An Energy Crunch Worsens

Increasing power demands and tight energy reserves pose a heavy environmental burden, but distributed generation and new storage architectures could lighten the load

Illustration: Richard Tuschman

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Always On: Living in a Networked World.

Growing pressures to reduce the environmental impact of power generation without bankrupting consumers are changing the industry--and creating concern.

Companies that supply electric power have long been subject to two often contradictory pressures--cost and cleanliness. People don't want to pay astronomically high prices for the electricity they use, nor do they want its production to pollute the air they breathe.

Thirty years ago, industry thought nuclear power would provide the solution to both problems. It didn't.

But today, both pressures are building.

On the environmental front, the international Kyoto Protocol, as yet unratified, waits on the horizon, with its strict schedule of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. And the means by which the United States sets its clean-air regulations is now before the courts.

On the cost front, the increasing use of natural gas in the energy mix, as a relatively clean fuel, is causing natural gas prices to double--something that may be a rude shock for many consumers this winter. And market disruptions caused by deregulation are, in some parts of the United States, causing sticker shock, but may give a boost to the use of so-called green power, shorthand for energy generated by renewable resources.

Adding to the pressure on the power industry is the current and projected growth in power demand, which some say is fueled by the Internet, though other factors such as increased air conditioning in general also are important, of course.

The answer has yet to emerge. It may be found in the use of more renewables in the energy mix, it may be found in an increase in distributed generation of power, it may be in taking a new look at energy conservation.

In this series of articles, IEEE Spectrum looks at the many sides of the changing relationship between energy generation and the environment.

First, Tekla S. Perry considers the question of whether or not the Internet is driving energy use or presents potential energy savings as it changes the way economies work in "Fueling the Internet". She highlights the importance of solving the hidden problem of standby power waste in "Plugging the leak".

Next, Spectrum looks at several potential remedies to the energy vs. environment contest.

In an interview, Robert W. Perciasepe, assistant administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, discusses how clean-air regulations are made and how they are expected to affect the U.S. power-generating mix. Then, William Sweet reports on a number of studies that have argued the industrial world is becoming too dependent on natural gas, however environmentally benign it may be, and examines whether distributed generation is a panacea.

And finally, Perry finds that deregulation may lead to significant increases in the proportion of green power in the overall energy mix, as consumers are given the option of selecting electricity that is generated from renewables.

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