The development of cellular phones, digital control systems and information communication networks can provide a road-map for a more flexible, resilient and democratic energy infrastructure.

Very few people own land-lines anymore, with good reason. They are not mobile or particularly useful for actually reaching busy people, and they certainly cannot text. Most importantly, they are obsolete. In the past, an operator was paid good money to sit at a switch board all day taking calls, and manually rerouting them. Today’s communication operators are satellites, computers, and cellular towers. Should one operator fail, traffic can easily be rerouted through another operating node with little to no down time.

But while the telecommunication industry has progressed by leaps and bounds beyond the human operators and physical telephone poles of our parents’ day, the United States’ electrical grid has changed very little since the late 1800’s. Power is generated at centralized plants, distributed via inefficient land-lines, routed through power substations and eventually into your home. However, between the power plant and the end user lie a gauntlet of obstacles that substantially decrease efficiency, bottleneck transmission, and increase costs that are passed on to consumers. To throw another proverbial wrench in the gears, central power plants are constantly involved in a precarious balancing act of demand (from homes, businesses, and industry) and supply (from power plants and peaking plants). Plant operators try their best to predict fluctuations in demand and supply just the right amount of juice to meet oscillating needs. When that balance is lost, which happens surprisingly often, power failures and blackouts occur. The whole system is all very Dickensian.

In contrast, our ever-smarter phones function come rain, shine or squirrels. That is because the nature of our information communication infrastructure in inherently more distributed. If one cellular tower is knocked out of commission, service providers can simply reroute traffic through another tower. There is built-in redundancy wrapped around a self-healing network of nodes. Each key node, in this case cellular tower, is equipped with powerful batteries or backup generation so that they can, in emergencies, operate independently of not only the grid, but of each other. On-site generation is the key to their independence.

At one point in human history, all our power was generated on site where it was needed – via fireplaces, wood-fired stoves, windmills, and waterwheels. The Industrial Revolution caused a complete restructuring of power generation and distribution since coal was and still is extremely dirty, contributing to appalling urban conditions. It is no accident that many people associate smog and soot with Industrial Age cities. To alleviate pollution, power generation was zoned to city peripheries, necessitating consolidating economies of scale, and the development of a byzantine distribution network – the national grid.

Leapfrogging Into the Future

The grid was a necessity that greatly improved millions of lives. Today, however, the grid has become a barrier to innovation and development. It is a ludicrously large drain on financial and material resources, with studies estimating that the electrical utilities will need to invest 1.5 to 2 trillion dollars in improvements over the next two decades.

Some developing countries, which have never had the double-edged sword of a well-developed, monolithic national grid are opting to skip the grid entirely – moving instead to distributed generation with renewable energy. For example, India, where recent grid blackouts left nearly 600 million people powerless (excluding the 300 million people that already lack access to power) and essentially ground the world’s third largest economy to a halt, is getting serious about clean distributed solar generation. The hope is that by investing in distributed generation, India can leapfrog an expensive, unreliable, and perennially underpowered grid and move straight to a widely available, clean, and reliable source of energy (the sun). Why waste money building the grid when solar generation could provide electricity to hundreds of millions right now where they need it most?

Just as Africa and Asia leapfrogged traditional line-based telecommunication, moving straight to cellular instead, India is considering leapfrogging straight to distributed solar generation.

2013 a Critical Energy Crossroads for America

America is at a critical crossroads in many regards. The world has become multipolar rather than unipolar. It is no longer, and arguably may never have been, the exclusive swimming pool of a single superpower, traditionally the United States. In many categories, such as freedom of press, primary education, and yes, infrastructure, the United States lags behind other developed, and even developing countries. China is widely regarded to be the next superpower, having already eclipsed the United States in GDP, infrastructural development, and a number of other metrics. In regards to the future of the nation’s energy infrastructure, however, this historic inflection point could be an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent a broken system. Without a doubt, fossil fuel-based economies operating on a centralized paradigm will suffer diminishing returns as extraction becomes more difficult. It is only a matter of time. Just as an entire industry sector was eliminated with the advent of automated operators, economies that try to ride the coal-fired fossil fuel train today will be left behind in tomorrow’s energy reality.

In Power to People: Part II we dig further into the development of the nation’s electrical infrastructure, how distributed generation will play a critical role, and the steps the nation needs to take to succeed in an increasingly digitized future.

By Lloyd Lee

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