Will Brownouts Return to America?
Back in the 1970s and 80s America experienced what was referred to as “brownouts”. It was not a blackout of electric service, but it heralded an era of possible shortages of electricity to power our energy intensive civilization. Brownouts occurred on days and during hours of high demand for electric power primarily to run all the air conditioners people had become accustomed to and dependent on.
As with all impending crises the a/c was not the sole culprit when the power became short. The brownout occurred when too many users demanded too much power from the grid that the voltage dropped below the acceptable 110-volt threshold. Incandescent bulbs would dim. Compressor motors would strain to stay running to pump the heat out of our houses, officers and apartment. Many commercial HVAC systems had under-volt protection so the motors did not overheat and become damaged. Lesser systems merely strained until they failed.
The utility companies were faced with the prospects of building another generation plant at a cost of hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. Even with funding available, it would take years and even decades to bring a new plant online.
As mentioned above, it was not merely the A/C demand that browned-out the grid. It was all the dishwashers, laundromats, 100-watt bulbs and refrigerators all plugged in and pulling power at the same time. There arose an alternative to building more capacity which would be less expensive and faster to market. That idea was conservation.
The utility companies devised marketing campaigns to limit electric demand during peak hours and days. The appliance manufacturers (under pressure from the EPA and other Federal government agencies) increased the efficiency of their products. Incandescent light bulbs were replaced first with Compact Florescent bulbs (later LEDs) which consumed far less electricity. Homeowners were encouraged to wash dishes and laundry at night when other demand was lower. The strategy worked because spending $10 million on conservation marketing campaigns to save 10% of use eliminated the need to spend $100 million or more for 10% increase in capacity.
Today utility companies have Internet-connected metering to record how much electricity a customer uses during each hour of the day. Pricing is time dependent.
Using a combination of persuasion and heavy-handed regulations we as a nation averted the brownout crises and now have fewer days and times when the power is not sufficient. This short-term remedy cannot continue indefinitely. There is a mathematical limit to how much less electricity we can use. Along the way toward balancing the demand with the capacity we even had the time to better insulate our dwellings against heat migration in and out thereby lowering the energy demand of the millions of dwelling in this country.
But now, three trends are making an uptick in electricity demand. More houses/apartments for a growing population, more appliances left connected and using electricity and the popularity of electric automobiles. All of these items make conventional electricity generation even more a problem for the environment. Coal and gas fired plants make additional CO2 loading in the air which then leads to hotter weather and an increased need for electricity to run A/C systems. This is called a “feedback loop”. The cause leads to the effect which in turn exacerbates the cause. Hydro-electric plants require a massive commitment of land and must be located where there is a river of sufficient flow and a deep valley in which to impound the water. Nuclear reactors need the river water flow for cooling and they produce massive amounts of 10,000-year toxic wastes. They take decades to build and bring online.
Each of these primary sources of electricity have a massive downside with which to contend. By comparison, solar PV and wind turbine fields do not produce ongoing quantities of toxic wastes. They can be upgraded in stages, unit by unit, as better technologies emerge. They can be located on land which is otherwise underutilized or sitting unused at all. Most of all they can be relocated over time as needed and desired.
Construction times for Wind and Solar fields are also much shorter than for any other method of generation. The styles and configuration of Wind and Solar installations are likewise evolving and are able to keep ahead of the demands and the aesthetics of the system.
We can coast along denying that man is responsible for the melting of land-bound ice, the acidification of the oceans, heating of the atmosphere and wait for the ultimate outcome to manifest itself. Or we can do everything within our capabilities to forestall that bleak result. Even if some celestial event, or geologic process turns back the clock on climate change, that too will be a factor of climate change with which we will have to address. Getting colder or getting hotter is equally detrimental for us and tens of thousands of species on this Earth we all share.