By David Crane
A little-lamented anniversary is soon to pass – ten years ago, the crippling Northeast Blackout occurred on August 14, 2003. Modern commerce came to halt, everyday life was disrupted for tens of millions of Americans, as the Northeast was plunged into total darkness, all as a result - we are told - of one tree falling on a transmission line near Akron, Ohio.
Last month’s heat waves in the Northeast and the West may have abated, but their triple-digit high temperatures pushed the electric grid infrastructure in those regions to their limits. Power companies, system operators and electricity retailers worked hard to ensure that interruptions were kept to a minimum, but anyone who has lost power in such extreme conditions knows how uncomfortable even a brief outage can be. Let's face it, we are not as resilient as our ancestors. Air conditioning, even in the heat of our ever hotter summers, is now fundamental to the comfortable existence of the modern American.
While such outages are rare, when you combine them with natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy and outages like the Super Bowl blackout, they underscore a dire reality: our national electric grid struggles to deliver safe, reliable and affordable power. It's not for lack of effort or money, but rather because the American power industry deploys technology designed in the 1800s to manage a system of wires and wooden poles that is ill suited to the weather challenges of the 21st century.
Rather than rebuilding our antiquated distribution system every time it gets torn down, we should be asking how we, as energy consumers, can rethink an industry that has been operated on the same model for almost a century. Can we transition to something better (cheaper, cleaner, more reliable, more personalized) than we get now from our local utility?
As a matter of fact, technological innovation is enabling not just one alternative energy source that will meet your requirements, but two! After decades of development, solar photovoltaic technology has become cost competitive on a per-watt basis with retail electricity in a number of states. These solar installations not only allow consumers to harness the inexhaustible power of the sun, but they also allow them to - in real estate parlance - 'monetize the solar value of the air space over their home,' provide shade and, if properly wired, give customers some independence from the grid.
What's not to like about affordable solar energy powering homes? There is one big concern: how will these homes be powered at night or when it is cloudy?
For the 34 million American homeowners with a natural gas line running into their homes, a solution to the electric grid's reliability problem and to solar's intermittency is already available. With both an underground gas line and an overhead electric line reaching these homes, consumers are paying every month for two very expensive energy delivery systems. Have you ever wondered why? Natural gas and electricity delivery systems are both necessary because they power different systems and appliances within the home. But if consumers could convert natural gas into electricity cheaply, safely and reliably in the basement, they wouldn't require an electric connection to the grid. That day is coming soon.
A new technology, which is being tested by NRG, is a natural gas fueled, heat and power appliance developed by DEKA. This “missing link” energy appliance functions as a miniature natural gas power plant and provides electricity to a home or business. Since it fulfills the need for grid power, it also supports solar power, which can further lower energy costs and benefit the environment. A device such as this gives the consumer flexibility that didn’t exist before. It’s the ability to live life energized by self-produced, clean power, and knowing that the next time a tree falls on a power line near Akron, shorting out the entire Northeast, you will not be affected.
David Crane has been the President and Chief Executive Officer of NRG Energy since December 2003. Under his leadership, NRG has become a Fortune 500 company with enough generating capacity to power nearly 40 million homes, benefiting about 2.2 million retail customers.