THE BLOG

Make Every Home a Generator

We are facing a power generation crisis -- an urgent need exists to grow supply, energy costs are rising, oil prices are volatile and terrorism and environmental strain increase the risk. It is a local and a global crisis. It applies where I am writing in Ontario, Canada, just as it applies in Britain, India and China.

Most of the remedies for tackling the crisis are based on traditional methods of producing electricity -- nuclear plants in Ontario, coal-fired power stations in India and China, and so on. But these are costly, especially if one factors in their environmental impact, as we must do.

Instead of building more of the same we need a complete rethink on how we should produce power -- a new paradigm where we are no longer simply consumers of electricity. We need to turn our homes into renewable energy generators.

An analogy helps illustrate how this might work. In the early days of computing, there were mainframes. There were comparatively few of these giant machines, and they were mostly found in special air-conditioned rooms in large organisations. Users were networked to them via their terminals (although the mainframes themselves were not networked) and when the mainframe went down they couldn't work, which happened quite often.

Today, we live in a completely different world. Many people have access to one or more computers, and one or more ways of getting onto the Internet, which is a vast network of interconnected computers. The Internet is never down. Even in a crisis like 9/11, when local telephone networks were severed, workers could communicate using their handheld email devices wirelessly accessing the Internet.

So now computing and communication are more reliable and less risky. They are decentralised and distributed with multiple access points. If more users come along, they simply hook their machines onto the network and become part of the system. Furthermore, if they choose, individuals and organizations can contribute to the resources on the Internet, either by adding content or services, such as Websites or Internet stores, or by allowing their idle computers to be used by a project such as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Now compare this with electricity generation. Today, we live in the equivalent of the mainframe era. A few giant plants produce power. And although we are hooked into them through a network called the grid, the plants are single points of failure -- if one goes down, hundreds of thousands of people can be without electricity. The residents of Montreal, for example, know only too well the consequences of a Quebec ice storm on their power supplies. The ice storm that hit Quebec, which was one of the worst natural disasters Canadians had experienced, toppled huge power pylons and effectively brought down the grid. This centralized model of producing energy is risky and unreliable. Unlike the Internet, it does not expand very easily. If usage increases, more giant plants must be built at tremendous cost and long lead times.

The mainframe model of power generation assumes every user is a passive consumer of electricity. But what if we turn this on its head and see what an Internet model of electricity generation might look like.

Imagine every home as a producer as well as a consumer of energy, just as in the Internet era where everyone has his or her own computer, or multiple computers, and can be a contributor as well as a user of computing resources.

How can a house be a generator of renewable energy? There are four main ways. It can use geothermal exchange, which takes advantage of the constant temperature just below the earth's surface. It can heat water using solar water panels. It can produce electricity from photovoltaic solar panels or from wind turbines. And the homeowner can commit to buying electricity from renewable resources. These could also be done in combination.

While we are away at work or school, our houses could be net producers of renewable electricity and, if the network was set up to allow it, could feed this power into the grid -- with the homeowner getting paid for it. Our excess energy can be distributed to where it is needed elsewhere in the grid. And if all of our houses were contributing to the grid when we were at work, etc., it would result in a levelling-off of the peaks and valleys of consumption, reducing the likelihood of blackouts Also, if every home were tied to the grid as a producer of renewable electricity,the result would be a reduction in the need for long-distance distribution of electricity, which in itself is a big consumer of energy. Moreover, shaving the demand peaks will lower the need for large generation facilities.

In such a world we would no longer be so reliant on giant centralized power plants and giant tracts of power lines. We would all have the equivalent of a personal computer for our energy needs and could contribute to the overall network's resources when not using it. This is much safer and more reliable. So, if an ice storm hits Quebec, the residents of Montreal will no longer be completely at its mercy. Or if or a terrorist attack takes out a power station, the decentralized distributed system would take up the slack. If my needs are low and yours are high, we compensate for each other, just as we do in network computing.

As well, this model is safer in terms of the environment and climate change too. If every house were a generator of renewable energy, we would take a massive load off the grid. In most parts of the world, homes and offices are among the top three users of energy, along with industry and transportation (although the actual amount differs from place to place -- Canadians use far more energy in their houses than Europeans, for example). If every house were a generator the impact on carbon emissions would be dramatic because clean generation would replace polluting power plants. The result would be a significant drop in air pollution and a big step towards meeting Kyoto and other climate targets.

Unlike conventional power generation, the home-based model is easily expandable. If a city builds 100,000 more houses and each has geothermal and solar facilities, it thereby creates not just 100,000 more consumers but a 100,000 more generators.

Environmentalists need to rethink their mantra of 'get off the grid' which is about as sensible as telling a computer user to 'get off the Web'. The problem isn't the grid but the way the grid operates forcing us to be only consumers and never contributors. An ecologically designed house that exploited its natural energy sources could contribute more to local and global sustainability by being on the grid and offering its surplus energy than by cutting itself off. And the homeowner will have both energy independence along with the security of being connected to a reliable grid.

So, what would it cost to make every house a generator of renewable energy, and why aren't we doing it now? While we haven't costed it fully yet, it is safe to say that for Ontario it would cost less than the $40-60 billion that is being proposed to build new nuclear plants. Even without any economic incentives, geothermal exchange is already a cost-effective way of producing heat and hot water domestically. Solar hot water systems have a short payback time -- around two to four years in many cases. Solar electricity has a longer payback time and would need subsidies. In California, the state has committed $3 billion to subsidise the solar industry. But if the environmental impact of the traditional means of power generation were properly priced, then even solar electricity could seem more economical. And the price would fall further once economies of scale kicked in as manufacturing ramped up with widespread adoption.

Right now, regulated pricing, which aims to protect the consumer, shields power generators from the environmental price of their activities, and discourages households from creating their own generating facilities. Meanwhile, no one factors the cost of power outages into the price of electricity. When the city of Montreal is paralyzed because an ice storm interrupts power distribution the cost to business and society is massive.

At the moment, if I turn my house into a generator I can't sell my surplus electricity back to the grid. I can, however do net metering, reducing my consumption. But this is changing. The installation of so-called smart meters in Ontario, which track when and how energy is consumed, should be able to track -- and reward -- generation as well as consumption. This model is being adopted by forward-thinking utilities that accept distributed generation as a smart way to satisfy demand.

With large-scale investment in renewable home energy we are likely to see amazing solutions. Paint that uses nanotechnology and is able to generate electricity from light is under development. Within five to ten years we will be able to buy paint that will enable the walls and roofs of our house to be generators of electricity! Already, we can buy roof shingles and plastic sheeting that can do this.

Home generation makes just as much sense in developing countries as in industrialized ones. Ideally, the developing world will leapfrog into a distributed, renewable generation model that does not follow our antiquated power architecture. No matter where in the world it is located, every house should be a generator of renewable energy.

Imagine now, a world in which every home was a Zerofootprint home, its impact on the energy grid being net zero or positive. The pollution levels in our major cities would diminish drastically; the amount of carbon we release into the atmosphere would be cut radically and the reliability of our supply would be guaranteed. All this improvement could be achieved without any change in our standard of living and it is within our reach. We only have to make it our priority.