Even though Solar Panels and Natural Gas Home Generators allow us to Disconnect from the Grid we Shouldn’t

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 21st, 2013

Week in Review

I remember losing power for a couple of hot and humid days.  The kind where you stick to everything because you’re just covered in sweat.  Making it almost impossible to sleep.  But I was able to borrow my father’s generator.  So I would not have to suffer through that insufferable heat and humidity.  While I was able to run my refrigerator, turn the lights on and even watch television I could not start my central air conditioner.  Even when I shut everything else off.  It was large enough to run the AC.  But it was just not big enough to start it.  I tried.  But as I did that inrush of current (about 40 amps) just stalled the generator.  Which could put out only 30 amps at 240 volts.  So even though I had a 30 amp generator to start an air conditioner that was on a 20 amp circuit breaker it wasn’t big enough.  Because of that momentary inrush of current.  So I suffered through that insufferable heat and humidity until the electric utility restored power.  And I never loved my electric utility more than when they did.

Now suppose I wanted to go to solar power.  How large of a solar array would I need that would start my air conditioner?  If one square inch of solar panel provided 70 milliwatts and you do a little math that comes to approximately a 950 square-foot solar array.  Or an array approximately 20 FT X 50 FT.  Which is a lot of solar panel.  Costly to install.  And if you want to use any electricity at night you’re going to need some kind of battery system.  But you won’t be able to run your air conditioner.  For one start would probably drain down that battery system.  So it’s not feasible to disconnect from the electric grid.  For you’re going to need something else when the sun doesn’t shine.  And because there can be windless nights a windmill won’t be the answer.  Because you’re going to need at least one source of electric power you can rely on to be there for you.  Like your electric utility.  Or, perhaps, your gas utility (see Relentless And Disruptive Innovation Will Shortly Affect US Electric Utilities by Peter Kelly-Detwiler posted 4/18/2013 on Forbes).

NRG’s CEO David Crane is one of the few utility CEO’s in the US who appears to fully appreciate – and publicly articulate – the potential for this coming dynamic.  At recent Wall Street Journal ECO:nomics conference, he indicated that solar power and natural gas are coming on strong, and that some customers may soon decide they do not need the electric utility. “If you have gas into your house and say you want to be as green as possible, maybe you’re anti-fracking or something and you have solar panels on your roof, you don’t need to be connected to the grid at all.”  He predicted that within a short timeframe, we may see technologies that allow for conversion of gas into electricity at the residential level.

If you want carefree and reliable electric power you connect to the electric grid.  Have a natural gas backup generator sized to power the entire house (large enough to even start your central air conditioner).  And a whole-house uninterruptible power supply (UPS).  To provide all your power needs momentarily while you switch from your electric utility to your gas utility.  Well, all but your central air conditioner (and other heavy electrical loads).  Which would have to wait for the natural gas generator to start running.  Because if you connected these to your UPS it might drain the battery down before that generator was up and running.  No problem.  For we can all go a minute or two without air conditioning.

So this combination would work.  With solar panels and a natural gas generator you could disconnect from the electric grid.  But is this something we should really do?  Not everyone will be able to afford solar panels and natural gas generators.  They will have to rely on the electric utility.  Some may only be able to afford the solar panels.  Staying connected to the grid for their nighttime power needs.  But if our electric utilities cut their generation and take it offline permanently it could cause some serious problems.  For what happens when a day of thunderstorms blocks the sun from our solar panels and everyone is still running their air conditioners?  The solar panels can no longer provide the peak power demand that they took from the electric utility (causing the utilities to reduce their generation capacity).  But if they reduced their generation capacity how are they going to be able to take back this peak power demand?  They won’t be able to.  And if they can’t that means rolling brownouts and blackouts.  Not a problem for those with the resources to install a backup generator.  But a big problem for everyone else.

We should study any plans to mothball any baseload electric generation.  For renewable sources of energy may be green but they are not reliable.  And electric power is not just about comfort in our homes.  It’s also about national security.  Imagine the Boston Marathon bombing happening during a time of rolling blackouts.  Imagine all of the things we take for granted not being there.  Like power in our homes to charge our smartphones.  And to power the televisions we saw the two bombers identified on.  We would have been both literally and figuratively in the dark.  Making it a lot easier for the bombers to have made their escape.  There’s a reason why we’re trying to harden our electric grid from cyber attacks.  Because we are simply too dependent on electric power for both the comforts and necessities of life.  Which is why we should be building more coal-fired power plants.  Not fewer.  Because coal is reliable and we have domestic sources of coal.  Ditto for natural gas and nuclear.  The mainstay of baseload power.  Because there is nothing more reliable.  Which comes in handy for national security.

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