Giant, hierarchical energy companies are amongst the most powerful corporations that have ever existed on the planet. But this is changing. People are already beginning to take back control of energy by producing it themselves – and sharing it on a decentralised network.
The most extraordinary thing about our current centralised network is that it’s massively inefficient. Incredibly, only 13% of the energy from power companies is actually used productively, which means 87% is wasted! Most of the waste comes from converting the raw material to power but more is lost from power lines in distribution and more again at the point of use, for example with inefficient production lines or appliances.
Clearly, de-centralised energy benefits from being produced close to where it’s being used, and so eliminating waste from distribution. And, of course, the use of renewable energies, such as solar, means that once you’ve taken account of the production impacts of the panels, they have zero ecological damage and the energy supply is limitless (unless the sun goes out and the wind stops blowing). Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are not only non-renewable but have massive impacts from the extraction and transport of raw materials.
Solar cells are currently not much more efficient than other forms of power generation, but there is a lot of investment in this area at the moment, and apparently, the nanotechnology that solar uses is improving at an exponential rate. Even more important, I think, is that the costs of solar and wind are falling all the time – and they’re already lower than coal. Very soon, it seems, they will become the lowest cost form of energy generation on the planet. And, this could have enormous implications for developing countries, as it will allow them to become industrialised global economies using renewable energy and therefore with far less environmental impact.
My view is that instead of investing vast amounts of money in new nuclear and fossil fuel power stations, governments should be switching their support to renewable energy and microgrids – effectively supporting the third industrial revolution.
To me, it makes sense in so many ways. Not least because the potential for any further efficiency gains under the existing ‘old fuel’ systems is extremely limited. On the other hand, studies show that if we move to an ‘internet of things’ infrastructure with an energy internet, we could see a dramatic increase in productivity, far outweighing anything that we’ve experienced to date. If this is indeed possible, it could drastically reduce our impact on the planet by getting far more power from far fewer resources.
What’s more, micro-grids could bring the marginal cost of energy to near zero. Here’s how it could work. Imagine your village sets up a renewable energy co-operative, which is hooked up to the energy internet. Once the up-front costs for equipment, such as solar panels and wind turbines, have been paid for, they could be producing most of the energy you use on a daily basis. Sometimes -for example on a windy day – you might actually produce more than you need. The surplus could then be used by your neighbour or stored in super-efficient batteries, which kick in when energy supplies are low.
You have to imagine this happening on a national scale, with multiple microgrids importing and exporting power between households as the energy internet balances out supply and demand. A further benefit is that an energy system like this would incentivise people to use less energy and generate more as they would be able to profit from producing extra.
Although it’s no small task, I believe that we must move to a next-generation grid, like this, without delay. And, I’m committed to doing what I can to make it happen. My first step will be to set up an experimental micro-grid at my home in Dorset – and then perhaps start experimenting with storage solutions, possibly a rail road battery..?
In this new scenario, it’s interesting to consider the fate of existing energy companies. My view is that they will need to remodel themselves to collaborate with consumers, co-operatives and even government. Their main tasks could include:
- Helping manage the energy internet
- Installing renewable energy systems
- Researching new technologies
- Providing support to micro-grids
- Monitoring power use and
- Encouraging energy efficiency
The effect of these measures would be to create a massively more efficient and cleaner energy network. ‘Power’ in both senses of the word would be transferred from a few large monopolies to the people! How brilliant that would be…
More About How Technology is Transforming Society
If you want to read more around this topic and find out where I got some of my information from, check out – Jeremy Rifkin: The Zero Marginal Cost Society