What's Electricity Worth When It's Not Available?
Commissioner Tommy Adkisson
August 21, 2003

Last week 21 power plants in the northeastern portion of the United States and southern Canada went down in a mere three minutes!  The good news is that there appears to be no connection of the outage to terrorism.  The not-so-good news is that these interlinked, central power generation stations can go down all at once or one at a time, creating a major black-out for huge portions of the populace. 

Some may take solace in the fact that we have never had such a massive blackout here in Texas.  However, Kent Farmer, owner of the Power Store at 930 Broadway and a believer in the use of solar energy witnessed a blackout in Helotes about a week and a half ago that never made the news.  At night as he drove home from work he noticed all the neighborhood lights out and the houses darkened.  A small group of perplexed people congregated in the street outside of his home.  Fortunately, he was able to turn on his outside lights, several lights inside his home and function normally.  He had a solar power panel with a battery back up!

This is an example of distributed generation, energy generation and storage placed at or near the point of use.  Mr. Farmer also has a solar panel at his store at 930 Broadway.  His store is the first participant in "net metering" or "reverse metering" in the CPS service area.  During certain months of the year the Power Store generates more power from the solar panels on the store's rooftop than it uses.  Thus he receives a check during those months in which his meter literally runs in reverse!

Most importantly however in this context, he is able to function independently of the local electric grid!  When the grid is down, he is up!

But what's electricity worth when it's not available?  Take some situations where there is no substitute for electricity:

In a recent publication entitled "Renewable Energy: Clean, Secure, Reliable", the National Renewable Energy Lab stated that "According to Larry Owens of Silicon Valley Power, a blackout costs Sun Microsystems up to $1 million per minute."  "Hewlett Packard reported that a 20 minute outage at a circuit-fabrication plant would result in a day's production loss at a cost of $30 million." 

"Credit card processing centers can lose over $2.5 million per hour from power interruptions.  When the Chicago Board of Trade lost power for an hour during the summer of 2000, trades worth about $20 trillion could not be executed.  Inclusion of continuous-process manufacturing, fabrication and essential services such as transit, water and gas industries increases the annual U.S. economic loss to $45.7 billion from power outages, plus another $6.7 billion from power-quality issues.  When all business sectors are included, the U.S. economy is losing between $119 billion and $188 billion annually from power outages and power-quality issues.

In the future and with some creativity, CPS could realize a tremendous amount of generation from rooftop solar panels of businesses and residences without building billion dollar central power plants to do so.  Distributed energy throughout the community does not mean that the generated energy could never be interrupted.  It could mean however, that its energy would be far more difficult to interrupt than that of a giant power plant upon which a large number of people are dependent.  Black-outs and brown-outs would be far more limited if not eliminated because generation would be scattered across the community.

The National Renewable Energy Lab reminds us that "every hour the sun bathes the Earth in as much energy as the world consumes in an entire year."  With all of this in mind, CPS is to be commended for its forward thinking, recently launched Strategic Energy Plan.  However, to maximize the reliability of local energy provision, it is essential that CPS include clean distributed energy generation in its plan for our energy future!

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