Power systems urged to go local

ALBERTA - Alberta and jurisdictions around the world need to rethink their archaic approach to electricity generation, transmission and use by building smaller-scale generation close to users and cultivating integrated local power networks, a leading expert said.

That was the message to delegates to the Global Business Forum from nuclear physicist and U.K.-based electricity expert Walt Patterson, an advocate of the emerging field of decentralized electricity, sometimes referred to as distributed generation.

"Imagine what such an approach could accomplish here in Alberta, or across Canada, or indeed worldwide," said Patterson, a fellow of both the energy, environment and development program of U.K. think-tank Chatham House and of Britain's University of Sussex.

"Electricity is different (from other sources of energy)," said Patterson.

"Electricity you can generate anywhere, in any quantity, from minute to vast.... You can generate electricity close to where you want to use it and in the quantities you want to use it."

"We can now design and implement integrated local systems using high-performance end-use technologies to make optimum use of local electricity.

"Such local systems can be much more reliable and much cleaner than traditional electricity," Patterson added.

However, some major players in Alberta's system believe the existing system is appropriate and argue it delivers power at the lowest cost.

"I'm a big fan of efficiency - and efficiency does not come from distributed generation. Efficiency comes from mega-plants," said Hal Kvisle, president and chief executive of Calgary-based TransCanada Corp., which produces or controls about 2,000 megawatts of generation in Alberta and about 10,000 megawatts worldwide.

"Transmission cost is trivial compared to the cost of generation," he added.

Patterson's comments are particularly germane in Alberta, where the province is set to embark on a multibillion-dollar program of major transmission building, including a potentially $1-billion-plus north-south line that has been mired in controversy. The program is aimed at reinforcing a network-centred on a traditional large-scale generating and long-distance transmission model Patterson abhors.

"The traditional electricity system that we all take for granted all over the world is based on criteria from the 1890s, a common technical model whose essentials are now more than a century old," Patterson noted. "It arose because of the economies of scale associated with water power and steam power, the only two options then available."

Earlier this year, City of Calgary-owned Enmax Corp. called on the province and other players in the power industry to rethink the system in the manner Patterson advocates, arguing billions of dollars will be spent to build unneeded transmission and coal-fired generation far from load.

Rivals of Enmax counter the utility is simply advocating a regime that will serve its own purposes and will worsen an already stretched system.


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