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Rebuilding a New Middle Class Could Use Some [Community] Energy.

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

Imagine if we instantly find a way to harness fusion power safely and economically on a large scale in a way that we replace all the world’s fossil fuel plants. Let’s assume that in the process we come up with a superconductor that enables us to all make use of much of our existing transmission and distribution infrastructure. We can replace our heating systems and vehicles with electric alternatives and be on our merry consumptive ways at a fraction of our carbon emissions. Maybe we also succeed in developing some giant CO2 vacuums that can be deployed across the planet to remove the emissions from our past excesses.

Climate crisis averted!!!.... and our institutions and society would have barely had to make many changes in the process. At that point, we could almost hand the reigns over to an Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform to take it from there. If this pipe dream scenario were to unfold, we would have missed an incalculable opportunity to correct for past injustices and advance civilization in an inclusive and equitable way.

I recently had one of those “contemplating all the world’s problems” conversations with a lifelong friend. In addition to countless wonderful experiences together, we share an engineering background. Where I took the path to power and renewable energy, he took a path to manufacturing and defense. I’ve lived primarily in the Northeastern US, while he has lived all over the world – only recently moving back to the area. This discussion led us to contemplate the steady dismantling of the US middle class over our lifetimes and how it is undermining a functional democracy today. We concluded that, while many factors have been in play, the massive trend to de-industrialization of the 70s was the thread that started its unbridled unravelling. Cities and towns that based their growth around vast industrial facilities were left with gaping holes in their social fabric as those facilities were moved offshore for lower labor rates, giant tax incentives and a paucity of regulations. Those presiding over the offshoring trend got a double bonus of greater profits and lower prices, while vast swaths of the middle class became increasingly irrelevant.

The COVID Pandemic is proving to be the most effective impetus to reverse the tide that has been undercutting that middle class. The anti-globalization rhetoric of the past decade plus, has only recently turned into meaningful Made in America legislation accompanied by significant numbers of onshoring announcements. Yet a reconstitution of the middle class of yesteryear is very unlikely – and in many ways, that’s not a bad thing. Today’s onshore factories will be highly automated. Many short duration jobs might be created to build them, but not to run them. While disappointing in some ways, it doesn’t create the dependency that left so many surrounding communities vulnerable to the vacuum created when those facilities were shuttered [1]. In addition, the middle-class communities of the past were generally built on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” conformity - with no appetite for diversity. Matthew Desmond’s recent book “Poverty, by America” talks about the many ways that US has earned the dubious distinction as the most developed nation with the highest and most intractable poverty rate [2]. His extensive research places culpability not only large corporations and wealthy individuals, but on many other facets of our society, including the shrinking middle class – the feeding grounds for the burgeoning ranks of the impoverished.

That topic of conversation with my friend ended with a question: can a new, more resilient middle class emerge from our current morass? Taking it a step further, can this new middle class be built through cooperation and collaboration rather than conformity - embracing the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion?

I believe that the answer rests with a hyper-refocus on “community”. The works of socio-science fiction writers of decades past, such as Kurt Vonnegut Jr [3] and Octavio Butler [4] foresaw problems in the postindustrial trends and were screaming the imperative of “community” decades ago. Only recently have their clarion calls been gaining traction. The first seedlings of solutions taking root can be found in the emergence of “buy local” trends; local farms, farm-to-table, mom & pop shops, micro-breweries, and the like. Consider that typically these endeavors represent businesses producing or delivering consumables with relatively short life spans to be consumed locally. Today’s distributed energy technologies enable us to do something very similar with a consumable that has an infinitesimally shorter lifespan than even foodstuffs and beverages – a free electron [5]. We are talking about power that is produced, managed, stored, and consumed locally… community distribute energy resource (DER). This has been a recurring theme of many past posts on this blog. [6],[7],[8],[9]

This is not to suggest that community distributed energy resources (DERs) will replace the central power grid. Instead by blending them, we can get the best of both worlds and diverse means to address climate issues while bolstering economic development in a just, equitable and inclusive way. A useful analogy can be found in the evolution of information systems and the development of the internet. Consider how in the early days of the information age, central “mainframes” were the workhorses – and [dumb] terminals were the distributed means for communicating with the mainframes. That legacy information system is analogous to how the electrical grid has operated for 130 years – with power as the medium instead of information. Consider how personal computers emerged as a new workhorse, offering distributed computational capabilities when networked on a local area network (LAN), then Metro Area Network (MAN) and ultimately connecting to the “Cloud”. This “Network Edge” approach is entirely applicable to the grid (Grid Edge), where sources of distributed generation (e.g., PV, small wind), storage (e.g., batteries, thermal storage), flexible loads (e.g., water heaters, heat pumps, EV chargers, smart buildings) and conservation (e.g., weatherization, energy efficiency measures) at a local level can interact and enhance the greater (macro) grid while offering clean, resilient energy resources at the local level. With energy resources at the local level also come local jobs, knowledge, and capabilities.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has an important role that it can play in a constructive transition. AI’s status is in the penumbra between human empowerment and disenfranchisement. Improperly employed, AI diminishes critical thinking. It’s not hard to imagine scenarios where humans become its “dumb terminals”. On the other hand, applied in a limited way (in this case, referred to as "Machine Learning"), AI can enhance the overall safety and system reliability of a network while enabling greater agency and efficiency at the edge. That is because it can process vast amounts of data in very short periods of time to make simple local split-second decisions that are outside of human processing capacity. That is why it is finding its way into vehicle and air traffic control systems. For the electrical grid, this translates to a greater ability for centralized utility systems - slowed by well-intentioned but onerous protocols and bureaucracy - to share authority, responsibility, and opportunity with locally directed energy resources… and the greater public. This greatly increases available energy resources at much lower risk of catastrophic failure while offering tremendous opportunity for economic and workforce development at the local level. Unlike threats such as an asteroid strike, spread of an unknown virus or massive volcanic eruption, humanity has much more influence on the consequences of carbon-induced climate change and AI proliferation.

Beacon Climate Innovation (BCI) is part of a growing effort to nurture the development of community DERs and a thriving ecosystem to support them. It is doing this through specific community project work, assuming an active leadership role in workforce cultivation efforts (ALIGN) and the development of the information platform (CEERUM) to speed trust-building, decision-making and adoption processes. As some examples, BCI is working with Stash Energy to deploy networked thermal storage heat pumps in low-income facilities in Taunton Massachusetts. In addition, BCI is working in close collaboration with Sovations to conduct a study and establish a process for the Taunton Housing Authority to augment a planned community center serving an apartment complex with 100 low-income families and surrounding neighborhoods with “resilience hub” characteristics. BCI and Sovations are working with their broader network that includes NECEC, Browning the Greenspace, Greentown Labs and many other to parlay this resilience hub approach into a means for spreading community DER seedlings and an accompanying economic/workforce engine – working title “ALIGN” - across the Commonwealth and beyond. These congruent experiences and findings are shaping BCI’s Community Energy & Efficiency Resource Uniform Mapping (CEERUM) Information Platform. BCI envisions a universal tool of this nature as its ultimate contribution to a streamlined means for widespread community DERs.To stay abreast of these efforts, please subscribe to BCI’s blog and/or follow BCI on LinkedIn.

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