The picture above shows New York City in darkness, during the 2003 blackout.
A quick Amazon search for books, using the phrase “local food,” turns up more than 53,000 results. “Local economy” produces over 62,000, and “local community, over 100,000. The word “local” is big right now, especially in sustainability circles.
And another topic has recently joined the “local” list: energy. What’s that, and why? you ask. Read on.
Back in 2003, there was a huge blackout throughout eight states in the northeastern U.S. and parts of Canada, affecting 55 million people. At the time, it was the second largest blackout in the history of the Americas. And it all began right here in Ohio.
A glitch in the alarm system software in a control room of the FirstEnergy Corporation left operators unaware when overloaded transmission lines hit unpruned foliage, creating the need to re-distribute power. What would have been a manageable local blackout expanded into far-reaching grid-wide distress.
However, the real problem was neither the vegetation nor the software bug, but the precarious nature of our highly centralized energy system.
Typically, electricity is generated at a large regional facility (most electricity in Ohio is made by burning coal) and is transported a great distance, losing 7% of energy, on average, along the way. That loss is enough energy to power New York City fourteen times over, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It eventually makes its way to individual buildings, outlets, and ultimately, the electronic stuff we use. Of course, electricity is not the only centralized energy we use. There’s oil, natural gas, and nuclear power, each with its own extraction, processing, and transport issues.
This high degree of centralization leaves us vulnerable to: the availability of distant resources, infrastructure failures, human error, and terrorist attacks. It also means that corporate interests (like profit and growth) are put ahead of consumer protection and environmental issues. And the size of centralized energy corporations grant them a great deal of power and political influence.
Recognizing the problems associated with centralized energy, local and renewable energy is about becoming less reliant on distant powerful others and more self-reliant. It’s about having more local control over energy-related decisions and impacts. Simply put, it’s about becoming more resilient.
One thing that we have to recognize is that you can’t just exchange one energy resource for another. They are not equally substitutable or transportable. For electricity generation, however, there are many kinds of renewable energy that can be locally produced and distributed.
The basic idea is power is that electricity is generated in many small renewable energy facilities in our neighborhoods, in addition to or instead of a centralized plant. For example, people can generate electricity from solar panels on the rooftops, neighborhood windmills, or micro-hydro at a local stream. The energy generated in these places can be consumed in these places, or tied to the grid to compensate for unpredictable renewable electricity.
And local energy is not just about electricity. It is about all the energy we use: gas for transportation, heat for buildings, and so on. Fortunately, they too can be created on a local scale as technology has improved. Diesel vehicles, for example, can run on liquid biofuels and improved biomass stoves and boilers can used for heating–though not at the same scales as we currently use fossil fuels.
Localized energy systems have more than just environmental benefits.
The development and maintenance of these systems promotes strong communities. They are good for local economies, keeping energy dollars circulating closer to home. The more local our energy, the more choice citizens have about where their energy comes from and the impacts of its use especially valuable to those demanding safer and more ethical forms of energy production. Local energy is an important ingredient in community resilience.
Software glitches don’t need to turn our lights off. Volatility in the price of fossil fuels will affect us much less if we have some alternatives. In general, it means a power shift—in both senses of the word. Giant energy corporations will wield less power over those who are somewhat more self-reliant when it comes to energy.