What We Talk About When We Talk About the Decentralization of Energy

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In this excerpt from her new book Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us, Boing Boing science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker looks at what electricity might mean to us after more of us start producing it at home. solarpanels.jpg

Solar panels on a roof. Image: flickr/ellrbrown

Decentralized generation means making electricity on a smaller scale than we generally do today. But how small is "small"? Depends on who you ask. 

When I talked to scientists and utility industry experts about decentralized generation, what they pictured was power production on the scale of Verdant Power's hydroelectric turbines beneath the East River or a gas-fired cogeneration plant that produced heat and electricity for a university campus. They thought of biofuels, and imagined a stationary central refinery, much smaller than the facilities that process oil into gasoline for the entire country but large enough to be industrialized. Electric capacities would be between 1 and 100 megawatts--enough to power hundreds or thousands of homes at a time. Economies of scale would still apply. The energy would still have to travel--whether by tanker truck or power line--to reach the people who wanted to use it.

Yet when I talk to my friends and family about decentralized generation, their minds immediately jump to something very different. To them, decentralized generation isn't only a somewhat smaller version of a system that already exists, like a scale model in a toy train set. Instead, they thought of decentralization as the creation of an entirely new, entirely separate system. They imagined a world where they didn't have to pay the electric company every month, because a one-time investment would allow them to make all of the electricity they needed with the help of the sun or the wind. No more rate hikes. No more ugly electric power lines threaded through their lives. That's what my friends and family were excited about. They wanted energy on site, something they could feel that they made by themselves. They loved the idea of the Madelia Model's traveling biofuel machine. Cogeneration plants bored them.

I think that this disconnect boils down to an issue of control. Scientists and utility experts have always been at the helm, guiding energy production. At least, they have been for as long as energy has been a scientific industry, for about a hundred years or so. When the rest of us turned energy production over to this small group, we got some benefits out of the deal. I, for one, enjoy having a boiler that's powered by natural gas and electricity. In the winter, my thermostat is programmed to make sure that my house is warm before I get up. I spend, at most, twenty minutes a year making sure that happens--just enough time to pay my bills every month and turn the boiler on or off with the season. 

Contrast that to my paternal grandparents' old house, which was heated with a wood stove. To make sure the house was warm in the morning, my Grandpa had to chop wood every week--after first either cutting down a tree of his own or buying wood from someone else and hauling it home. There was no such thing as waking up to an already-warm house. Whoever got up first, either Grammy or Grandpa, had to bring in chopped wood from the back porch and get the fire going. They had to keep it going throughout the day. There were ashes to haul every day, and a stovepipe to clean. When they moved into a retirement townhouse with central electric heating, my Grammy was ecstatic. By all of the accounts I've read, that's how most of our ancestors responded to the new convenience of centralized energy generation. If the energy is made by someone else, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the benefits.

Yet you do lose a certain amount of control. If my Grandpa's stove burned through all of the wood he'd put in it, he could go chop some more wood. If I wake up some morning and my gas or electric service isn't operating, then I have to put in a call to the utility and find someplace more comfortable to spend my day. Centralizing generation was a lot like adopting the republic as a form of government, as opposed to a direct democracy. Most of us don't want to sit through all of the meetings, speeches, and negotiations necessary to run a country. We'd much prefer the convenience of electing representatives to do that job for us. Sooner or later, though, we find out that the representatives don't always make the same choices we would have made in their shoes. It doesn't mean the republic is bad. It simply means that there's always a price for convenience, and that price is a loss of direct control. Again, energy is complicated, and there's no way for everybody to get everything he or she wants from it all the time. There will always be downsides. This was one of the downsides of the twentieth century's centralization of energy.

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From The Electrical House that Jack Built, The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company, 1916. Published online by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Losing direct control over energy generation--becoming consumers, rather than producers--didn't really bother the first generation of Americans who had the option of trading control for convenience. You can see that just by looking at utility company advertising from the early twentieth century. Take The Electrical House that Jack Built. This booklet was published in 1916 as a promotional for the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company and features eighteen pages of House That Jack Built-themed doggerel illustrating all of the wonderful ways you can use electricity around your home. Sure, it's a sales pitch, but sales pitches that end up being as successful as the one for electricity eventually was are probably speaking to something deeper than a single company's bottom line.

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Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing and a monthly columnist at The New York Times Magazine. She is the author of Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us.

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