17 June 2010

Future Power Issue: Green Out?

It’s not often that I hear a new phrase and think out loud, “Now that would make sense.” While having an end-of-class discussion, a student asked what a brown out was. I explained as best I could; I’ve not had to suffer through one of them that I know of. While we were having that discussion, I heard, or thought I heard, a student mention a “green out” and it made pretty good sense at the time. Perhaps it will, unfortunately, in the future as well.

A green out, as I see it, would occur when a locality (or a state, or a nation) chooses to turn away in large from coal and gas in favor of “green” power sources, which are renewable. However, the urge to be green, to use mostly or exclusively renewable energy sources like wind and solar, hits a brick wall when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. These sources, barring serious battery backup, don’t have the constancy that coal, gas, and nuclear do. Thus, when the power goes out because of the inherent limitations of renewable energy sources, there would be a “green out.’ Like a brown out or a black out, but at least one might feel better that the whole process costs less in green guilt.

At the moment, the idea of a green out seems far-fetched. Surely the highly integrated power grid of the US would allow for even the most “environmentally conscious” of communities to avoid the real-world intrusion of a green out. Well, maybe. (Transferring electrical power over a line is not like sending an email over the internet.) And it may be that sentiments of green guilt would be waylaid by serious contemplation of a life without constant power. Life without instant rechargability of phones and laptops might cause more than a little discomfort to all, including those who demonize the use of fossil fuels. Maybe.

But as hysteria and finger pointing regarding the BP deepwater drilling accident mount, there is sure to be more lurching toward renewable sources regardless of the readiness of those technologies. Renewable sources are not ready, and the only technology which might realistically replace the burning of coal is the use of nuclear – a bogeyman of environmentalists in its own special way. So, it may be that the term “green out” is something to put in the back of the mind for later use.

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