inverter to step down the incoming 120V.

  5. Davebee says:

    Self sufficiency sounds a winner to me. I’m in South Africa and locally I have yet to see any form of 12v initiative, now sounds a damned good time to change that.
    Can I please have some contacts with US or Australian or UK 12v solar suppliers.
    We DO have solar but it’s only on roof panels and it is VICIOUSLY EXPENSIVE.
    Thanks VM

    • Tom Lewis says:

      The output of solar panels is 12 volts by default, except of course for the newer ones that have inverters built in. Avoid them. Perhaps it’s not the case in South Africa (is there some extraordinary tariff in place?), but in most places, solar-panel prices have dropped steeply — over half in the past few years. Have you checked the prices recently?

  6. Denis Frith says:

    The article tackles only one problem when there are a multitude arising from society unwisely employing unsustainable technological systems to use up irreplaceable natural material wealth to temporarily provide the goods, services and aging infrastructure they have become addicted to. Smart people around the globe will understand this stark physical reality and adopt measures that will ease for some the inevitable powering down

  7. Liz says:

    An inverter changes the one-way electricity of direct current into alternating current (AC). It does not, by itself, increase the voltage to 120v. I believe the device that does that is called a voltage regulator… and the 120v “standard” is somewhat arbitrary. (But I’m just a layperson here.)
    I do know that if you tried to push DC over any distance, the line losses would be huge because even the best wires have significant resistance. For reasons I don’t quite understand, AC overcomes that problem.
    BUT under this explanation is the assumption that power will be pushed over long distances in a centralized system. And that really was the fundamental choice most societies made (or the business tycoons made for them). Kudos to India for literally giving power to the people.

    • Zeke says:

      An inverter does raise the voltage to 120VAC from 12VDC to match the 120VAC that is the US standard residential voltage. A voltage regulator is usually a DC only device that converts one DC voltage to another.

      Using the 12VDC directly avoids the conversion losses from 12VDC to 120VAC and then from 120VAC to 12VDC. As you pointed out to send the same amount of power to a 12VDC device requires 10 times the current flow as to a 120VAC device. This higher current requires much thicker copper wires even just within a house.

  8. Karen Fremerman says:

    Could you please elaborate more on the Tesla point at the end of the essay? I know nothing about EE are you saying that Edison was right? I thought he ended up doing Tesla’s idea because his did not work. Could you explain to a non electrical layman?

    • BB_EE says:

      In the day Edison was not right. Want a coal fired generating plant every right blocks? What has happened is technology has evolved and now the Edison scheme is starting to make sense.

      Keep in mind PV didn’t exist in his day and wind generation had very improved greatly in the last ten years. A claim that Edison was right is revisionist history. Also, he was more exploiter than inventive genius. News flash, he didn’t invent the light bulb. Couldn’t do it so he bought a patent from a pair of Canadian inventors. Telephone, Scottish\Canadian – there’s a reason Bell settled North of the 49th. Long distance wireless – British\Canadian (c’mon, Marconi was token Italian at best. How do I know? My great-grandfather was there, he was his assistant). AC system – Croatian.

      Point being, don’t believe your own myths.

  9. shastatodd says:

    good one ;)

  10. BB_EE says:

    Actually, most things are running on 5V. The ubiquitous usb. 12V is required to drive a starter motor. Older vehicles ran on 6V, including motorcycles. However, devices that generate heat require the higher voltages because you wouldn’t want to see the amperage loading and required conductors at lower voltages. P=IV, simple Ohm’s Law.

    Bulk energy generation and transmission systems are here to stay for a while. It is still the most efficient. Yet if predominant use is micro the distributed system will evolve and predominate. Frankly, thermodynamics doesn’t give a damn what you believe (retro quote from TOD days).

    Sorry your American grid is in sad shape. Not so much here in Canada. Why is that? Does dogma really win?

  11. SomeoneInAsia says:

    The microgrids in India sound wonderful, but can all the hardware required to set them up (and maintain them) be made locally as well? (I ask this as an actual, not a rhetorical question.) I do hope the answer is yes. If it’s no, then the curse of dependence on the dying modern global industrial behemoth is still not broken…

    • Tom Lewis says:

      I’m sure the answer is no. However, since we cannot know when the final crash will come, there’s something to be said for living as well as we can in the meantime. Moreover, for those intent on making a new life in the hereafter, the microgrids will be a big help until the batteries wear out. I’ve lived without electricity (as a child) and can do it again, but I wold prefer to ease back into that state as opposed to being dropped there and a certain afternoon.