Electricity and The Grid

One of the most common questions I've been asked is, "Will we still have electricity after peak oil?"

The good news is that very little U.S. electricity is made directly from oil. The majority is made from coal, uranium and natural gas. Renewable sources provide only about 5% of the country's electricity (Renewables 2009 Global Status Report PDF).   

The bad news is that the grid, like all our systems, is still indirectly dependent on oil. Oil allows the maintenance workers to get in their trucks to make repairs, it enables new parts to be manufactured and delivered and so on. Moreover, the North American electricity grid is likely the largest machine ever built by man and like all the U.S. infrastructure, it's not being maintained adequately.

Here are some of the significant problems with the grid:

  • the grid is aging and is not being maintained well. The average age of many transformers is now past their rated lifespan, approximately 40 years. In many areas of the country transformers are being replaced only as they fail. Making things worse, there are no longer any North American manufacturers of the largest transformers. There is, on average, a blackout somewhere in the U.S. every 13 days (PDF); this will surely increase.
  • renewable energy hookups are backlogged. Often new renewable energy generation requires new lines to be built out to remote areas. The current permitting scheme is backlogged and forces the first applicant for new transmission lines to pay for entire cost (Sustainable Industries, May 2008). That's like asking the first person using the onramp to a highway to pay for the entire onramp. The result is that renewable energy buildout is occurring much slower than it needs to.
  • the grid will see increasing load as people switch to electric heating. In many areas of the country it is already cheaper to heat with electricity instead of fuel oil or natural gas. As more people switch to electric, the poorly maintained electric grid will be even more strained.
  • power stations will shut down as water becomes more scarce. As global warming reduces water available to power generating stations, they will be forced to shut down if they can't safely cool the equipment.
  • as natural gas and coal run out in North America, electricity costs will skyrocket in certain states. Since 49% of California's electricity is made from natural gas, we Californian's are headed for enormous price increases. And if you thought we had 250 years of coal left, well, that's just a myth.

Here is likely what we can expect:

  • more blackouts as the grid ages and equipment fails
  • less electricity available as nuclear plants reach the end of their life and are shut down. The nuclear industry in North America has very little ability to add many more reactors; it's been dormant for too long, the engineers are retiring and the supply chain is mostly broken.
  • more nuclear accidents as the regulatory agencies extend the operating licenses of nuclear plants beyond their design lifespan; in the least there will be more frequent unplanned shutdowns, which take enormous amounts of electricity off the grid at one time.
  • more deaths from hypothermia when blackouts occur in the winter; many home natural gas furnaces need electricity to start the flame.

Given the above, you should plan for an unreliable grid in the medium term. Start reducing your electricity requirements and install ways to make your own electricity now while the equipment is still available. Find another way to get heat in the winter time. Start by learning how to heat with wood effectively, then consider purchasing a wood stove or wood pellet stove. Heating with a fireplace will use up your wood too quickly because they are not efficient. Efficiency counts with wood, too, because split wood and wood pellets will continue to increase in price and decrease in availability. Many wood stoves use a fan to increase the efficiency of the burning and deliver heat over a wider area; just remember that the fan requires electricity, too.

Saving Energy When Cooking and Storing Foods

Consider cooking on your wood stove if you have one; if you are about to buy one, be sure to purchase one on which you can place pots.

When the sun is available, use a solar cooker to save on fuel. With a little guidance and patience, an entire meal can be cooked with the sun.

Although a modern refrigerator is dramatically more efficient than one from 20 years ago, they still require a consistent supply of electricity or the food will spoil. My 2004 Whirlpool, with just two people in the house using it mostly in the evening, uses about 1kWh each day. Sunfrost makes some of the most efficient refrigerators and freezers by using extra insulation and some common sense: they place the compressor above the food cabinet so the heat it generates is well away from the food. The most efficient refrigerator I've come across so far is a chest freezer that has been converted to be a refrigerator. The combination of extra insulation and the fact that cool air doesn't rise means this unit uses only 0.1kWh per day, or 1/10th of what mine uses! 

Drying food that you've grown will preserve its nutrients and allow you to stock up on food from the garden for the winter. Homemade sun-dried tomatoes, for instance, can add tremendous flavor to many dishes. You'll want some guidance and a solar food dryer. If you have extra watts in your energy budget, you may want an electric dehydrator — but be very sure you have the extra energy.

There are many techniques to keep food that don't involve freezing or canning.

When you have access to meat, dehydrating it can be another method for keeping it. An unreliable (or non-existent) supply of electricity will make the freezer a machine we "used to have when we were growing up." To keep meat jerky-style, try a packaged seasoning then learn to make your own with standard and exotic ingredients.

Friends of mine have a raw-food restaurant that my wife and I enjoy; you may want to consider eating raw food on occasion to cut down on the cooking energy you will need. 

Saving Energy Around the Home and Office

Before looking for ways to create or store your own energy, it's important to lower your energy use first. Start by installing a smart thermostat that will work will different heat sources, if you don't already have one.

For lowering your electricity loads, you'll want to measure the biggest users of energy with a Kill-A-Watt meter (the deluxe model adds more features). Buy The Home Energy Diet and learn where your time will be best spent.

Your computers and other electronic devices often use energy — even when they are off. For those, buy an autoswitching power strip that completely severs the connection to the household grid when the device is off. If you have many transformers (the big blocks of plastic attached to the power cord), use this power strip instead.

Compact Florescent Bulbs

Definitely change your lights from incandescent to the compact florescent type. Incandescent lights are inexpensive to buy but are so inefficient that only about 5% of the electricity they use is converted to light; the rest turns into heat.

Although the light quality of compact florescents has increased dramatically, the manufacturers still overstate the amount of light the bulbs give off. You can safely assume a compact florescent bulb rated at 100W will actually give off 80W worth of light were it an incandescent type. If you need a brighter bulb, try this one (make sure your light fixture can take this size!). Always buy a sample bulb before buying a case.

LED Bulbs

LED stands for light emitting diodes and are also known as solid-state lights. They generally are not yet bright enough to replace compact florescent bulbs even though they last 40,000 or more hours. (That's over 9 years at 12 hours a day!) They are also expensive.

If you'd like to experiment with them, you might want to try this regular bulb replacement. For hard-to-reach places, this LED floodlight might save you setting up ladders — but don't expect it to be very bright. The technology is getting better all the time and we hope to have better versions soon. Just because they are considered solid-state doesn't mean that heat, power surges, static electricity, dampness or poor design can't damage them.

If you have a Mag flashlight, you can purchase LED upgrade kits for the two-battery or three-battery types. The LEDs will last much longer than the typical incandescent bulbs with which they ship.

Heat Pumps

One of the most expensive ways to create heat is using resistance heating. Baseboard heaters, portable ceramic heaters and radiant heaters all convert electricity directly into heat in roughly a one-to-one ratio. A much more effective way to create heat is with a heat pump. Your refrigerator is a heat pump that removes heat from inside the food cabinet and dumps it to outside the cabinet. A heat pump for your home works similarly but instead takes heat from the outside air and dumps it into your home. (In the case of a geothermal heat pump, it takes the heat from the ground.)

Typical air-source heat pumps "create" three times the heat energy they use to operate. For geothermal heat pumps, the ratio can be even larger.

If you live in a cold climate, there are now cold climate heat pumps that operate in very low temperatures, sometimes as low as -20 degrees F.

The drawback of a heat pump is that it is a mechanical system. At some point, you will have trouble getting parts to repair it.

My wife and I have a Sanyo ductless mini-split heat pump (these do not require ducting; our 1974 home cannot take ducting unless we want the industrial look); we are very happy with its performance. Our electric bill seems to be lower than our neighbors'. Be aware that the Sanyo is not a cold-climate heat pump, so on the dozen days a year when the outside temperature falls below freezing, our unit fails to keep the house warm. We add more layers of clothing those days, but in retrospect I would have preferred to buy a larger unit or a cold climate heat pump. On the other hand, it is forced energy saving.

Solar Panels

Solar voltaic (PV) panels turn sunlight directly into electricity. If you can answer yes to all of the following questions, you should put panels on your roof right away:

  • do I have the roof or land area to mount the panels?
  • did I look at wind and geothermal too?
  • have I, or will I, lower my electricity use through conservation?
  • do I have the money to purchase them?

Reputable installers will often perform a calculation for you that will determine how large of a system you require to significantly lower, but not eliminate, your electric bill. They do this to lower the cost of the system and make it work for your budget.

Normally this is good customer service and good business, but in an energy-constrained world, you need to think differently. The question isn't, "How can I lower my bill as much as possible before the law of diminishing returns sets in?" The better question is, "How much electricity, when the grid becomes unreliable, do I need to run my household?" You will find your decisions will be different if you think that way.

There are several types of solar panel technologies right now. For most residential uses you will want to use polycrystalline cells rather than amorphous. Versus amorphous silicon, at the time of this writing (August 2008), polycrystalline cells still:

  • generate more power per square meter, which is important for small rooftops
  • have a demonstrated lifespan of 20 years before they degrade to 80% of their initial power rating
  • have a large number of supporting companies that know how to install them properly.

Concentrating Solar

Solar panels as they are currently manufactured require expensive (hundreds of millions of dollars) fabrication plants and a long supply chain to supply the minerals. Despite dramatic decreases in the cost of making certain kinds of solar panels (and lots more competition entering the market), demand will stay high as electricity rates increase and new manufacturing capacity is easily soaked up by the marketplace.

A different way to create electricity is via concentrating solar system, which turn heat into steam which then drives a generator.

Some groups are experimenting with small-scale concentrating solar systems and it's likely that using off-the-shelf parts building a concentrating solar system will soon become viable for residential applications.


Electricity from wind can be wonderful, but you may experience some obstacles attempting to erect a wind turbine:

  • you need to live in a relatively windy area
  • your local zoning must permit a wind tower tall enough to reach the wind
  • your neighbors may object to the noise

There are some innovative wind technologies now being marketed that may help with some of the obstacles above.

Battery Backup

When the grid becomes unreliable, you may want to store as much electricity as you can when it's available. This is true whether you have solar panels, a wind turbine or some other source of electricity.

Consider purchasing a battery backup system that will charge when the electricity is available and provide power when it isn't. A company with a reputation for long-lasting batteries is Rolls Battery Engineering.

The bigger the system you purchase, the more power you will be able to store. But the costs increase very quickly — be sure to identify the essential energy you will want.

If a large system is too costly or difficult to install, purchase a portable power pack that can be charged when the grid is on and the power used when the grid is off. The Duracell unit (made by Xantrex) will provide up to 7 hours of laptop computing or 30+ hours of LED lighting. See the write-up on the Duracell unit here.