The book “Palaces for the People” by Eric Klinenberg was recommended for my reading list. Its subheading is “How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. Mr Klinenberg defines social infrastructure as physical spaces that invite people into the public realm. These include public institutions (e.g., libraries, schools, parks), common spaces (e.g., sidewalks, courtyards), community organizations (e.g., houses of worship, associations) and commercial centers. The book references compelling studies of the role that effective social infrastructure played in facilitating higher survival rates in heat waves (Chicago), lower crime rates (Philadelphia) and improved health outcomes (Switzerland). The simple premise is that effective social infrastructure has a way of making people take ownership and feel responsible. I started to consider how a similar hypothesis might apply to the electric grid. When it functions properly, most people barely think about the electric grid - let alone the role it could play in enhancing our social fabric.
The original design of the grid was not intended to serve all people, but those in areas that could afford it. The primary beneficiaries of the grid were its shareholders. It took several decades for its services and benefits to come under a more universal mandate. Even today, many threads run back to its exclusionary origins. Most of the US is served by regulated Investor-Owned Utilities (IOUs) whose first obligation legally remains to its shareholders. The substations, transmission lines and most polluting power plants, – when located near population centers – remain in closest proximity to the most vulnerable neighborhoods. The bulk of our electric power still comes from large, centralized power plants and “before the meter” mid-range and “Peaker” plants. This is the lens that most policy makers, government leaders, agencies and media still look through when it comes to enacting measures to restructure the grid in the face of the growing climate crisis.
Making the grid more “community-oriented” is not a new concept. The notion of distributed generation has been around since the late 1970s. I first heard of it through Amory Lovin’s “Soft Energy Paths”. In fact, Thomas Edison’s vision for the grid in the 1880s was “neighborhood power plants” managed by the local people. Many legitimate challenges and inherent disadvantages to that approach back at that time (e.g., high levels of local pollution, low voltage DC transmission limitations, scale-of-economies) put society on the clear path for our current centralized system. Today there are countless technologies, smart platforms and energy resources that address the shortfalls of the past that hindered community power – and enhance its benefits. These include "edge-control" microgrids, energy storage, geothermal, demand management, efficiency.
Community-oriented power is not a replacement to utility scale power – it’s a sensible complement. This is particularly true if the two are coordinated. Local Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) can reduce the stress on transmission lines and adjust the peak load to match the peak renewable generation. Incumbent utilities should not feel threatened. There is more than enough demand and capital for both models to co-exist and thrive. That is because, in a decarbonizing economy, the grid will be taking the lion’s share of the heating and vehicle fueling currently served by fossil fuels. As utilities retire fossil fuel power plants and replace them with renewable ones, community DERs can be sprouting up throughout the cities and towns. They can be filling in the gaps to meet the escalating demand for clean grid power, giving some breathing room for environmentally-sound transmission solutions to mature while generating a spurious level of local economic benefits across the social spectra in these communities.
DERs can be managed through managed market-based approaches. This would involve making community-centric grids more bi-directional and “transactive”. The line between electricity producers and consumers would get blurred to create “Prosumers”. Much like EBay, AirBNB or VRBO created dramatic efficiencies in the market for used stuff and temporary housing, a transactive system for local energy resource would do much the same – but much simpler (no need to photograph and describe your electrons) and at a much larger and more equitable scale, with proper system design. Prosumers can “set and forget” their criteria for making their DERs available to the macro grid or actively try to manage it.AI based edge technologies exist today that can handle the speed and volume of such a marketplace. At the crux of its success is energy awareness and informed empowerment at another dimension. The “people” are no longer the target market for energy and utility companies, they become part of the “marketplace” to address our energy challenges. Properly designed, such a system will encourage high levels of community engagement and cooperation and create a power grid for and of the people.