When it comes to power generation - Small is Beautiful,

C Robb W. 429°

Amory Lovins, chief scientist at Rocky Mountain Institute, negawatt guru and all around energy expert, has written a piece in the NY Times freakonomics blog regarding big power plants compared to small distributed generation power systems. It's fascinating stuff and the way forward. Yet another nail in the coffin of dirty coal.

Does a Big Economy Need Big Power Plants?

Here's an excerpt,

"Big thermal plants’ disappointing cost, efficiency, risk, and reliability were leading their orders to collapse even before restructuring began to create new market entrants, unbundled prices, and increased opportunities for competition at all scales. By now, the world is shifting decisively to “micropower” — The Economist’s term for cogeneration (making electricity and useful heat together in factories or buildings) plus renewables (except big hydroelectric dams).

The U.S. lags with only about 6 percent micropower: its special rules favor incumbents and gigantism. Yet micropower provides from one-sixth to more than half of all electricity in a dozen other industrial countries. Micropower in 2006 (the last full data available) delivered a sixth of the world’s total electricity (more than nuclear power) and a third of the world’s new electricity. Micropower plus “negawatts” — electricity saved by more efficient or timely use — now provide upwards of half the world’s new electrical services. The supposedly indispensable central thermal plants provide only the minority, because they cost too much and bear too much financial risk to win much private investment, whereas distributed renewables got $91 billion of new private capital in 2007 alone. Collapsed capital markets now make giant projects even more unfinanceable, favoring lower-financial-risk granular projects even more....

Global competition between big and small plants is turning into a rout. In 2006, nuclear power worldwide added 1.44 billion watts (about one big reactor’s worth) of capacity — more than all of it from uprating old units, since retirements exceeded additions. But that was less capacity than photovoltaics (solar cells) added in 2006, or a tenth what windpower added, or 2.5 percent to 3 percent of what micropower added. China’s nuclear program, the world’s most ambitious, achieved one-seventh the capacity of its distributed renewable capacity and grew one-seventh as fast. In 2007, the U.S., Spain, and China each added more wind capacity than the world added nuclear capacity, and the U.S. added more wind capacity than it added coal-fired capacity during 2003 to 2007 inclusive."

1 reply

Charles M. 110°

The cool thing about microgeneration is that it can exploit resources that are not commercially viable on the large scale.

For instance, here in NZ some geothermal steam vents have been used for generation. Most of these vents only provide small generation capacity and would be ignored by Big Generation.

Same deal with wind. Many sites can only support one or two wind turbines and are not big enough to support a huge wind farm.

Small also paves the way to get around the "Not In My Backyard" problem as communities can feel better about smaller schemes that are are sized to their needs.

Sure, most of NZs power is hydro, but these smaller generation opportunities make a vast contribution.

Some technologies don't scale down well at all: coal needs infrastructure to mine and bring in the coal and "bigger is better".

Written in February 2009

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