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Study Calls for Greater Use of Micropower

Today's giant coal and nuclear power plants are failing to provide the
high-quality, reliable electricity needed to power the new digital economy,
according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington,
DC-based research organization.
Power interruptions due to the vulnerability of central power plants and
transmission lines cost the United States as much as $80 billion annually.
"We're beginning the 21st century with a power system that cannot take our
economy where it needs to go," said Seth Dunn, author of Micropower: The
Next Electrical Era. "The kind of highly reliable power needed for today's
economy can only be based on a new generation of micropower devices now
coming on the market. These allow homes and businesses to produce their own
electricity, with far less pollution."
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. Already, the multi-billion-dollar potential of the market
for micropower has sent investors scrambling to buy into some of the new
companies, sending their share prices soaring earlier this year.
One group of micropower technologies generates electricity by combustion.
Reciprocating engines, traditionally fueled by diesel oil and once used
largely for backup power, are increasingly fueled 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 drugstores, restaurants, and other U.S.
commercial buildings. Stirling engines, which can run on wood chips and
even solar heat, are becoming popular in European homes.
Other micropower systems rely on processes that do not involve combustion.
Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to
produce electricity and water. Several hundred fuel cells are already
operating worldwide, and will become commercially available for homes in
the next one to two years.
Solar cells, or photovoltaics (PV), which use sunlight falling on
semiconductor chips to produce electric current, have already entered the
residential and commercial building market in nations such as Japan and
Germany, and for off-grid use in developing nations. 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.
These small-scale generators have numerous advantages over large-scale
power plants. Located close to where they are used, small-scale units can
save electricity consumers millions of dollars by avoiding costly new
investments in central power plants and distribution systems.
Micropower can also save homeowners and businesses millions of dollars by
lowering the threat of power outages and subsequent lost productivity. An
electricity grid with many small generators is inherently more stable than
a grid served by only a few large plants. Banks, hospitals, restaurants,
and post offices have been among the early adopters of micropower systems
as a way to reduce their vulnerability to power interruptions. The First
National Bank of Omaha, in Omaha, Nebraska, for example, responded to a
costly computer system crash in 1997 by hooking its processing center up to
two fuel cells that provide 99.9999% reliability.
Use of more efficient combustion-based micropower systems, relying
primarily on natural gas, will substantially lower emissions of
particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and heavy metals. These
reductions would range from 50 to 100 percent, depending on the technology
and pollutant.
The use of wind, solar power, and fuel cells fueled by hydrogen can also
help reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, one third of which come from
electricity generation. In the United States, widespread adoption of
micropower could cut U.S. power plant carbon dioxide emissions in half. In
developing nations, small-scale power could lower carbon emissions by 42
percent relative to large-scale systems.
Micropower will allow developing countries to leapfrog to power sources
that are cheaper and cleaner than building more coal or nuclear plants and
extending existing transmission lines. Many of these countries lose the
equivalent of 20 to 50 percent of their total power generated through leaks
in their transmission and distribution systems. In rural regions, where 1.8
billion people still lack access to electrical services, small-scale
systems are already economically superior to the extension of transmission
lines, and environmentally preferable to continued reliance on kerosene
lanterns and diesel generators. To date, solar PV systems have been
installed in more than half a million homes.
Despite micropower's potential benefits, current market rules in most
countries favor the incumbent centralized model. Many electric utilities,
moreover, perceive micropower systems as an economic threat, and are
blocking their deployment by charging onerous connection fees and by paying
low prices for power fed into the grid. Failure to reform these rules and
practices could result in the construction of another generation of
marginally improved large-scale power plants of questionable long-term
economic and environmental value.
The extent to which current power markets favor 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 grass-roots groups for their negative ecological
impacts, as many are located in rural or pristine areas.
The risk of locking in outdated central power plants is even greater in the
developing world. Over the next 20 years, some $1.7 trillion of capital
investment in new power capacity is projected to take place in developing
countries. "These nations have a golden opportunity to get the rules right
the first time, and set up markets that support power systems suitable for
the 21st century and not the 20th," concludes Dunn.
Seth Dunn, Author, [EMAIL PROTECTED]

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