While new sources of energy are often the focus of environmental discussions, little thought is given to the logistical infrastructure that is needed and how improving this system will bring about benefits just as much as a new power source. Some of the new challenges caused by alternative energy sources such as solar power that only produce power in daylight, can also be overcome with improved infrastructure for power grids. The electric grid of today is outdated and in desperate need of an upgrade (FitzPatrick, 2012). Old grids of simple wires and transformers designed to move power short distances will not be able to keep up with alternative energy sources. Storage needs to be a part of any truly efficient electrical network; today’s electrical supply has no storage. If companies and consumers can handle the upfront costs of rebuilding the grid; all parties will benefit greatly in the long run. Although new alternative sources of energy need to be found for the United States, the infrastructure that will handle and use that power must be upgraded as well because of old power grids, little storage capacity and economic benefit for all.
The electrical infrastructure today is a massive technical marvel of immense proportions. The problem of controlling the massive amount of power and complexity of “the grid” falls to groups called Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs). These organizations are the current system of large scale movement of energy between companies. RTOs are nonprofit organizations that are responsible for connecting the individual networks of utility companies (Greenfield, 2011). These RTOs allow for electricity to be moved to where it is needed. When it is needed, this committee is finite and can only act on the limited information available today. The current power system doesn’t inform the supplier where the power is going. The only way to receive minimal information is by using smaller grids that don’t allow for long distance power transmission. So how can this information be gathered and how can it be used? What needs to happen is the grid needs to “smarten” up. A two-way system of electricity and data returns equals better usage of our resources. The so called “smart” grid adds a new dimension to the traditional one way system currently in place. Instead of blindly pumping power through the transmission lines and not knowing the use or waste of that power, the smart grid can inform the producers of who needs power and how much (Bushby, 2011). By using constant monitoring technology power companies can know what every user is using instantly. This allows for a computerized grid to react in real time. Power can be directed to where it would be most effective, and surpluses and shortages can be corrected. This will give RTOs a better chance of making good decisions regarding power production. Another possible solution is called “A day-ahead energy market simulation framework.” This network uses past data and future predictions to tell how much energy should be produced by a power plant (Palma-Behnke, 2012). These predictions will become more important as smaller, more decentralized generators come online. If everyone puts a solar panel on their roof, suddenly there is a varying amount of power being put in the grid that the power company can’t control. Knowing what will happen a day in advance will allow power companies to maximize profits and minimize waste. Besides prediction, a Smart grid allows for instantaneous transfers of power across states and countries. If the wind picks up in Utah and the grid realizes that there is a surplus, it can send that power to Oregon, where the solar plants are under cloud cover. This shuffling of resources saves a coal plant in Oregon from turning on to cover and saves the wind companies from losing money on power plants with no customers.
The solar radiation power plants and wind power plants offer great sources of renewable energy but the sun is not always shining when it is needed and the wind doesn’t blow consistently. The addition of storage to a wind or solar system can also make these technologies competitive with conventional technologies. The ability to control when power is produced greatly affects the ability to make profit (Sioshansi, 2011). For example, if a solar plant has no storage, it pours energy out during the middle of the day when energy is cheap and this makes the price fall more. When the sun goes down, people go home and start using power but the solar plant has no supply to meet the demand. By adding storage, plant managers can release power when it will create the most profit, making this alternative source more desirable for the capitalist market. There are many new options to store energy besides just hooking a lot of AAs together. While standard batteries are a good option, they break down, are inefficient, and are expensive. Some simple materials can be used in unusual ways. Systems that use compressed air can be used exclusively for storage or for storage as well as production. A plain tank of compressed air has energy that can be put through a turbine and converted to electricity. Air that is compressed by the waves of the ocean not only creates clean, renewable energy but also storable energy. Waves are used to compress a chamber on the shoreline and the air in this chamber is pressurized then converted to power when needed. The technology to store air is available and well tested. High levels of efficiency, up to 85%, are possible with compressed air power systems (Garvey, 2012). Another simple solution is a tank of water stored underground. By heating the water with solar energy then storing it underground, its heat is preserved until it is needed to heat a building (Yumrutaş, 2012). While this is not a solution for mass energy storage, every house that uses this system does not need power from elsewhere for heating. Many complex systems can also be used with even greater success. Latent heat energy systems which use the energy storage potential of phase change (such as ice becoming water) to store up to 14 times more heat than non-phase based storage methods. Instead of heating water up and storing it as warm water, a material that has a low evaporation temperature is heated past its boiling point then stored. This technology utilizes the idea of latent heat which is that materials absorb much more energy when changing state. By exploiting the natural phenomena of latent heat, energy can be stored in quantities never thought possible before. Raising the temperature of water from 99 degrees Celsius to 100 degrees takes 500% more heat energy then heating water from 0 to 99 degrees. Using special materials that are selected for this purpose allows this method to do more than water and ice could ever do. Materials can be selected that have higher latent heat demands than water. The more energy a material needs to heat up the more heat it will release as it cools. By using chemicals such as lauric acid, large amounts of heat energy can be stored for many uses (Desgrosseilliers, 2011). Special artificial paraffin capsules have also shown promise as a material that holds heat to extreme temperature yet does not degrade after hundreds of recharging cycles (Su, 2012). The problem of storage can be countered by using chemical reactions to store the energy until needed. Instead of directly making electricity, solar heat is used to split water or drive other processes. Water can easily be broken down to hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used to create power with zero pollution. By coating electrodes in exotic metals, researchers have created solar power systems that can take sunlight and use it to break water into its base components. When power is needed and the sun is not shining the hydrogen and oxygen are reintroduced back into the water and this releases electricity on demand. (Myers, 2011) This new technology allows for clean, alternative energy that can supply electricity whether the sun is shining or not. The only byproducts are oxygen, which all life needs to live, and hydrogen, a fuel that burns perfectly cleanly. A motor running on hydrogen puts off water vapor as exhaust. Any technology that produces all good byproducts should be invested in heavily. One of the biggest advantages of breaking apart water or some other compound is that no insulation is needed. While a tank of superheated water or sodium will eventually cool, hydrogen and oxygen will keep their energy potential until they are remixed. Instead of using heat that naturally dissipates, the chemical bonds are what the energy is stored in. By not needing to be kept hot, chemical solutions allow for infinite storage times. The insane amounts of heat easily available from solar reactors, up to 2000K, make these chemical reactions possible and economical (Heintz, 2012). Two thousand degrees Kelvin is enough heat to easily melt steel and break down many chemical compounds, not just water. Every chemical bond that is broken takes energy and when the compounds recombine that energy is released. Flywheel Energy Storage Systems are another solution for storing energy to be released later. A spinning wheel contains energy that can be used later to turn a generator. While simple flywheels run on metal bearings and can lose energy to friction, new versions run on magnetic bearings inside a vacuum. With no mechanical resistance or air resistance, these wheels can hold energy for longer periods of time with minimal loss (Prodromidis, 2012). Massive banks of flywheels can wind up and store a huge amount of power for later use. By using storage to get the most out of our resources, the environment would benefit from reduced emissions while companies would benefit from maximized profits.
However, upgrading the United States utility grid to a smart grid and adding storage would not be easy. The large initial expenses lead companies to drag their feet. The costs of upgrading are passed down to consumers who don’t like paying more; this causes public opinion to turn against this needed technology. Even though studies have shown that over a twenty year period the smart grid and storage will pay for itself, (Fox-Penner, 2011) no customer wants a higher bill and no company wants to lose profit. What people need to realize is the overall gains far outweigh the temporary costs. The smaller utility companies have a much harder time fronting the cash needed to upgrade their systems to a smart grid due to less capital and fewer customers (Chun, 2011). This problem can be solved with closer cooperation between large and small companies to share resources and increase profits even faster. By working together, everyone would benefit. Planning these new systems would be difficult, but humans don’t need to do it all. Bacteria can plan our power system better than we can; a method of planning networking reconstruction is to use a “bacterial foraging optimization algorithm” (Sathish Kumer, 2012). This equation is based on bacterial growth models and can find the network setup that loses the least energy. By studying the natural organization of bacteria foraging, scientists developed a mathematical formula that can create the optimal design for power distribution. Evolutionary algorithms are designed to solve non-linear problems that computers are not very good at solving. When single celled organisms can create better solutions then humankind, things need to change.
Between new storage technology and better designed transmission systems, there are many ways the problem of an aging energy infrastructure can be addressed. If millions of dollars are being poured into new ways of creating energy, it only makes sense to improve the support system equally; otherwise all the work goes to waste. These ideas need to be used. Power companies need to research ways to upgrade and modernize their systems. When they do look closely at green solutions they will find that the company will benefit both environmentally and economically by upgrading their networks. The companies that first embrace this new technology will lead the way for the industry. When the industry begins to adapt the vital infrastructure needed, the ultimate winner will be the environment and therefore people everywhere.
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