Gridlock: Freedom from Unreliable, Dangerous Wires

By Rinaldo Brutoco   |   March 4, 2021

Angelenos think of “gridlock” as that which happens on the Interstate 405 every day, as well as on many other freeways around town. In this week’s column, we’re focusing on how the electrical grid in California helps start wildfires. (Governor Newsom says he sees this going on for more than a decade as the state currently has no plan to eliminate high-power transmission lines from sparking.). We’ll also look at the way the electrical grid in Texas almost collapsed. What both grids have in common is that they rely on a technology invented in the 1880s – an inherently a flawed way to distribute electricity. Fortunately, there is a reliable, resilient, economically preferable and localized solution to problems that the grid creates. 

Where did the grid come from and why was it invented? It turns out there was a big battle between two electrical geniuses: Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla. Edison knew that direct current (DC) was more efficient, but it couldn’t travel long distances over copper wires. Edison proposed that Manhattan be served by a series of micro-generating plants spaced every few miles apart, which would drastically reduce the energy required to power Manhattan. This would also reduce costs and provide more resilience since no one plant would be required to supply more than a fraction of the city’s required energy.

Tesla had a different idea. He felt that city residents would not want to see their power plants, so he wanted to locate a massive one in the outlying borough of Brooklyn. He wanted to convert it to alternating current (AC) and transmit power back to Manhattan over large, high-powered transmission lines. Tesla knew that AC could travel many miles over high-powered lines. They would then be converted to lower voltages at substations and send AC electricity to individual homes and businesses, where AC appliances would use the current to heat and illuminate homes. 

Tesla teamed up with a capable businessman, George Westinghouse, who financed Tesla’s idea because Westinghouse wanted, among other things, to manufacture AC lightbulbs. Edison, by far the more prominent scientist at the time, actually lost in the head-to-head matchup after Tesla proved his system was more viable in bringing power to the outer boroughs and countryside, where homes were situated miles apart. 

We’ve been saddled with ugly, dangerous, and unreliable high-powered transmission lines ever since. Ironically, we all use personal computers and cell phones that run on DC. How do these devices get the DC? We plug them into AC outlets and run the power through an adapter to return the power, originally created as DC and then converted to AC, back into DC. Even more ironic, the digital world in which we live can only use DC – whether it’s creating electricity from solar panels on your roof, charging a laptop, cell phone, or your electric car (a Tesla perhaps?). Such irony.

If the Edison-Tesla battle was fought today, I believe Edison would win for a variety of reasons. First, Edison was correct that DC is much more efficient. It could provide all the power we need with less than a quarter of the total energy being created. Imagine being able to reduce our electric consumption by 75 percent if we just changed our household appliances! Everyone reading this has probably used a DC refrigerator and other DC appliances, if unwittingly. Where did you encounter them? On every recreational vehicle (“RV”) or boat you’ve ever been on. They all use DC. Why? Because the energy is created on the boat and used right there. No long distance means no AC, and no transformer means higher efficiency. In a world literally dying from climate change, the ability to drastically reduce energy consumption would be a huge opportunity for addressing climate change without changing our Western lifestyle. 

Second, since a DC system would avoid conventional high-powered transmission lines, we’d eliminate the 70 percent of all forest fires that originate from the sparking of high-powered transmission lines during high winds in the backcountry. (Some researchers envision new, DC towers moving massive amounts of DC energy to solve the energy crisis, but this scheme is impractical for many reasons.)

Third, and most important of all, the micro-generating plants that Edison envisioned were precursors to the microgrid technology developed in the past two decades. Although the wire was necessary to get Tesla’s electricity from Brooklyn to Manhattan, today the grid wires are the problem. Evidence demonstrates that the biggest problem with the creation, delivery, and distribution of AC electricity is that it requires massive plants at a distance that are not usually adaptable for local energy creation, are not resilient, and are not really adaptable to green renewable energy. California and Texas have a common problem: they both need to get rid of all those high-power wires that have repeatedly failed and will fail again in the future.

The World Business Academy, the think tank for which I am the founding president, has been working on this problem for the past several decades. It has proposed eliminating the grid in California as a way to achieve 100-percent renewable energy in ten years or less at no additional cost to ratepayers. In fact, the conversion will produce more economic benefits than expense.  

History is proving Edison was right: for many sound business, environmental, and societal factors, the future of massive centralized power plants in California is this: they will never again be built here. The future is to create a series of interlocking renewable energy that is powered by hydrogen fuel cell assisted microgrids across the state. To visualize this honeycombed micro-grid energy network, I invite you to watch “Clean Energy Moonshot,” a video presentation that is on the World Business Academy’s website or YouTube. It tells the story of how to get to green by rethinking the basic Edison-Tesla conflict. That is the future of a resilient, efficient energy system.

In that future there will be zero wildfires started from high-powered lines. In that future, the residents of Texas would have an economic, resilient, localized energy creation and distribution system that could not possibly crash. Best of all, we don’t have to wait for governments in Sacramento or Austin to get on board – we can start building those microgrids one home, one building and one community at a time, and just keep linking them together. Now that’s Power Progress with two capital Ps. •MJ


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