NEWS Welcome to the Decentralized Energy Revolution: Cleanly Electrifying the World



CALIFORNIA MAGAZINE, APRIL 7, 2015–04-07/welcome-decentralized-energy-revolution-cleanly-electrifying

   By Glen Martin

While the boons of elec­tric­ity are obvi­ous to any­one who has watched a 49ers game on a 70-​​inch ultra HDTV or whipped up a frozen mar­garita in a blender, it also has its downsides—most of them envi­ron­men­tal. Coal and nat­ural gas power plants belch planet-​​warming CO2 into the atmos­phere, while nuclear plants pro­duce highly lethal radwaste.

Still, access to elec­tri­cal power is a basic social-​​equity issue. About 1.5 bil­lion of the planet’s 7 bil­lion peo­ple lack elec­tric­ity, and their lives are impov­er­ished, phys­i­cally and cul­tur­ally, as a result. Fur­ther, a defi­ciency of elec­tric­ity gen­er­ates envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems of its own. If peo­ple lack elec­tric­ity to cook their food or warm their homes, they’ll sub­sti­tute wood or char­coal, result­ing in defor­esta­tion and yes, more car­bon spew­ing into the atmosphere.

But a paper by UC Berke­ley researchers Peter Alstone, Dim­itry Ger­shen­son and Daniel Kam­men indi­cates that a major change in the way power is pro­duced and con­sumed is in the offing—one that could elec­trify the devel­op­ing world (lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively) while promis­ing reduced car­bon emissions.

The study, pub­lished in the jour­nal Nature Cli­mate Change, iden­ti­fies the present moment as a tip­ping point, one in which decen­tral­ized trans­mis­sion net­works, cheap pho­to­voltaics, sophis­ti­cated low-​​energy appli­ances, mobile phones and “vir­tual” finan­cial ser­vices are all merg­ing to cre­ate a kind of alt-​​grid that will, as one addicted to clichés might say, shift the energy paradigm.

Here’s what’s hap­pen­ing: Solar pan­els and bat­ter­ies have got­ten both bet­ter and cheaper, to the point that the devel­op­ing world’s mini-​​grids (for com­mu­ni­ties) and micro-​​grids (vil­lages or indi­vid­ual homes) can afford them. Such sys­tems are eas­ier and cheaper to set up than legacy sys­tems depen­dent on big, cen­tral­ized power plants and tower-​​supported trans­mis­sion lines fes­tooned around the coun­try­side. Ultra-​​efficient appliances—everything from TVs to refrigerators—also are now widely avail­able, as is LED light­ing (which uses min­i­mal power).

What’s mak­ing this new sys­tem pos­si­ble is the merg­ing of infor­ma­tion and energy tech­nolo­gies, of aggres­sive inno­va­tion in both the power pro­duc­tion and smart phone worlds,” says Kam­men, a pro­fes­sor at the Gold­man School of Pub­lic Pol­icy and the direc­tor of UC’s Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Laboratory.

Kenya was once an en­ergy black hole. Today Mas­aai mor­an (war­ri­ors) herd their live­stock while sim­ul­tan­eously check­ing cat­tle prices in Mom­basa on their cell phones, which they hol­ster in beaded pouches worn around their necks.

The abrupt and mas­sive spread of cell phone tech­nol­ogy has encour­aged vir­tual bank­ing sys­tems that allow small-​​scale energy pro­duc­ers and their cus­tomers to do busi­ness from any­where, and on a pro-​​rata basis. Cus­tomers are able to buy power in exceed­ingly small increments—say, enough to recharge their cell phones and power an LED light or two, or a tiny refrig­er­a­tor and a high-​​efficiency hot plate. That’s a big deal in the devel­op­ing world, where even a few such ameni­ties make a gigan­tic dif­fer­ence in the qual­ity of life—and where cash always is in short sup­ply. It allows cus­tomers in rural Africa and Asia to anal­o­gously do with energy what they do when they visit a vil­lage store: buy a sin­gle stick of gum or a matchbook.

Indeed, Kam­men says, trusted e-​​banking sys­tems are essen­tial for the sup­port of the mini-​​grid net­work, and he notes that the devel­op­ing world has led in cre­at­ing apps for such services.

He cites Kenya as an espe­cially shin­ing exam­ple. Fif­teen years ago, the coun­try was a com­mu­ni­ca­tions black hole. Hard-​​line tele­phony was the rule, and spotty at best. Out­side Nairobi and Mom­basa, peo­ple made do with CB radios or word of mouth. Then mobile tech­nol­ogy arrived, and within a few years every­one was con­nected. Today, when vis­it­ing the country’s wildlife reserves, you’ll see Masaai moran (war­riors) herd­ing their live­stock while simul­ta­ne­ously check­ing cat­tle prices in Mom­basa on their cell phones, which they hol­ster in beaded pouches worn around their necks.

In the 1990s I helped start up Mpala Research Cen­ter in Laikipia [in north­ern Kenya],” recalls Kam­men. “We had to wait for a satel­lite to pass over­head so we could make our 35-​​second phone calls. Now researchers are receiv­ing stream­ing data on indi­vid­ual lions and African wild dogs that they’re tracking.”

In 2007, a pro­pri­etary mobile sys­tem known as M-​​Pesa was launched in Kenya. Orig­i­nally pro­moted as an easy way to post pay­ments for microloans, it was soon used by work­ing urban­ites as a means of send­ing money to rel­a­tives back on the rural shamba. M-​​Pesa is now Kenya’s pre­em­i­nent bank­ing sys­tem. As of late 2013, 19 mil­lion of the country’s 44 mil­lion peo­ple were signed up, with 25 per­cent of the national econ­omy flow­ing through M-Pesa’s vir­tual con­duits. In terms of energy devel­op­ment, that means small-​​scale power providers can receive pay­ment for spe­cific ser­vices from cus­tomers seam­lessly, bypass­ing every­thing from poor infra­struc­ture (peo­ple don’t have to walk miles over cat­tle trails to pay their bills) to gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate corruption.

And we’re see­ing other IT appli­ca­tions all around the devel­op­ing world,” Kam­men says. “In Bangladesh, for exam­ple, phones are being used to test bat­tery [arrays]. Keep­ing bat­tery sys­tems fully func­tional is crit­i­cal for mini-​​grids, and it’s a big prob­lem in Bangladesh, where a third of the coun­try floods each year. Mini-​​grids don’t have main­te­nance teams reg­u­larly check­ing the sys­tems, but you can upload data on cell phones when there’s a spe­cific prob­lem, and the provider can deal with it.”

We’re mov­ing from an era that has re­mained un­der-​​in­nov­ated for dec­ades—the sys­tem where you pay a big util­ity for your en­ergy—to de­cent­ral­ized sys­tems…. It’s es­sen­tially the demo­crat­iz­a­tion of energy.”

Decen­tral­ized elec­tri­fi­ca­tion also reduces the causes of defor­esta­tion. When peo­ple have elec­tric­ity, the rate of char­coal and wood burn­ing typ­i­cally decreases dra­mat­i­cally, Kam­men observes.

And decen­tral­ized energy isn’t just an accel­er­at­ing trend in the devel­op­ing world. In Amer­ica, solar pan­els are sprout­ing on sub­ur­ban homes like chanterelle mush­rooms in Men­do­cino after a win­ter rain; cell phones are ubiq­ui­tous. The United States, in short, is expe­ri­enc­ing its own decen­tral­ized energy revolution.

I have solar pan­els on my roof, and I can use my phone to track how much power each one is pro­duc­ing,” Kam­men says. “I can deter­mine which ones are dirty and may need a clean­ing to improve per­for­mance. I can see how green my energy con­sump­tion is at any moment.”

That points to a shift in power (polit­i­cal, not elec­tri­cal) from the energy pro­ducer to the con­sumer. In fact, Kam­men con­tends that the “Big Grid” of the exist­ing util­i­ties must adapt, meld­ing with the grow­ing mini– and micro-​​grids, to thrive.

We’re mov­ing from an era that has remained under-​​innovated for decades—the sys­tem where you pay a big util­ity for your energy—to decen­tral­ized sys­tems that have a lot of net­worked com­po­nents and con­sumer input, all dri­ven by pow­er­ful IT,” Kam­men says. “It’s essen­tially the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of energy.”

But to really accel­er­ate the trend, Kam­men says, a big dog must emerge from the pack of alt-​​energy advocates.

We’re work­ing with a num­ber of start-​​ups that are wrestling with the best way to put this all together,” Kam­men says. “Nobody has hit on the right approach yet, but I antic­i­pate some­body will do a Face­book kind of break­out sooner or later, come up with an off-​​grid ver­sion of Tesla. Our paper has been get­ting a lot of response in the week since its pub­li­ca­tion, in part because it demon­strates just how neg­a­tive the impacts of poor energy access are. We show how it stymies edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties and exac­er­bates gen­der inequal­ity. It accel­er­ates defor­esta­tion and can increase car­bon emis­sions. But we also iden­tify a goal: pro­vid­ing elec­tric­ity to the 1.5 bil­lion peo­ple who don’t have it by 2030. And with the sys­tems we dis­cuss, we think that’s achievable.”


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