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Renewables and Smart Grid

03/21/10 | by Joseph A. di Paolantonio [mail] | Categories: CleanTech

We are currently in, at least, the fourth era of growth and interest in renewable energy. The first two of which I'm aware, in the late 1800's into the turn of that century, and in the 1950's, both concentrated on solar (Photovoltaics and Solar Thermal), with some wind power in the first. The third was during the Carter Administration in the 1970's (famously ending when Ronald Reagan ordered the solar panels off the roof of the White House). Disclosure: I was doing photovoltaic research at SES, Inc (now part of Royal Dutch Shell) as a physicaleletrochemist during this time.

During the recent upswing in interest, investment and installations of renewable energy sources (photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal, biomass, etc.) I've been worried that the bubble would soon burst. But today, I've had a thought that encourages me, that maybe renewables will take their place along side coal, oil and nuclear. The reason for this is complex, more social than technical, more due to business than to science.

Many point to the past failures of renewables, of whatever type, due to inefficiencies and to long periods, or infinite time, for a return on the upfront investment. But I think that much of what prevented adoption of renewables is more for social and business reasons. For the most part, the past marketing effort for renewables was to get people off the grid. This was scary for the individual, not justified by the ROI, and inimical to business interests.

Today however, we have the prospect of the Smart Grid. What exactly defines the Smart Grid is still being debated, but here's my hopeful thought. Just as the Internet evolved to combine data, communication and collaboration protocols into what we now term Web2.0 or read-write-web or social media, allowing anyone who desires to do so, become a producer of content as well as a consumer, the Smart Grid will not force users of renewable energy sources off the grid, but will allow whoever desires to do so become a producer as well as a consumer of utility services, starting with electricity, but perhaps evolving to include other utility services as well. Let me also point out that I'm not [just] talking about the individual, I'm talking about communities and small businesses. For example, the Smart Grid would allow a small business such as our local Coastside Scavengers to install an AdaptiveARC reactor, transforming the waste they pick-up from our homes into electricity, and additional cash flow.

This possibility has social, business and economic implications that the previous generations of renewables lacked. This gives me hope. This also strengthens my desire to see workable standards, and working implementations of the Smart Grid(s) - whatever that turns out to really mean.

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