Micropower: Small is Beautiful

The Declaration, Volume 4, Number 1 : October 2000  [Research]

By Steve Breyman

Did your power flicker or go out this past summer? Is your utility company talking about building new power plants in the next few years? If so, you’re not alone: tens of millions of Americans, on campus and off, face tough decisions about whether to add new generating capacity. The projected US need for new power over the next few years is enormous. Unfortunately, there is little talk of an intense nationwide conservation effort to reduce the need for new power plants. Utilities have by and large ended homeowner and industry subsidies for conservation efforts. Mostly gone are the days when the average citizen could get free water heater blankets or window treatments from her utility. Instead, energy deregulation has turned discussion to the permitting of large “merchant plants,” entrepreneurial endeavors designed to generate and sell power to the grid at hours of peak need.1

It still makes economic and environmental sense to “generate” what Amory Lovins called “negawatts” (energy saved through conservation measures). Conservation creates jobs, prevents pollution, and is far cheaper than building new power plants. According to the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency, an investment of $1 million in an energy efficiency measures (with a ten-year life span) can translate to an energy cost savings of approximately $3 million, the creation of 58 job-years, and emissions avoidance of approximately 100 tons of sulfur dioxide, 70 tons of nitrogen oxides, and 45,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Making even relatively minor changes (e.g., replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs or compact fluorescents) can supplant the need for new facilities, or allow us to transition away from coal and nuclear power. But there will be instances where, given the booming economy in the United States, new generating capacity is needed. In those cases, we ought to install the small, modular, distributed systems known as “micropower” technologies.

Micropower devices-including fuel cells, photovoltaics, miniturbines and small windmills-can be sized to meet the power needs of the average household (1.5 kilowatts) or business (10 kilowatts). My argument is that institutions of higher education should be early adopters of micropower (and should help further develop the technologies in the process); colleges and universities should lead the rest of society by installing micropower technologies to meet future energy needs because they are cleaner, more reliable, and more economical than conventional fossil fuel-fired, centralized grid power systems. I defend this argument in the following four sections: by describing the history of micropower; by illustrating its environmental and reliability benefits; by demonstrating other advantages of micropower; and through some concluding remarks.2


Electricity generation began as micropower. Thomas Edison’s first power station, constructed in New York City in 1882, was sized to power but a single square-mile Wall Street neighborhood, including the offices of the New York Times and the Drexel-Morgan building. Within a few years, coal-fired steam boilers running internal combustion engines, and recycling their waste heat, were powering and heating individual buildings and neighborhoods in cities across the globe.

The original heyday of micropower was, however, brief. Technological, economic and regulatory factors conspired to replace micropower by megapower. Westinghouse’s alternating current devices overtook Edison’s direct current technologies; the transformer permitted transmission of electricity over long distances, and the turbine bested the reciprocating engine. Crafty marketing increased the demand for electricity that led to construction of larger centralized power plants. Prices fell and demand grew yet further. Increasing power demands came to be seen as an indicator of a healthy, growing economy. Governments cemented bigger-is-better technological developments and economic trends by assigning monopolies for the generation and distribution of electricity.

Enormous nuclear power plants both epitomized and brought the bigger-is-better era to a close. Nuke plants symbolized the dangers of technocracy, big business and shortsightedness. With the entry of independent power producers into the market following the oil crises of the 1970s, megapower could no longer hold out against the combined onslaught of limits to efficiency, environmental opposition, overcapacity and the economic and ecological failure of nuclear power.

The stage was set for the return of micropower. Wind turbines popped up on drafty ridges in California. “Cogeneration” (the use of waste heat from electricity generation for heating and additional power generation) exploded during the1980s. Small aero-derivative natural gas turbines (in the 10-90 megawatt range) came to be preferred over megaplants powered by dirty-burning coal. At the same time, support grew for energy deregulation–the ordered dismantling of the monopolistic utility behemoths. Deregulators could point to the benefits reaped by consumers following deregulation of the telecommunications and airline industries. As competition returned to the electricity business, the average size of a new power plant fell from 200 megawatts in the mid-eighties; to 100 megawatts in 1992, to 21 megawatts in 1998 (about the same size as a plant in 1915).


Micropower technologies, systems less than 10 megawatts, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. From superior internal combustion engines, to gas turbines, to fuel cells, to more familiar renewable generators, micropower systems are proliferating in diverse applications. Homesteaders use microhydro generators in their creeks, Midwest farmers earn extra income from windmills on their property, green developers build houses with photovoltaic cells (PV) integrated into the roofing tiles, fuel cell companies hope someday to power cars, homes and even appliances with several technologies that may ultimately generate power from hydrogen emitting only water. Already, here in upstate New York, Plug Power, a fuel cell pioneer, is using a washing machine-sized fuel cell to provide power to a house.

Among the premier benefits of micropower is its environmental friendliness. Micropower emits lower quantities of air pollutants: particulates, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, mercury and other heavy metals, in all phases of the power generation life-cycle from construction to installation to operation. There is no insoluble and eternal waste problem as with nuclear power. Renewables generation avoids the destructive mining impacts of coal, oil, and uranium. We know that burning fossil fuels is the foremost contributor to climate change. The sooner we move to renewable micropower technologies, the sooner we can reduce the loading of the atmosphere with industrial gases thus forestalling possible catastrophe. By merely meeting demand for new power in the US using fuel cells, renewables and microturbines, we could cut power plant carbon emissions by fifty percent or more.

Fuel cells are nearly silent, eliminating noise pollution. Even the current fuel cell prototypes, many using natural gas, produce considerably fewer greenhouse gases than combustion engines. PVs have experienced a quadruple cost decline in the past twenty years, now making them the world’s second-fastest growing energy source. Even with the highest life-cycle emissions of noncombustion micropower technologies (due to the energy demands for making silicon), solar PV emissions are still far below those of combustion systems.

Micropower technologies have grown increasing reliable. The latest reciprocating engines can run for fifty thousand hours without maintenance. Small plants are unlikely to all fail simultaneously; when a major plant or transmission system fails, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people may be affected. Micropower systems have shorter down times, are easier to repair, and are more geographically dispersed. Micropower systems mimic the strength of biologically diverse ecosystems; they exhibit “technological diversity.”

Bankers and scientists have learned the hard way how unreliable centralized grid power can be. Refrigeration-dependent cancer and AIDS researchers have lost valuable experiments due to power outages. When the power fails at a large e-commerce firm or a major bank, the losses can run into the tens of millions of dollars per hour. Computer networks can tolerate disruptions no longer than eight one-thousandths of a second before crashing; utilities do not even classify this as a “failure.” The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that distribution system failures-the cause of 95% of power outages in the US-cost the economy upwards of $30 billion annually. Fuel cells may provide the answer to the power needs of the new economy; they run at 99.9999 percent availability while reducing air emissions substantially.


Micropower’s human-scale makes many of the technologies modular. Fuel cells and PVs can be easily added and subtracted. Sized to meet the average household’s needs, 2-5 kilowatts, photovoltaic arrays are easily multiplied to meet growing demand. Fuel cells will likely be stackable, and are slated to shrink in size. Some analysts foresee fuel cells replacing batteries in consumer electronics and other applications before long.

When coupled with municipal power (citizen-owned utilities), micropower allows for local choice and control. Communities can rely on local fuels (biomass, solar gain, wind, etc.) rather than imported fuels (gas, oil, coal). They can have direct control over questions of scale, technology, and rates. This spurs local economic development, and reduces costs to consumers. In New York State, municipalities with their own power systems have always had much cheaper rates than the seven investor-owned utilities, often by as much as a third. While some of the cost savings are due to greater access to cheaper federal hydropower, municipal utilities tend to have lower administrative costs and avoid the 15% or higher profit margins sought by investor-owned utilities.

Megapower plants often take years to permit and construct due to their size and complexity. Micropower technologies can be planned, sited and constructed relatively quickly. Speedy installation avoids building more capacity than needed, and the aging of best available technologies before they are even operating. Small facilities can help avoid the enormous costs of large plants and may minimize the need for grid extension or new connections. These and other advantages of small-scale power tend as well to avoid the community resistance common to megaplants.


Here at Rensselaer, we are hoping to spark administrative interest in renewable micropower. A team of students in my Fall 2000 “Environment & Society” course is working on a plan to install a PV array, a small windmill, and a microhydro generator (in a local stream) on campus. This is the course we use every year to advance new and existing campus greening initiatives. The students’ idea is to demonstrate to campus citizens that small-scale green power is affordable, practical and feasible. Their research requires literature searches, fieldwork (to assess the desirability of various candidate installation sites) and regular interactions with renewables experts and administrators.3 They are working closely with Professor David Borton, a physicist who teaches a solar devices course in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Aeronautics and Mechanics. The students intend to design plaques to accompany the technologies to explain how the microsystems work and why they are a smart energy choice.


The National Academy of Engineering recently identified electrification, the spread of vast networks of electricity that power the world, as number one on the list of the top twenty engineering triumphs of the twentieth century. It may well be that a hundred years hence, engineers will look back on the replacement of megapower by micropower as a crowning achievement of the twenty-first century. University citizens, foundations, elected officials, civil servants, entrepreneurs, investors and many others can work together to make this hope a reality. There are few sociotechnical shifts with such far-ranging benefits as the move from unsustainable energy to clean, green micropower.

Energy deregulation has to date been anything but an unalloyed success. While stimulating the development of micropower, it has not lowered residential rates. Public Service Commissions can further accelerate the installation of clean micropower systems by establishing renewable portfolio standards. Power generators can be required to have a small percentage of their power-that grows over time-produced from renewable energy sources.

Under the guise of energy deregulation, states have allowed the electric industry to split up into companies that own power plants and companies that own the wires that distribute electricity. Utilities have been able to exact a surcharge on the price of electricity they deliver from other companies in order to recover the costs of their failed investments (e.g., stranded costs for nuclear plants). With an exemption from such surcharges, the playing field might be more level for micropower generators.

There are a host of other reforms and initiatives that might move us smartly into the era of renewable micropower. The World Bank might finally end its support for ecologically and culturally destructive megahydropower projects in the developing world. Governments might curtail the myriad subsidies for nonrenewable energy from oil depletion allowances to liability limits for nuclear plants. Micropower station permitting could be expedited. Citizens could choose the green power option proffered by their energy services company. Research foundations, public and private, might allocate more funds to renewable micropower R&D. Perhaps most importantly, university sustainability advocates might push for small-scale green power systems on campus and off.

Funders of university sustainability projects can help make micropower a reality by directing their resources to demonstration and pilot projects. When these projects prove their multifaceted worth, even the most ecologically innocent university administrators will chose to adopt them for economic and reliability reasons. They will come sooner to appreciate the benefits of micropower and be more willing to make the necessary investments if the sustainability advocates on their campuses educate them and urge them on.


  1. Much of the factual information about energy deregulation in this article comes from personal communications with Mark Dunlea.
  2. Much of the factual information about small-scale power in this article comes from Seth Dunn and Christopher Flavin, “Sizing Up Micropower” in Lester Brown, et al., State of the World 2000 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), and the sources cited there.
  3. They have found the resources available through Real Goods very useful for the project (the Solar Living Sourcebook, etc.).

Steve Breyman is Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies, and Director of the Ecological Economics, Values & Policy Program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where he is a leader of the Greening of Rensselaer initiative.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.