Infrastructure – the hidden costs

Conventional utility services come through grid networks, connecting fixed points of service supply to fixed points of use, and inflexible; continual extension is needed to support new developments.  To be within reach of the networks usually leads to further urbanisation, and increase in local environmental pressures.

 

To build and maintain these distribution networks involves great cost and direct environmental impacts.  And they leak: for the UK systems power losses are around 8%, and water losses typically between 20 and 40% (plus considerable power consumed in pumping - water doesn’t flow uphill).  Sewage system overflows also occur, irregular but not infrequent, though always unpleasant.

 

Decarbonising the power sector looks to further integration of  ‘renewable’ generation, with increasing consequence in managing supply stability.  Politics has side-lined the nuclear option so there is diminishing back-up available from controllable generation, and now in view is the inclusion of mega-batteries for intermediate storage.  Increasing electrification in all sectors, notably EVs, compounds the problems and moreso at the local network level.

 

It all may be technically feasible, in this incremental  approach, but at what cost when measured by the full life cycle levelised cost, with all factors properly internalised?  There’s a view that a grid based solely on renewables is economically impractical, as the long run marginal cost rises rapidly with increasing penetration.  Even if generation costs came down to zero, the distribution and supply management implications would overwhelm.  Time for a rethink…?

 

Decentralisation offers a great deal more flexibility, and the closer to the point of use the better.  Services can be matched to site-specific needs, and it avoids the capital and decision-making inertia, political and the rest, that plagues any major infrastructure development.  One simple comparison could give good cause for this rethink.

 

Major mega-battery installations can have an energy storage capacity around 300 MWh.  So does a typical road tanker, containing (bio)fuel.  The tanker represents a ‘mobile battery’ in providing both energy storage and distribution, direct from the point of fuel production to the end user, wherever each may be: fully flexible and responsive.  As for capital cost, size, efficiency losses and many other factors, there’s no comparison.

 

Delivering fuel rather than services to the site, where all processing is then done, is the key to the IUS concept.  No infrastructure needed, and certainly not for new developments; the IUS not only makes it easy to be ‘off-grid’, but better to be so in every way.