06 June 2012

The Future of Power

Having worked in the power industry for six years after completing a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, I have noticed a few common misconceptions about power generation. I also live in one of the more progressive and environmentally conscious cities in America, and see a lot of misdirected energies when it comes to saving the world. Here, I'll try to describe how to fix some of the long-term problems facing the planet.

First let's talk about "the grid". My company is the grid. We control the vast majority of high voltage transmssion lines and substations across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and western Montana. Power flows dynamically, so energy goes in at many different points on the grid, and energy comes out at many different points. At any given point, you can measure the flow of energy, but all the electrons are mixed together. I think a good comparison is a lake. You have one person dumping a galon of water into the lake and getting paid by someone pulling a gallon out. Technically they didn't pay for the exact same water that went in.

This is important because I frequently see utilities advertising a "green" option where you can pay an extra $6/month and your electricity will come from renewable energy. That is almost a lie. What's really happening is you are making a donation of $6 that is then earmarked for the purchase, construction or maintenance of renewable energy. The electricity you get is exactly the same as you did before.