What If No Electrical Grid? by A. Michael Noll


December 8th, 2015

What If No Electrical Grid?

A. Michael Noll

December 8, 2015

© 2015 AMN

Alternative futures are sometimes enlightening to contemplate. Thus the need to ask the question “What if?” The specific question to be asked is “What if today’s electrical grid did not exist – it was never invented or implemented?”

The alternating current (AC) system (pioneered by Tesla, Westinghouse, and Edison a century ago) was based on a centralized power plant with electrical power then distributed by wires over distances to homes and businesses.

Suppose this system was never invented or implemented. Suppose a button was pushed and all the electrical wires running down streets on poles all disappeared. Suppose then that an inventor appeared proposing a system with the need to run cables across the country with electrical distribution wires running down every street in the country. The cost of wiring the entire country would be staggering — the proposal would be considered absurd. Yet that is the system that exists today.

But if we did not have an electrical distribution grid, how then would homes and businesses obtain electricity? Clearly each home and business would need its own source of electrical power. The electricity would need to be generated from solar energy, geothermal energy, biological sources, or other efficient local means. Each home and business would be self-sufficient – there would be no wires running down streets – no electrical distribution grid across the country.

Energy independence is more than just domestic sources of energy. It should also include decentralization from the centralized system invented decades ago by Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse. They simply did not have the right technology a century ago for such local generation, and we are today stuck with the past – with its inherent inefficacies.

A. Michael Noll

A. Michael Noll


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3 thoughts on “What If No Electrical Grid? by A. Michael Noll”

  1. I agree with Michael’s perspective here, except that I don’t fully accept the “we are today stuck with the past” closing statement, assuming it means we can’t do anything to change the situation in meaningfully positive ways.

    Relying heavily on a paper entitled “Getting Smarter About the Smart Grid”
    by Timothy Schoechle, I considered issues and options related to a migration from our legacy energy grid to a truly smart and renewable-rich distributed grid in the following Quello Center blog posts: Are “Smart Meters” a Costly Diversion From the “Smart Grid” We Really Need? , Using ICT to Develop Infrastructure Systems for the “Digital Anthropocene” and Evolving Infrastructure Models: Telecom, Electricity & the IoT.

    Though the kind of transition suggested in these posts and Schoechle’s paper faces intense challenges, I believe it is vital to our future as inhabitants of this planet, whose natural systems we have (as a very clever but not especially wise species) taken for granted for too long.

  2. William Dutton says:

    Reply to Sharpiro from Michael Noll:
    I am less sure that a smart grid is the answer. I see more local generation at homes and buildings — and perhaps less grid. But I think we are much in agreement. There is much we could do to create electricity, energy, and light in much more efficient ways that would not create any carbon. I fear that if we do not, then nature will ultimately eliminate the offending organism — us.

  3. Bill,

    In case my comment was not clear, there are multiple visions of the smart grid, with very different implications for our future. Incumbent utilities (and many regulators) envision a utility-controlled grid with continuation of centralized generation and control. The other vision is much more in line with what you describe: increasingly distributed and renewable-based generation, linked to micro-grids in which homes and businesses are increasingly reliant on their own renewable generation, with neighborhood, city and regional-level grids existing to share and balance generation and usage levels in ways that drive efficiencies and empower end-users rather than aggregate more power and control of information in the hands of centralized utilities with business models that are inconsistent with a rapid migration to renewables.

    As Tim Schoechle and others explain, the risk is that the centralized utility-backed “smart grid” vision has too many internal contradictions and negative inertia driven my legacy business, tech & regulatory models that, as you put it, “nature will eliminate the offending organism.” Understanding how that can be avoided strikes me as a vital and complex set of research questions with the kind of public policy import your comment suggests, and that are best addressed via interdisciplinary research.

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