Bill McKibben on Why We Need a P2P Energy Grid

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  1. The excerpts from Bill McKibben's Deep Economy are reprinted here
  2. The P2P Energy Grid


Bill McKibben:

"We can generate local power more efficiently

We’re used to thinking of solar power as a set of panels up on the roof and a set of batteries down in the basement, supporting a grinning, graying hippie happy in his off-the-grid paradise. But there’s something too individualistic about this model: It’s the hippie’s power, for him.

The result isn’t like a farmers’ market; it’s like your own vegetable garden, from which you can’t even share the extra zucchini with your own neighbors. In some places it makes sense, and the people who have pioneered it deserve great credit for leading the way.

But for most of America, some intermediate scale — something in between the individual cell powering the individual home, and the one great power station feeding the whole state — seems a better match.

Imagine all the south-facing roofs in your suburb sporting solar panels. Imagine a building code that requires all new construction to come with solar roof tiles and solar shutters. Imagine windmills scattered around town in the gustier spots and heat pumps for extracting energy from the earth. Imagine all these pieces linked in a local grid.

Such a vision makes sense in part because our current way of doing things is extraordinarily wasteful. When power plants burn coal, an enormous amount of the energy is wasted as heat that simply goes up into the air; one recent British study indicated that 61 percent of the energy value of the coal just disappears. Another 4 percent vanished in the transmission process, and another 13 perfect was wasted because people were using inefficient refrigerators and dryers and other appliances in their homes.

We can generate local power more reliably

If you depend on a massive central power station to deliver your electricity, you really need another one standing by in case the first one fails. But if you’re relying on dozens of smaller sources, the chances that they’ll all go out at once are small to vanishing.

So imagine that the energy grid worked more like the Internet — decentralized, and operating in both directions. You get power out, but you can also put power in.

On a sunny day I can walk down to the electric meter under my porch and watch it spin the wrong way. As long as the sun stays out, the solar panels on my roof make me a utility. It’s a sweet feeling, knowing that my neighbor’s refrigerator is running off the panels above my head.

In England, a pilot project in the town of Woking used sixty different local generators — arrays — to power, heat, and cool municipal buildings and the town’s housing projects, as well as many of the downtown businesses. Carbon emissions fell 77 percent; in the event of a nationwide blackout, the town could be isolated from the main grid and go on working. (There wasn’t even much potential for terrorists to attack.) Woking was able to pay for the pioneering system through energy savings, and pension funds across Europe now invest in such schemes because they like the steady low-risk returns they offer.

We can tap the power of community

To really make localized power generation work, you need a community.

Ask yourself why Japan leads the world in building a decentralized solar-panel energy economy. Because it has so much sun (it doesn’t), or because it has so much fellowship? Because it’s equatorial (it’s not), or because people feel both an obligation to one another and an ability to trust one another?

In a hyper-individualized world, by contrast, cost is all that matters. I’ll get the cheapest possible electricity and not worry about its effects; if you want to tax me to help jump-start other technology, I’ll vote for someone else; come back when photovoltaics are cheaper than coal.

Randy Udall, who runs a non-profit organization that builds solar energy systems in Pitkin County, Colorado, expresses his frustration with the hyper-individualized mind-set. “If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times: ‘What’s the payback?’”

An average solar system, he notes, costs $10,000.” Americans routinely pay $3,000 for a four-pound laptop, and $40,00 for a sport utility vehicle that loses thousands of dollars the moment it leaves the dealer’s lot. In no other realm does the ‘What’s the payback?’ mentality prevail.”

The average cost increase for using solar energy, he adds, works out to $1.44 a day. “Any family that can afford cable television could probably afford to get some power from the sun.”

It’s true, though, that solar and wind power sources come with big up-front costs. The sun may be free, but for the panels you have to write a check — unless there are enough people in your community willing to make it possible in other ways.

“[Power generation] should be owned by communities, individuals, businesses and cooperatives” instead of giant utilities, says Bill Becker, who builds ten-foot-tall turbines that look 'like DNA helixes whirling around a vertical shaft.'

"Distributed power," Becker says, "builds the model of local self-sufficiency, control, power. People feel they control their lives.” (