On grid electricity has demonstrated outstanding reliability, flexibility and cost advantages for the last century, off grid production declining as a percentage of the mix - the "use it if you have to" option. However, as off grid costs have tumbled and grid prices have rarely dropped at all, it is off grid sources that increasingly claim the crown of reliability, flexibility and cost. The new trend to off grid is a slow, subtle and multi-faceted process driven by inherent limitations of grids in the new world emerging but also the neglect, bad design and bad decision making with grids. Off grid electricity production, like the internet, is starting to become ubiquitous, empowering the little man. Let us look at some examples.
In the USA and Australia recently, the very high cost of increasing grid capacity or reach to certain constricted regions has led to off grid technology being adopted at one tenth of the cost. That means a mix chosen from local solar, wind power, fuel cells and batteries and a for very occasional assistance, a small diesel genset. Call it strengthening the edge of grid but the fact that such systems usefully double as grid backup has not escaped users as the hurricanes piled in. Now people are buying their solar roof and battery despite it not producing cheaper electricity because they want to keep the lights on. Others just have the solar roof or wind turbine where feed in tariffs (FIT) make it economical. Yes, FIT are being phased out but the cost of small scale solar is dropping rapidly. Others just want to set a good example with solar and/or wind at their property but on a larger scale the economics of off grid technology can also be compelling such as the Las Vegas casinos erecting their own solar farms for lower cost and fewer outages. However, none of this is completely off grid other than when the grid goes down.
Users live in the real world. They may be aware of the theoretical advantages of grids and even their roadmap to responsive smart grids that accept micro inputs and load balancing from electric cars and house batteries but they look at the news too. Only grids need those long distance high voltage transmission lines at $1-8 million a mile that collapse under ice and hurricanes. Only grids are such complex networks that nodes form that are vulnerable to terrorists and natural disasters. Even more serious is incompetent decision making. The US grid has been neglected but the economists tell us that the latest national budget is not consistent with fixing it. The projected trillion dollar increase in deficit over the next ten years will expand even further if spending economies are not made.
A grid theoretician would be horrified that the world's busiest airport, Atlanta, was shut down for ten hours in December due to nothing more than what it called a fire in one substation. That was surely incompetent grid design coupled to lack of backups. The Economist notes that the US is considering nuclear and coal subsidies "for security of supply" when only 0.00007% of its outages are fuel related, the rest being almost entirely wires and poles coming down. The UK Parliamentary watchdog committee calculated that the huge new nuclear power station ordered by the UK government in 2017 was an unnecessary escalation of cost. In Japan, Fukushima was an expensive mistake increasing grid electricity costs not just a human tragedy. In some parts of the world, grid electricity prices have quadrupled sometimes fuelled by monopolistic behaviour so users get more and more interested in alternatives. What price hikes next? How can a business plan? It even extends to non-electric cooking and climate control where the gas utility may want $40,000 to get a pipe a few blocks further to reach your house. You can go clean electric off grid for that now battery costs are tumbling.
The reliability of the grid concept is also not quite what it seems to be. Networks form nodes vulnerable to the new forms of intelligent terrorist attack. Grids can and do have cascading failures and their long distance transmission lines cannot affordably be put underground to escape the new terrorism and extreme weather. Well designed national grids do have supply down different lines from a profusion of sources giving flexibility but transmission losses occur.
The third cited benefit of grids is that all this leads to lower electricity cost for the consumer and, where grids exist, that is still largely true but the trend is not good for grids because only off grid technology is seeing rapid drop in cost and suitability for newly remote and mobile locations of loads. For example, Google servers and chemical production are almost entirely on land but in the last year Google's parent company has patented putting both in ships off shore so all their electricity can be made from the strong winds there, tapped by megawatt generating tethered drones of Google sister company Makani - off grid. It has also patented making large ships energy independent this way when currently they are the world's filthiest vehicles with emissions equivalent to millions of cars each. Facebook, the Chinese Government and Airbus race to make huge solar drones - zero emission microgrids - cruise the upper atmosphere beaming the internet and serving the military. Grids have nothing to offer all this and the trend is inexorable, from recharging the new pure electric robots as they work farms to transportable power for advancing armies and remote mines. See the IDTechEx reports, "Agricultural Robots and Drones 2017-2027" and "Electric Vehicles for Construction, Agriculture and Mining 2017-2027".
IDTechEx CEO Raghu Das says, "Yes, there are things to fix such as off grid wind turbines that are usually too low and obscured to be effective. They need to be more reliable and mass produced in standard form. The new Airborne Wind Energy is being commercialised in 2018 with inadequate testing. See our report on that. Too few off grid systems have the security of multiple sources: for example, there is scope for adding blue energy from sea and river and the newest vertical-axis wind turbines: they are ultra-efficient, quiet and unobtrusive and even used on energy independent electric boats as zero-emission, mobile microgrids. Increasingly off grid is stealing the clothes of on grid with superior reliability, flexibility and cost. Only off grid can be used in the burgeoning number of remote and mobile applications where grids are irrelevant. The pipeline of new off grid technologies that can make this even more true in future is formidable. For instance, electricity generating roads and windows are game changing."
For an off grid overview with forecasts and technology roadmaps see the new IDTechEx report, "Off Grid Zero-emission Electricity 2018-2038: New Markets, New Technology Roadmap" and for specific detail see "Off Grid Electric Vehicle Charging: Zero Emission 2018-2038", "Smart Roads 2018-2038" and "Electricity Generation by Urban Infrastructure: Zero Emission 2018-2050".
Learn more at the next leading event on the topic: Sensors Europe 2019 on 10 - 11 Apr 2019 at Estrel Convention Center, Berlin, Germany hosted by IDTechEx.