Distributed Energy & Clickbait
Published on The Daily Impact February 10 & 13, 2017
Discuss these articles at the Kitchen Sink inside the Diner
For those of us who have been arguing into the wind for years about the urgent need to abandon our total reliance on the electric grid in favor of distributed energy — making it where you use it — it’s a sight for sore eyes. An enormous government program is building tens of thousands of direct-current microgrids to power homes and businesses and towns all over the country, providing people with electricity that is far less expensive and more reliable than is provided by the grid.
The program began field testing its microgrids just three years ago. For a single household it consisted of a solar array, a basic battery, and a 12-volt wiring harness. By staying in 12 volt, the microgrid avoids the expense and inefficiencies of inverting the power to 120-volt, and makes use of the increasing availability of 12-volt lights, motors, computers, TVs and appliances. By the end of of this year, 100,000 microgrids will be up and running, with no slowdown in sight.
Another triumph of American ingenuity? Hardly. You can have America’s grid when you pry it from our cold, dead hands. This is a triumph of Indian innovation.
With its one and a quarter billion people — four times the population of the United States — India is the second largest country in the world. Since achieving independence from Britain in 1947, the massive and long-subjugated country has moved with surprising speed toward a position of world leadership; it is, for example, one of the few countries in the world to possess nuclear weapons.
But progress has been uneven. Poverty, environmental degradation, corruption, and plain vanilla incompetence lay across the country’s many accomplishments like a toxic fog. This is especially true when it comes to energy: one fifth of the population has no access to electricity at all; half of those who are connected to the grid find it so unreliable and expensive they may as well not have it at all
For years India has been pouring money into bigger generating plants, bigger and longer transmission lines, and myriad electrification projects. Yet of its 29 provinces, only four can boast that all of their households have electricity. The only meaningful gains have been made by the recently inaugurated microgrid program initiated by the Indian Institute of Technology at Madras.
Now, tens of thousands of homes are making enough power — reliably and cheaply — to power their lights, computers, phones, televisions, fans and certain other appliances. Whether the microgrid is alone or working in tandem with the grid, it allows people for the first time to count on being able to read at night, cool themselves with fans, communicate, and watch entire TV shows uninterrupted.
That might not seem like much to you and me, and we may not see the point at first of doing microgrids here. That’s because you and I think of the grid as sturdy and reliable, and most of us consider investing in backup power only if it lowers our electric bills. But the grid is not sturdy and reliable, it is elderly, leaky, outdated and infirm [See “Rage Against the Dying of the Lights,” The Daily Impact December 5, 2014], and one day soon it is going to fail us entirely.
On that day we are going to regret deeply all that time and money we spent grafting wind “farms” and solar “farms” and nuclear plants and coal plants and natural gas plants onto our rusting forest of sticks and strings. There is nothing sustainable, or renewable, or common sensible about gathering a gazillion watts of “renewable” energy in the middle of a desert or on a remote mountaintop and them having to ram it through an aged, leaky, decrepit grid to its eventual destination. We will also deeply regret, for example, saving a few bucks by installing solar panels with built-in inverters to 120 volt — inverters that must be connected to the live grid for the solar panel to work.
We will regret letting the industry convince us that the only way to make energy is to burn fossil fuels in huge plants, the only way to distribute it is through strings strung on sticks (wait, hook it to the Internet and call it a “smart” grid), that high costs and frequent outages and increasing vulnerability are just the way it is. We may even, if we have the time while trying to survive, take a moment to regret that Thomas Edison lost his argument with Nikola Tesla, and Edison’s vision of an America of neighborhoods served by small DC generators never came to be.
Until now. In India.
The hucksters of high tech are abroad in the land, proving they are the equal of Donald Trump in their ability to tell brazen lies and feel no shame. These days, that’s called leadership. Their latest whopper is that we don’t need to worry about the fact that we are killing off the bees that pollinate our food crops, we can do the job mechanically. Here’s a typical headline inspired by the latest revelations in the field: “Should pollinating drones take over for honey bees?”
Consider the technique used in the headline –it’s the craft of clickbait, not journalism. The journalistic headlines would be “Scientists have used a small drone to pollinate a flower.” Yawn. If you said, “Scientists prepare to replace bees with drones,” the lie would be so big and so obvious that scientists would have to protest and your credibility, if any, would suffer. But who could blame you for simply asking the question? (Headlines asking questions, by the way, are an indicator of fake news.)
The story itself breathes heavily through an account of a team in Japan outfitting a little drone with some horsehairs and sticky stuff and successfully transferring some pollen from one lily (a flower selected for its large size and accessible pollen) to another. Mission accomplished, in approximately half the attempts made. The team leader — Eijiro Miyako of Japan’s Nanomaterials Research Institute — said he felt “happiness that I’m a scientist.”
Couple things. The drone they used cost over a hundred dollars and required a human operator. To pollinate just the almond crop, in California alone, each year requires 35 billion bees pollinating three trillion flowers on 900,000 acres. Each little drone, with its four slashing propellers, is going to scare and injure real bees and damage plants while barging around the flowers.
Well, sure, comes the response, we’ll have to develop some kind of artificial intelligence to make the drones self-piloting, and we’ll have to achieve economies of scale, but we can do that. Eventually. In other words if we had some ham we could have ham and eggs if we had some eggs.
Over and over again we are treated to the same cycle; some minor achievement in the lab, announced with a flurry of irrational predictions about the brave new world to come because of this breakthrough. Fusion (at room temperature) has been announced a half dozen times. A week or so ago a breathless account of the creation of metallic hydrogen caught the world’s attention until it fell apart of its own weight.
These “studies” continue to flourish for the same reason that clickbait ads and fake news flourish; because of the avid appetite of ill-informed people for easy solutions. When the ad offers a quick and easy cure for cancer, or the fake news proclaims that a politician we don’t like has been caught running a child sex-slave ring out of a pizza parlor, or fake science proclaims that we no longer have to worry about the bees dying or the globe warming or the world running out of oil, way too many of us turn off our critical faculties and go back to sleep.
Money flows to the grant proposals that envision finding out that what we want to be true, is true. Money flows to the clickbait ads that offer easy solutions to complex problems. Eyeballs cascade to the fake news that proclaims what we want to hear, or what we are afraid we’ll hear. And the institutions that once imposed responsibility on these offerings — the universities, the regulatory bodies, the great newspapers — are vampires now whose souls have fled, leaving behind only a vast craving for cash.
There’s no one left to tell us there aren’t going to be driverless cars and tabletop fusion and eternal life and a cure for cancer and a mechanical replacement for bees and a simple fix for climate change; to tell us it’s up to us not to be taken, not to be gullible, not to accept a view of the world that’s simple and easy and deadly wrong. It’s hard work, but somebody’s got to do it, and there’s no drone that will do it for you.