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November 16, 2008 / Mridul

Transmission Vows Can Pull The Plug On Large Scale Solar, Wind Projects

Switching over from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources would require large sums of investments, that’s one of the main factors that is keeping us from making this difficult but inevitable switch over. New energy sources which would eventually replace the existing coal and natural gas based ones are presently too costly and the credit crunch has led to drying up of big investments in the renewable energy sector. At this crucial time when the world leaders are planing to forge a new emissions deal and the developed nations are struggling to meet the emission standards set under the Kyoto Protocol, another basic but highly critical problem faces the supporters of this essantial switch over – the overhauling of transmission grids.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation says in a report that unless appropriate measures are taken to improve transmission of electricity, rules reducing carbon dioxide emissions by utilities could impair the reliability of the power grid.

These actions would impose new demands on a transmission system that was never designed for large power transfers over extremely long distances.

Existing transmissions grids around the world, be it in Europe or the United States, are incapable of handling the new energy systems. Europe has been long advocating replacement of fossil fuel based energy grid with the one based on renewable energy systems like solar and wind. But unreliable power grids are one of the main reasons why oil giants like Shell and British Petroleum are pulling plugs on almost all of their renewable energy investments in Britain; same is the case in developing countries like China and India. 

Europe is faces a similar problem with its ambitious plan of setting up a huge solar plant in North Africa to supply energy to all of the EU members. The project is important not only from the environmental standpoint but holds geopolitical significance too given Europe’s overwhelming dependence on Russia for energy. To minimize the transmission losses over such large distances special DC lines will be used but the cost of this partially new power grid runs into billions of dollars and with no big investors in sight the project could be jeopardized. 

One solution to this problem could be localized grids which would sere locally to a small and specific number of homes. Some experts have advocated this solution for small communities with large areas available for setting up big solar and wind projects. But the problem is that urban areas don’t have vast stretches of lands where huge wind mills or large solar panels can be installed. 

Moving to the next solution raises a serious question as in do we really need to expand the power grid and lay new transmission lines. Why not make every home, every office and every high rise building self sufficient. Solar panels and small wind mills can be installed on roof tops and on high rise buildings. The government can provide the home owners with solar panels at subsidized rates which they can repay afterwards. Big offices and organisations can take part in the Clean Development Mechanism and can sell carbon credits to make money for installing these energy systems. 

Obviously both these solutions have their own merits and demerits but we must look for self sufficiency and energy independence. A solution which solves not only our energy problems but also generates healthy revenue and makes good business sense. If the consumers themselves would work to build the next gen energy systems they would definitely have a sense of responsibility and could possibly be motivated to minimise their energy consumption. A plan having a mixture of self sufficiency and energy efficiency would do the trick.

Photo credit: james_jhs (Creative Commons)

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