Local and Small versus Big and Central –the Case of Power

A contribution by Ryan Lanham:

“At the heart of home energy discussions as they touch the P2P world lives the question as to whether localized production can be made as efficient as central manufactured power. While P2P advocates esteem the commons, most would see a local household-level power solution, such as a personal solar plant, as more ideal compared to a shared commons as “big power” –even if big power is theoretically a public utility with a chartered commitment to the public good. Those who like the commons are typically suspicious of “big,” and probably with good cause. This is especially true if a network of local power units can be linked into a resilient grid–an Internet of power.

We worry that at some level the commons can become its own actor—something separate from those who share it. Is a utility actually a commons or is it a shareholder-driven corporation that pursues its own ends? Often it’s hard to say. There isn’t much evidence that the gray areas generally work out to the sharer’s advantage. Predatory types tend to grab free assets and capture them for personal gain.

Of course the hallmarks (one way or the other) are sometimes clear: a corporation is focused on paying dividends to shareholder; a commons is focused on serving those who share. But more often than not, there is a gray area…a blurred hybrid model where commons is part corporate and part shared resource. When the domain is blurred, the risks of selfish capture by predatory asset-accumulators are typically great.

The debate on power is becoming less blurred in Germany, and that may be a sign of movement toward the better.

In an Atlantic article called “The Frugal Genius of ‘Swarm Power,’Lisa Margonelli describes a new initiative to build small natural gas engines based on a Volkswagen product that make houses into mini-power plants. Swarm power is compelling.

Here’s why:

· Giving people control of their own destiny assures buy-in

· Using small production expands the capacity to change incrementally

· The technology is there now, works well, and is a huge efficiency gain

We need to particularly test and dwell on that last bullet point. The burning question must be…is it better, and what does better mean?

It certainly appears as if humans just aren’t very good at planetary-scale schemes with central controls so far. Somewhere in between the planetary scale and the local, we have that dangerous blurred domain where the commons often dwells. On the other hand we do make pretty good ant-like workers in a locally shared commons when given a reasonable set of tools and options for sharing. That much seems to have been proven. So if we can do it distributed first, especially with linkages to a shared backbone, that’s the way to go. In this case, Germans seem to be leading the way.”

1 Comment Local and Small versus Big and Central –the Case of Power

  1. Sepp Hasslberger

    I agree that distributed generation of power is preferable to the centralized, and most often for-profit model that we see today.

    The Germans have a good idea which is to use natural gas as an abundant (for now) resource for this. That doesn’t mean though that we shouldn’t be also looking at wind and solar as options.

    The important thing seems to be to foster a culture of energy independence. Without the action of a lot of individuals, we would be going nowhere fast …

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