Toasting Pop-Tarts cheap: How electricity may solve our energy woes

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By Elisa Wood

October 23, 2008

We tend to talk about electricity in terms of its problems — it degrades the environment, costs too much and messes up scenic views. But the Manhattan Institute’s Peter Huber takes a different stand in his new report “The Million-Volt Answer to Oil.”

Huber says electric power may be the cheap, efficient resource we seek to give America energy independence. He divides energy into two camps: electric power and transportation fuel. Our energy woes stem from our dependence on oil for transportation. To get over $4 per gallon gas, he says, we need to connect our transportation fleet and home heating systems to cheap 4 cents/kWh electricity.

“We spend roughly half as much on electricity—about $350 billion a year—as we’re currently spending on $100-a-barrel oil, and electrically powered systems do more, faster and better, than oil-fired alternatives,” he says in the report.

Huber’s theory opens the door wide for use of plug-in hybrid cars and electric heat pumps. “If we could deliver electricity straight to electric motors connected to our wheels, it would deliver miles at a price that most current car engines could match only on gasoline priced under a dollar a gallon. Delivered to our homes at off-peak prices, electrical heat would cost homeowners a lot less than $4-a-gallon heating oil,” he says.

Of course, electricity doesn’t cost 4/kWh cents everywhere. Some places it is 19 cents/kWh. And no matter where you live, the price goes up and down dramatically all day, depending on how many customers use power at any given time. When the East Coast is winding down its work day and its electricity prices fall, the West Coast is still going full tilt and its electricity prices rise. The trick is to transmit the cheap power quickly from place to place, and keep it rolling over four time zones by building a new and sophisticated high-voltage transmission backbone that can handle such movement.

“A kilowatt-hour of electricity toasts as many Pop-Tarts in Palo Alto as it does in Poughkeepsie; an efficient, integrated market with cheap, long-distance transmission available would charge everyone the same price for toasting them,” he says.

The technology exists, and it is not terribly pricey, to create such a transmission system. Huber estimates that building a 21,000-mile grid to network all major sources electricity, and push wind power from the Midwest to the coasts, would add roughly 0.3 cents/kWh to the current 9-cent/kWh average retail price of electricity.

He points out that a single 765-kV transmission line can move “almost 1 percent (4 GW) of the total average power generation of the entire United States, or 0.5 percent of the power that Americans collectively consume during the most power-hungry minute of the year.”

With such a transmission system in place, developers could build power plants and wind farms in rural expanses, rather than the crowded coasts where people object to the intrusion on their space.

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Last, he points out that very few US power plants now use imported oil as a fuel, and instead use domestic sources, increasingly renewable. “With electricity, America controls its own destiny,” he says.

As Huber tells it, electricity is not part of the energy problem, but is the overlooked solution.

See the report at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/eper_03.htm.

Visit Elisa Wood at www.realenergywriters.com and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

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Elisa Wood About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.

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