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.


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.


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.

The booklet really gives you a sense of the honest, wide-eyed amazement and wonder people felt when they thought about comforts and conveniences that we take for granted today. In the new world of electricity, the booklet promised, the toast would never burn, you would no longer need to schedule your week around laundry, and everyone would be healthier and happier. Electricity changed energy production from a difficult in-home process that kept the messy by-products of progress literally in your face into something magical that happened when you threw a switch. The choking smoke was still there, but it wasn't at your house. There was still heavy labor involved, but it wasn't done by you or your children.

Yet that trade-off, more convenience for less control, does seem to bother some of us today. When surveys track which forms of renewable energy Americans are most excited about, solar power tends to win the day. Solar power is also the form of renewable energy most associated with small-scale distributed generation. I don't think that's a coincidence. Unlike a hydroelectric dam or a wind farm, solar power can be easily seen as more than just an alternative source of electricity. Instead, it's a way to declare independence, a way to say, "I don't need to be beholden to a utility or anyone else to do the work of energy for me. I can do it on my own." Centralized energy is a symbol of the chains of modern society. The solar panel is your key to freedom.

It's an appealing perspective and a powerful image, but it's also not really the way that decentralized generation is likely to work for most of us. Even when you're talking about outfitting individual houses with solar panels, it's still a system that, ironically, ties you to your neighbors and community more than it liberates you. We can change the future of energy, but we can't build everyone's utopia. With convenience comes a loss of control, a loss of power. Yet what happens when you take that power back? As a wise man once said, "With great power, comes great responsibility."

east river.jpg

Free Flow System turbine being installed in East River, New York, NY (Dec 2006). Kris Unger/Verdant Power, Inc

This future--in which electricity is made close to home, as well as far away, and where people who used to be only consumers have become citizens of the grid--will also change what it means to be an energy utility company. When the first power plants in the United States opened, utilities were the entities that generated electricity and made sure it got to your house. In general, that's probably how most of us think of these companies today. Yet the situation is already very different in many places. Following electric utility deregulation in the 1970s, the jobs of generating electricity, transmitting it over long distances, and distributing it around localized regions have increasingly been done by different entities.

This is happening now, outside of the shift toward alternative energy, but as we generate electricity using more renewable resources--as generation becomes increasingly distributed, to match the locations of inherently local sources of energy--that trend will only accelerate. The day may come when no electric utility generates anything. Instead, it might simply coordinate the movement of electricity between generators and customers. Rather than making and selling electricity, utilities like the municipal utility in Gainesville, Florida, could someday find itself selling the service of making sure that all of the solar panels in town work together in a reliable way, alongside storage systems and mid-size power plants.

If there's one lesson you should pick up from this story, it's that alternative energy isn't only about changing what we put in our fuel tanks or how our electricity is made. Alternative energy is going to alter entire business plans and change who we are, what our responsibilities are, and how we think about ourselves. If it helps, though, this transition is nothing new. The United States has already gone through it once before. This country began as a place where energy was individual labor--something most people had to physically be involved with every day, whether they were chopping wood or driving a team of horses. Fossil fuels--oil, coal-fired engines, natural gas--changed all of that. During the course of the twentieth century, energy became a commodity. Most Americans didn't directly labor to produce it. Most of us didn't have to think about it at all, except when we paid the monthly bills.

Now, as where we get our energy from shifts again, what energy is--what it means to us--is changing again, too. Yet we aren't reverting to the nineteenth century. We're creating something new. The future of energy is a world that shares characteristics of both the past and the present. In the future, we will see where the electricity we use is made. It'll be on our roofs, in our rivers, closer to our cities. Because more of us will make electricity, more of us will have to pay attention to how the grid works and how our choices affect it. Third parties will still handle the complicated details of keeping that energy supply reliable. There will still be wizards of the grid. Utility companies will still exist, even if their primary business model is fundamentally different. You and I are still going to enjoy the convenience of not having to chop wood every time we want a warm house. It will be different, and we won't all get what we want, but different and imperfect don't necessarily mean bad.

This can work. This future can happen. Yet it won't simply happen on its own. Standing between us and the future of energy is an awfully big wall. Whether we can scale it will depend on how well we can plan and whether we have the willpower to follow those plans through.

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