This brings us back to the original vision of electricity pioneer Thomas Edison. At that time there were two different basic concepts regarding electricity supply which caused a conflict of ideas (and business conflict) between the two pioneers in the USA, Edison and Westinghouse.
Centralized electricity supply structures arose not because they were more economical per se but essentially because electricity can be transported significantly faster and more cleanly than fuel. This is a particularly important factor for energy supply for cities. In order to understand this, one must first know something about the history of electricity supply.
The conflict between Edison and Westinghouse marks the beginning of the story. Edison's vision was for all buildings to generate their own electricity, while Westinghouse's vision was for electricity to be supplied to houses from mains. Since electricity was generated from fossil fuels and water power, Westinghouse had the better 'systemic' view. Since it is impossible to produce electricity from water power in the cities, its use necessitates mains which deliver the electricity on a carriage paid basis rapidly and cleanly. Edison's concept, by contrast, required fossil fuels to be delivered to every building, resulting in numerous individual fireplaces, an idea to which people were resistant since they were already fed up with coal-fired heating. While his concept gave more freedom, for city dwellers it had more of a direct environmental impact and was less convenient. For similar reasons the over five million wind power plants that existed in the rural Midwest of America in the 1930s were abandoned in a flash once the electricity cables were laid in the wake of the Tennessee Valley Program under President Roosevelt's New Deal. The Program created large hydro-electric power stations and coal-fired power stations which required the construction of overland cables to the farms in order to fully utilize their capacity. This provided the farmers with electricity around the clock in contrast to the electricity generated by the windmills which they had little or no possibility of storing.
The conditions that led to the model of a universally networked electricity supply with large power stations as production centres tend not to apply, however, in the case of renewable energies. The use of solar power in towns and cities, integrated in roofs, facades and windows and the use of wind power even in high-rise buildings in big cities (as in the Bahrain World Trade Center), cuts out the need to transport fuel. Solar radiation is 'supplied' automatically and costs nothing. There is also the possibility of turning biogas from the large volumes of food waste in the cities into electricity and of generating electricity from wind power and biomass in the hinterland of cities and in rural areas. There are plenty of examples where this is happening: cities and municipal utility companies which run their entire public bus service on biofuel, supply their citizens with electricity and heat from biomass power stations and heat entire housing estates with solar heat which they store in the ground for winter.
The use of renewable energies in buildings and in urban planning, and the adaptation of buildings and orientation to the existing natural environment, are critical elements in transforming energy supply at municipal level. At the same time urban planning - in terms of distances between residential areas, work, recreation and shopping areas - is a key factor in determining transport behaviour and hence energy consumption. There is a need to substantially cut local energy consumption by ensuring that urban planning is oriented to the need to eliminate traffic. The local authorities can use their competences to set the framework for using renewable energies in buildings and in urban planning, taking into account bioclimatic conditions. Making the changeover to solar power in building and urban planning represents a historic turning point in building culture and urban development: the criteria for solar architecture and bioclimatic urban planning are necessarily to determine the entire future. The sooner a start is made, the more future-proof urban development will be.
As a consequence of this development, long-distance transmission networks will in the future become redundant as electricity supply becomes fragmented. Emergency power supply units, tens of thousands of which are located in large utility buildings such as hospitals, will become main units. In addition to mains electricity supply, there will be decentralized production locations for the producer's own and neighbourhood use, area supply for residential areas and island systems for small towns, either fully self-sufficient or supplemented by spur lines. Electricity supply is returning - not completely and immediately but increasingly - to Edison's vision, and this is only practicable on the basis of renewable energies. In what forms this process takes place depends on external factors (legislation), sociological factors (information, level of education, cultural awareness and values) and technological factors.
As this development continues, utilization of power station capacity will decrease, making electricity more expensive. As the number of autonomous producers grows, the grid system will have to pass on its costs to fewer customers. The old system will grow obsolete and lose its economic advantages. Long-distance line electricity supply will have to concentrate on key areas in order to remain commercial. The transmission network will become less densely meshed: the more large power stations are taken out of commission, the more high voltage lines will become redundant. Voltage compensation will become more difficult and regular energy more complicated and expensive to supply. The tendency among large consumers will be to produce their peak load themselves. The regional medium voltage sector will grow in importance in comparison with the local distribution networks, but capacity utilization will also fall abruptly. And with each of these stages, decentralized solutions will look increasingly attractive and technological creativity will focus on this area. This will be a process stretching over a considerable time - just as today's electricity supply situation developed over decades.
A similar development is in the offing in the heat energy and fuel market in relation to both grid-bound and non grind-bound energy. Solar heating in a house starts to pay for itself through savings in fuel costs once the price of oil hits around 80 dollars a barrel, and well before that figure in the case of new buildings which have optimized integral solar systems. The numbers of customers for natural gas and crude oil will fall, and the same applies to electricity supplies - as the demand for heating and hot water which currently accounts for 30% of total energy demand in Germany will fall due to replacement either by PV-operated ground heat pumps or by solar thermal power systems. Mains gas supply is also experiencing losses in terms of market share and function, while the importance of local island gas networks to transport biogas is increasing.
The oil industry's highly branched marketing system which supplies the oil merchants and fuel stations from a few central refineries is also becoming more regionalized. Regional biofuel production centres are being established, processing raw biomass and setting up regional marketing structures. New production cooperatives for biofuels are being set up or municipal utility companies are taking on this function as biomass customers. At the same time they are selling secondary usage products, fertilizers or feedstuffs made from the material left over from biofuel production.
Power and heat cogeneration, the growth of which is often restricted by the lack of a grid-bound heat market, can, with the aid of a Stirling engine, for example, become a three-step power/heat/power generation system which enables more electricity to be made from the surplus heat for the producer's own requirements or to feed into the local networks, thereby creating new local and regional synergies.
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