~ Ironically, aspirations of being (partly) off-grid are thwarted by the grid itself.
Even if the progress to national energy independence is halting, and frustrated by barely-concealed Big Oil interests at every turn, still we can each act locally, right? Each of us as individuals can buy plug-in electric vehicles, retrofit homes with energy efficiency measures, and install solar panels on roofs. Can't we?
Sure. But it turns out that these don't confer the independence one might imagine.
Take solar panels, for example. When Superstorm* Sandy savaged the US Northeast, there were doubtless many who thought their preparation installing rooftop solar panels would prove prudent, and reward them with continued electricity and the breadth of common Western comforts it affords.
They were wrong.
The switching electronics of local solar panels, upon detecting a grid failure, shut off; they only work when electricity from the grid is available.
Despite the popular perception that installing solar panels takes a home “off the grid,” most of those systems are actually part of it, sending excess power to the utility grid during the day and pulling electricity back to run the house at night. So when the storm took down power lines and substations across the Northeast, safety systems cut the power in solar homes just like everywhere else.Meanwhile, in Hawaii, the State is cutting solar incentives because they have succeeded too well, with growth of installations and generation more than the island grids can handle.
Hawaiian Electric Co. on Oahu, which oversees subsidiary utilities on Maui and the Big Island, has warned that the explosion of do-it-yourself solar could threaten parts of the power grid with the possibility of power fluctuations or sporadic blackouts as the power generated by homeowners—unpredictable and subject to sudden swings—exceeded output from power plants in some areas.For distributed renewable energy and the existing grid it's a relationship of can't-live-with, can't-live-without.
Distributed power generation requires distributed grid intelligence. If renewable sources come to dominate energy generation, as they must, then our current grid needs change or replacement to accommodate a much more dynamic integration of energy consumers/generators. Without a fundamental reconstitution of the grid, distributed renewable generation as the primary energy source cannot succeed.
* A cowardly adjective; more another day.