You can’t fill up a car these days without thinking GD I wish we had something other than this stuff at $4.00 per gallon (or $2 per litre). Combine this with the conversations ad nauseam on TV, radio, newspapers and the Internet about global warming, oil producing countries and their tendency to fund extremists, old cold war enemies using their new found wealth to bring the old gang back together or traveled through Bangalore on a hot summer evening to come to the realization that something needs to change.
My frame of mind is that frankly I’m not overly concerned about global warming. It’s happening; it’s pretty darn scary and it may or may not be our fault. I’m more concerned and interested in new energy because the people who figure this thing out are going to make a mint and if we figure out how to heat our homes, power our cars and keep clean drinking water flowing through our faucets it’ll leave the oil for more interesting things like plastics, which as my father in law pointed out one time is the major ‘gotcha’ when the oil runs out.
I think historians in 200 years will look back at our time as a period of transition similar in magnitude to the changes experienced during the industrial revolution. For argument, lets call it the energy revolution. For the record, I’m sure there’s more thoughtful discussion around this topic …
Here’s an over simplified summary of today:
- Centrally produced electricity/Heat for homes; businesses
- Centrally collected water for homes; commercial
- Fuel for transportation, mostly gasoline and diesel
All these supplies, as generated today, have the luxury of being able to work at a large, macro scale which is why they are the dominant technologies of our time. Electricity is produced by a central location by coal, water, nuclear and then distributed to the masses. Water is collected, processed and distribute in a similar way. And, thanks to large tanker trucks, pipelines and cargo ships oil/fuel has a similar sort of supply chain, except in its case the gasoline doesn’t come to the house, we drive to a local gas station.
This central distribution, while the supplies have been plentiful has worked splendidly. Once the infrastructure was put in place (about a hundred years give or take), thanks to economies of scale the variable costs lowered and most industrialized nations prospered. In fact, we prospered so well it enabled us to do some pretty stupid things like planting plush lawns in desserts (think Phoenix Arizona) and decide one day that we didn’t like how power stations looked so we didn’t want one in our back yard. The same can be said for politicians in historically dry countries who decided that they didn’t need more catchment areas despite a trend of less and less water falling in the old catchment areas.
During the time that the supply chains were being developed, so were the technologies which use the energy. Combustion engines, etc.
But now, whether it be global warming or my God given right for a $1.25 a gallon gasoline, conversations, R&D, and investment money are starting to look for a new energy sources, new energy distribution process and new engine designs.
Current dominant thinking is to look for a full replacement, which is immediately scalable to current levels for distribution.
But what if the middle term answer is a move from a macro to a micro approach focusing not on providing energy for everyone in Texas, but a concentrated focus by each person, or small community on generating the wanted (note not just needed) amount of energy for each household?
What if the answer is to go micro? It’s all the trend everywhere except utilities. Technology is allowing people to do more by themselves every day. Going back in time, trains replaced horses, who were finally replaced by cars so rather than traveling in groups, with the notable exception of airplane flights, we travel alone. My computer can run calculations only the most powerful super-computers of the 60s could run.
Options for going micro:
- Iceland is leading the way in producing and utilizing hydrogen cars.
- The interesting part, aside from finally getting H cars is the fact that they are using wind turbines to power each hydrogen refilling plant. Yes they’re ugly and birds hate them, so fine, we use them for 40 years and tear them down when something else is better, but this option exists today. As an interim to hydrogen stations on every corner, what if the H came to our home for personal tanks? Anyone who uses fuel oil for their home heat understands the concept.
- Currently, we can use solar power to run out door lights and most stop lights/ flashing ‘you’ll get a ticket if you go too fast’ lights use solar too.
- Geothermal house design allows for more of the energy from the planet to help keep the temperature of a house cool and constant.
- Water tanks are commonly used in Australia for capturing water at each house for use at the house for showers, drinking, watering the garden or washing a car.
- The last three points combined with a local approach to producing energy (solar cells on each building with a central collection point, wind turbines or a local water fall, dammed river, hopefully you get the point can take each community nearly off the grid or at least reduce the need for the grid in places like California…
Society went from small groups of people fighting to survive, to organized society held together by values, geography and shared resources. What if now it’s time to find a hybrid where we each handle our own energy, while sharing the same values?
The upside of going micro is that utilization of resources becomes a private ownership matter. Use too much water on the lawn, no problem for a neighbor during a draught – it’ll just cost more to refill the tank. Burn all your lights and run computers 24/7 – similar to today but without all that strain on the grid – the cost goes up.
What has upsides, also has down sides. Right now, these ideas are prohibitively expensive or just not available. There are more and I’m certain the cynics or laggards will come up with many ‘it just won’t work’ scenarios.
The challenges to the micro-energy economy are huge, but so are the rewards for overcoming them. It’ll require a major change to the way a lot of people think – only those on the edge (before early adopters or innovators) have even considered the idea but those $5.00 fill-ups and potential water shortages will most likely push people off their current positions.
Greed’s funny that way. Regardless of ones view of the greedy, collectively the concept has gotten us through tough times before, and I’m betting it does again.