Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Anticipating shifting energy patterns

© 2009 Joshua Stark

Dr. Kahn at UCLA has a quick post up about plug-in Prius hybrids coming in 2012. Of course, GM says its Volt will arrive late next year (call me a doubting Thomas, that thing has been just about to come out for four years now), and Nissan and possibly Ford have electric vehicles coming out next year or 2011. Tesla Motors has ripped them all up, as they've had an all-electric roadster (0-60 in 3.9 seconds) out for two years now, and offer a sedan next year that I would love to get for my next birthday.
This is all good news, but Dr. Kahn's question was one of capacity in the state. Can California provide enough power through our grid in such a way as to make this transition possible?

In my humble opinion, yes. There are two major transformations that can (and probably will) quickly take place to help this transition:

1) Water conservation! About one-fifth of California's energy consumption goes to water transport and purification in the state. Currently, there is a strong movement to get a 20% reduction in residential water use by 2020, and this will translate into energy savings. If the State were to grow a spine and include agriculture, we could experience dramatic energy savings;

2) Distributed generation! That's the fancy term for you producing electricity, either by wind or, more often, solar power. Barring any unforseen bad events, within three years I predict changes that will make it much more cost-effective (and even lucrative) for folks to install solar panels and windmills at home. If you could sell excess energy back into the grid for fair market value, while at the same time utilities are required to procure larger percentages of their electricity from renewable resources, I'd be willing to bet that break-even points for solar panels would drop from the current 8 years or so to 4 or 5 years, especially if tax rebates continue. At the same time, individuals would be insulating themselves from higher electricity rates by producing their own.

Of course, obstacles exist, the primary one being the centralized ability of big utilities (and ag.) to lobby hard to get what they want. One prime example is an attempt by PG & E to require 2/3rd's voter approval if a community tries to create its own, public utility. At the state level, this usually means that companies go along with 'green' ideas so long as they maintain their current, government supported lock on production/distribution. In this light, expect big pushes for those huge solar developments in the Southern California wilderness. My own two cents is to compromise, and let them develop huge solar projects in the Central Valley at the same time you require them to pay fair market value for electricity from individuals. If it is true that only about four or five percent of homes are cost-effective for good solar generation, then why are the utilities reticent to push for as much of it as we can make?

We all know that the transition will have costs and consequences. Every change does. However, like Professor Kahn, I believe our electricity generation can and will make a fairly smooth transition to providing more energy for transportation.

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