1.3 How a Renewable Power System Works

How a Renewable Power System Works

To design and build your own successful renewable power system, it’s helpful to understand how the world came to have an electrical grid in the first place, and how this compares with the kind of small, independent system you can create.

The origins of the grid

On November 16, 1896, electric lights were switched on in Buffalo, New York, powered by electricity generated at Niagara Falls. It was one of the first examples of the centralized, grid-based electrical system we have today, and it was the outcome of a technological battle. Beginning in the late 1880s, the two giants of invention at the time, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, argued for different approaches to electrifying the world. 

Edison favoured a system that used direct current (DC) supplied over short distances by local generating stations built here and there in cities. By contrast, Tesla was a firm believer in alternating current (AC) delivered by centralized generating stations over much larger distances. This AC system is the forerunner of the electrical grid we have today, and it’s what the authorities in Buffalo decided to implement along with other jurisdictions working hard to electrify their areas across North America. 

Although Tesla’s centralized AC approach does have distinct advantages over a decentralized system, one of the drawbacks is the vulnerability of the large electrical grid. An overload or EMP event in one part of the country can cause a ripple effect that shuts down electricity supply thousands of miles away. Ultimately, the entire electrical system of North America is like one big organism. Kill one part of it and potentially the rest can collapse. 

Am I against the grid? Absolutely not. It’s a marvel of engineering, and I’m thankful that most of the time it provides electricity 24/7 and in large quantities if I need it. That said, Edison’s concept of local electricity production certainly has merit, too. And if you think about it, isn’t an independent household renewable power system about as local as it gets?

An overview of renewable power systems

Before I lead you into the details, you’ll benefit from an overview of the off-grid electrical system concept. All the components in the illustration below work together to create a reliable source of electrical energy. This system provides the steadiest stream of power you can expect from any alternative energy system, with the possible exception of a micro-hydro setup. You may want to print out the Power System Overview plans here, then have them in front of you as you watch the video at the end of this lesson.



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