Decentralised electricity is on its way in, like it or not. Networks managed by “smart” technology, supplied by renewable sources and other small-scale power stations, can only expand.
Systems centred on ever-larger coal-, gas- or nuclear-fired power stations, completely dominant fifty years ago, will decline in many countries from now on – although they will not go quietly.
Social and labour movements had better take notice. If we don’t make this technological change work for people, energy corporations will make it work for profit.
And those corporations are paying close attention. “The centralised model of power production is dying”, Mark Boillot, a senior vice president of Électricité de France, one of Europe’s largest electricity
companies, said recently. It will be “replaced by local solar and wind, supplemented by batteries and intelligent management of supply and demand”.
Labour Party policy
In the UK, the Labour party conference last week called for a Green New Deal; rapid expansion of renewables generation, and taking the “big six” energy companies into public ownership, would be key elements.
This cuts across current Labour electricity policy, set out in the Bringing Energy Home document published earlier this year: to extend public ownership only to the transmission (high-voltage) and distribution (low-voltage) electricity networks, plus networks that supply gas to homes for cooking and heating. Generation of electricity (power stations, wind farms, and so on), and supply (the marketing of the electricity to users) will stay in private hands.
The conference’s stance, if translated into policy, would potentially be much better suited to making electricity decentralisation work for us all.
In Bringing Energy Home, Labour acknowledged that decentralisation is “inevitable”, but warned: “decentralisation within a liberalised framework risks exacerbating inequalities”. It continued:
Though decentralisation may create some initial space for community-run cooperatives, it risks primarily expanding the private sector and strengthening the dominant market logic, creating the conditions to squeeze out community-owned companies.
Data-focused companies such as Amazon and Google are moving into energy, the document warned, and “a decentralisation process dominated by tech giants will leave both workers and communities disempowered”. This disempowerment is a very real threat, to which co-operatives and other community energy initiatives are already offering resistance. (See “Addendum: Breaking out of the neoliberal framework”, below.)
Labour’s conclusion is:
Public ownership is thus required as a backstop to community control, to ensure that decentralisation reinforces rather than undermines shared regional and national infrastructure, and allows for the pooling of resources needed to guarantee universality of supply most efficiently.
It could be argued that, by leaving generation and supply in the hands of corporate giants (whether energy companies or tech companies), a future Labour government would enhance the danger that these giants will control decentralisation and disempower workers and communities.
This problem could be at least partially addressed by doing what the Labour conference decided: taking into public ownership the entire electricity sector, including the “big six”.
Not only would this open the way for large-scale public investment in renewables, making them – and not nuclear power stations – the primary replacement for fossil-fuel-fired electricity generation. (See my post on Labour policy.) It could also make possible, on city and regional scales, energy systems integration, which is essential for the full potential of renewable technologies can not be realised.
In its turn, this approach could pave the way to a system where electricity, and other forms of energy (most obviously, heat) are provided as services, to which people have a right – not as commodities marketed for profit.
Historically, the labour movement in the global north established energy provision as a right for urban workers. Over the last forty years, neoliberalism has hammered away at that model. In many places, including the UK, it has destroyed the provision not only of electricity, but also of gas, water, and chunks of local government, health and education, as services, and turned them into markets.
At the same time, movements in the global south have fought battles to secure electricity as a right. In the South African townships, Brazilian favelas and huge shantytowns that surround many African cities, the right to free or cheap electricity has been fought for against profiteering corporations and aggressive municipal authorities.
Hopefully labour and social movements in rich countries, as they try to work out approaches to energy at a time of climate change, will return to the principle of provision as a right and a service, not a commodity. Computerised networks and decentralised renewable electricity generation are powerful weapons in this fight: in the next section I say why.
Realising technological potentials
The full potential of decentralised electricity technologies can only be realised as part of an integrated system. This is ABC to engineers, who envision cities where electricity is produced primarily from wind and solar power, which would supply a host of local micro-grids, linked with each other through larger-scale grids. As far as possible, energy would be produced near to where it is used.
To maximise efficiency, grids for different types of energy – electricity networks, district heating systems, gas networks for cooking, and transport networks – would be interlinked. When there is too much of one form of energy, other networks can be used to store it, and “smart” computers technology used to manage the process.
Surplus electricity could be converted into heat, or (possibly) hydrogen to be used as fuel. Surpluses of other energy types might be used to produce electricity, which could be stored, for example, in the batteries of electric vehicles. Combined heat and power technologies would be developed to become more adjustable, integrated with cooling systems and adapted to run from multiple energy sources.
These changes in the way that electricity is generated are not the end of decarbonising cities (where most greenhouse gases are emitted). There are other engineering issues –firstly, remaking transport
systems to minimise the use of cars and maximise public transport, and building or retrofitting buildings to zero-carbon standards – that would be part of any serious move away from fossil fuels.
Furthermore: most research done by engineers largely assumes that the social and economic system would be unchanged. But we can imagine a better social and economic system, where decisions are made for human welfare and not for profit!
We can envisage the transition away from fossil fuels as one that combines the spread of decentralised, integrated technologies with post-capitalist social and economic relations.
Then, not only assumptions about technologies, but about the way we live and work, can be challenged. I see four types of possibilities that could be realised:
- Using local renewable technologies, communities could increasingly produce, as well as consume, electricity.
The possibilities for this are obvious with technologies that exist now, such as rooftop solar panels, solar water heaters, ground-based heat pumps, and small wind turbines and windmills.
Because of the social and economic conditions that we live in – where electricity is marketed by corporate vultures, and most communities and families rely entirely on them – the discussion about such technologies has so far been limited to (well-founded) concerns about well-off “prosumers” using them to go off-grid, and ultimately undermining electricity networks on which we all collectively rely.
But if we think of electricity as a service, something to which we as humans living in a technologically developed society have a right – rather than as something of monetary value – things look different.
Decentralised renewable technologies already allow the production of electricity in a way that was not possible 30 or 40 years ago. Computer-governed networks allow better distribution and storage of it. In a world where policy is aimed primarily at developing non-fossil-fueled electricity production – which, given the threat of dangerous climate change, is literally a matter of life and death – these potentials could be fully developed.
And when control not only of existing technologies, but of research and development, is exercised for the common good, things could change rapidly. If some of the billions currently spent on nuclear or military R&D, or R&D aimed at subordinating the internet to corporate control, were diverted to researching decentralised electricity, who knows what is possible.
Perhaps there are ways of making solar panels so easy to fit that even I could do it. Perhaps operating a wind turbine could be as easy as operating a mobile phone. I don’t know. But neither does anyone else, because the technology is being used to answer the wrong (centralised, corporate) questions.
Note that localised electricity production does not get rid of the need for large, coordinated networks. On the contrary. Only with such networks can the electricity produced be most efficiently distributed or, if necessary, converted to other forms of energy or stored.
Neither does emphasising localised production imply opposition to big production facilities that can achieve economies of scale, such as offshore wind farms. But it does mean that we need to think about these issues free of 20th century prejudices that bigger, centralised systems are always better. Once society is working for welfare, not profit, it will soon work out the right balance of centralised and decentralised systems.
- Once society finds a way of distributing electricity without market mechanisms, for need and not for profit, it will be able to access the full benefits of increasingly localised production, and the falling-away of the distinction between production and consumption.
Electricity will cease to be something that can only be produced, labelled and sold by mighty, faceless corporations, and will increasingly be produced by local communities, with back-up from large-scale networks.
You might ask: “Who is going to cover the cost of the grid? Who is going to repair local equipment when it goes wrong?” Obviously in a society with the most basic level of collectivism and cooperation, these would be shared responsibilities. I am not going to try to work out how in advance how they will be undertaken; there will be plenty of people well able to do that around at the time.
- A society focused on human welfare, and conscious of the need to live in harmony with nature and not poison the atmosphere with excessive greenhouse gas emssions, could achieve reductions in electricity demand that are off-limits to the profiteering society we live in.
There is demand by some users that I hope would disappear overnight in such a society: much of the petrochemical industry, plenty of slaughterhouses, airports and petrol stations … and the House of Lords. And there are industries where energy use would be transformed beyond recognition (e.g. steelmaking).
There are further demand reductions related to industrial processes, and construction in particular, where energy-profligate ways of doing things could be replaced with energy-conserving methods. The internet, for example, consumes as much electricity as India uses for everything – not in order to ensure that it stays open for communication, but mainly to meet the demands of corporations who rely on it for advertising and related purposes.
Such demand reductions should not be underestimated: one group of energy systems researchers argued recently that the world’s nations – even without the social and economic system being changed – could reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ensure a pathway limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, entirely from demand reductions, chiefly of this kind.
Finally, there are demand reductions that would flow from changed consumption patterns, especially in rich countries, which are necessary and desirable for a healthy, meaningful lifestyle that goes beyond work and consumption. (Fewer hamburgers, SUVs, business-class flights and over-air-conditioned shopping malls. And so on.)
These emissions-cutting – and therefore life-saving – changes can be most effectively coordinated by “smart” networks that would also encourage more and more local renewable generation.
- With current technologies, let alone future ones, the grid will be able to distribute, store and manage flows of electricity that will bring further demand reductions.
At present, electricity generation and transmission capacity is built to cover “peak demand”. For example, electricity demand is much higher on a cold winter’s morning when industries are working at full capacity, than on a hot summer day when half of businesses are on holiday.
In the global north, this has always meant large amounts of generating capacity that are built but only used occasionally; in the global south, generating capacity is often at its limits, and there are power cuts.
But what if we lived in a society where workplaces could be stood down if the electricity was needed for other purposes, where hours of work were not an end in themselves? Where energy-hungry industrial units did not have an unquestionable right to wolf down as much electricity as they wanted at any time of day and night? Where “smart” technologies for cutting demand were used not to adjust the relationship between “consumers” of electricity and profiteering “providers”, but to use, and care for, resources for the collective good?
Grid balancing, storage and demand management would then be used to further scale downwards networks’ total throughput.
Traditionally, the labour movement has welcomed big, centralised technology as somehow inherently good. Technological “progress” and big systems are assumed to go with big, well-organised labour forces. This is a 20th-century delusion that should be left behind.
In recent years it has become fashionable for writers associated with the left to claim that big technological shifts will drive progressive social change. Paul Mason lauded automation and robots; Aaron Bastani pointed to mining asteroids.
Neither of them had much to say about why the internet, one of the most dramatic innovations of recent decades, has been so completely subordinated to the interests of giant corporations.
Likewise, the genuine potential of the internet and other “smart” tech to democratise electricity supply in concert with small-scale renewables is not a “sexy” enough subject to get much attention from media movers and shakers. But it is a real arena of struggle.
Decentralised generation and network technologies could, if left in the corporations’ hands, become a new way of commodifying electricity. But in our hands, they could help us bring about a society that is both socially just and in harmony with nature. It’s time to get our heads around these issues. GL, 30 September 2019.
Addendum: Breaking out of the neoliberal framework
Electricity markets, including the UK’s, work on the basis that electricity is made by big companies, who profit by selling it to consumers. This whole way of doing things is threatened by decentralisation, which will lead to multiple small-scale sources of supply that those companies will struggle to control.
The electricity companies and their consultants are well aware of this threat. In the near term, they see the danger from “prosumers” – householders, or community entities, who both produce and consume electricity.
The companies’ solution is to preserve the market, and to find ways of incorporating the “prosumers” in it.
It is a pressing task for communities and social movements to work out whether and how we can turn this technological change to our advantage.
Fereidoon Sioshansi, an electricity researcher who works with many of the largest companies, argued recently (in his book Future of Utilities: Utilities of the Future):
the centralised generation, transmission and distribution model is seriously challenged by an emerging decentralised version, with prosumers exercising increased control over how much power is locally produced, consumed, stored or exchanged with other prosumers using the network that connects them. This leads to transactive energy, where future prosumers may increasingly interact with each other using an open platform while relying on the distribution and transmission grid to facilitate the transactions.
[…] While some consumers may be able to coast along more or less on their own, most are likely to remain dependent on the grid for essential services, especially reliability and back up.
The question then is: who pays for the grid?
This is a live issue. In some US states, well-off householders are becoming “prosumers” in large
numbers. Companies and regulators have to find ways of stopping them “free riding” on network services paid for by others.
Labour activists involved in community energy projects have also been thinking about these issues for years: the rest of the movement should pay more attention.
Alan Simpson, in his pamphlet The Transformation Moment, made detailed, technologically coherent proposals about how a future Labour government could use a “more active, decentralised grid” to support energy cooperatives using renewables.
Carbon Co-op, the Manchester-based group that coordinates and supports community energy projects, advocates:
a shared connected grid in which costs are distributed fairly, one that allows local participation and control with a key role for local energy and community energy groups.
an energy system built on the concept of subsidiarity: control levied at the most appropriate scale, and further integration and interconnectedness.
In an excellent blog post that reviewed the issues, Jonathan Atkinson reported on a conference at Bath university in 2015 that was “ideologically divided in two – between those who favoured communal, shared energy infrastructures and those who wished to ‘liberate’ individuals”:
One speaker from this ‘liberal’ perspective advocated what he described as a ‘new Thatcherite revolution’ in the energy system. Individual ‘prosumers’ (producer-consumers) with ‘flexible’ home technologies such as PVs, batteries, EVs and smart home devices trading energy on a second-by-second basis with peers anywhere in the UK facilitated by a black box optimising the ‘position’ of the domestic consumer in the market, often mentioned alongside ‘block-chain technology’.
The concern with this vision is that those with access to more wealth and capital are in turn better able to exploit new technologies and income streams further exacerbating existing inequalities, leaving the less well off behind, facing higher and higher bills. It is also not necessarily the most optimal or efficient way to provide everyone with the energy they need. It is not clear how such a scheme would help direct investment or make the best use of local networks.
A variant on the idea of prosumers is for local communities to create “energy islands” through which they achieve “a greater degree of independence and self-reliance within the energy system”. This approach, Atkinson wrote:
seeks to establish autonomous communities generating and supplying their own energy within small, discrete, geographical areas of the low voltage grid. Because energy is effectively balanced at local level, advocates argue there is a reduced need for grid services offered by distributed network operators and larger generators.
Atkinson commented that, while this vision “plays into ideas of autonomy and self-sufficiency”, and aligns with ideas of creating “income streams” locally, “not all communities are able to generate their own power”, and even those that are still have problems at peak times.
The grid is still needed; “communities may use less energy from the grid (even substantially less) on a net basis over a year, but would still need the same size grid connection as well as all the services that come with it”.
The federated-connected approach seeks to afford a measure of autonomy to local communities, while resting on a shared national, or even international, grid infrastructure.
This seems to me a good starting-point for communities trying to break out of the neoliberal framework. Much greater steps could be taken as and when we are able to offer practical challenges to the whole idea that electricity is a product for sale, and not a service and a right.