It's Not Just Alternative Energy Versus Fossil Fuels or Nuclear - Energy Has to Become DECENTRALIZED

George Washington's picture

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GeoffreyT's picture

This was a fascinating piece; of particular interest (to me) was the discussion of the level of inefficiency in 'traditional' power generation and transmission, whereby something of the order of 2/3rds of the energy value of the fuel never makes it to the household. As the title implies - the centralising of power generation lines some pockets (otherwise it would not be set up like that given its inherent wastefulness).

I note that recent advances in solar panel technology have resulted in a solar cell that operates at 24% efficiency (see ) while lab-development models are currently hitting over 40%. Obviously for a home system there are virtually no transmission losses.


This stuff interests me for a couple of reasons - none of which has anything to do with environmentalism, climate change or whatever dull tripe we're being gulled with. I have no preference for any type of power, but frankly the idea of nuclear plants overseen by political agencies appals me; not because it's nuclear but because political oversight is always and everywhere a recipe for disaster: fraud, waste, corner-cutting, cronyism and corruption. And of course weapons (the US and France stopped trying to develop thorium-based reactors when they found out that they couldn't use the byproducts for weapons). I haven't seen much recently about home-based pebble-bed reactors (which were much talked about from about 1999 to 2003), but I would have one in a heartbeat.


As to why this story interest me specifically:

First: The Lovely's parents have solar power and hot water/heating (they live in a rural area, albeit only 80km from Melbourne; getting powerlines to the house would have cost $40k so they have a $10k solar system instead). Prior to a recent upgrade their system provided a bare minumum (the refrigerator is gas powered; couldn't run a vacuum cleaner, steam iron, air conditioner or hairdryer except on sunny summer days). On days with low or little sunshine, a generator was required for lights in the evening: all things considered the system did a reasonable job. As a result they (and by extension we) became VERY aware of 'vampire appliances'. (Since panel prices have fallen they've recently added two extra panels (33%) and the issues no longer exist). The full cost (amortisation of the setup,maintenance of the panels and replacement of battery arrays) is far lower than the power bill on a similarly sized urban home.


Secondly, it highlights the fact that we're bombarded with 'solar is inefficient' tropes when it turns out that 2/3rds of the energy value we dig up (and pay for) has to be made up for by charging consumers on what actually gets into the fusebox of their homes (that's how it ought to be: price per kWh should equal its marginal cost). But on balance it's therefore not surprising that solar can compete in value for money terms if 66% of the BTU-equivalents being extracted from the ground are pissed away in the generation and transmission process. (and note also: the $15k setup that The Lovely's parents paid for 10 years ago, would cost about $6000 today and would be more efficient in both generation and storage)


Yeah I know... TL;DR. 

epwpixieq-1's picture

Good article.

Well summarized information. All the data is out there on the NET, one just have to look for it and have the right mindset to understand it and look into the future ...

And for all of you who like to get their hands dirty, a small bonus ( sorry, not from GS, of course :) ),

"How to convert a Lead Acid Battery into an Alkaine Battery" - with help of a product from the local grocery shop :)

TheBillMan's picture

As far as the tar sands of Alberta go, have a google at "THAI" or Toe-Heel Air Injection. Requires little natural gas and/or water and is self sustaining after the process starts up.  That, plus the fact that the oil extraction tends to be around 85% vs. 40% to 50% using the conventional strip mining methods.

tim73's picture

If your country's only industry is tourism, decentralized wind turbine energy network as main power source could actually work. If your country has heavy industries of any kind, forget about it.

Many factories need constant power and a lot of it. Even one millisecond distruption could cause robots and assembly lines going out of synch and damages would be in millions of dollars. Big machines have also long startup and shutdown times, so you cannot just switch those off and on in few seconds. 

GW just collected all the talking points from the Greens to one article but most of those are either wrong or questionable. Wind power EROI calculation especially is really laughable. Nuclear plants produce power 90-95 percent of the time at max capacity while wind power generates 15-25 percent of the capacity on average.

Common_Cents22's picture

What about the BloomBox fuel cell technology?  It is decentralized a bit with future promise of various fuel.   But now can run on cheaper, abundant natural gas input until if/when cheaper more sustainable inputs might be developed.

A few articles claim it is already cheaper than many electricity rates.  But it is more expensive now w/out govt subsidies.

could it be economical factoring in economies of scale in production?

Google and a few other companies are using them now.

Gunther's picture

Old-fashioned energy saving is missing in the discussion.

It will not solve the energy input problem but could help a lot.

Simple things are real switches in electrical stuff or a power bar that gets turned off.

In houses insulation and proper sun protection helps a lot to save on heating and cooling, not to mention appropriate thermostate settings.

The list of things to do is quite long and everything helps a bit. Together it can be a lot of improvement.

George Washington's picture

the uninsurability of nuclear, viz.

From the U.S. to Japan, it’s illegal to drive a car without sufficient insurance, yet governments around the world choose to run over 440 nuclear power plants with hardly any coverage whatsoever.

Japan’s Fukushima disaster, which will leave taxpayers there with a massive bill, brings to the fore one of the industry’s key weaknesses — that nuclear power is a viable source for cheap energy only if it goes uninsured…

…A 1992 study for the German economy ministry — the latest official report available — found the total cost of health damage to the population and other economic losses by a nuclear disaster could amount to €5.5 trillion — or about €7.6 trillion in today’s money.

Nuclear power plant operators could insure a larger, more realistic part of the potential damage, but experts note that that would lead to rising electricity prices.

The insurance in Germany costs utilities €0.008 cents ($0.015 cents) per kilowatt hour of electricity, a tiny part of the final cost for customers of about €22 cents, according to Bettina Meyer of think tank Green Budget Germany in Berlin. But insuring the full risk would amount to a prohibitive extra cost of about €2 per kilowatt hour.

Nuclear wouldn’t exist without state. Which is why it’s obvious that the industry has never had any intention of:

1) insuring the full risk of nuclear meltdown; or

2) dealing with the waste (hell, they’ve had 60 years to sort that one out, and we’re still waiting).

US nuke utilities have even sued – and won compensation from – the DoE over clean-up (see

The lawsuits follow requests for suspension of the payments made to the DoE by both NEI and NARUC in July 2009. Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, DoE was supposed to begin taking used fuel from nuclear energy facilities from 1998. As a result of its failure to meet this obligation, the federal government has been sued by a number of utilities, which have been awarded compensation totalling some $1 billion by US courts.

It’s a shame there’s no private insurance industry, though, because given that major meltdowns are now occurring once every 20 yrs or so, Goldman or someone could easily be on the the other side of that – and just imagine the bonanza to be had, shorting Tepco, NINA and nuclear catastrophe.

tim73's picture

"that major meltdowns are now occurring once every 20 yrs or so,"

Typical green idiot. That was a 9.0 earthquake, your fucking house would be destroyed in that kind of earthquake. Those Fukushima nuclear plants are still standing there. So go back to painting anti-this and anti-that industry posters with your fellow greenpeace naive elois.

Zero Govt's picture

yes Tim Fuku is still standing from earthquake but it was shattered by the tsunami. Most houses and buildings are still standing in fact from Earthquake, what knocked them down was again the tsunami. I'm not sure how GW claims nuclear is "cheap" apart from the fact they cannot get insurance. Nuclear is an extortinately expensive means of electricity generation It's not only insurance they can't get but private investment unless it's covered in lashings of Govt (taxpayer) subsidised help and waste material whitewashes.

Nuclear is an expensive joke... which is why only politicians, the biggest jokers on the pkanet, will build them

MarketFox's picture

Let´s put it this way....

For what reason does the FTC exist....



I cannot wait until energy is individualized per sun...and ones house....

Just monopolistic fuel depots that one cannot do without...etc....


The total....sure buys the battery....but after needs for 10 years....



THIS IS the opportunity....


As denoted by BYD.....

sundown333's picture

By the way, while you are doing the math tell me how cost effective nuclear is when you consider the cost to bild the plant, maintain the plant, operate the plant and put a few in concrete when things go wrong. Cheaper than coal or natural gas? PROVE IT! Show me EXACT math.

Diamond Jim's picture

a submarine nuke plant in every community........

proLiberty's picture

Why do people think there is something mythically special about energy as compared to other economic activities?   It is utter nonesense, for example, to say: "America uses 39.97 quads of energy, while it wastes 54.64 quads (i.e. "rejected energy")."   We don't care about how much money that Wal-Mart wastes in order to make a dollar of profit, for  profit is the only metric that really matters.  What matters with energy is the total cost as compared to the total value of the energy produced. 

Before anyone complains that production of energy has environmental costs, that is true.  The answer to that is to stop socializing the costs of pollution and make the polluter pay in full for any damage.  But I suspect that enviros will not be in favor of that because it will tend to make it even easier to justify building a new generation of nuclear power plants.


George Washington's picture

Some leading environmental economists have pioneered the concept of "externalities", which does exactly what you say.

Fukushima is cheap?

sundown333's picture

I give up. You guys think nukes are the answer than go for it. We have not learned anything from chernobyl or fukushima. We deserve what problems we get in the future.

falak pema's picture

It is not MAN who controls the ATOM, it is the ATOM that controls man. Oppenheimer's deadly toy...Pandora's box must be shut fast!

gasmiinder's picture

destruction of aquifers with natural gas fracking as examples

Is bullshit GW but I expect no less from you.  If it came from a lefty loon documentary it must be true.

But more to the point of your article - decentralizing energy is a non-starter because our brilliant environmental lobby/power brokers are a lot more interested in making sure they never have to SEE a power generating source than they are in actually solving any of these problems.

LawsofPhysics's picture

Go drink the water from my mother-in-law's well on her property in Texas.  Tasted fine until they started fracking.  Now she can't even live in the house because of the smell.  I am sure it was all just coincidence fucknut.

gasmiinder's picture

Not one documented example of the fracture stimulation process affecting an aquifer.  Not one, not anywhere. 

Calling names doesn't change that FACT.  But I don't expect the GW crowd to understand the meaning of ad hominem.

falak pema's picture about the explosion in Pennsylvania...

gasmiinder's picture

Hahaha - try to read the thread your responding too.


And further - "the explosion" also had nothing to do with the process of fracture stimulation.  I'd explain but that would immediately brand me as a faux zero hedger trying to slip in reason and rationale.

jmc8888's picture

Actually it's energy flux density.  Mankind needs to constantly raise it.  EROI is not a sufficient metric, too much can be fudged or be in error, plus it misses the whole point, mankind needs more constantly which can never be measured by this. 

Nuclear's cost is out of whack.  Gov't funded, change the rules of amitorization, gov't insurance (as if any private could withstand anything like fukushima), and Nuclear gets down to 1-2 cents per kw/h.  So if measured by the inferior EROI it would be much better than wind/solar, plus the EROI for wind/solar doesn't count how it would change the EROI if we were building MILLIONS of these a year...or at least 50 million windmills to power most of the U.S.

That's some serious metal that needs to be pulled from the earth, smelted, and manufactured, transported, etc.  The costs would be much higher and the EROI a lot lower based on this.  It can't just hit the sweet spots like it is now in those EROI calcs.

That said, only FUSION will make us sufficient.

But here's some good stuff from LaRouche on Nuclear, as well as hydrogen created by Nuclear, and fusion as well.

But if we decentralize, we can remove alot of waste.  This is good. But also superconductor lines would help with our current transmission and should be looked at as well. (and of course all under the notion that with fusion, decentralization becomes less of a priority..although we should always try to increase efficiency, as it makes sense to a point)

The decentralized wind/solar stuff doesn't make much sense. People don't want wind turbines around you.  It's not classic, NIMBY when the sound can cause people to go crazy with low hums, and dead birds will constantly be picked up around the turbine.  Solar...good luck with that. A certain percentage will cause home fires, which the fire department won't put out since they don't want to be electrocuted (or for any home fire even unrelated to the solar panels). 

4th generation and beyond Nuclear reactors on a small neighborhood or city scale would make sense for this decentralization. 

Back to wind/solar...again as mankind grows, wind/solar don't move up the chain, they are fixed.  They are good for 1950's style energy usage, not 2050 or beyond.  Think of it like this.  The Apple II was a great computer, but look at it now.  It's useless for the most part.  That's what wind/solar will be soon enough.  That's a major problem when you consider you need at least 50 million windmills.

It's alot easier to build 10,000 nuke plants or so than 50 million windmills.  Depending of course on reactor output and number of reactors at each site.

There is some leeway for some small types of solar, but not for general home/industrial use.  Redundency, backup, and small portable appliances. Plus paint solar on stuff might lower costs, and increase where one could use it, although I don't know about the safety of such things. I.E. Fire? Electrocuted?  I would say this is solar's only real bet, because society just can't have thousands of square miles of solar cells. 

Not that it is the main issue, but 50 million windmills and thousands of square miles (hell more than that) would kill millions of birds, alter weather patterns, etc. It does have consequences.

Only fusion will get us out from this problem.  It will take decades, and until then nuclear power is the way to go.  Wind/solar not so much. Plus I don't entirely trust the data on EROI for wind/solar.  Lots of subjectiveness.  The key metric, the more accurate one, especially going forward, is Energy Flux Density.  

It's nuclear until fusion. As for decentralization, I see no reason why that cannot play a big part of wringing out some savings until the very least, fusion gets operational and mass produced so-to-speak.  But not through Wind/solar boondoggles...and not at the expense of current methods of generation.  We'd need both centralized and decentralized.  That would raise costs, since you cannot just say lets go decentralized, and cut off the grid.  So it would be the costs of maintaining and improving the centralized grid + all the stuff regarding decentralized.  In a monetary system, I don't see that as possible.  In a Hamiltonian credit system, I can.

This is a tought nut to crack, so I applaud GW presentation on it.



falak pema's picture

glass steagall sounds like your cup of medicine against every disease including Alzheimer's. Hope you are not going around in circles of transient flux. Just look at Kitegen and Combined cycle fed on bio gas or coal gasification and you'll know that decentralised flexible production is the most energy efficient AND most EROI oriented; as well as being the most reactive in case of base load system breakdown. Without incurring either the ecological risk of big central nuclear or that of strategic supply risk for large sized imported oil/gas fired units

FeralSerf's picture

As much as this runs counter to my academic training, cold fusion is looking better all the time.  There appears to be some pretty big money that's putting on a campaign against it.  Claiming it doesn't work and its adherants are a bunch of nuts has worked so far, but there are leaks and the leaks are getting bigger.  Maybe BP needs to assume the position of global investigator and take charge of all research.  They could use their black uniformed army to make sure there aren't any trespassers.

Zero Govt's picture

it's very easy to find a return on energy, look for Govt subsidies and Govt legislation (ie. corruption). Coal, oil and gas does not need Govt subsidy. Alternates like wind, wave, solar and the biggest economic joke, nuclear, require vast sums thieved from taxpayers to keep their bankrupt business models propped up

You're quite wrong that hydrocarbons are 'dangerous' or dirty GW. They have proved themselves over a century to assist in the growth of our lifespans and our enviroment has not suffered either (volcanos and natural planetary emissions are greater and also get 'clean rinced' by the Earths enviorment with ease)

You're quite right about decentralising GW. Get Govts corrupt mangling out of the energy markets (including bans/controls on exploration, drilling and refinaries) and their protection racket of large global dinosaur energy monopolies to stop competition in the market place.

In short, let the Free Market work

sundown333's picture

Speaking of nuclear energy, I don't have all the answers and don't pretend to but if nuclear is one of the "best" ways we have to boil water in the year 2010, we are still just outside the stone age!

sundown333's picture

After Chernobyl and Fukushima, after knowledge is coming out that all nuclear leak some radiation and once most find out just how much harm this can do to body tissue despite all the lobby telling us things are fine, you will not get much support for mini-nuke plants for your local neighborhood. I sure as hell don't want one in mine!

FeralSerf's picture

I don't mind having (a safe) one in my neighborhood that's large enough for us plus your neighborhood if we can charge your neighborhood enough for the energy to support us in the manner we'd like to be accustomed.   Don't want one?  OK, then pay through the nose and abject economic slavery for you if you want lights, refrigeration, food, etc.  That's actually the system we have now on a much bigger scale.

George Washington's picture

Then your neighborhood shouldn't get one!  It should be a local decison ...

Shell Game's picture

Energy, food, money and the mind are keys to power.  No wonder the control-freaks go after all four.  Time to decentralize, BIG time.

Nice article, GW.  Well researched and presented, not bad at all for a 279 year old.. ;)

IdioTsincracY's picture

Stop the wars ... close all bases abroad ... use the money saved every year to install solar panel on every roof.

Energy problem solved .... the only reason they don't do it is because they would not be able to charge us any longer ...

F#ck them!

NotApplicable's picture

To extend your reason a bit further, it's all about dependence upon centralized infrastructure creating a choke-hold on energy. Brzezinski's Grand Chessboard lays this out in detail.

Which is to say, decentralized electrical power will never be wide-spread as long as political power remains centralized.

FeralSerf's picture

And political power will never be decentralized as long as they have the big guns and control of energy.

NotApplicable's picture

Or as Brzezinski would say, "Checkmate!"

falak pema's picture

Brzzz was no Gary Kasparov.... he couldn't play against sicilian defense of Iranian revolution to save his ass. He lost -every time to Ayatollah K! What a fiasco that was!

tony bonn's picture

small is beautiful....i do think that there is much merit in the pursuit of energy dissipated energy could be rechanneled to producing useful forms such as electricity.....

using less energy per se is not a solution.....quality of life requires certain applications of energy....

it should not be overlooked that so-called fossil fuels are not fossil fuels - they are abiotic productions which are renewable....we just don't yet know the period of renewal....but the earth is a magnificent machine for producing oil, coal, and natural gas....i predict that many oil fields will replenish in the coming years....indeed we have numerous examples of this occuring on small scales....

FeralSerf's picture

A lot of the inefficiencies are the results of the Carnot and Otto cycles.  There's not much that can be done about that as long it's necessary to convert heat into mechanical energy.  This is conveniently left out of most studies.

George Washington's picture

Yes, that's why I wrote:

We can't prevent all of the loss of energy from energy production, transmission or usage. As the National Academies Press puts it:

Efficiencies of heat engines can be improved further, but only to a degree. Principles of physics place upper limits on how efficient they can be.

Problem Is's picture

+5 -- Awesome, GW
It is like everything else in the last 30 years... If you are waiting for a top down solution to your problems (e.g. Corrupt Corporate Owned Governance)...

Grab your ankles and keep waiting...

Your solutions are local, grass roots, bottom up... Unless you think idiots like Obummer, Dodd, Frank and Boen-er are going to solve your problems...

Giant Centralized Wealth Sucking Vacuum
Decentralization of political and economic power are the citizens only defense to a looting, bribed political class who are lackeys for finance oligarchs who seek escalating parasitic rents and taxes from the productive working citizens until we are all impoverished.

Dissolution of the Corporation is the Sine Qua Non of the Republic
Stop buying corporate crap. Buy local. Support your local farmers, cooperatives and businesses. Look for local investments and local solutions...

krugergate's picture

1 oil is abiotic and is not running out - the russkies figured this out in the 70's - remember the club of rome sponsored the famous book by Dennis Meadows - limit to growth.

2. Tesla figured out how to give us all free energy til JP pulled the plug on him because they cant put a meter on free energy.

3. Why does the US Gov hold more than 6000 secret patents on this subject?


silver to the moon !



Jab Cross Hook's picture

Long on transmission towers and lines.

Wait till the cartels start fighting over this patch.

FeralSerf's picture

"The sister company, Sempra Generation, also announced that it is selling half of the project to BP Wind Energy, a subsidiary of energy giant BP."

Big Oil strikes again.  There doesn't appear to be any way the sheep can keep from being sheared by these rotten motherfuckers, eh?

Jab Cross Hook's picture

As BP hired security contractors to protect their "cleanup" zones last year, could we see Blackwater/Xe glove up against the Zetas and their hermanos?

pasttense's picture

So, George Washington, do you have both an electric line and and a natural gas line coming into your house? Why? Why don't you drop the electric line and get a natural gas powered electrical generator? You have just been explaining to us how decentralized systems are so much more efficient, about the line losses for electricity.

FeralSerf's picture

Line losses don't nearly equal the differences in generation efficiencies between small ICEs and large combined cycle gas turbines.

tamboo's picture

you might want to look into the myriad of 'disruptive technology' devices that have been suppressed over the last 100 years.

oxalis_tuberosum's picture

Starts out sounding good, but then alarm bells triggered;

But perhaps the greatest untapped sources of piezo-electric energy are freeways and busy roads. If piezo-electric mats were installed under the busiest sections, the thousands of tons of vehicles passing over each day would generate massive amounts of electricity for the city's use.

Sorry but this is nonsense.  This is an old, old misapprehension.   Just like the people who would have you put a windmill on your car to charge up the battery.  

The power has to come from somewhere; it comes from the cars driving over it!   At a hideous inefficiency and very low EROEI. They will consume more fuel. Author  does NOT know what they are talking about.


FeralSerf's picture

But you do have to admit that artificial washboard roads are a devilishly clever method of stealing from the motoring public.  Now if you could only invent a way of converting potholes to generators. . .  New York and California could become energy independent.

Jab Cross Hook's picture

Maybe something like those shaker flashlights with a striker plate atop.  I can already see Cali's pot growers doing jumping jacks in the streets to lower their rates.

Jab Cross Hook's picture

More accurate to consider the costs and energy input to manufacture and install these Spark Carpets at locations where cars will drive over, regardless. But then it won't be long till cheap motoring gets farted into the halls of yesterday.  Then it's wasted effort.

Hell, we can't even get the damn potholes fixed.