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Economic and dam related articles

Will Smart Grid Make
Hydro Dams Obsolete?

by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, March 18, 2009

The need to reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent by 2050, as proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seems so daunting in a world still dominated by fossil fuels and based on cheap power.

How can we can get from here to there without having major economic impacts, you know, like the ones we are suffering through now?

If alternative energy advocates like the Northwest Energy Coalition are in the ball park it will come from more efficient use of the energy we need. No one questions that energy efficiency is today the cheapest new power source. Simple measures like incentives to turn off our air conditioners briefly when demand peaks or making buildings need less heat are the baby steps we can take now and really make a difference in our own bills. Wind power and solar power also offer long term potential, especially when we are forced to pay for carbon emissions.

But the real breakthrough will be when we have high efficiency freezers, air conditioners, heat pumps washers dryers and electric cars all tied into a smart grid with computer chips. Northwest Energy Coalition expert Steve Weiss explained at a press conference to release the Bright Future report how a "smart grid" will work. When the wind blows and the utility has more power than it can handle it automatically turns on thousands of water heaters that heat their water a few degrees. Refrigerators and air conditioners run a few degrees colder. Electric cars get charged faster.

Then when the wind stops the system is reversed. The water heaters are turned off until the water is slightly cooler. The refrigerator doesn't come on as quickly. The air conditioners is shut off briefly and cycled through an entire system so no one hardly notices.

The people with those battery-powered cars might get paid to actually have the power in their car batteries tapped when needed. For folks with a second car it might help with the payments or maintenance while having power to share with the region.

Right now baseload power plants like Idaho Power's Hells Canyon dams are critical to meeting the need when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine. But Weiss envisions a time in the next 50 years when even cheap hydroelectric power is obsolete.

"We believe that the shaping capacity of the dams will be no long necessary," he said.

For a culture built on the cheap power from the Columbia and Snake's hydroelectric power that's a tough pill to swallow. But the key to meeting the 2050 carbon goals will be tapping the best power sources we have now as we transform our energy infrastructure. Then our future as our past will depend our our ability and tolerance to innovate.

Related Pages: report by Steve Weiss, NW Energy Coalition

Rocky Barker
Will Smart Grid Make Hydro Dams Obsolete?
Idaho Statesman, March 18, 2009

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