Sunshine from above or coal from below
Everyone knows by now that coal is a dirty source of energy. Even coal mining states can’t deny the effect coal-burning power plants have on people with asthma, especially children and the elderly. Here in Rhode Island we get most of our electricity from gas-fired power plants to our south, but we get most of our pollution from coal-fired power plants to our west. Last week’s unofficial heat wave came with the typical poor air quality warnings to stay inside, especially if you have asthma, not to drive unless you had to and free public transportation. What was not typical about these warnings is that they came so early in the season. This does not bode well for this summer’s weather.
Besides the obvious fact that coal is so polluting, it is also a destructive and dangerous mining industry. If you have ever taken a drive through the back roads of Virginia or Pennsylvania and have seen “Mountain Top Removal” mining, it is an incredible sight. The documentary “The last Mountain” depicts this well. But coal is also a limited source of energy and it requires vast amounts of energy to get it out of the ground and move it around to where it will be burned. Then there is the coal ash to be dealt with. This process is not cheap and it is not getting any less expensive. Even coal mining companies know this and that is why it was not surprising to some when Coal India, the largest coal mining company in the world, announced last week that they will be installing solar panels on nine acres of their property to produce over two megawatts of power for their own facilities. They are also installing solar panels on the roofs of their buildings, including all housing for the miners. Ironic? Not really when you consider the fact that the solar electricity will be cheaper than their own coal-fired electricity. For a company that big, the savings will not be small and solar is a one-time expense and then the fuel, the sun, will be free.
“Distributed Generation” is the generation of power distributed over the area of the grid as opposed to a central power plant that generates power in one location and then has to transmit that power hundreds, even thousands of miles to where it will be used. With a central power plant, the fuel has to be mined and transported to the plant. Then the power has to be transmitted to where it will be used. With Distributed Generation, the fuel, like sunshine and wind, are delivered right to the solar panels and turbines located where the power will be used. This eliminates the need to mine and transport fuel and transmit the power. Utilities are starting to understand that Distributed Generation is helping them keep up with the growing demand for power without having to upgrade their transmission lines and build additional power plants. It’s much cheaper and easier for the Utility to allow people to make their own electricity rather than build another power plant and transmission system.
With the cost of solar falling and the cost of fossil fuels climbing, it’s only a matter of time before Distributed Generation is our main source of power and the grid is a back up.