One of the greatest advantages of rooftop solar energy is that it’s decentralized and locally produced.
The electricity produced travels no more than a few meters from your roof into your solar inverter and then into the electronic appliances in your home, and, if you’re lucky enough to have one, into the batteries of an electric car as well.
If your rooftop, or backyard, system is producing more electricity than you’re using, the extra electricity flows into the grid and your neighbors — whether residential and/or business — use it.
A local, decentralized model of electricity production and consumption means that if your solar system goes down, or even if all of the systems for 20 square miles go down — let’s say a tornado destroys them all — people with locally produced solar, or wind, or geothermal, etc. who live outside that zone will still have electricity, at least during the day (yes, storage is still an issue for renewable energy forms, although breakthroughs are occurring).
Centralization is dangerous
This contrasts sharply with the centralized, eggs-all-in-one-basket approach that characterizes electricity production, distribution and consumption in pretty much the whole industrialized world.
If an accident or a natural disaster takes down one, two, or even more giant electricity power plants, whether they’re coal, natural gas, or nuclear powered, suddenly potentially millions, even tens of millions, of people, many of them far, far away are affected.
The situation in Japan where The New York Times reports that 11 percent of the electricity supply for the entire country has been temporarily eliminated by the earthquake and tsunami that hit the northern part of the country a couple of weeks ago stands as a clear example of some of the considerable disadvantages of a centralized power production system.
Japan is not alone in its dangerous reliance on centeralized electricity production. The United States, Canada, France — pretty much any industrialized country in the world — is based on exactly the same model, a model, which Japan’s experience clearly shows us, is extremely vulnerable to accidents and disasters.
Japan’s rolling blackouts
Since the earthquake and tsunami, large swaths of Japan have been subjected daily to so-called rolling blackouts which see power for thousands of customers shut off for up to three hours or more. The blackouts could continue for months and possibly extend all the way into 2012.
This is more than a serious inconvenience for Japanese businesses and citizens. It has deep economic repercusions.
One economist quoted in The New York TImes predicts that Japan’s gross domestic product will shrink by 3 percent in the second quarter with half of that drop directly attributable to its ongoing electricity supply emergency.
Renewable energy in Japan
It’s safe to say that a less centralized and more diverse model of electricity production would have helped Japan — which, by the way, gets just 1.6 percent of its energy from renewable energy forms.
No doubt, solar panels and wind turbines in the area hit directly by the tsunami would have been destroyed — but not those outside that zone. And, it’s worth noting, destroyed solar panels and wind turbines would not be emitting the deadly radiation that’s now travelling in a plume all the way around the world.
There is also geothermal power, potentially a huge renewable energy source for a country located in a place where the earth’s tectonic plates collide and subsume one another in a extremely impressive way.
Centralized electricity hurts businesses
It’s a safe bet that businesses such as the KiriKiri Zembei restaurant, which The New York Times reports, is making just one dish, and doing so without electricity, thanks in part to the weaknesses of Japan’s centralized model of energy production, would love to be producing some of their own electricity right now.
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Of course, Japan is not alone in its dangerous reliance on centeralized electricity production. The United States, Canada, France — pretty much any industrialized country in the world — is based on exactly the same model, a model, which Japan’s experience clearly shows us, is extremely vulnerable to accidents and disasters.
We don’t have to produce our electricity so one dimensionally. There’s vast potential for local, decentalized energy production, with rooftop solar one, but not the only, resource we ought to be taking advantage of, both in Japan, and around the world.
It’s about time we tapped the potential for local energy production in a much more serious way — in part so that we can avoid, or, at the very least, lessen the severity of serious electricity supply disasters such as the one that’s playing out right now in Japan.
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