Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Research Support for the Power Industry

Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Research Support for the Power Industry

Article excerpt

New technology may bring great changes but the market alone is unlikely to support the needed research.

A revolution is sweeping the electric power industry. Vertically integrated monopoly suppliers and tight regulation are being replaced with a diversified industry structure and competition in the generation and supply of electricity. Although these changes are often termed "deregulation," what is actually occurring is not so much a removal of regulation as a substitution of regulated competitive markets for regulated monopolies.

Why is this change occurring? Cheap plentiful gas and new technology, particularly low-cost highly efficient gas turbines and advanced computers that can track and manage thousands of transactions in real time, have clearly contributed. However, as with the earlier deregulation of the natural gas industry, a more important contributor is a fundamental change in regulatory philosophy, based on a growing belief in the benefits of privatization and a reliance on market forces. In the United States, this change has been accelerated by pressure from large electricity consumers in regions of the country where electricity prices are much higher than the cost of power generated with new gas turbines.

Although the role of technology has thus far been modest, new technologies on the horizon are likely to have much more profound effects on the future structure and operation of the industry. How these technologies will evolve is unclear. Some could push the system toward greater centralization, some could lead to dramatic decentralization, and some could result in much greater coupling between the gas and electric networks. The evolution of the networked energy system is likely to be highly path-dependent. That is, system choices we have already made and will make over the next several decades will significantly influence the range of feasible future options. Some of the constituent technologies will be adequately supported by market-driven investments, but many, including some that hold great promise for social and environmental benefits, will not come about unless new ways can be found to expand investment in basic technology research.

New technologies in the wings

Several broad classes of technology hold the potential to dramatically reshape the future of the power system: 1) solid-state power electronics that make it possible to isolate and control the flow of power on individual lines, in subsystems, within the power transmission system, and in end-use devices; 2) advanced sensor, communication, and computation technologies, which in combination can allow much greater flexibility, control, metering, and use efficiency in individual loads and in the system; 3) superconducting technology, which could make possible very-high-capacity underground power transmission (essentially electric power pipe lines), large higher-efficiency generators and motors, and very short-term energy storage (to smooth out brief power surges); 4) fuel cell technology for converting natural gas or hydrogen into electricity; 5) efficient, high-capacity, long-term storage technologies (including both mechanical and electrochemical systems such as fuel cells that can be run backward to convert electricity into easily storable gas) which allow the system to hold energy for periods of many hours; 6) low-cost photovoltaic and other renewable energy technology; and 7) advanced environmental technologies such as low-cost pre- and postcombustion carbon removal for fossil fuels, improved control of other combustion byproducts, and improved methods for life-cycle design and material reuse.

Two of these technologies require brief elaboration. The flow of power through an alternating current (AC) system is determined by the electrical properties of the transmission grid. A power marketer may want to send power from a generator it owns to a distant customer over a directly connected line. …

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