Power from the people
Self-generated electricity has its limitations. But not everyone is holding out for a breakthrough.
Rising out of a cornfield like a '70s-era subdivision, the tiny community of Stelle, Ill., offers a glimpse into the future.Skip to next paragraph
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Two wind generators whir in the cool spring breeze. Roughly a quarter of the 45 homes here sport solar panels. Even the community-owned telephone company and Internet service run on sun power.
The idea: Instead of relying solely on utilities, homeowners and small businesses can supplement them - with their own backyard power plants.
It's an idea that's catching on in the wake of California's rolling blackouts and threatened utility price hikes. If it becomes widespread, the notion of "distributed generation" could shake up the electric industry and transform the way Americans get their energy.
But before running out to put up your own solar panel, beware: Backyard power plants remain costly and may require a few lifestyle changes - at least until new technology breakthroughs come along.
"The future of the industry is up for grabs to some degree," says Doug Herman, program manager for distributed generation at the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry-funded group in Palo Alto, Calif. Electric rates are projected to rise so quickly in California that, with beefed up subsidies, distributed - or decentralized - generation is becoming a reality in the Golden State.
For example: Utilities are putting up temporary banks of diesel generators to produce needed power rather than fix bottlenecks in their distribution systems. Businesses are installing microturbines (think of stationary jet engines) so they can keep working during blackouts.
Demand for renewable-energy hardware has also soared. Homebuilders and homeowners are installing so many solar-power systems as backup power that solar panels remain in short supply. Utilities and rural homeowners are putting up wind generators so quickly that the American Wind Energy Association expects a banner year.
Public interest is higher than ever, says Richard Perez, publisher and editor in chief of Home Power magazine in Ashland, Ore. "[The blackouts] changed people's perception of utilities and their reliability."
In theory, distributed generation should be more reliable than centralized power because the power doesn't have to travel as far. If a neighborhood operates, say, three backyard plants - each rated to carry 50 percent of the load - one unit could get knocked out with no appreciable effect. But it's not clear whether today's centralized system will be distributed to that extreme.
"Maybe it doesn't make sense to build huge power plants and giant transmission lines, but maybe it doesn't make sense to have a power plant in your backyard, either," says Mr. Herman of the Electric Power Research Institute. "Intuitively, to me, the optimal system is somewhere between the two."
For one thing, backyard power still faces big hurdles. Despite all the criticisms leveled against them, today's centralized power plants still manage to produce reliable power at a national average of 6 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour. All the current alternatives either cost more or don't look feasible for many cities and suburbs.
Here in Stelle, for example, Steve Bell installed a solar- and wind-energy system that could nearly run his house year-round without help from a utility. As manager of technical support for SunWize Technologies, a solar-power company with Midwest offices in Stelle, he got a break on the $65,000 worth of equipment and installed the system himself. Had he paid for installation, such a large system would have cost nearly $80,000. Even a more modest-size system still goes for $40,000.