Getting By Without the Grid

Can America free itself from the grid and democratize energy?

Published: 17-Aug-2003

There's nothing like a multistate summertime blackout to get environmentalists and industry groups throwing spitballs at one another. Extreme greens wag told-you-so fingers and dream anew about a grid-free country, with homeowners generating their own power courtesy of clean, renewable energy sources. Industry types speak instead about building new nuclear or conventional power plants or muscling up existing ones-and delivering all the juice through a modernized distribution system.

In this instance, both sides are right-to a degree. While centralized power will probably always be with us, the best way to upgrade the energy grid may well involve doing away with some of it, democratizing energy production by handing the job off to communities, blocks and even private homes.

Long before last week's blackout, environmentalists and industry researchers had begun evaluating the idea of "power parks"-communities or mere groups of homes that would generate their own energy courtesy of solar panels, wind turbines, fuel cells or natural-gas generators. The little clusters could be almost entirely self-sufficient, relying on the grid only in the event that they needed to top themselves off with a sip or two of outside power. Just as important, they would have the freedom to disconnect from the larger network entirely if a regional crash was threatening to knock them off-line along with the bigger consumers. Similar independent systems could be used to provide power to individual users with especially big energy appetites, such as factories or hospitals.



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