Power Fit for a Digital Economy: The Next Electrical Era

These large gas-fired power plants have raised serious concerns among investors and among grass-roots groups for their negative ecological impacts.

by Seth Dunn, Worldwatch Paper 151, July 2000

Anyone who operates digital equipment will wryly agree with the Worldwatch Institute's new report, which argues that today's giant power plants, especially coal and nuclear, are failing to provide the high-quality, reliable electricity needed to power the new digital economy.

Power interruptions due to the vulnerability of central power plants and transmission lines cost the United States as much as $80 billion annually. In the home, wonky computers, VCRs, and answering machines, not to mention blinking clocks, are the continual companion to interrupted power supplies.

The new micropower technologies, which include fuel cells, microturbines, and solar roofing, are as small as one-millionth the scale of today's coal or nuclear plants, and produce little if any of the air pollution of their larger cousins.

One group of micropower technologies generates electricity by combustion. Reciprocating engines, traditionally fuelled by diesel oil and once used largely for backup power, are increasingly fuelled by natural gas and run throughout much of the day. Microturbines, advanced gas turbines derived from aerospace jet engines, are just starting to be mass-produced, shipped by the hundreds, and installed in drug stores, restaurants, and other US commercial buildings. Stirling engines, which can run on wood chips and even solar heat, are becoming popular in European homes.

Other micropower systems do not involve combustion. Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water, and will become available for homes shortly.

Solar cells, or photovoltaics, which use sunlight falling on semiconductor chips to produce electric current, have already entered the building market in Japan and Germany. Wind power, the most cost-competitive renewable energy technology, is poised for rapid expansion in rural plains and offshore regions. Small geothermal, microhydro, and biomass systems also hold important roles in the emerging decentralized electricity system …

Small-scale units can save electricity consumers millions of dollars by avoiding costly new investments in central power plants and distribution systems, as well as lowering the threat of power outages and subsequent lost productivity.

The extent to which current power markets favour short-sighted solutions is highlighted in the rush to construct some 100,000 megawatts of "merchant plants" worldwide. These large gas-fired power plants, marketed as the answer to power shortages, are designed to make money by selling power in newly deregulated electricity markets when demand and prices are high. But they have raised serious concerns among investors for their financial riskiness, and among grassroots groups for their negative ecological impacts–as many are located in rural or pristine areas.

* You can download the complete paper as an Adobe PDF file for $5 on the Worldwatch web site at: http://www.worldwatch.org/pubs/paper/151.html or order the print version at 1(800)555-2028

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[From WS December 2000/January 2001]

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