I’ve been immersed in reams of reports and data regarding the electrical grid for months (resulting story coming very soon), and let me tell you this: The grid is big, it’s important, it creeps into every aspect of our modern lives, and it’s fragile. If your science fiction story is in need of a modern-Frankenstein-like human-made monster that turns on us, you could do worse than the grid. It contains millions of miles of wires, and though we operate it from “control rooms,” we actually have very little control over it at all. It is considered the finest engineering achievement of the 20th century, yet it is prone to breaking down, due to: severe weather (both heat and cold, along with tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and wildfires); electromagnetic pulses detonated by evil terrorists; cyber-attacks; solar flares; birds burrowing into transformers; petty vandalism; and human error.
Not only that, but the grid evolved around a system that is mostly based on sending power from huge, centralized fossil-fueled power plants -- along with a few big dams -- across hundreds of miles of landscape to burgeoning cities. And in order to move away from this model, we’re told that we’d actually have to grow the grid -- that is, add thousands upon thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines in order to integrate a bunch of renewables into our energy mix.
Given all of that, it makes sense that folks, from earth-loving hippies to patriot “preppers” to entire towns, would want to go off-grid.
If only it were that easy.
Many years ago, when I was young, my wife and I tried to buy a house in my hometown of Durango, where we had jobs. We couldn’t afford it, even back then. So we expanded our search further and further outwards. Finally, convinced we’d end up in a double-wide, at best, we found an affordable and charming little hand-built adobe/strawbale hodgepodge of a house some 40 miles southeast of town on the edge of New Mexico.
The house was off the grid, and got all its electricity from a scrappy collection of solar panels that were either salvaged from demolished homes or “recycled” from nearby oil and gas wells. Surely it wouldn’t be enough, we thought, but since power lines came to the edge of the property, we knew it wouldn’t cost that much to get “real” power when the need arose.
The need never arose. The solar panels -- in concert with a bank of four golf-cart batteries from Sam’s Club -- kept the lights on the entire two years that we lived there. We only had to crank up the diesel generator once, for a few hours, on or near a cloudy, snowy winter solstice. The solar panels and their battery sidekicks even did the trick during Christmas, when we had a house full of guests who were wedded to their hair dryers, food processors and coffee-bean grinders. Maintenance was minimal: We had to brush the snow off the panels, and top off the water in the batteries once a month or so.
Before you rush off to procure a solar panel from the nearest oil and gas well and free yourself from the grid, though, heed this: There is a catch.
You see, our off-grid house was not your average suburban home. It wasn’t even your average super energy-efficient home. It was downright funky and, more importantly, it was constructed and equipped with off-the-grid-ness in mind. The guy who built it had spent a lot of time on boats, so the house was wired like one. It had super-efficient direct current halogen and fluorescent lighting -- the bedroom light was actually a Volkswagen van headlamp -- which allowed them to run directly off the solar panels or batteries. Probably our biggest electricity need was pumping water for irrigation and drinking, which was done with small DC boat pumps. The house was equipped with an inverter, which transforms DC into the alternating current on which most appliances run. But we didn’t really have any appliances: No dishwasher, no clothes washer, no espresso maker and certainly no air conditioner. Our refrigerator ran on propane.
So the lesson is that you most certainly can run a home off of a modest array of photovoltaic panels, but most likely not your home, or my current one for that matter. To do so would require covering the entire roof and then some with solar panels. More importantly, it would probably mean turning one side of your two-car garage into a battery bank that must be well-ventilated and is prone to exploding. Even then you’d be well-advised to shift your energy use habits to preserve battery life: Washing clothes or charging all those electronics or even steaming the milk for your latte only during the early afternoon, when solar gain is at its highest. And the air conditioner? Better leave it off altogether. Refrigeration of any sort is a major power suck.
Our lives and our society have become so dependent on the grid that separating ourselves from it requires us to radically alter our lifestyle and society. That’s especially true in the United States, where we use about twice the electricity per capita as Germany and ten times what Cubans use (are we still Americans if we unplug?). Even if we do manage to unplug from the grid, we still depend on it. Cell phones and the Internet are reliant on the power grid and the communications grid. We got our drinking water for our adobe abode by collecting rainwater off the roof, but irrigation water came from a ditch, or the water grid (surely pushed along by electricity-driven pumps, at some point along the line). Though we could cook and heat the house and water with wood stoves, we also had a propane stove, heater, water-heater and refrigerator; no grid, no propane.
That’s why I find it somewhat humorous when folks slap a few solar panels on the roof and declare themselves “off-grid” or “un-plugged” because their electric meter needle holds still or even goes backward for an hour or two on sunny days. There’s a new movement now to take entire neighborhoods, institutions and even communities off-grid by setting up their own micro-grids powered by a variety of distributed generation. It’s a great idea, and will enable these places to keep the lights on for a while as the rest of us sit in the dark, but it doesn’t change a persistent truth: We’re all plugged in, all the time.
Photo by the author. Graph data from the World Bank.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He is connected through the grid in a number of ways, including Twitter, where his handle is @jonnypeace.
When I was in middle school my Dad and I were catching grasshoppers for fishing bait, but we ended up in the kitchen frying them instead. Since it’s hard to go wrong deep-frying anything, they were kind of tasty, like popcorn. In a Calvin and Hobbes-inspired move, I decided to take some to school and add shock value to my lunch. For some reason I remember grossing out only the boys at my table, and probably ruined any subsequent chances for youthful romance.
What I couldn’t understand is why some people find eating grasshoppers so disgusting. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization is wondering the same thing in a new report [pdf] titled Edible Insects: Prospects for food and feed security. The authors hope to start a discussion about virtues of entomophagy (that’s the eating of insects) as more than a stunt, fad, or foodie trend. As we careen towards an estimated human population of nine billon people by 2050, the UN wants us to think of minibeasts as a legitimate way to deal with current or impending global food insecurity and inefficiencies in our food system.
According to the report, insects can often serve as nutritional stand-ins for chicken, pork, beef and fish. And the environmental benefits of raising arthropods for food are abundant. Since insects are cold-blooded, they are efficient at converting feed into protein: “Crickets, for example, need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep, and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein.” And, if that’s not enough, “minilivestock”, as they are called, don’t necessarily require land for rearing—they can even be used as feed for other stock, while taking up less space and resources than fishmeal or soy.
Each year, nearly half the world's wild sockeye salmon congregate in southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay, then make their way up rivers into a wild land tangled with smaller streams to spawn. There, at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, Pebble Partnership proposes to mine copper and gold. The Pebble Mine, if fully developed, would be one of the largest open-pit mines on the world, with earthen dams higher than the Washington Monument to hold mine tailings. Yet the mining company is confident they can contain toxic mine drainage, developing the underground riches without harming the prolific salmon on which the area's residents depend.
The Environmental Protection Agency is skeptical of the mining company's claims, a view expressed in the agency's revised assessment of Pebble Mine. The eagerly awaited study, released in April, reiterates the agency's stance that the mine poses serious risks to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, and brings EPA one step closer to possibly vetoing Pebble before it is ever built.
When I first wrote about the Bureau of Land Management’s draft of its new fracking regulations in May 2012, I chalked the Obama administration’s pro-industry, jobs-jobs-jobs spin on the proposal up to election-year politicking. After all, beneath the Orwellian PR and despite not going as far as environmentalists had hoped, many parts of it seemed at the very least adequate to protect public health and the environment from the worst potential effects of oil and gas development. Today, 90 percent of wells on federal lands are hydraulically fractured -- wherein pressurized water laced with chemicals and sand is used to break open oil and gas bearing rock formations and release their bounty to the surface. The massively expanded use of the technology to access shale gas and oil in recent years has raised concerns about water and air contamination, among other issues. “These rules create consistent minimum requirements for chemical disclosure, wellbore integrity, and waste disposal, among other aspects of the (hydraulic fracturing) process," Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability Project Senior Staff Attorney Bruce Baizel said at the time.
But 177,000 public comments and a little over a year later, the Interior Department has released a significantly weakened version of those rules for yet another round of public comment. Apparently, last year’s spin revealed more about the administration’s real priorities than I had originally thought. Some highlights on how key aspects of the rules have changed:
-In the last draft of the rules, the BLM required companies to test the integrity and strength of each well bore to ensure they don’t leak fracking chemicals and hydrocarbons -- and submit those results to the agency for review -- before the well could be fracked. Under the new rules, companies can avoid obtaining or submitting this information for wells if they are similar to one that has been shown to have a strong enough cement job. Worse, companies don’t have to submit this information until AFTER fracking has occurred. Seems like a poor policing strategy for what has proved to be a major source of problems: Inadequate or incomplete well casings and cement jobs have been implicated in everything from gas and toxic chemicals bubbling up in local streams, to houses filling with methane and exploding.
Can grazing help control cheatgrass? That’s one of those questions that in some places doesn’t mean a thing, but in the Great Basin is likely to elicit a range of answers, from a decisive ‘yes’ to a forceful ‘absolutely not.’ The answer, as usual, lies somewhere in between: It depends on how dominant cheatgrass already is on the land, and when and how heavily it’s being grazed.
A new study in the Journal of Applied Ecology adds more nuance to the debate. Researchers studying intact sagebrush and native bunchgrass ecosystems in eastern Oregon found that grazing indirectly aids cheatgrass invasion by stressing out the system, making it more vulnerable to the invasive grass. They suggest reducing grazing intensity in these areas, by having fewer cows on the land for less time, could help intact Great Basin ecosystems ward off cheatgrass.
If you are one of those people for whom “can grazing help control cheatgrass” is an innocent question, let’s pause here and explain why cheatgrass is so bad.
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For over a century, monopoly electric utilities have nurtured the West. They fed the mines and the mills, and now deliver the juice to our thirsty digital devices and air conditioners. Now, it appears as if the offspring is offing its mother, as rooftop solar slowly strangles utilities.
While the green media has gleefully spread word of this apparent matricide, it was first spawned by a report [pdf] right out of the utility industry itself, and then bolstered by a prominent utility executive, lending it credence. The concern from the industry is fairly straightforward: If customers produce their own energy, they won’t need to buy it from the utility, and revenues drop. And if those consumers produce more energy than they use, they become competitors, lower the price of electricity and take another bite out of the utilities’ bottom line until we just don’t need the utilities anymore at all.
The idea of this sort of rooftop revolution is as rousing and lovely as that of wiping out our industrialized food system with backyard and rooftop gardens. But it’s also nearly as implausible for two reasons: scale and dependency.
If any utility should be under threat from rooftop solar, it would be Arizona Public Service. The state is one of the best places in the world to generate solar power, and it has a strong net metering program that allows homes with distributed generation to recoup their costs and then some. APS boasts that 24,000 of its customers have taken advantage of the sun and the incentives. While that’s a hefty number, it represents only about two percent of the utility’s more than 1 million customers. That may put a tiny dent in APS’s $600 million-plus yearly profit, but it’s a long way from being an existential threat. Even the 150,000 solar rooftops in California, with a max capacity of less than half of what Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station kicks out at any given moment, is a mere drop in the total energy bucket.
With the cost of solar panels continuing to drop, it is conceivable that two percent could become 20 percent. But that still won’t necessarily be the death knell for utilities, because distributed generation as we know it now is still desperately dependent on the grid, and the utilities that run and operate it. David Roberts, over at Grist, recently noted that “a home creating its own power basically unplugs itself from the grid ... the electricity that’s generated onsite on a solar home is used by that home or its immediate neighbors. It barely touches the utility’s transmission and distribution system.” While Roberts’ explainer on this issue is otherwise excellent, this passage doesn’t quite cut it. Even figuratively, one could say that a home “unplugs” only during those very rare moments when it produces exactly as much power as it uses. That might happen for a few minutes during the day. For the remaining 86,000 seconds in the day, rooftop solar is very plugged in.
Solar generation typically reaches its peak around 1:00 in the afternoon, right at a time when residential power use is relatively low because air conditioners have yet to crank up too much, and the residents are at work. Power flows from house to grid, where it adds to the current that is flowing towards the “load” or places that need it. That might be a neighbor, unless her house’s panels are also generating surplus power, in which case it could be the Wal-Mart down the street or the factory in a neighboring town. Residential power use then swings upward as the afternoon progresses, peaking around 5 p.m. as folks get home from work and air conditioners rev up. By this time, solar power is on the downswing, so the typical residence will use more power than rooftop solar generates. It’s payback time, when residences that generated all that surplus power in the middle of the day get it “back” from the grid (though now the juice is most likely coming from natural gas, hydropower, coal or nuclear plants). In essence, a transaction is taking place that allows the rooftop solar home to treat the grid like a big battery, storing up excess power and then releasing it when needed.
This transaction is critical for rooftop solar to make any sense (unless one is inclined to attune one’s energy use precisely to the cycle of the sun, or to put in a big enough battery bank to back up all that solar on site, but more on that later). But the transaction can’t take place without the grid. And in most parts of the West -- California being the exception -- the grid is run by monopoly utilities, and they’re the ones firing up the so-called peaking generators necessary to keep the power on when the sun dims and demand is at its highest. Indeed, the cost of building and running those “peakers” -- which in many cases are essentially power-generating, natural gas-guzzling jet engines -- are the big threat to utilities. Yet they become more and more necessary as more solar -- be it rooftop or utility-scale -- is put into the grid.*
There are ways around this quandary. The obvious one is for all those folks with distributed generation to battery-up and literally unplug from the grid (I’ll write about this next week). The other is to broaden the push for distributed generation beyond rooftop solar, to small-scale hydro-power, geothermal, wind and even small natural gas plants, so that the collective input from distributed generation can meet demand at all times of the day so as to ease the dependence on the utilities (though not necessarily the dependence on the grid ... decoupling from the grid will be a lot harder than cutting the utilities loose, for a number of reasons.).
In the meantime, the utilities might want to consider the recent warnings as a wake-up call. Rather than go to battle with distributed generation -- by trying to kill incentives or cut down net metering programs -- they’d do well to adapt to it, even embrace it. This won’t be easy, it's a hugely complex issue that we'll try to tackle here in future posts, but it may be the only way out. Rooftop solar can be the utilities’ killer, or savior, depending on how the utilities handle things.
*This is thanks to the phenomenon I tried to describe above. Total electricity demand for a utility is charted on a curve that usually reaches its lowest point at around 3 or 4 a.m., and its highest point at around 5 p.m. Solar generation is typically considered negative demand, so the demand curve bends even further downward when solar is at its peak, in the middle of the day. The problem with this, from a grid operator’s standpoint, is that the subsequent peak is larger, relatively speaking, so a greater amount of “peaking” generation has to be fired up to meet that peak.
Next week: Going off the grid.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.
In the spring of 2011, a big, fast-melting snowpack, along with ice-jammed rivers and persistent rain brought intense flooding to Montana. Miles City, in the southeastern part of the state, declared a flood disaster after part of its levee system eroded away, and the town’s stream gauge on the Yellowstone River measured the third highest peak stream flow there since the gauge began recording continuously in August of 1928.
How will this year’s runoff in Miles City compare to that flood and stream flows from the lifetime of years before it? On Wednesday morning it looked like we would never know. That’s when I heard from the Montana U.S. Geologic Survey that they were shutting off the Miles City stream gauge, along with two others in the state. By the afternoon, the agency had updated its web pages for the gauges to include the cause of death, explained in all capital letters: “STATION DISCONTINUED DUE TO SEQUESTRATION.” But at the last minute, the state stepped in to rescue the gauge--for now, although gauges in other states are still on the chopping block.
All across the country stream flow sentinels are falling victim to the indiscriminate spending cuts ushered in on March 1 after Congress failed to agree on a budget. (See Cally Carswell’s High Country News story analyzing sequestration in the West). Other states, like Idaho, have rescued some of their endangered gauges with state funding, but until yesterday, it looked like no one in Montana was stepping up for Miles City’s Yellowstone gauge, the Three Forks gauge on the Jefferson River, and a gauge near Missoula on the Bitterroot River.
This month, Wyoming coal companies will pull the 10 billionth ton of coal from the state's ground, according to a recent estimate by the Wyoming State Geological Survey. If all that ancient metamorphosed swamp were put in a 100-foot high pile, it would stretch across a 12-by-12-mile square of prairie.
WSGS based the 10-billion ton milestone on detailed records the state has kept since 1865, shown on the graph below. What I learned from WSGS's coal history archive and from talking to WSGS coal geologist Chris Caroll is that coal's ebb and flow over the years tells a story much larger than numbers marked on a chart. Although we tend to think of our prodigious coal consumption as a sudden, intractable habit, Wyoming coal -- which is a big chunk of the country's coal -- has changed constantly over the years, adapting to new technologies, wars, laws and the vagaries of economics.
What you'll probably notice first on the graph is the massive rise in production starting in the 1970s. But for the moment, look to the seemingly empty left part of the graph. The whistle of the Union Pacific Railroad sounded in southern Wyoming in 1867, and coal mining commenced on railroad-owned lands granted by the federal government. The coal primarily fueled the steam engines. Miners lived in company towns and courted death each day in underground mines. Nine mine disasters between 1886 and 1924 killed 328 people. The danger and low wages periodically triggered strikes, including one in 1885 when miners burned the homes of 74 Chinese families who were working as strikebreakers.
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There were obvious ways to avoid being drafted into combat during World War II: Be a woman. Or a man younger than 18. Or a man of prime age who was somehow "physically, mentally or morally" unfit. And then there were less apparent avenues. For instance: grow hemp. The government would not only allow you to stay home, they'd even give you the seeds and provide cultivation tips, as they did in the propaganda film “Hemp for Victory.”
Surprisingly enough, this government-sponsored pro-hemp campaign launched just a few years after the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was passed to discourage the use of mind-altering varieties of Cannabis sativa L. -- but not hemp, a distinct type of Cannabis sativa L. containing only trace amounts of THC, the ingredient that attracts tokers to pot like fruit flies to an overripe banana. The U.S. Army imported Manila hemp fiber from the Philippines to make uniforms, rope and canvas, but the Japanese cut off the supply after seizing control of the country. And so the task of growing fiber for the armed forces fell to patriotic farmers right here at home, who responded to the call of duty: Between 1942 and 1945, some 400,000 acres were in hemp production, and the raw materials were processed by hemp mills built by War Hemp Industries, Inc.
This little history lesson speaks to the curious nature of contemporary drug laws, which have made domestic hemp cultivation, though not technically illegal, effectively so. If there was ever a time where momentum was moving in the right direction to change that, though, it seems to be now.
As genetically-modified food crops speed inexorably across the land, the U.S. government is doing little more than occasionally tapping the brakes a bit.
The Department of Agriculture gave one such tap last week, reported The New York Times, when it decided to delay the release of two engineered crops that could result in much higher usage of powerful herbicides. These new versions of corn and soybeans, from Monsanto and Dow Chemical, are resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba; many farmers welcome them as a solution for weeds that now shrug off the less toxic herbicide Roundup (most of the nation's corn, sugar beets, soybeans and cotton are engineered to resist glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, which means that farmers can spray weeds without harming crops).
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