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Green Progression

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2009

more concentrated areas.

This is creating a logistical problem for the power industry, and it could create a social problem. Already you’re seeing the effects, in terms of cascading blackouts. A transformer fails here, and all of a sudden the voltage changes and the whole area blacks out. The grid isn’t totally adequate in many areas, which makes the problem worse. But nobody wants a power line built close to them, and nobody wants higher rates no matter what the downside might be. Then when something goes wrong they want it fixed immediately.

To add another complication, it’s conceivable that someone will come up with a fairly inexpensive way to generate distributed power for individual households. What will that do to the grid? What happens when 20 million people want net metering? Will you get power surges you didn’t anticipate?

As power gets more concentrated, the black swans get more dangerous. The negatives become greater.

I don’t think most political institutions recognize how great these problems could be. They don’t want to address it politically, because it points out the vulnerability of the political system. Anything you promise costs money. People can see the benefit if you build them a park, but they don’t see the benefit if their electric system is reliable. As far as most people are concerned, the system always has been reliable. It might have been teetering on the edge for 50 years, and kept together with the equivalent of baling wire and tape, but it’s been reliable.


Fortnightly: That’s a good argument for investing in the smart grid—to maintain reliability while also improving system efficiency and integrating green resources.

Modesitt: True, but then you’re talking about more costs, and a smart grid can do only so much.

Maybe I’m overreacting, but say we get to a world with electric vehicles. What happens to your power load when all those Priuses get recharged every night? Today a lot of power plant maintenance is done at night when loads aren’t as heavy. What happens to your maintenance schedule?

We have a whole generation of people going mobile. My kids don’t even have land lines, and their phones have to be charged at night. One person is no big deal, but a whole generation … I’ve got to believe that when we have more mobile devices charging at night, it will have an impact on the power structure.

We’re seeing this on a greater societal level. Twenty-five years ago in Washington, D.C., there was a defined rush hour—3:30 to 6:30. Now it’s like 2 until 9:30. The roads are jammed all the damned time. Grocery stores used to be closed on Sunday. Now they’re open 24 hours, seven days a week. That’s a lot of power usage. We’re moving into a 24 hour-a-day society, and that has obvious power implications.