631. To Grid or Not To Grid

Although I fully believe in it, I normally steer clear of talking about global warming, wind and solar power, and the impending end of civilization. There are plenty of sources for that, and I don’t want to get caught channeling PBS.

However, speaking of PBS, there was a bit about the problems of energy storage as part of the solar solution yesterday (Sept. 27) that made me realize I knew a few odd things from a few odd sources that were worth sharing.

I live in California, in the foothills of the Sierras. PG&E provides my electricity, but every time it rains more than a tenth of an inch, my power goes out for six hours. This has been true for decades, not just since PG&E went bankrupt for its role in recent fires and told us all that it was going to shut our power off every time the wind comes up.

It’s enough to make you want to go off the grid.

We’ve all grown up with the grid — even me. The first house I remember, about 1950, had no plumbing, no running water, and an outhouse out back, but it had electricity coming in from elsewhere through the wires. Consequently, I can’t honestly tell Lincolnesque tales of reading by a coal oil light (except when tornadoes took the wires down).

The history of the grid goes back to Tesla and Edison fighting the battle of AC vs DC, and continues through the REA. (That’s the Rural Electrification Administration which brought electricity to isolated farms throughout America in the thirties.)

The grid is wonderful; it has given us our present level of civilization.

The grid is terrible. It is a dinosaur, completely out of date and tying us to the mistakes of the past.

As is so often the case, both of those statements are true. No one decided to choose centralized production of electricity with a massive distribution system. Its alternative, dispersed production, was simply not an option in the past.

That is no longer the case. A system of solar power through electrovoltaic cells can now be built one roof at a time. (There are other alternative sources of electricity, but I’m only going to talk about one in this post.)

There is a big problem, though. Solar cells only generate sufficient power during reasonably sunny days. There is also a solution, but it is only going to work for a few years.

In today’s installation of rooftop solar cells, homes mostly draw on the grid at night and “turn the meter back” during the day. Quite clever, for now. It amounts to using the grid like a giant storage battery. But if enough rooftop solar installations try this trick, daytime generated electricity will become essentially a waste product from the viewpoint of the owners of the grid.

Of course you could have a mega-array of solar cells in America lighting up India at night, and a similar array in India lighting up America at night, but that’s turning the grid into a GRID. It’s good science fiction, but not very practical.

If you want off the grid — and eventually the grid will want you off, if you are a daytime energy generator — you will have to find a way to store your daytime energy for night time use.

Storage batteries are heavy and expensive, not only in the owner’s dollars but also in terms of world resources. They also blow up. I’m not just talking about lithium ion batteries; car batteries blow up too from time to time.

If you could invent the perfect battery — light, safe, cheap, environmentally friendly, capacious — it would make you more money than cold fusion.

If you could invent both, you would solve all the world’s problems except overpopulation and religious strife. You could run for God and probably win.

Heinlein invented the perfect battery, the Shipstone, and built a whole universe around it, but it’s harder to do in the real world.

Coming back down to the individual home owner, what is needed is a non-battery source of energy storage to make those solar cells practical.

I have an idea! Actually it isn’t mine; it already exists, and I can point to it.

Hop in the car with me and let’s take off for the coast. I drive by something every time the foothills get too hot and I need a Monterey fix down by the ocean. I’ll show it to you.

We’ll go there Wednesday.

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