Thursday, April 17, 2014

The APEEmath vol 1: Giberson and Kiesling Unbundle the Grid

The Association of Private Enterprise Education concluded its annual meeting this past Tuesday. I attended a generous abundance of fine panels, rubbed elbows with a generous abundance of fine scholars, and enjoyed a generous abundance of excruciating back pain. My back has largely recovered, so I find my mental satchel full of puzzles, questions, conundrums, pleas for clarification, and challenges to much of what I witnessed in (relative) peace and quiet. So for the next few days, I'll be sifting through the aftermath of APEE 2014. The APEEmath, if you will forgive me some bad dad humor.

And since it is often advised to start at the beginning, let's start with Session M1. The session I attended featured Michael Giberson and Lynne Kiesling, our friends at Knowledge Problem. Combined, their presentations told a story that I think we've all felt shimmering in the air since the 70s: decentralized energy production is a matter of when, not if. However, it is far less sure that energy distribution faces a similar threat, or if it does, it's certainly not clear that the grid will share the same time schedule as the power plants.

Please indulge me a brief digression here. My firsthand experience is in Naval nuclear propulsion. There are three and a half distinct divisions in the nuclear side of a submarine's engineering department (the Sailors charged with monitoring and maintenance of primary plant chemistry are, strictly speaking, part of Machinery Division, but they boast specialized skills and training that set them apart from the ordinary knuckle-draggers; they are the half division, but the ones I know personally also count among some of the finest men it has been my honor to have ever met, so don't let this imply that I think any less of them). We, the gaunt twidgets, the reactor operators, pasty from lack of sunlight, fine-and-brittle-boned from the many months spent hunched over Byzantine mazes of electronic components, yapping discontentedly in our odd tongue of resistance, capacitance, induction, and reduction—our eyes filled with cascading arcs of ionizing radiation detection, our ears stuffed with the harsh syllables of a routine critical checkoff, our sinuses subverted by the penetrating aroma of the loved-and-hated chemical that unceremoniously replaces the roiling breath and fart of 160 of our fellow shipmates into something vaguely resembling a breathable atmosphere, it is we who wrangle, harness, command the broken soul wrought from the enraged heart of uranium-23X, bending its fury to the diligent task of whispering life and vigor into the cold, coiled copper snaking arterial ardor up and down the stubborn corpse of the underwater pig, grunting and snuffling beneath the dismissive swell of an indifferent father ocean. The Electrical Division is responsible for shipboard load distribution and maintenance of generators, batteries, and the interface of the AC and DC portions of the network. Why do I mention this? Well, in the mind of a Sailor serving in an engineering department (again, many apologies to A-gang for not including you in my reindeer games), there is a perfectly natural cleavage between the generation and distribution functions in the quest to turn fuel and fire into warmth and comfort.

So here's the thing: rooftop solar is becoming not only more technologically efficient, but more economically efficient. This implies that legacy utility plants are rapidly advancing towards obsolescence. They are soon to be the twinkling phylacteries in which dwell the souls of the dear departed wizards of Thomas Edison's coven. But the grid? The grid is a thing alive, pulsing with the lifeblood of shared electricity. When its vitality can be sustained by bough and twig alone, the Big Capital power plants (with all the attendant costs) will end up clinging, vestigial, to the undercarriage of a sprightly distribution network. They are and shall be an unseemly legacy cost that threaten to burden a critically important component of ye moderne Ĺ“conomy.

So why not split the utilities along their production and distribution seams? Might we get a jump on the inevitable transitional gains trap by half a league onward? Sure, there might be some negotiation costs for the intermediate bits, but determining who gets the line item for a decoupling station seems a lot more tractable (from the point of view of the end customer) than worrying about how to resolve the inevitable problem of how to keep rooftop solar providers from getting sucked under the waves when the pod of power rorquals go belly up and burst under the unforgiving gaze of the sun.

Power generation is not euvoluntary. Neither is power distribution. Keeping them bundled multiplies the risk without providing much extra reward. It's time to cut the cord, people.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?