Distributed power

I’m posting a question on distributed power — do I understand it?

Amory Lovins extols distributed power; see Nobel prize winner debates future of nuclear power. (Note: Dr. Burton Richter, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in physics, took the pro-position.) Sometimes I think that’s the problem that Lovins wants to solve, not climate change, not the other incredible health and environmental damages of the energy we use. The micropower Lovins mentions? Much of the 100 GW in coal power China installed was micropower.

What do people mean when they talk about distributed power? Are they picturing Alaskan villages far from the grid using wind, solar, and diesel?

If wind power is to produce more than 10 – 20% of US electricity, we will need to schlep wind power all over the US — presumably the wind is blowing somewhere, even if not here. We could use compressed air energy storage but it requires inefficient natural gas to get the electricity out of storage.

Using wind power requires huge grid upgrade, and connecting parts of the US that are not now connected. Despite Lovins contention that we would suffer grid failure less frequently, wouldn’t more connections and more use of wind power lead to more frequent grid failure?

Germany expands the grid.
Germany expands the grid.

There are other arguments against distributed grid — as weather varies around the US, it is sometimes cheaper and produces lower GHG emissions to schlep electricity north today and south in a few months.

I’m writing this, though, to make sure that I understand the arguments in favor of distributed power, so please explain!

4 Responses to “Distributed power”

  1. Ruth Sponsler says:

    One thing the anti-nuclear movement and the followers of Amory Lovins are into is the concept of individual control over energy. This concept means that Jim down the street has his solar panels, and you have yours. They see central power generation as something big, anonymous, under mega-corporate control, and not under the control of individuals.

    They focus a great deal on power generation. However, they haven’t been focusing heavily, for example, on the fact that the manufacture of, say, computers is centralized. I haven’t heard of any big movement to produce one’s own, say, clothing [grow wool/flax and then spin it and sew it into clothes] (although some folks do produce their own food).

    I think the followers of Lovins also tend to exaggerate the power losses over transmission lines and they ~~~~completely omit efficiencies of scale~~~~~ (it’s more efficient to produce something in large quantities in one place than to have 40,000 different places all trying to make it).

    Here’s a non-power example: It’s a heck of a lot more efficient to make the fan belts for automobiles in one place (and the radiators in another factory) than for every Joe Mechanic to try to make them in his own garage (even though, theoretically, he could).

    A letter to the editor (in Binghamton NY) gives one explanation for the writer’s belief in decentralized energy. The writer is against large capitalist enterprises, but favors small, decentralized things.

    S/he is not anti-nuclear _per se_, but believes that nuclear energy is being used as a “capitalist ploy” to centralize energy markets in the hands of large utilities (as if energy markets aren’t already centralized in the hands of fossil-fuel companies…).

    A sentiment against large outfits (such as electrical utilities…or even your cell phone provider) probably isn’t the explanation for beliefs in favor of distributed power, but it is one of the arguments.

    The writer didn’t go into the Soviet experience with nuclear energy (pretty much the worst mgmt. the world has seen). That is because the writer, although s/he objects to capitalism, is a “New Leftist” rather than a classical Marxian socialist.

    There is a large distinction between the “New Left” and the “Old Left.” The “New Left” type is associated with the late 1960s social movements toward a decentralized and individualistic, “counterculture” left. These are the folks who gave rise to the well-known late 1960s trends (about which I won’t go into detail). The bottom line of the “New Left” movement was rebellion against traditional authority with an individualistic (and often)socially permissive streak.

    By contrast, the “Old Left” is associated with the Labor Movement, the Roosevelt Administration, European immigrants, and, in its fringes, with Communist movements.

    The “New Left” views the Soviet version of “socialism” as similar to corporate capitalism.

    These remarks haven’t shed a great deal of light onto why “distributed generation” is so popular amongst the members of the anti-nuclear movement, but perhaps they are a start for a discussion.

  2. Karen Street says:


    Thanks for your comments.

    Think about how many use distributed forms of transportation in so many parts of the US, and how nice visits to Manhattan are just because there is a more centralized transportation system. I don’t really want to be responsible for my own car (bikes require more frequent, but more trivial, maintenance, plus less regular infusions of money).

    I remember in one discussion, a young man talked enthusiastically about people everywhere meeting together to determine what kind of power plants they would use, and someone else asked why would they want to?

    Barry Schwartz discusses in The Paradox of Choice how much choice people want over cancer treatments, polls show. Among people with cancer, the choice option is less popular. I wonder how popular freedom of choice among power sources would be if we were really given the freedom and responsibility of choice.

  3. Joffan says:

    Corrected version of Ruth’s link.

    My impression of distributed power is that it will be a hugely complicated system in order to provide the assurance that electricity is dispatchable as needed; that the lights go on when the switch is pressed. Variations in the supply and the demand of the grid are not simple problems to reconcile, and increasing the number of suppliers including varying levels of predictability and quality is likely to make that balancing process nearly impossible. I recognize that many of the advantages we enjoy today arise from superior control of processes, from materials through machining and design to communication and coordination. It should be possible to analyze the computational complexity that arises from any suggested distributed model and evaluate, if only by modelling, how well that can meet power needs and what physical infrastructure is regquired to sustain it. I would be interested to hear of such a modelling effort.

  4. Karen Street says:

    Sunday, Friends met at Berkeley Meeting (Vine St. Meeting) to discuss nuclear power. One person presented the argument in favor of distributed power over centralized companies, and several presented the argument in favor of non-technological solutions, apparently unaware that two of the five sessions had been devoted to looking at our individual greenhouse gas emissions, our resistance to change, etc.

    Several people complained afterwards about these comments. Why do people who drive, fly, use computers, and advocate technological breakthroughs in solar cells rail against technology? More important, these concerns were seen as trivial compared to the horror of climate change.