Friday, February 29, 2008

Build out: The Grid vs. The Household - Towards a Community-based Solution to CC and PO

Originally published on here in response to this on this thread which all started here. The post has been modified for this space.

The Grid vs. The Household

Some believe we have time before a crash, or, that there will be no crash, but a relatively smooth transition from fossil fuels to renewables. They believe this slow decline in fossil fuels will allow the time needed to build hundreds (the U.S.) and thousands (the world) of nuclear power plants/reactors. However, the assumption there is time and/or there will be no crash is a dangerous one. Failure to prepare to mitigate the effects of a swift decline in energy will almost certainly lead to disaster. We must look at risk.

When we can provide a huge amount of power for a fraction of the cost and time needed to build up our nuclear grid to a level that will protect us from oil production decline, why would we not do it? Nuclear plants take years to build and require very skilled workers that must be trained. In Return to Olduvai they estimate a minimum of 20, and an upper end of 90, new reactors and/or power plants per year. At 5 - 12 billion each. That's up to 12 TRILLION dollars for the U.S. alone. But where is it written the backbone of our power grid must be built before the localized, household-based renewable infrastructure? Why shouldn't they be built concurrently, at least?

My proposal is intentionally localized due to the high degree of certainty (my certainty, not a consensus) that neither the government nor the market will be able to handle this in isolation. You have the perfect example in WWII. Victory gardens weren't just a good idea, they were necessary for continued good nutrition. The same went for resources, which led to rationing and recycling.

My position on global warming is the same. The best thing we can do is build nuclear reactors to displace coal power plants.

How can the best we can do be something that is unsustainable? Nuclear plants will need replacing two or three times a century at a current cost of billions per. The localized grid will, too, but, again, you are looking at a very small fraction of the cost for the same degree of replacement. For the same billions per *one* reactor we can supply a good fraction of the total power generation needed and leave the robust solutions for backbone, greatly reducing the number of large plants we need. If we add to this equation lifestyle changes of reducing, recycling, reusing and localization, all the more so.

I would argue, in fact, that meeting the localization goal is more important because it deals with the real issue: consumption. A massive localization drive could achieve partial energy autonomy for every household in the US within a period of a few years, not decades. It would have the added benefit of *requiring* lifestyle changes with concomitant savings of energy by reducing use via the renewables and behavior changes. However, if we assume we have a 5 - 10 year period before the shit really hits the fan, then the current grid supplies the backbone as the new backbone is built out. Under this scenario, deprivation may be eliminated for some or all over that initial time span.

Additional benefits occur from the localization of the household-based energy build out. In order to achieve this, there will be flexibility needed. Economies of scale interfere if we just assign a few companies to build all the windmills, heat pumps, solar panels, retrofitting materials for homes/apartments/businesses, etc, needed. No, the key to the plan is that it be localized solutions built out by local people wherever possible. This means, for example, the scavenging of materials needed everywhere and anywhere possible, rather than the manufacture of new materials. In the cities, we would likely need to commercialize the process a bit, but hopefully only to the level of resources. I imagine a return to the days of barn raising, but with windmills, etc.

By making this a community-based process where community solutions are customized by the community with assistance from knowledgeable locals or other reference persons/professionals, we instantly integrate the whole system into a localized whole. This might have the added benefit or reducing the need for relocation. A localized solution of this magnitude would save incredible amounts of financial resources. Those resources might be applied to some of the macro level solutions (things other than backbone) that certain communities, such as cities in the southwest dealing with water shortages, might need.

If real net oil production declines of 4% or more a year set in, we will never have the opportunity for [a nuclear and/or BAU grid-type] plan. My plan would have a good chance of succeeding whether those declines come or not. This is simple risk analysis.

I realize a great deal of interest and even fun comes out of the intellectualizing entailed in the intellectual process we are all engaged in at TOD to deal with Peak Oil and Climate Change, but the time for chat and brainy ideas is quickly passing, if it has not already passed us. I hope to encourage people to begin narrowing the conversation to the realities at hand and try to get to some conclusions before the decisions are taken out of our hands by circumstances.

Tom Whipple serves up a similar view of the future. His article doesn't deal with the sequence of events, but does outline a vision of where we may end up, albeit not in a collapse scenario, per se.

The Peak Oil Crisis: Catenaries and Pantographs

As the availability of liquid fuels dwindles, those supplies that remain will be increasingly allocated to uses for which there are no readily available substitutes -- such as powering aircraft and ships. Electric power for land vehicles appears to be the most realistic option for the present...

...For the immediate future only electricity, which can come from conservation of existing power production, nuclear power stations and renewable sources, appears to be the most likely power source for land vehicles.

Powering cars and light trucks with electricity does not seem to be an insurmountable problem provided that one is willing to live with their limitations...

The U.S. currently has some 230 million light vehicles in its fleet... these vehicles are simply going to be abandoned...

...At the rate our natural resources are running out, however, it is doubtful we will be building and selling 100’s of millions of non-fossil fuel cars in the foreseeable future. rail lines would... use diesel-electric power initially... electric-powered railways coupled with short haul electric trucks, busses and cars...

...One idea... was to repower our long-haul trucks with electric engines, some battery capacity, and pantographs to contact overhead wires...

...We already have some 2 million 18-wheelers in America and one would hate to see them scrapped for lack of fuel.

...When affordable liquid fuels dry up, we are going to be left with a lot of vehicles and their infrastructure that will no longer be of use. With a little imagination, time, and money, much of this stranded investment can become useful again. There certainly will be powerful incentives to introduce whatever works.

The abandoned vehicles and infrastructure could instead be intentionally converted, before abandonment in at least some cases, to be used in the build out I outline above.

I agree with Tom:
In its day, the internal combustion engine was a wonderful device that served us well for over a century. That day, however, will soon be over. It is time to start thinking about and planning for alternatives.

Other articles by Tom Whipple can be found here.


  1. CCPO-

    Nice post! I agree with pretty much all of it. Look at this post of mine, in which I conclude that the future of electricity is local.

    I am not sure what kind of electricity will work locally long term. Certainly water should be pretty good as well as small scale wind turbines. The current generation of solar PV will work but I doubt whether new solar panels can be replaced.

    Given how close we seem to major decline, local electric seems like the only option.

    Gail the Actuary

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Gail. Perhaps someday when you are bored you could make some calculations (guesses) about the viability of this plan.


  3. Solar photovoltaic won't be replaceable, I think, since purifying silicon is such a hassle - but solar thermal might be. Parabolic mirrors and troughs with steam are not dreadfully high-tech.

    It's worth remembering that people don't actually want electricity. We want light, hot showers, cold beer and entertainment. Those can be had very easily with electricity, but need not be.

  4. Kiashu,

    I agree. The idea of the build-out being household-/community-based is that everything needs to be customized to the structure, needs of the occupants, climate, costs, etc. People living next door to each other in the same floor plan might well have different choices in terms of solutions.

    Ideally, these things would happen at the neighborhood and/or community level to maximize efficiencies of cost and labor.

    For a small community of 10,000 people, the grant from the government would be 50 million dollars. With pooled resources, many different solutions become possible. Small solar plants, geothermal plants, etc., might well be doable given local labor, management and materials. Localized low-tech hi-tech is the key.


  5. Have seen these guys? They're aiming for open source, village-scale technology. Trough solar, tractor/diggers, mud brick makers, and so on.

    Their approach is a bit sloppy in many ways - they recently had a drama over the toilet facilities, of all things - but that's to be expected in any small voluntary social group, and the basic thrust of it is right along the lines you're speaking of here, I think.


Comments appreciated, but be polite; I like to edit.