Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: San Francisco schools' solar panels

If you are reading David Roberts at Grist -- and if you are trying to think about abrupt climate change you should -- you would have recently been challenged with this:
The metametatrend in energy is, for lack of a better term, decentralization. Systems that were once composed of a few big technologies and a few big companies — along with thousands or millions of passive consumers — are beginning to be replaced by recombinant swarms of small producers and consumers engaging in millions of peer-to-peer transactions with a wild and woolly mix of small-scale technologies.

It’s going to be awesome! We have lived through a revolution like this before: the information revolution. I’m old enough to remember a time when it was vastly easier to consume information than to produce and distribute it. Even the internet started as what amounted to a large library, from which individuals downloaded info. But the spread of cheap processing power and bandwidth now means that anyone can produce information — a song, a video, an app, a funny cat picture — and get it in front of millions of people, instantly and virtually effortlessly, for dirt cheap.

… utilities used to be in the business of generating power at big power plants and then sending it to consumers over one-way lines for a set price. That basic “hub and spoke” model is rapidly becoming obsolete. There are more and more small-scale power generators and power storage nodes on the network, sending power back and forth in massively parallel fashion. Utilities cannot hope to centrally manage all those transactions. They will be forced, whether they like it or not, to move to what’s known among nerds as a more “transactive” model, in which their main job is to manage power markets, to dynamically price (value) power so that the market can react accordingly. …Another way of looking at this is, utilities are going to have to get used to power markets behaving more like actual markets.
Roberts' shout out to the quiet proliferation of decentralized energy sources grabbed my attention because of what I'd noticed while walking around San Francisco: every school yard I pass seems to contain a free standing solar panel installation, even in poor, rundown neighborhoods.

Curiously, it proved not easy to find information about what program or programs had brought about these installations. Whatever the school district is doing, they are not talking about it much for public consumption. They are proud that John O'Connell High School is teaching solar engineering. They are proud that a sustainability initiative has reduced energy use at seven schools by 30 percent.

Meanwhile, apparently, the solar panels proliferate and form just part of what every child finds in their school yard.

Maybe that's what the trends Roberts calls out will mean: the arrival new forms of energy acquisition and distribution that seem so ordinary we won't notice them.

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