In the spring of 2003, Dan Fink got a hamster named Skippy to power a nightlight. It took some imagination. First, Skippy had to be no ordinary hamster, but one of the Syrian variety, a breed that runs particularly fast and goes all night. Next, for all his relative speed, it turned out Skippy could only chug along at 60 revolutions per minute, too slow to charge a battery or generate a volt, so Fink had to build him an alternator out of extremely strong magnets. And then there was Skippy's noisy exercise wheel, which was not only obnoxious, but a waste of energy. Fink solved that by retrofitting it with a smooth ball-bearing.
Finally, after Fink glued 14 magnets to a steel ring and fashioned two coils out of 30-gauge wire, he mounted the whole contraption on Skippy's cage. He then hooked up two LED lights to the alternator. Together, they shone bright enough for Fink to find the bathroom in the dead of night. And even though the little rodent was voltage-deficient, "he had torque to spare," Fink says. So he added another light, and another, the resistance increasing with each new load. He got up to six lights before Skippy showed any fatigue.
Fink, with his friend Dan Bartmann, co-owns the company Forcefield, and lives off the grid in the mountains above Fort Collins, Colo. If you have space for a 30-foot tower, the Forcefield guys will help you build a backyard wind turbine and hook up to your local utility. They talk about the physics of electricity the way other people talk about their favorite bands.
"Did you know you can see electrical charges?" Fink says. "That's why metals look shiny. You're seeing electrons absorbing photons and emitting them back at you."
Fink acknowledges that hamster power is a bit silly. "I only did it because kids wrote in to ask us," he says. But the experiment demonstrates a principle that science-minded eighth-graders understand better than many adults: One way of generating electricity is to spin a wheel of magnets around metal, or a metal wheel around a magnet. And there are many different ways to get that wheel to spin. Wind will do it, and so will a waterfall. Steam will, too, whether raised by burning coal, splitting atoms or with the concentrated energy of the sun. The principle remains the same: Mechanical energy creates electrical energy when electron-conducting metal travels through a magnetic field.
Fink, who considers education to be Forcefield's primary business, believes our widespread ignorance about the workings of watts and volts has gotten us into trouble. "People call us all the time and say, 'I'm worried about climate change! I want to put solar panels on my roof,'" Fink says. "But then we find out their houses aren't insulated, and they're using incandescent light bulbs during the day. We make them do all the cheaper things before we teach them how to make their own power."
When people do make their own power—on their rooftops, or with a 30-kilowatt microturbine installed in the basement—they pay more attention to how they use it. They replace kitchen lights with compact fluorescents and reading lights with LEDs. They might even turn the lights off altogether for a few hours.
Electricity generated Forcefield's way—close to home and in small batches—is called distributed generation. It's the way Thomas Edison originally delivered electricity back in 1882, when he built the United States' first power plant in Manhattan and provided energy to just 60 customers. In the last decade or so, ever since California became the first state to open its energy markets to individual competitors, distributed generation has been sputtering back into the U.S. energy mix, making a dent in energy demand and securing supplies where blackouts mean disaster. It allows an ordinary electricity consumer to become a one-person power plant, and guarantees that a business can weather a downed power line without incident.
Local power plants are not always easier on the planet than the ginormous remote kind, but at least their pollution is immediate and visible, which makes it easier to clean up before it goes global. "Small-scale operations, no matter how numerous," wrote E.F. Schumacher in his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, "are always less likely to be harmful to the natural environment than large-scale ones, as their individual force is small in relation to the recuperative forces of nature."
And local, small power plants operate close to the buildings where people live and work, so they sacrifice less energy to transmission. Their waste heat can be used to warm rooms and water, in a process called combined heat-and-power (CHP), which doubles a generator's efficiency. In some cases, that waste heat can turn another fluid into gas to spin another turbine and make yet more electricity.
So why aren't we turning en masse to local generation to offset coal-fired power and reduce carbon dioxide emissions? The short answer is that, ever since 1895, when Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse lit up Buffalo, N.Y., with an alternating current generated 90 miles away at Niagara Falls, the developed world has acted as if all our power plants were waterfalls located far from the cities that need light. The longer answer requires taking a close look at energy policy in the United States: Who makes money on it and how it moves forward.
A revised blueprint that can accommodate smaller, scattered systems would have to be more complicated and would strain and confuse the transmission system that evolved over the last century. That system was set up for the utilities that once owned and controlled every part of the electricity business, from generators to distribution lines to transmission corridors—utilities that, for more than a century, found that the bigger the plant, the more efficient it was, and the cheaper the power that came from it. Whether overhauling the system is worth it depends on a lot of factors, one of them being money. And, perhaps, how desperate we are for solutions.
You've probably heard the statistics already: Global greenhouse gas emissions have increased 70 percent since 1970, and our energy-squandering ways are to blame. Coal-fired power accounts for nearly a third of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in the United States; natural gas power another 10 percent. If our emissions remain the same, the oceans will continue to rise and submerge island nations, species will continue to go extinct, and millions of acres of fertile soil will continue to turn to punishing dust.
We may be able to avert the worst of these consequences, say a team of scientists in the journal Nature, if we cut our carbon emissions to half of what they were in 1990. In the United States alone, that means reducing carbon by 3.5 billion metric tons, the equivalent of retiring all of our coal-fired and natural gas power plants.
In many environmental circles, these facts have been used to support a simple argument: Anything done to displace coal-fired power is good. We need big solutions and massive investments in energy projects, centralized and large like the old ones, only cleaner. Small solutions will take too long.
And maybe that's true. A 2007 Department of Energy report estimates that 12 million independently owned small onsite generators, or "DG units," currently operate in the United States, with a combined capacity of only 2,000 megawatts. Roughly half of those megawatts are from solar photovoltaic cells, which produce electricity by absorbing the sun's photons and liberating electrons. In a country with a little more than 1 million megawatts of generating capacity—slightly more than 90 percent of it fossil-fueled or nuclear—those numbers seem hardly worth discussing.
But even that report—which Congress ordered the Energy Department to complete in accordance with the 2005 energy bill—finds few reasons not to scale down more of our power and move it closer to home. The authors argue that the days of "economies of scale," as they apply to electrical power generation, are over: The improved technology and efficiency of small-scale systems means that it no longer costs less per kilowatt to build giant plants.
That's not to say that we don't need large-scale renewable energy to help replace fossil fuels. Electricity generated at big wind farms costs 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, well below the national retail electricity average of 10 cents. With production tax credits, the price drops to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is hard to beat. Photovoltaic solar still costs 30 cents per kilowatt-hour compared to 15 cents per kilowatt-hour for large-scale concentrating solar power (CSP), which uses sun-tracking mirrors to focus the sun's energy, and can be scaled up to hundreds of megawatts.
Nor does it mean that distributed energy alone can solve all, or even most, of our energy problems. The precise benefits of millions of small generators infiltrating the U.S. power supply are difficult to predict, even for the Energy Department. (Doing so would require "a complete dataset of the operational characteristics for a specific site," and success would be "highly improbable.") But to trivialize distributed generation's potential is to assume that our problems stem only from the fuel we use to make electricity, not from the model we use for generating it.
There are many indications that large solutions will take longer than small ones. Even leaving aside the land-use issues and lengthy permitting processes that may bog down large-scale renewable projects for years, the Midwestern Independent System Operator estimates that just to bring wind energy from the Great Plains to cities will require building $80 billion worth of transmission lines, amounting to more than half the circumference of the earth. We're also in a deep recession.
"When the capital market returns, the small, fast, modular projects will recover much faster than the big, slow, lumpy ones," says Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins, who has been advocating for distributed generation for 30 years. "Central power plants with capital costs in the billions can't get financing at all." Collectively, the benefits of distributed energy—Lovins counts 207 of them—"increase the value of smaller systems by a factor of 10. That's enough to flip any investment decision."
As with Dan Fink's experiment with Skippy and the wheel, the transition to small and local after a century of large and distant may take some imagination. "What you're really talking about," Lovins says, "is the flowering of a million miniature solutions."