Power Industry Faces Quality Vs Quantity Issues

Because the power system was not developed for today's growing digital technology world, the industry faces a series of challenges to overcome its growing grid constraints. Without upgrades, "even with new power available, we won't get it," the strategic planner of the Electric Power Research Institute told a Houston energy audience last week.

Mark A. Gabriel, vice president of global marketing and strategic planning of EPRI, told attendees at Ziff Energy Group's North American Gas Strategies Conference that he thinks it's "almost laughable" that so many people blame the Internet for the decline in power generation today. "The Internet is just a small slice of the picture," he said.

Because the nation is living in a digital economy, the quality of power is fluctuating. "The power system was not developed for digital. We may be able to bring the gas and provide the generation, but if we can't power the electricity, we'll have some distributed resource problems. It's not the quantity of the power, but the quality of the power."

E-commerce and on-line communications are "only part of the picture," he said, referring to the a few items from the growing list of digitized technology: industrial equipment, computers, clock radios, refrigerators and telephones. "The real revolution has been unfolding for years with microprocessors in virtually every aspect of our lives."

Power reliability versus power disruptions are a growing concern, and he said that even though a residence might be out of power an average of 8.8 hours a year, that time frame would be disastrous --- and expensive --- for business. "For some, even 100% reliability isn't enough. Momentary voltage sags can disrupt many manufacturing processes with serious results."

Total U.S. power reliability losses a year are between $30-$50 billion, Gabriel said. A momentary voltage sage at a baby food factory might cost $40,000; a 20-minute outage at one Hewlett-Packard fabrication plant would run $30 million.

"Most of our current power delivery systems were developed for motor and heat loads," Gabriel said. "We now face increased reliability and quality demands," including an outdated infrastructure, industry restructuring and a lack of correlation between investment and profit, "especially in research and development."

In the past 10 years, there has been a 35% load growth, an 18% growth in capacity, and a 400% growth in wholesale transactions. "The result: grid constraints," he said. "Meeting the digital need is a tall order, but new technologies abound that address our energy issues."

Through the use of several types of technologies, including dynamic voltage restorers, distribution static compensatory, flywheel systems and high-temperature superconducting materials, to name a few, Gabriel said the U.S. power industry can overcome the deficit created by digital devices.

"The future will be driven by many forces," Gabriel said. "Convergence of wholesale power, natural gas and communications is inevitable." He illustrated a "new power marketing paradigm," which he said will include more fuel cell use and micro-turbines by consumers in "the near future." While he said some might be skeptical of what lies ahead, Gabriel said, "remember the railroads? Almost every generally accepted view was once deemed eccentric or heretical," listing off the combustion engine, passenger airlines, VCR, cell phones and the Internet.

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