Out With the Old, in With the New, continued

One component of the next-generation power grid is real-time information for energy consumers. This alone can result in dramatic efficiencies. In one California pilot program, consumers reduced their load by 40 percent just by knowing how much they were using in the first place.

Break Up Gridlock

Our current energy system was designed 100 years ago, when fuel was relatively cheap and climate change was virtually unknown. It relies on a few centralized, wasteful and polluting energy technologies, and it leaves power consumers ignorant of their own consumption.

Our new energy systems need to be dynamic, responsive, multifaceted and decentralized. It makes sense to power one home with solar and another with wind, run one factory on a methane digester and power another with an ultra-efficient turbine fired by our dwindling reserve of petroleum. And it seems logical for all of the above to share any extra power with neighbors.

The keystone to such a system is a “smart grid.” One component of the next-generation power grid is real-time information for energy consumers. This alone can result in dramatic efficiencies. In one California pilot program, consumers reduced their load by 40 percent just by knowing how much they were using in the first place.

The smart grid also makes it easier to generate power on a small and decentralized scale. It starts to make real sense to recycle energy on an industrial scale, or install a rooftop solar array, or drive a plug-in electric vehicle, when the excess energy from any of these power sources can be sold at a fair price into the common wholesale market for electricity.

But loosening up the current utility monopoly won’t be easy. “It’s a $650 billion monopoly and it’s the biggest lobbying group in Washington,” says Casten.

Some cities have successfully gone independent from private utility providers, declaring their municipality a public utility. Los Angeles and Sacramento have both done so and, according to Schwind, it has resulted in cheaper and greener energy. “But politically, it’s very difficult to do,” says Schwind, who recently lost a fight against the regional utility to launch a public utility for the city of San Francisco.

“PG&E spent $10 million trying to defeat public power in one city,” she adds. “They hired all the political operatives in the city.”

The fact is utilities can gain by these changes. In Boulder, Colo., Xcel Energy recently launched a city-wide smart grid project that will include sensors designed to distribute energy and correct problems, provide consumers with real-time consumption information, and integrate smaller-scale generation. The project moves in the direction of maintaining the grid itself, like the highway system, as a utility, while opening it up to private power generation sources.

More feasible, at least in the short term, are policy shifts to “decouple” monopoly utility profits from the sheer volume of energy that they sell, so that utilities are financially invested in energy conservation and opening up the grid in the ways that Xcel Energy has in Boulder. On the campaign trail, Obama pledged to do so.

Come Together

In May 2007, a tornado hit the southwestern Kansas town of Greensburg. The town of some 1,500 was utterly destroyed. Most of its buildings were leveled. At a town meeting a week later, the mayor, a conservative former head of the Kansas State Patrol, rallied support for rebuilding—and doing it on an environmentally sustainable model.

“I had taken a concept paper for green rebuilding down to this first meeting,” says Daniel Wallach, who lives about 30 miles from the town. “I didn’t even know they were talking about it. They were shell-shocked. I said, ‘Can I go out and try to make this happen?’ and they said, ‘Sure.’ ”

What emerged was a plan to rebuild to LEED standards and power the new town with 100 percent renewable energy. The Greensburg story is instructive, because if a conservative small town in Kansas can embrace a radical clean energy program, anyone can.

“Our No. 1 task was about honoring people by listening to them, and educating them. So it was a two-way conversation,” says Wallach, who now directs the nonprofit Greensburg GreenTown, which assists the town in its drive for clean energy and conservation. “It’s really important to engage and solicit input and build ownership as much as possible.”

Wallach helped direct a community planning process that brought the entire town into a discussion about goals. And he spent a lot of time on what he calls “de-pigeonholing” the green movement.

“It’s about positioning the movement so that people in this demographic can embrace it very comfortably and see that it’s really their movement,” he says.

“This is a very strong culture of independence and interdependence at a very local level. … These are people whose ancestors are close to the land. They built windmills to power their wells because it was just common sense. And that’s what this project is about: It’s just common sense.”

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JOSEPH HART is a freelance writer and editor, an author, and a contributing editor to the Utne Reader, where he covers a range of topics including alternative energy and green issues. He lives and works in Viroqua, Wis.