The power went out one night last week, a reminder of the once familiar power woes that plagued Guam in the mid-nineties. It was a muggy, still night when the power went out, leaving me swathed in sweaty sheets without a breath of air.
I have a feeling I better get used to it. The entire power grid on Guam is supplied by a series of base load generators that burn either diesel or bunker oil, both petroleum derivatives. The oil crunch is starting and Guam is especially susceptible to price fluctuations. The Guam Power Authority has already raised rates by 20% this year, and less than a month after raising rates in August the power authority is making noises about raising rates again to cover the skyrocketing cost of fuel. The agency is mandated by law to break even on fuel costs, but it is running in the red right now, wildly hoping that the price of oil drops in the near future.
Last month Guam played host to the Pacific Power Association meeting, a gathering of regional energy utilities and agencies. Was anything discussed at this meeting about the coming oil crisis? I’m sure plenty of the talks were about renewable energy, probably about using waves or ocean currents to generate power. This sounds cool, but let’s see some demonstrable progress on these initiatives. I remain skeptical that wave generation will ever provide anything more than negligible amounts of electricity.
But one thing I am certain of – the oil is running out, and Pacific island nations will be among the first and hardest hit. The time to develop renewable sources of electricity is now, using proven technologies like wind and solar. Case in point, San Diego Gas & Electric just signed a contract with Stirling Energy Systems to buy 300 megawatts of electricity from a solar farm in the Imperial Valley. The electricity will be generated using a solar Stirling engine, a closed cycle motor powering an electrical dynamo.
300 megawatts is more than enough to satisfy Guam’s electrical needs. Of course the power would only be available during daylight hours, but it would certainly provide a consistent source of energy during the hottest part of the day, the peak hours of electrical consumption. So while solar will not provide a complete solution, it can certainly help reduce the demand for oil and eventually supplement other petroleum free sources of energy, whether these be wind turbines, those pie in the sky wave generators, or even some form of (gasp) nuclear power.
In the long run I doubt centralized electrical generation will prove sustainable. As prices for electricity continue to rise people will slowly disconnect themselves from the grid and start collecting solar power on their rooftops, or throwing up windmills to snatch power from the winds. Eventually I suspect fuel cell technology will progress to a level where a home can be powered by a bank of fuel cells, providing both electricity and piping hot water.
For the time being though, the most efficient way to stretch remaining oil supplies is also the one that has the most effect on consumer’s wallets. Conserve energy. Install energy efficient fluorescent bulbs in lamps. Turn off the damn air conditioner and use a fan instead. Replace that old electric water heater, or put it on a timer. Live sustainably and lessen your ecological footprint on the planet.