In a recent online article for Time magazine, Amory Lovins spells out what we need to do in order to make our electrical power system more resilient in the face of catastrophic disruption brought by the likes of Hurricane Sandy, wild fires, earthquakes, or solar flares.
Come hell or high water — and Hurricane Sandy brought both to many Americans — most of us can’t get the electricity we need. More than two weeks after the storm’s departure, 25,000 homes were still without power. We live high in the Rockies and were unaffected, but a couple of Februaries ago snowstorms knocked out our neighbors’ electricity on five different days. But ours stayed on — by design. Our house’s efficient lights and appliances save most of the electricity. This shrinks the solar power system that runs our meter backwards and sells back its surplus to the grid. But unlike most solar-powered buildings, ours is wired to work with or without the grid.
A resilient power system wouldn’t be linked together in a top-down trickle, getting energy from a central source. Instead it would be made of independent nodes that can power themselves, and that won’t take the whole network out if they fail. Especially if these nodes gain their power from renewable sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal, and if the buildings they support are energy efficient to begin with, we could be looking at a completely different relationship to electricity. One that wouldn’t be threatened by a monstrous, climate-change-heated superstorm like Sandy.
Lovins goes on to explain that this strategy seems rational enough for at least one major stakeholder in our country to consider seriously. The Pentagon, caring very much that their
war machine offices and bases don’t lose power all at once, is looking into microgrid technology. If it’s good enough for the Pentagon, Lovins argues, it’s good enough for regular folks like us! Read the entire Time article here.
Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute explore an optimistic view of the future of energy in their latest book, Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era
Resilience is the name of the game these days, as those of us interested in “sustainability” start to develop a deep understanding of what the word really means, and develop robust tools with which to make it happen. Resilience doesn’t just mean continuing forever as-is, it takes into account the fact that disruptions will happen, and that communities must simply find ways of developing that allow them to bounce back.
Asher Miller’s recent article for the Post Carbon Institute has much the same take as Lovins, and encourages readers to put their money where their beliefs are, and invest in this new vision of efficient, distributed, community-owned electrical power.
On the day following the election, 350.org kicked of a 20-city, 20-day “Do the Math” tour to “mount an unprecedented campaign to cut off the industry’s financial and political support by divesting our schools, churches and government from fossil fuels.”
I want to set out a challenge to everyone who recognizes the need to divest from the fossil fuel industry: Moving our investments from a mutual fund that holds shares in ExxonMobil to some kind of socially responsible investment (SRI) is important, but it’s just a baby step.
What we also need is to invest our capital (both financial and sweat) in community-owned, distributed, and small-scale renewable energy. Why? Because we must fundamentally remake the energy economy as if nature, people, and the future actually mattered.
That means investing in renewable energy that is distributed, because renewable sources themselves are diffuse and distributed, and because redundancy and distribution are key to building resilience in the face of shocks like Superstorm Sandy, which are increasingly likely in a climate-changed world.
It also means investing in renewable energy that is community-owned, because we’ve seen what happens when large, multinational companies control essential human needs, whether they be food, healthcare, or energy. By their very nature, these corporations place profits and shareholders over the well-being of the communities they ostensibly serve. A new energy future must be part of a new economy future, a new economy that puts people and planet over profits.
And finally, it means investing in renewable energy that is small-scale, again because distribution increases resilience but also because even renewable energy can have profoundly negative impacts on ecosystems if not sited and scaled in ways that are appropriate to the environment in which it — and we — reside.
Sounds like a tall order, I know. But thankfully there are a number of great, replicable examples of individuals, institutions, and communities meeting the challenge. Below are just a few. (For a much more complete resource, check out Power from the People: How to Organize, Launch, and Finance Local Energy Projects by Greg Pahl, the 2nd in the Community Resilience Guide Series published by Chelsea Green Publishing and Post Carbon Institute.)
Read Miller’s entire article, including his favorite examples of resilient energy projects, here.
And check out the other books in our Community Resilience Guides Series, Local Dollars, Local Sense (on how to shift investments from Wall Street to Main Street), and the forthcoming Rebuilding the Foodshed (about ways to develop food systems that are secure, appropriately-scaled, and good for the environment).