Friday, July 24, 2009

Energy Corridors Still Evolving

In the early evolutionary stages of any new technology, there are usually competing standards, frequent changes of direction, and generally differing perspectives on the right application. It simply takes time for a clear direction to coalesce. Depending on your generation, consider VHS vs. BETA and Blue Ray and HD-DVD. One very important aspect of renewable energy that matches this description is the movement of energy from where it's generated to where it's needed through the use of "Energy Corridors."

Forget "Smart Grids" (more on that at another time). This is about the basic infrastructure (and the land to support it) to get power from Point A to Point B. Examples include high voltage electricity towers and lines and pipelines for products ranging from natural gas to crude oil. As more renewable energy is generated, more transmission is needed. But the key is the location of the corridors. The current energy corridors are positioned based on decades old coal, petroleum and hydro based generation systems. More and better placed corridors are the issue.

One important note: this discussion is not meant to be a commentary on the pros and cons of the Bush or Obama Administrations. It is simply meant to raise awareness of the evolution, challenges, and opportunities that we face as the production and transmission of renewable energy evolves - and the implications for education.

A lawsuit filed in a San Francisco federal court in early July alleges that the Bush Administration did not adequately analyze the sources of current and potential renewable energy locations as well as the proper federal and local land-use plans when mapping the 6,000 miles of energy-corridor rights of way. Again, not a commentary on that administration, but an example of changing times and changing perspectives. The previous (and to a large extent, current) infrastructure was coal and petroleum based. Of course in the West, that includes hydro power. New energy sources will require new transmission corridors. The Salt Lake Tribune talks more about the suit, the players, and the background.

The ability to take advantage of new renewable energy sources is challenged from the beginning. There is an inadequate and suboptimal placement of the grid infrastructure that prevents full support of the remote areas rich in wind and solar opportunities. A perfect description comes from Wouter van Kempen of Duke Energy based in Charlotte, NC in a recent interview. "We are the Saudi Arabia of wind, but how do we get the power from North Dakota to Chicago?” If you think about what it would take to implement a new, say, 600 mile high power electical tower system, it could take years or decades.

Finally, the tie to education.

In all this discussion about transmitting the power, there's been no mention of renewable energy curriculum, hands-on lab opportunities, or any sort of student involvement in building prototypes. The study of renewable energy of course covers all these, is very important, and is the basis for Energication.

But what is also does is exposes our students to contemporary and meaningful topics that may just excite them educationally in areas not immediately involved with renewable energy. For example:

- What about the student who is interested in law and focuses on the kind of case law shown above?
- What about the student who focuses on environmental issues and helps to develop optimal energy corridors?
- What about the student who has a passion for finance and helps to develop successful funding programs for renewable energy investments?

You get the picture.

Not every student has to learn how to design, build or service renewable energy equipment to gain a life-long benefit from being positively influenced by the renewable energy curriculum in our schools. Their contributions will likely be from perspectives as varied as their individual personalities.


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