The Frugal Genius of "Swarm Power"

By Lisa Margonelli

3485714410_6d410c6c3b.jpgThe Germans have found a new way to solve a classic greenhouse gas logic puzzle while keeping their auto assembly lines running.

The puzzle: What's the cheapest way to increase electricity generation while reducing carbon emissions, bearing in mind that installing more wind and solar will require investing $2 trillion in new transmission lines and a single 1 Gigawatt nuclear power plant now runs about $17 billion?

Two additional facts: Generating electricity accounts for 41 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, and two-thirds of those emissions are the result of energy being lost as heat, i.e. wasted.

The German Answer: Put thousands of VW workers on the assembly line to make home-sized natural gas furnace/hot water heater/generators. These generators, based on a natural gas engine already used in the Golf, are 92 percent efficient (because they can use the waste heat for heating water or homes) and can either produce electricity for home use or put it out on the grid. In other words, they're removing much of the second fact (waste), and also removing the need to build many more transmission lines. And, if the company Lichtblick is to be believed, they'll be creating the generation capacity of 2 nuclear power plants (2 Gigawatts) by installing 100,000 of these units in German homes at a total cost of $1.5 billion. (Far cheaper than the nukes, with no radioactive waste or risk of its weaponization.)

But wait, this is more than a fancy furnace. It's also a business model and a stealth energy policy. The units, networked together as "SchwarmStrom" or swarm power could be turned on and off by a smart grid controller to balance the mix of wind, solar, nuclear and what all on the grid at a given time, earning homeowners some bonus money for the power they generate and eliminating the need for some of those transmission lines and backup generators to deal with  the ebbs and flows of wind and solar.

And then there's the super ultra unasked bonus question. Two percent of the US's greenhouse gas emissions are from manure ponds alone, and more are from municipal sewage and landfill. The Swarm Power generators could run on biogas, reducing methane emissions from manure AND emissions from coal fired generation in one go.

VW isn't the only car company working in this space; Honda also has similar unit. I haven't heard that US companies are working on this idea, but it would be a good three-fer as a stimulus program: build the engines, do away with the $8000 tax credit for first time home buyers and just give them a combo furnace generator; and jump start the process of building a smart distributed grid with lower CO2 emissions. Having a power plant in the basement has  a certain Little House on the Prairie appeal too.

But will we? I think this is the kind of pragmatic path US policy makers are likely to miss. They're so focused on BIG GREEN projects like offshore wind or floating windmills and on  small chartreuse projects like corn-derived disposable silverware and CFL lightbulbs that the vast middle ground of wasted energy is ignored.
 
Look at this chart of energy flows--it's a giant bowl of spaghetti and meatballs with 99.2 quads of energy entering on the left and 42.15 going to work on the right. (Note the tiny vermicelli like threads contributed by wind and solar, and the enormous lasagna noodle of waste aka "rejected energy"--57 Quads!)  If you can get beyond the geekiness of the image, there's something poignant about it. Weirdly, it reminds me of the Andrew Wyeth painting called Christina's World, where the paralyzed woman in the dress crawls slowly across a rolling field. The energy flow chart is a portrait of paralysis--of policies and prices that have made it more profitable to waste energy than to put it to work. Stare at the broad gray lines depicting waste and see frittered potential, a failure of can-do, a sad stasis of the imagination. Christina, of course, didn't make her world, but we've spent generations making the flow chart and we have to figure out how to un-make it. Swarm Power is a good place to start.


(Photo: Flickr User christian.senger)

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/09/the-frugal-genius-of-swarm-power/26753/