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Forest Wisdom and Electricity

Paul Kando

No top-down hierarchy. No waste. Instead: decentralized (cell level) management and collaboration. – Dare I say democracy? These are the critical elements of the energy management model of all living things, as I alluded to last week. I might have added the principle of subsidiarity: how all tasks and problems are addressed by those closest to them, with the further removed in supportive roles.

Forest Electricity
photo credit: Getty Images

How do we, humans stack up, for instance in the way we supply and use of electricity? Our large central power stations burn fossil fuels. The electrical efficiency of these plants is only about 30% because the low temperature heat also produce is discarded as useless "waste". The power is distributed using long distance power lines and specialized equipment. Significant line losses of power occur and grid maintenance and repair costs are high. Users are billed for a share of these costs, plus the utility’s markup, as approved by public utilities commissions, which also approve rates utilities charge per kilowatt-hour. Power generation by consumers is considered disruptive to this business model.

Now let’s remodel this system using the logic of a tree. I install rooftop solar panels and generate my own power. This power satisfies my home’s contemporaneous demand. Any excess flows through a meter into the power grid to satisfy my neighbors’ needs. The power company credits me through net energy billing. Everyone on the grid comes out ahead, including the power company, because my solar system (paid for by me) generates free power at peak load times when the company would have to pay premium rates on the spot market. My “cell level” contribution to the grid is 14¢ for each kWh my panels generate.

I can also join my neighbors in a village-wide energy cooperative or municipal energy utility. Our smart microgrid draws its energy from all our distributed solar systems and any other local energy source, such as methane from organic wastes and biomass fuels, like pelletized forestry waste. We burn these fuels in local combined heat and power plants and use the low grade “waste” heat to heat water for laundromats, restaurants, a public swimming pool, and in a greenhouse dedicated to local food production.

Smart technology manages power demand, ensuring maximum energy efficiency. Any excess power is used to charge our growing fleet of electric vehicles whose batteries act as interactive energy storage within the microgrid. We may also have a microgrid-scale energy storage bank.

Instead of individual connections, our microgrid has one “islandable” connection to the public power grid with which we maintain a mutually supportive relationship. Should the large grid be disrupted, our decoupled microgrid will remain on.

Multiple microgrids would drastically reduce area-wide service disruptions and their emergency repair expenses. Reducing demand for centrally generated grid power also reduces low grade heat waste from central power plants, long distance line losses, and grid-maintenance costs. These savings have been shown to exceed utility revenue lost due to reduced kWh sales. Autonomous trees create a forest. Networks of microgrids will create a much more secure national power grid.