Back in the 1920s, the United State had a major discussion about “giant power” — how could we build a nationwide grid to distribute electricity? At that time much of the nation’s power was generated for local and nearby use, mostly in urban areas, but a growing industrial nation needed increasing power for its cities and factories. The American Academy of Political and Social Sciences devoted its Annals of 1925 to the subject, offering papers on various aspects of “Large Scale Electrical Development as a Social Factor.”
As with proponents of any technical innovation, the advocates of giant power promised cheaper electricity, greater leisure, and power spread across the countryside to make farm life easier. Morris Llewellyn Cooke, the volume’s editor, noted:
“…Quite apart from its technical implications Giant Power signifies a social approach to power problems quite distinct from – even if not entirely unaffected by – financial considerations… Giant Power seeks to … suggest a planned future as contrasted with drifting policy. Giant Power can make electrical energy more plentiful, cheaper, and more widely distributed.”
Some of the promises of the 1920s were largely fulfilled, but perceived financial barriers discriminated against rural areas. They were said to be too expensive to serve. It took government intervention during the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal to make rural electrification a reality for much of the countryside in the late 1930s and in the years following World War II. In many areas, farmers and other electric consumers assumed the risk of electrification through cooperatives.
Fast forward to 2009, to a speech by John Krenicki, president and chief executive officer of GE Energy at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners meeting in Chicago. Krenicki was addressing smart grid technology – a more precise way to monitor electricity flows through precise two-way communications between power suppliers and customers.
In his discussion, Krenicki offered one of those moments of enlightenment that makes these meetings worthwhile. He helped me understand two things in a different way:
• I already knew that transmitting power over long distances created tremendous inefficiencies. What I didn’t realize is that the current distribution system is only about 20 percent efficient. That’s right. 20 percent. A coal-fired power plant is only about 30 percent efficient.
• The second enlightenment was historical. What Krenicki called the union of information technology with energy distribution caught my attention with a high-voltage jolt: Rural areas are already far behind when it comes to being ready for the smart grid because they are generally underserved by broadband.
Now we are having significant discussions about broadband and the smart grid that promise to make electrical distribution more energy-efficient at all levels, from production, through distribution, to the end-consumer. These discussions will shape the future of rural areas for the next generation, and we need to handle things differently than we did in the past.
While the country benefitted in many ways from the giant power grids created in the last century, that system turns out to have been wasteful, creating air pollution and transmission inefficiencies. The massive grid system took us away from locally generated power as it set generation standards, establishing secure power supplies and managing demand based on interconnections. The current grid is obsolete, however, with some equipment, such as transformers, pushing the half-century mark. The unsustainable system, driven as it is by nonrenewable fossil fuels, is even more inefficient because of maintenance costs and rising fuel prices.
So, it’s time to make an old idea new again by engaging rural communities in planning for energy production as part of the smart grid. Let’s recognize now that broadband access isn’t just about information. It’s also going to be about high-technology energy distribution. If it’s bad to be bypassed by the information highway, being bypassed by the smart grid will be an even rougher blow for rural communities.
First, rural community leaders need to be prepared for the union of information technology and energy distribution. “Giant power” will be with us for the long term. But the new smart grid offers communities additional opportunities to become engaged in locally generated green energy. To secure the benefits of the smart grid, rural leaders need to insist on regulations that will encourage smaller-scale power generation while fostering equal access to high-quality broadband services. If areas are underserved as the smart grid is built, broadband for communities should be built concurrently in rural communities.
Second, local leaders in smaller towns and cities need to be thinking about the smart grid as they are planning for broadband. It might be time to consider new municipal power authorities to take advantage of renewable energy opportunities in these areas. These authorities could work with existing rural electrical cooperatives and other businesses to establish renewable energy parks to use biomass to generate local energy, selling surpluses on the grid. Similar set ups could be arranged for wind or solar facilities.
Third, communities and rural utilities need to involve households and businesses in their efforts to develop the smart grid. This effort goes beyond smart metering to monitor for efficient energy use in buildings. Structures can hold solar panels and small wind turbines can be deployed to provide power for the grid. Solar powered electricity and heated water could be linked with geothermal to provide heating and cooling. Biofuels could be used to heat water warmed by the sun and stored for night-time use, at temperatures high enough to run small turbines to generate electricity.
There’s plenty of room for imagination here. Budding earthtrepreneurs and green-minded communities can plan and act for the smart grid now. A little positive energy can take us back to the future.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.