Smart Grids are a Dumb Idea
Infrastructure is getting lots of attention. One area specifically is smart grids. They are to replace the current out-of-date energy grid that supplies energy to the US. Advocates say it is necessary to modernize the electrical system to keep competitive, and promises it will deliver energy more reliably, cheaper and be better equipped to deal with demand and transmission. It also claims that it is a greener solution. On all accounts, a new grid would be worse over time and be no more sustainable. Infrastructure is an abstract term. Generally speaking, it refers to "fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or area such as transportation and communication systems, power plants, and schools". The energy grid falls well into the category of fundamental. For the entire lifespan of civilization, infrastructure has been conceived and constructed big. Imagine the aqueducts of the Roman Empire or pyramids of ancient Egypt. In the 20th Century, the New Deal marshaled in, not just big, but big, inflexible and permanent systems as a method to grow a country. Since then, all capital projects labeled infrastructure has taken on that mantra as truth unquestioned. To discuss things like smart grids you can't be apolitical - especially not now. The topic is the ultimate Frisbee of political footballs. One side believes big projects are the only solution to the country's economic woes while the other wobbles drunk with ideations of tax cuts say such projects would bankrupt society. Neither is right or wrong.
Source: City of Henderson
Big, Inflexible and Permanent
First: big, inflexible and permanent is never good for the environment, at least from the standpoint when steel and concrete are your main ingredients - and they are when it comes to infrastructure. A call for a sustainable future while at the same time declaring the New Deal a moment in history to mimic is misguided. The New Deal was the worst environmental decisions ever made by any standing president. For example, the Hoover Dam - the crown jewel of FDR's revitalization of the country. It is absolutely big, inflexible and permanent - if maintenance stopped today, it would take more than 500 years for it to crumble to the ground. Even eco-novices know that big dams wreak havoc on habitats up and downstream. The ecological decay caused by the Hoover Dam is well documented. Also, the dam allows water to be diverted from Lake Mead (which stands behind it and terminus of the Colorado River) to many cities throughout the southwest. The Colorado River is being sucked bone dry due to the population explosion in Arizona, California, Nevada and Colorado. Most of the year, it does not reach its ancient mouth at the Gulf of California causing many local fishermen hardship. Some people say that this is an issue of water consumption, and maybe that is correct. Less water could be used. Greywater and blackwater systems should be the standard to save precious H2O. But the dam is the reason the southwest isn't a much more vacant space.
Smart Grids are Big and Expensive
What's this got to do with smart grids? Everything - in terms of the Hoover Dam, its main function is to generate energy in which the bulk is used by residents and business within the same areas as the lake provides water. The energy grid, as well as the new and improved smart grid is of the same mentality - big, permanent and inflexible. Smart grids add a fourth dimension - expensive. The new grid says it will provide reliable electricity delivery. Currently, power lines lose around 7% of electricity transmitted. Overall, energy production is only about 30% efficient. That means to just provide a city or house with what it needs, power companies have to produce nearly 200% more than required. Superconductive materials could eliminate such losses, but these materials are insanely expensive and not available for mass installations. They are more a theory than a reality.
Economics of Infrastructure
During the last 20 years two things have happened: one, energy demand has increased by 25% while funding for improvements has decreased by 30% - a shortfall of billions of dollars of investment. The knee jerk reaction is that we have to increase spending as well as update the grid to something more effective. That is pretty shortsighted. The problem isn't funding. The problem is that the grid as it stands today is too expensive. It was built when labor and materials were less costly. Throwing money at the situation will not solve it. It's more subtle than that. The United States is not the top dog anymore. We may never see a time in the future that the nation is a lonely superpower. The greenest solution for energy is to think small such as a personal or community level. Existing technologies like photovoltaic and emerging technologies like fuel cells can be the foundation for micro-infrastructure.
Smaller is Better, and More Affordable
Micro-infrastructure is the opposite of big and permanent. It looks to onsite generation versus large scale power production. Utility scale renewable energy is also a horrible idea. It makes everyone more dependent on big, inflexible and expensive systems. They are also bad for ecosystems, and hobble ecological solutions for other needs like water supply.
With onsite energy generation, there is no loss because it is not traveling hundreds of miles to get to the user. Onsite energy is what the Chinese are devising for their future as well as European countries. Onsite is cheaper. No need for expensive wiring to be strung all across a country, and less required maintenance. In essence the smart grid advocates are saying we can't afford what we have, so let's build something else we can't afford. But if you can't afford what you have, why would you try to increase its cost? It is like not being able to afford your mortgage, and then deciding to move to a new house with a higher mortgage. It's madness, and that's why smart grids are dumb. Infrastructure is mandatory, but not the kind that puts the country in a worse situation it already is in.