Tag Archives: wind

Rewiring America – A review

Saul Griffith wants to point out something that we in the science and engineering community have known for awhile: we already have the technology to solve climate change, we just lack the political will. Griffith’s new book, Rewiring America, is a deep dive into one course of action that would eliminate most fossil fuels from the American economy by 2035 and save households bundles of cash in the process.

I started engineering school in 2005, and while there was a growing amount of research into alternative energy at the time, we already had a pretty good idea of what would be needed to transition our economy away from carbon-heavy resources: electrify everything. Fifteen years later, the costs of solar, wind, and electric vehicle technologies have fallen exponentially. The best time to start investing in electrifying everything was during the 70s oil crisis. The next best time is now. As atmospheric carbon concentrations grow, we need to accelerate our efforts to decarbonize. Griffith and OtherLab‘s extensive analysis of US energy distribution shows the gains that can be made quickly by electrification.

One thing often ignored by opponents of climate action, but thoroughly explored in Rewiring America, is that electric motors and generation systems have a much higher overall efficiency than systems dependent on fossil fuels. Just by switching our current lifestyle to all electric, our overall energy consumption would drop by half in the United States.

An old meme from The Onion

Most of my quibbles with this book are because I’m not the target audience of the book. I don’t need convincing that climate change is serious and that we have to do something about it. I’m incredulous about Griffith’s claims that we don’t have to change our lifestyle or his handwaving with regard to the availability of certain critical materials, but Griffith is trying to reach out to the people on the fence who’ve been told by deniers that climate change is either a hoax or is too expensive to tackle. These climate delayers are a bigger problem than climate deniers, since the vehement denial of climate change is coming from a very small segment of the population. Most people agree that there is a problem, but don’t want to take action because they don’t believe it will affect them personally. Griffith skirts around equity and monopoly power while pouring on a heavy coating of patriotism to appeal to this audience that is on the fence about taking action on climate change.

One of the least appealing parts of the book was the incessant call for a war effort and lauding American exceptionalism. Griffith certainly isn’t the first to use this language, but it is getting a little old, not just for me. The book is US-centric, with only occasional references to what could happen worldwide, but we’re also the only country with a major political party that denies the science of climate change. We need this book more than anyone else right now.

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0
Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Most people want the same basic things, but in the current polarized political environment we don’t even speak the same language. I think Griffith is doing a good job of trying to bridge this gap by focusing on the no-compromises parts of the energy transition: cleaner air, quieter cities, and more comfortable living. As a solarpunk, I don’t think we can ignore the equity or the structural problems that lead to the climate crisis to begin with, but Griffith’s plan gives us a starting point to have an honest conversation about climate action.

Have you read Rewiring America? Do you think it has the potential to kick people off the sidelines of climate action?

What is energy democracy?

At first glance, energy democracy is a funny term. Are we worried about a coalition of coal and natural gas blocking amendments to a bill from wind and solar? Is nuclear over in the corner putting forth reasonable proposals while everyone backs away slowly because of rumors regarding her volatile temper?

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Energy democracy is actually about bringing self-determination of communities back to energy generation, storage, and distribution. Not that long ago, most of society ran on locally-sourced energy. The bulk of this was in the form of windmills, water wheels, and wood-burning fires. As fossil fuels took the stage during the industrial revolution, energy supply and demand became estranged. Economies of scale for fossil fuel-based energy generation led to the creation of large power plants that supply power over an interconnected grid.

The 21st Century has seen the return of distributed energy sources. While solar and wind get the headlines, small modular reactors (SMRs), in-stream hydro, tidal, geothermal, and other distributed energy sources are showing promise as well. While the growth of these distributed generation technologies is good for decentralized solarpunk communities, it creates a point of friction with the existing centralized power grid. This is why when incumbent utilities do support renewables, they still want to build large, utility-scale projects. Nevada has had the most public battle over net metering in recent years, but many utilities have tried to suppress energy decentralization by pressuring legislators. In states like Virginia, where two companies have a monopoly on 80% of the energy market, it’s easy to see where problems might arise.

panoramic shot of sky

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are some technical problems with energy decentralization which stem from the centralized past of the grid. As David Roberts explains at Vox, the grid was designed for one-way power flows from generation to distribution to end user. Solar, wind, and other distributed energy sources upend this model, sending power from the end-of-the-line back into the grid. There are several possible ways to overcome these difficulties ranging from going off-grid completely to piping every single generation source back into one giant grid managed by a central authority. For a solarpunk future, one possible option is the “decentralized, layered-decomposition optimization structure.” In this arrangement, the responsibilities of generation sources are held locally, but communities can still exchange power on an overarching, interconnected grid.

In some communities, such as Boulder, CO, the people have decided to municipalize their energy grid. Putting the grid into public hands makes it easier to align incentives between homeowners with rooftop solar, community-based generation projects, and the needs of all the users on the grid. Utility monopolies have to maximize profit and maintain the status quo. Energy democracy brings the power to the people, who can build a grid that uses distributed generation for a more robust, environmentally friendly, and healthy grid. The most extreme example of calls for energy democracy at the moment is the suggestion of a public takeover of PG&E. For more on areas that are flexing their energy democracy muscles, check out the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Power Map.

Do you have any energy democracy projects in your area? Let us know how your communities are fighting monopoly power and bringing clean, distributed power to the people.

Re-purposing malls as solarpunk co-housing

One of the best ideas for solarpunk co-housing I’ve seen is Bluelightning42’s post about re-purposing malls on Tumblr. While there has been the mixed use redevelopment of the Arcade in Providence, Rhode Island, and NewLab, an incubator+housing in Brooklyn, I’ve seen little else done in regards to this concept.

bBellevue Square Mall courtesy of Debs (ò‿ó)♪

Business Insider ran a story last year as part of it’s “Death of Suburbia” series talking about the roughly 25% of shopping malls in the US at risk of closing. I think the main issue is that most malls aren’t in particularly easy to access areas, but with a large enough community, I think you could get a public transit stop (if there isn’t one already) and car-sharing to provide off-site transportation. If you want to see the really cool architecture in some of these malls, Seph Lawless has been getting amazing photos of abandoned malls.

Rezoning the mall (where needed) as mixed-use would allow some small stores on-site for groceries and other small items. I know that I would love to be able to just walk down the hall to grab some Swedish fish out of a bulk bin in the middle of the night (I’m so healthy). You could leave the food court going too with shared communal kitchens and restaurants run by the people living there.

13714826875_1c9fed839b_kGarden courtesy of cuprikorn

Most of the parking lots could be reclaimed as greenspace, leaving a small area for car-sharing vehicles and the bus stop. A community garden could spring up where there was once only asphalt. Depending on the bike infrastructure in your city, you might also be able to build spur trails from the mall to other interesting parts of town.

Most malls have some natural lighting, so why not make some of the skylights stained glass to keep up the solarpunk vibe? With the huge roofing area of a mall, you could generate power for residents by adding solar panels and small wind turbines. There might be enough area that you would qualify as a small-scale renewable power plant. I would want to update the HVAC system to heat/cool with a geothermal heat pump to maximize the efficiency of the building along with the other requisite insulation and lighting efficiency upgrades.

3181390371_4015ff71df_bStained glass in Kaohsiung City courtesy of MiNe

So, do you have any ideas about how a repurposed mall could be a great place to live? Are there any concerns that you have regarding the idea? Sound of in the comments and let us know!


Photos are from Flikr users under a Creative Commons License

  1. Prettyy!! Want! {Nature/ 1 of 3} by Debs (ò‿ó)♪
  2. MiNe-KissX_103-0082RG by MiNe
  3. Garden by Cuprikorn (this picture is under a different license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)