Modular power plants
“We are two generations from Edison and 20 generations from Ford,” laughs Klaus Lackner, Director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
Lackner’s point is that the automobile engine, manufactured in tens of millions of units each year, has travelled a dramatically different learning curve to the turbines of the large-scale power plant, which are replaced relatively rarely. He speculates that a modular approach to power plant design, using thousands of small generators instead of a few large turbines, would drive a dramatically different level of technological change and innovation in the industry, as its component parts were produced in greater numbers.
While some economies of scale and unit efficiency might be sacrificed at first, argues Lackner, most of the economic advantage could be recovered with sufficient software automation. This phenomenon has already been seen in the computer industry, where mega-servers have been replaced by farms of small units working together. The creation of a power industry that had modular flexibility but could still produce power on a large scale could reduce the sector’s notorious “first mover disadvantage” and facilitate a new pace of technological change.