Spreading Out the Power to Make Power
So we asked last time how we might be able to prevent the accumulation of power generation in a small number of hands in order to involve more people in the choice of which direction to point society. The idea of decentralizing or “democratizing” energy generation came up as a potential solution, so lets explore that more fully.
Basically, people don’t like paying for energy, and especially don’t like paying corporations that seem to change their prices fairly inscrutably. So what if everyone made their own energy from renewable sources placed on their own property? Cover your usage and then maybe sell any excess you have to people/places/projects you like. Sounds pretty great on paper but a couple problems are lurking in the ink.
Herding Cats, But the Cats All Have Tasers
First, energy production is but one small part of the whole chain of events that causes all the parts of modern society to move. Without a load to drive on the other end, all the power in the world is useless. But if all energy generation was completely dispersed with an equal amount of generation owned by every person, the loads that needs that energy are not so evenly distributed. Residential energy demands are pretty low on a per location basis, but Energy demands start shooting up when you look into heavy industry or high tech production. Do you think that a single entity contracting out hundreds or potentially Thousands of local generators to provide for it would be practical? And that is assuming that all those generators can actually produce the energy that the entity needs at the time that it needs it. If not, then they will need to source the capacity from farther away using long distance transmission infrastructure, which leads to the next problem.
How will that energy Get to who needs/buys it, and who owns the infrastructure to transport it? Transmission infrastructure operation is a Big business that most people have never even considered what it would take to interact with. But it is responsible for moving the vast quantities of power around according to the requirements of those whom have paid for the right to access the grid. But what would happen if the generators started saying that there were restrictions on whom was allowed to use their energy? Then you are adding extra complexity to the already unfathomably complicated balancing act these groups are striving to deal with. and as anyone can tell you, extra complexity means extra costs.
Over-complicated Solutions to Problems with Simple Solutions
You might hear that digital integration or “The Blockchain” will prevent the infrastructure operators from controlling the allocation of energy by allowing Peer to Peer interactions and contracts to truly create a interconnected network with no centralizing authority. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive proponent of P2P networking as a method of creating egalitarian networks and using them to stick it to The Man. But there is a big difference between software and hardware, especially when you are transporting something that, unlike information, is actually “consumed” at the end point. Yeah I know energy cannot be created or destroyed, but unlike that copy of Avengers: Endgame you may or may not have downloaded, a kWh of electricity actually produces work and stops being usable after you use it to run the TV that is playing the movie. Thus you will require more of them when you want to watch Grimace’s buff cousin get his ass kicked again.
The third problem is that if you can’t plan when you are going to get more energy, how can you reliably plan what to spend excess on? Of course we could get into the whole question of overbuilding and batteries, but we’ve heard those arguments all over the internet and covered it here as well. And if you are always saving against the rainy day, it’s almost impossible to justify spending that power, even on something that has a chance to effect the change you want to see happen. Just ask people who live paycheck to paycheck how easy it is to build up for investments in future growth. You need something that is able to produce on demand, and beyond what you can use by yourself or your community can if you actually want to successfully “democratize energy”
This is also ignoring the practical impossibility of preventing accumulation of generating capacity without an overarching governing system telling people how much energy they are allowed to sell. (Wait, isn’t that something that democratizing energy production was supposed to prevent?). Given the land intensiveness of producing energy by renewables, a farmer or acreage owner could Vastly out-produce a condo dwelling person or family. Thus, reducing the scale of energy generation to the level of the individual raises the possibility of creating a landed gentry that Also controls access to majority components of energy production. (Wait isn’t that another thing this whole democratization of energy is supposed to prevent?)
A Sidestep of the Pothole on the Road to the Future
So while dispersed energy generation intends to empower more people with the advent of renewable energy generation methods, in reality it multiplies the potential pathways to have the opposite effect. Those who have space to place generators will have disproportionately more influence over the direction of the future we build than those who decide to live smaller footprint, lower energy lifestyles. And as many projections of the future point towards increasingly urbanized living in higher density sectors, this would give the largest number of people the smallest amount of relative input on the priority of energy. Effectively robbing them of the Power to dictate the direction of their own lives.
I mentioned last article that people are concerned about power corrupting our choices and abilities to make beneficial decisions for others. But as I alluded to earlier, power is useless without something to use it for. Creating distributed power systems that are below the level of being able to supply what is needed to support a group is… lets be nice and say unsustainable. So dispersing energy generation to the individual level is impractical, but our current large single generators are too concentrated and prone to agglomerating into large organizations with very little local representation. So we need something in between. Large enough to provide for the industries in our communities, but small enough that communities can afford to invest in them and disperse ownership among the people that use and benefit from them.
The aim of a decentralized energy system should be towards maximizing Participation in the energy system, and the benefit towards the participants. And that is absolutely impossible when the largest expense of energy generation is land, as then arguably the largest contributor is always going to be the person/organization that the land belongs to. But in order to truly benefit the community the generation belongs to there has to be industries and operations capable of supporting said community that are powered by that same community. Thus we start touching on the edges of the topic for the next article int his series. A self-contained grid on a much smaller scale than we are currently used to thinking of. Micro-grids.