General Principles for Policy Making for Distributed Energy

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by George Dafermos, Panos Kotsampopoulos, et al.

The democratisation of the means of energy production

"As we saw in the case of the implementation of the microgrid in Kythnos (case study 1) and that of small-scale hydropower infrastructures in Nepal (case study 2), the most readily visible effect of the adoption of distributed structures of energy generation is that it transforms consumers into producers and their homes into productive units. Distributed models, such as those based on microgrids, imply the democratisation of the means of production through the use of shared and collectively-owned systems of production, as the underlying technological infrastructure for the generation of energy is not centralised in large power plants, but is installed in the very homes of end users. Energy consumers are thus being made responsible for the daily operation and management of this infrastructure. This investment of users with the means of production is the single most important condition for the emergence of the model of commons-based, peer production in the field of energy.

The importance of investment in energy literacy

The transition to distributed energy models entails significant switching costs, as individual users (households) and communities are required to invest in familiarising themselves with new technologies, which they have to learn how to operate. Without the development and diffusion of such an “energy literacy” across end users, attempts to set up distributed energy projects are bound to fail. Evidently, the design and implementation of such projects should be accompanied by training courses aimed at investing end users with the skills required to operate the relevant (so-called “smart”) technologies that are to be installed in their homes and communities. That is why the implementation of the microgrid on the island of Kythnos included a training course designed to familiarise the residents of that community with the devices that were being installed in their homes, thus ensuring they can operate the infrastructure themselves (case study 1). For the same reason, the Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood programme has provided training to more than 34,000 people in Nepal (case study 2) and construction seminars for small wind turbines (based on the Hugh Piggot design) are organised by groups all over the world for do-it-yourself enthusiasts (case study 3). In this respect, such training courses are vehicles for the transfer of knowledge to local communities that will enable them to become energy-autonomous.

Community-driven development and the importance of user participation

Distributed energy models evolved out of the demand to respond to the needs of communities and individual households, located often in remote regions, which were either inadequately supported and provided for by the pre-existing centralised infrastructure or not at all. That was the case with the small community on the island of Kythnos in Greece, which had no electricity prior to the installation of the microgrid (case study 1), as well as with rural communities in Nepal that have turned to the development of micro-hydro plants (case study 2). The development of such distributed energy infrastructures has been largely “bottom-up”, initiated and carried out by small local communities, which have taken it upon themselves to bootstrap an infrastructure that better suits their needs. Most importantly, the participation of the community and its members is dictated by the fact that distributed energy models and technologies are best adopted when they are not imposed top-down, but shared from user to user. As it is the users themselves who will be responsible for operating and managing these technologies on a daily basis, it is essential that they be involved in the process of design and implementation of distributed energy projects. For the same reason, it is critical to ensure the participation of end users and local communities in the policy-making process, transforming it into a “mode of social learning, rather than an exercise of political authority” (Pretty et al., 2002: 252). Such participation not only lends legitimacy to transition programmes, as they have been co-designed and implemented with end users and their communities, but also empowers them, helping ensure that policies are truly responsive to their needs.

The significance of open source, appropriate technology

As we have seen, distributed energy projects are characterised by their extensive use of open source technologies, such as open source wind turbines and pico-hydroelectric plants. That is so for manifold reasons. First of all, open source technologies—by virtue of the fact that their design information is freely available (under free/open licenses)—allow the broader community to participate in their design and development process, thereby resulting in rapid improvements in performance and reductions in production costs (Benkler, 2006; also, see the article by Dafermos in this issue). In this way, the free sharing of the Hugh Piggot design for wind turbines (case study 3) and of Harvey’s design manual for micro-hydro installations (case study 2) has triggered a process of distributed, but collaborative, development by a loosely-coupled community of autonomous groups spanning the globe. As a result, the cost of small-scale, locally-manufactured, open source hydropower technologies is now about one third of the equivalent proprietary products (Practical Action, 2014) and the same goes for locally-manufactured small wind turbines. Yet, the significance of open source technologies is not confined to the realisation of cost reductions and performance improvements, which are made possible through their distributed development by a loosely coupled community of researchers, practitioners and hobbyists spread the world over. Equally important, open source technologies are designed with the principle of environmental sustainability in mind and in such a way as to be easily repairable and modifiable by end users. In that regard, they are paradigmatic of what is called sustainable design and appropriate technology (Pearce, 2012), as they do not pollute the environment or deplete natural resources and are designed to last, rather than being thrown away and replaced by newer technologies." (