Since the dawn of the light bulb, humankind's electrified economies have pursued a strategy of centralized, industrial-scale production of power. It has scaled so well that today we are literally using electricity just about every minute of every day of our lives. Truth be told, here in the United States and in much of the developed world, electricity is about as accessible as clean and life-sustaining drinking water.
But the ground beneath our feet is stirring and societal priorities have shifted. A groundswell of public awareness is spurring numerous initiatives to replace our capacity for energy production from the time-tested methods of yesterday to novel, modern and "sustainable" means for tomorrow.
The ugly truth is that given the stasis in public policy and given the reality of the costs of alternative energies and their prospects for replacing the industrial-scale needs of today, the most effective means we have to get "greener" is probably the most mundane: simply consume less. I'm markedly pessimistic that civilization can wholesale replace the existing economic order without a clear technological leap--a leap that has yet to materialize.
But despite some healthy skepticism at the pace in which we will realistically change the energy dependence equation, a global worldwide movement is taking root, initiating a small and incremental approach that is certain to change the dynamics of how and where energy is produced. The homegrown DIY movement has made waves in a variety of industries, and perhaps not surprisingly, the movement has now set its sights on energy.
The DIY movement in power is emphasizing a starkly different model for production and distribution of energy than the one we are currently dependent on. Not surprisingly, DIYers are innovating distributed solutions that take advantage of low cost materials and advances in the efficiency and quality of batteries and grid ties.
It is natural to be skeptical of how a grassroots movement could be of any importance in an industry worth trillions that needs to satisfy the energy requirements of billions of people. Yet it might be relevant to consider how distributed solutions and low cost materials revolutionized another industry.
At the dawn of the Information Age, the ultimate realization of the computing revolution was then assumed to be large, sophisticated, uber-powerful supercomputers, best represented by the monolithic HAL of "2001: A Space Odyssey". The engineering of single, centralized computing behemoths motivated a race between well-recognized companies like IBM, Cray, DEC, Computing Data Corporation among others.
But fifty years on, the computing landscape has changed markedly. For one, the anticipated vision didn't quite materialize the way most people thought it would. Today, for addressing some of the most complex computational problems of our time, researchers are still using supercomputers. But only one of the companies mentioned above even bothers to manufacture a computer in 2010. Indeed, the supercomputer that was envisioned has turned out to be a quaint has-been. There is such a thing as supercomputers today, but rather than the monoliths anticipated, the supercomputers of today take advantage of millions of low-cost, traditional PCs, which are utilized for computationally expensive projects like SETI and Folding@Home, both of which leverage low-cost computers to "farm" out computations.
A distributed model revolutionized the way industrial-scale computing was delivered. Is it possible that something similar could be achieved for energy production?
It's obvious why industry favors, large centralized projects for energy production. But when one looks beyond the predilections of large corporations, the reality is that from a public policy perspective there are numerous practical concerns that impede the pursuit of this policy.
For example, it is widely recognized that nuclear power is perhaps the most promising and scalable "clean" energy available today, possibly the only means by which we can cost- effectively replace our fossil fuel-based economy with a virtually limitless energy source. In fact, on January 29th the Obama administration offered an encouraging $54 billion in loan guarantees to fund a new generation of nuclear power plants.
The problem is that this isn't the first batch of "loan guarantees" issued by the federal government; according to the New York Times, $18.5 billion was set aside as recently as in the 2005 Energy Act, none of which has been disbursed to date because of "long bureaucratic delays". There is a chance this time might be different. But even if the money is disbursed, and planning begins on constructing nuclear power plants--that no one wants in their state--there is still the thorny issue of where to dispose of the nuclear waste. Despite the President's support for nuclear power, even he has ruled out the use of Yucca Mountain for storage, and I am not aware of any viable alternatives for storing the nuclear waste.
So in many cases, the simple fact is that continued pursuit of industrial-scale projects to move towards alternative energy production are rife with challenges largely unrelated to technology. Ramping up our ability to scalably produce clean power is simply slower than most people realize or appreciate. There are legal and environmental hurdles, exemplified again in the recent efforts to build an offshore wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod, in Massachussetts. A legal challenge by a native American tribe who claim the area as an ancestral burial ground has halted the project. Ramping up the ability to produce enough industrial scale wind turbines is limited by the sophistication of the technology and the complexity involved in assembling them (only a handful of companies can currently build industrial wind turbines), and then the skills and organization required to manage and maintain wind farms. In fact, with wind capacity--despite the challenges--growing at double-digit clips, the industry is furiously expanding to keep pace. For technologies like solar and wind that are already considerably more expensive than legacy technologies, the challenge of rapidly expanding their scale will by mere logical extrapolation dramatically increase the costs, not lower them.
There is no magic bullet for changing the way we generate power. And people are noticing it. Indeed, several contemporary movements are rapidly flowering, including Community Wind and DIY wind power. Both movements, to a large extent, are predicated on the idea of focusing on technologically straightforward, low-cost projects which bring energy production closer to home, rather than centralizing it further away.
In particular, efficient and low-cost small wind turbines are simple and rapidly scalable. Fancy and often expensive new technologies just cannot address a problem that people feel requires immediacy. Few technologies are as well-poised as small-scale wind to capitalize on this.
Despite the lack of economies of scale, small wind power has matured in ways unappreciated by most analyses of the emerging alternative energy economy. Wind power, unlike solar, requires simple, inexpensive technologies that have been improved substantially by recent manufacturing methods. While solar still requires substantial government subsidies to be economical, as well as advanced state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities, wind generators yield a positive return in low-wind locales in a matter of several years--without the need for a government subsidy and with relatively widespread manufacturing practices.
Simply put, the widespread availability of wind makes small-scale wind practical. And this idea is rapidly disseminating, no less because the Internet is supporting and propagating grassroots interest in assembling practical wind generators, made from high-quality, industrial-grade materials. It is precisely because the Internet has been capable of disseminating information and technical know-how, that DIY wind projects are proliferating orders of magnitudes faster than large scale, traditional projects.
How these trends influence the energy equation is unclear. But there are inherent advantages that come from a distributed model of implementation, which unlike massive centralized projects won't encounter significant legal, environmental, or technological hurdles. Energy consumers around the world are realizing how vulnerable they are to explosions in energy costs. Governments, though committed to long-run changes, cannot change the facts on the ground so fast. Energy consumers from around the world, from Moscow to Melbourne to Missouri, are increasingly concerned about the impact of another political crisis that causes a spike in energy costs.
For those with modest amounts of wind available, a minimal technical aptitude and the willingness to learn, small scale wind provides a rapid means to make meaningful changes to an individual's energy production equation. Just as low-costs pushed supercomputing into a distributed model, small-scale wind and the DIY movement are cooperatively promoting low-cost, technically simple approaches to diversifying energy sources, and growing at a rate that is unfathomable for traditional alternative energy projects. While few would claim small-scale wind to be the panacea for the energy challenges facing humanity, the DIY community may indeed change the balance of power between producers and consumers in ways that were at one time impossible to imagine.
Ron Lin is a co-founder of Windy Nation Inc, which manufactures small wind generators and components for the growing community of do-it-yourself wind enthusiasts. The community-oriented website, windynation.com, provides User Forums, guides and technical assistance for learning how to build practical and efficient wind generators. To learn more about the fast-growing DIY wind power movement, contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org.