Getting Smaller: Local Power Grids
I’ve just finished reading a book by environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben called Eaarth, which explains that we are no longer inhabitants of the earth as we once knew it in post-war 20th Century. McKibben posits that the planet we’re on is so climatically different in this new era of ours that it must be called by a new name. It suggests that global climate change is no longer coming, that it is no longer a “threat” – it’s here. That is a very sobering starting point for a book.
But, more than being a grim explanation of our current challenges and those we will face in the near future, the book also talks about ways in which we need to adapt. Luckily, we won’t need to live uncomfortably, or like we’re living in a Mad Max movie; not if we’re smart and brave.
One of the ways McKibben suggests that we adapt, among many, is by pursuing the idea of getting smaller. One of the main strategies to accomplish this is through localized power grids. What if power grids could be managed locally, just as many communities are now turning to community supported agriculture?
The power of small
Thinking local can create more sustainable systems, just because fewer resources are used up when distances aren’t as great. Also, when problems arise within a local system, they tend to be on a smaller and more manageable scale as well. When things do go wrong, those problems have a more direct impact on a community. So, action tends to be taken faster and by more people, as does planning for real-world scenarios to avoid them in the future, specific to that system.
With the rising expenses of nearly everything you can think of, the cost of maintaining and replacing existing infrastructure is in danger of becoming out of reach on a national scale. This includes our power grids. The advantage of any system at a local level is about controlling those expenses locally too. This helps to ensure that the investment in them has a direct and positive impact on those who directly contribute to the maintenance of the system. Talk about “local power”! Being small means being more maneuverable, and more easily adapted to changing conditions that are often hard to predict; not just climatic ones, but also economic ones too.
When storms ravage local areas, as they are expected to do more and more as our planet gets warmer, or when brownouts occur due to power shortfalls, power systems divided into micro-grids make it easier to identify where things are going wrong. It makes it easier to diagnose a problem and see to solving it in a more efficient manner. And the expense of solving those problems have a direct benefit to those paying for it, since it’s their system.
Micro-grids also make energy something over which individuals, and communities have more direct control. This is because the infrastructure to support them are physically present where people live; we know where our power is coming from – literally. This has important cultural implications that will help us to adapt to ensuing climate changes over the next few decades.
Local power: no more magic, please
Localizing power grids also has a psychological effect, too. It puts the idea of power and energy production into a more real-world context, and removes it from a “magical” one. When we’re not simply taking it for granted, turning on a light can feel like magic, just because we don’t really have any mental connection as to where that power is coming from. All we see is the result.
But, what if that result was produced by a combination of solar panels, geothermal systems, and wind power apparatus that is a part of our individual homes, perhaps connected to other homes through an energy hub that has been built in our neighborhoods? This makes the result and its source more real and less abstract. The need for energy becomes pragmatic, and therefore more difficult to take for granted. All of this goes into making our energy production something to recognize as valuable, vital, and worth protecting – because it becomes ours.
The failure of ‘too big to fail’
Rethinking 21st century power grids is not just about moving away from the enormous systems that rely on fossil fuels, although that’s a pretty big area too. It’s also about moving away from “too big to fail” style models which we’ve seen at play where the economy is concerned. It’s the idea that huge systems can often be sources of single points of failure, making them very expensive for everyone to prop up when they do fail.
In his book, McKibben suggests that in the near future, it’s the smaller systems that will be the more sustainable. Like a species who become physically smaller when temperatures rise over time, our civilization must do the same.
To learn more about Bill McKibben and ideas about how to adapt to global climate change, check out 350.org. Also, you can watch this video where McKibben delivers the broad strokes on how our civilization needs to adapt.
What are your thoughts on all this, everyone?
What would be some of the disadvantages of local systems? What would be some of the ways to overcome those challenges?
Let me know in the comments section!