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U.S. electricity - Jan 29

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage

Utility Shut-Off Deaths Begin

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon's Book
I’ve been worrying for a long time about what is going to happen to many of us when we can no longer pay our utility bills - and urging people to put what resources they can to being able to live without their utilities. I’ve written about this a number of times.

Now a reader (thanks, Edward!) has sent me this, the story of a 93 year old World War II veteran who died of hypothermia in his home because he couldn’t pay his electric bill. Marvin Schur’s death is the first case I know of during this Depression that involves someone freezing to death in their home due to a utility shut off, but it will not be the last, I fear.

... This is, of course, a horror and a shameful thing to allow to happen. But a life with few or no utilities is probably in many people’s future - already families are unable to fill oil tanks and are making do with electric space heaters. What happens when the electricity goes as well? While many states have limits on utility companies shutting off during the heating season, some places have suffered chronic violations of these laws, and the pressure to shut off is likely to rise steadily as more and more Americans are in debt to their utility companies. At last check 26% of all Americans were overdue on at least one utility bill.

This is one of my older articles - I’ve written about this a number of times - but my own conviction is that many, many of us will live without utilities, not because the grid crashes (which might also happen), but because we will increasingly be priced out of basic services like lights and heat.
(27 January 2009)

For a spiffier electric grid: $11 billion

Mark Clayton, Christian Science Monitor
The economic stimulus package as crafted by the House of Representatives includes $11 billion to modernize America’s electric grid.

About $10 billion of that money would go for upgrading the transmission system so that it’s more reliable, efficient, and redundant. The program, part of the stimulus plan’s green initiatives, would also make the grid more interconnected so that traditional and renewable power plants in, say, the Midwest could send their surplus electricity to the East Coast.

But the package also reserves $1 billion for “smart grid” and “smart metering” pilot projects, which would begin to energize, even revolutionize, what some call the world’s largest machine.
(27 January 2009)

DOE report paints bleak picture of our electric future

John Timmer, Ars Technica
There's a long tradition of using Fridays to release reports you'd rather not see attract attention, and the Department of Energy has used the last Friday of the Bush Administration to release a big one. Its Electricity Advisory Committee, composed primarily of power industry executives, has released a series of reports on the future of the US electric grid. These include focused looks at the potential for power storage and the smart grid, but it's the overall evaluation that's badly off the administration's message: the government needs to make a significant intervention in the power market, it's completely failed to do so for the past eight years (and longer), and conservation needs to be part of anything we do.

...the main report, entitled Keeping the Lights on in a New World, covers a lot of ground, a great deal of it depressing. It describes a number of issues that have stifled investment and innovation when it comes to the production and delivery of electric power. Most of these are familiar to anyone that has looked into our current situation, but the report's authors present the problems in strikingly clear terms, and back their analysis up with a comprehensive look at the power markets.

...Nearly everything about the energy infrastructure—generating capacity, transmission lines, research on new technology—requires decades of lead time. Without a clear statement of the intended national goals and the planned route to meet them, any investment in infrastructure or R&D has been extremely risky.

...The lack of a national plan also means any infrastructure work faces a patchwork of federal and local regulations.

...Not only is the government badly fragmented, but business is too. The report lists the huge number of companies involved in producing electric power in the US as follows: 220 investor-owned utilities, approximately 930 rural electrical cooperatives, and roughly 2,000 public, non-profit groups nation wide. There are, of course, larger, regional organizations, but these have to coordinate the actions of this group, which is undoubtedly challenging, especially since different states now have different targets for renewable energy production and carbon emissions.

...If government weren't bad enough on its own, the financial reality of the electricity market has evolved in such a way that incentives for investment are badly mismatched. The biggest problem is that a supply of cheap electricity has become a necessity for the entire US financial system.

...But the problems go well beyond those generalities. Building large generating facilities is extremely capital-intensive and involves a return-on-investment that can take decades to be realized. Because of the regulatory environment described above, they're also considered high-risk.

..We've also managed to keep energy costs low in part by short-changing transmission, which accounts for only about 10 percent of the typical electricity bill. In this case, not only has innovation been stifled, but basic infrastructure upgrades haven't been taking place at the rate they need to be. As a result, a significant fraction of the existing infrastructure is now nearing the end of its usable life.

...Many of the basic problems could be lessened by what the report terms "demand-side resources"—essentially, efficiency measures that reduce the generating and transmission needs....

...The report sums up the result of all these problems succinctly by stating, "the early warning signs of a declining electric power delivery infrastructure are visible today."
(19 January 2009)
The Ars Technica link to their second article, which covers the EAC report on storage technologies, is here. They are also expected to cover the third EAC report on the Smart Grid. All the EAC reports referred to in the articles can be found here. Suggested by James Beach. KS.

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