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Distributed Energy: The Economic & National Security Arguments
||distributed power, distributed generation, Blue Green Alliance, sustainable manufacturing
Distributed generation is the use of small-scale power generation technologies located close to the load being served.
Citizen organizations in Minnnesota, such as the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (see http://www.regionalpartnerships.umn.edu/), which are promoting more distributed generation of energy, have another line of reasoning since the terrorist events of September 11, 2001. The less citizens and business are totally reliant on a few power plants, powerlines and pipelines, the more secure communities can be from efforts to disrupt this infrastructure.
Examples of DG include wind turbines, small hydropower turbines, natural gas microturbines, miniturbines, combined heat and power (CHP, or cogeneration: see http://www.epa.gov/chp/), methane digesters, photovoltaic cells, and fuel cells. For some customers DG can lower costs, improve reliability, reduce emissions, or expand their energy options. The current growth of distributed energy is analogous to the historical evolution of computer systems, which used to be large centralized machines.
DG is designed to be a more efficient use of fuel, because only about 30% of the fuel consumed in coal and nuclear plants is converted into useful energy. In contrast, an on-site CHP plant can be as much as 90% efficient by making use of the heat as well as the electricity generated.
New generation microturbines, for example, with an average size of 25 to 200 kilowatts (costing less than $1,000 per kW: see http://www.microturbine.com/ for one example of a company selling microturbines), are miniaturizing power generation and providing 85% efficient cogeneration opportunities for building heating and industrial uses. Microturbines, sometimes called turbogenerators, are derived from military jet engine designs, with only one moving part and adjustable speeds.
Richard Friedman, chairman of Resource Dynamics (http://www.distributed-generation.com/), spoke in 2001 in St. Cloud at a Partnerships meeting. His company is a leader in DG management and technology consulting. Their web site has extensive information and education under the categories of technology, applications, markets, regulations, stakeholders, library/publications, and newsletter (one can subscribe to the DG Monitor, a free e-newsletter at this web site). Topics covered include peak shaving, cogeneration, green power, net metering, grid interconnection, transmission pricing, standby or emergency power, premium power and remote power.
The US Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy concludes that "to meet the country's need for high-quality, reliable electricity, distributed energy resources (DER) offer a faster, less expensive alternative to the construction of large, central power plants and high-voltage transmission lines" and oil pipelines. See the excellent DOE web site of distributed energy resources at http://www.eere.energy.gov/de/
The threat to centralized energy infrastructure and proposed infrastructure is presented in a short article by Amory and Hunter Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, appearing in Grist Magazine (11/20/01) at http://www.grist.org/comments/soapbox/2001/11/20/in/ In their 1982 Pentagon study "Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security," they found that a handful of people could shut down three-quarters of the oil and gas supplies to the Eastern states (without leaving Louisiana), cut the power to any major city, or kill millions by crashing an airplane into a nuclear power plant. They assert all of that remains true today, and review a post-9/11 attempt to turn the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline into an 800-mile-long Chapstik.
Thomas Friedman, Minnesota native, foreign journalist and author, makes a related argument involving energy and national security. Writing October 22, 2002, he brings in political concerns by noting that autocratic Middle Eastern regimes such as Iran, which sponsor Islamic fundamentalist schools (which condone terrorism), are able to remain in power due to oil revenues fueled by America's thirst for oil.
Friedman writes, "If we really want to hasten the transition from autocracy to something more democratic, the most important thing we can do is gradually, but steadily, bring down the price of oil -- through conservation and alternative energies."
Also see Friedman's January 10, 2006 New York Times editorial "The New Red, White and Blue" at http://www.sustainablebusiness.com/news/sbnews.cfm?id=8386
The book Small Is Profitable: The Hidden Economic Benefits of Making Electrical Resources the Right Size describes 207 ways in which the size of "electrical resources " -- devices that make, save, move or store electricity -- affects their economic value. Published by Rocky Mountain Institute in 2002, "Small" is a large 399 pages. Excerpts of each chapter can be downloaded for free at http://www.smallisprofitable.org/SiteMap.html
Analyzing the major US trend away from building large centralized fossil fuel-powered generating stations and nuclear plants, the book finds that the economic benefits of "distributed" (decentralized) electrical resources typically raises their value by a large factor, often approximately tenfold. Value comes from improving system planning, generation efficiency, environmental impact, utility construction and operation (especially of the electrical grid), service quality, and by avoiding societal costs (such as global climate change).
Citizens and policy-makers facing decisions on electrical resources will find, on the web page above, a page of "207 Benefits of Distributed Resources." Essentially the Cliffs Notes for a highly technical financial and engineering book, each benefit is reduced to an easily understandable sentence or two. In total, the benefits thoroughly lay out the financial (and economic and social) arguments for putting money into distributed electrical resources, be they for a home, business, public building, community or region.
On the political front, two types of national "blue-green alliance" formed shortly after September 11th to focus on jobs and national security (see http://www.grist.org/news/powers/2003/06/30/energy/).
* The Energy Future Coalition (http://www.energyfuturecoalition.org/) convened six working groups in the areas of transportation, biofuels and agriculture, energy efficiency, international energy issues, the future of coal, and a "smart" electricity grid (one designed for efficiency and compatible with all forms of distributed generation). In each area, representatives from business, labor, and environmental groups weighed in on how they proposed to achieve dramatic reductions in oil use and carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.
* The Apollo Alliance (http://www.apolloalliance.org/) has as its motto: "Let's switch our energy dependence from the Middle East to the Midwest: Freedom from Mid-East oil. One million new energy jobs." The alliance calls for aggressive federal incentives for hybrid-electric cars, green buildings, solar panels, wind turbines, energy-efficient appliances, carbon-scrubbers on power plants, improved public transportation, a high-efficiency magnetic-levitation rail system, smart urban growth, and other cutting-edge green innovations that, if encouraged on a federal level, would create huge opportunities for job growth and be a major boon to the environment.
Similar to the Apollo Alliance is the Set America Free Coalition: see http://www.setamericafree.org
See also the http://www.bluegreenalliance.org, an effort promoting 'good jobs, a clean environment and a safer world,' by the Sierra Club and the United Steel Workers, currently (2007) working with the Minneapolis-St. Paul Mayor's Initiative on Green Manufacturing (see http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/mayor/news/20061101newsmayorgreenmanufacturing.asp).