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DALL.E creation by Carolyn Fortuna / CleanTechnica

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Stop Complaining About Debt Limit Permitting & Climate Law — Devote Your Energy To Decentralization!

Decentralization will promote decarbonization by deploying distributed energy resources, shrinking energy losses, and enabling energy storage.

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Progressives are pissed that US President Joe Biden negotiated with House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy to raise the debt ceiling limit. Key concessions Republicans obtained from Democrats, in exchange for their votes, included energy and mining permitting reform, which should speed up energy and gas projects. Meanwhile, Republicans were not successful in their goal to repeal the Democrats’ major climate law, known as the Inflation Reduction Act. Maybe, instead of everybody wailing about federal power plays, both sides of the political aisle should grab onto the opportunities that decentralization can provide through local energy solutions.

It’s not a stretch to deduce that, if enough dependable energy can be found locally, and if that energy fosters area job creation, then local citizens will switch their focus away from fossil fuel consumption, and politicians will have no choice but to follow suit.

After all, former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.”

It definitely takes a new mindset to look beyond fossil fuel deployment and think about creating space for secure local energy.

The debt ceiling deal that Congress passed last week includes a study to determine how adding more and extensive power lines connecting different US regions will improve grid stability and alleviate blackouts caused by extreme weather events. The Draft 2023 National Transmission Needs Study states unequivocally that there is a pressing need for additional electric transmission infrastructure.

Duh. New grid construction is well behind the swiftness and extent needed to handle expected amounts of new clean, carbon-free electricity by 2035.

Instead, what’s really required is an energy system that is sustainable and resilient, that relies on locally sourced energy technology like solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass, energy storage, energy efficiency, and smart grids. No longer are the electricity grids that depend on economies of scale to drive down the cost of electricity and (supposedly) make it universally affordable the answer.

Activists and non-profits are starting to heed the call to spread the gospel of decentralized energy. It’s clear that fossil fuel-based energy comes with a host of existential problems. Instead, decentralization allows communities to be in charge of their energy needs.

We need to make decentralization a reality. That goal, of course, comes with its own challenges.

The Necessary Methodical Transition to Decentralization

Higher fossil fuel prices, growing policy momentum, and energy security concerns are driving strong deployment of solar PV and wind power. Global additions of renewable power capacity are expected to jump by a third this year, according to the June, 2023 update from the International Energy Agency.

Centralized and non-renewable systems like large capacity plants using fossil fuels as oil and coke are environmentally unsustainable. They exhaust resources and spur resource depletion. Several processes along their life cycle produce high GHG emissions, which determine global warming. Additionally, energy from fossil fuels is the cause of other pollution during extraction and transportation processes.

On the other hand, renewable and distributed resources, such as small scale solar and wind generation units, they are more environmentally sustainable because they use locally available and renewable energy sources, thus resulting in a reduced environmental impact compared to the various processes of extraction, transformation, and distribution of fossil fuels. Furthermore, they have much lower GHG emissions in use. Compared to centralized systems, local energy production and distribution increase reliability and reduce distribution losses.

What is decentralization? Decentralization takes a large scale generation of electricity at core facilities, usually located away from end users and connected to a network of high voltage transmission lines, and moves the focus to small scale, renewable power resources close to where the energy is needed, often on the same regional site. Overall, decentralization leads to decarbonization by deploying distributed energy resources, reducing energy losses, and enabling energy storage.

Decentralization reduces grid dependency through energy self-sufficiency, enhanced reliability with the companion of energy security, and resilience through power continuity even in extreme weather.

A decentralized system relies on distributed generation, energy storage and demand response:

  • Distributed generation: Heat and electricity can be generated in a decentralized manner, but heat cannot be transported over long distances so it’s been generated onsite. Shifting to decentralized power generation allows for coordinating between heat and power generation in combined heat and power plants, increasing the system’s efficiency.
  • Energy storage: Adding more generation sources in a decentralized system can lead to new difficulties in controlling supply to best match demand. However, such storage techniques as batteries, compressed air, and pumped hydro storage can help keep the grid stable by storing energy when supply exceeds demand and feeding it back into the grid during peak hours. Storage is particularly helpful for intermittent renewable energy plants, which often produce at their highest capacities during non-peak hours.
  • Demand response: Conventionally, grid management has focused on supply management. But new technologies, including smart grid and smart metering, allow for real-time monitoring and communication.

Think about the multitude of renewable energy solutions that are possible within this paradigm: rooftop solar panels, small scale wind turbines, fuel cells, microturbines, battery banks, microgrids, nanogrids, and community-based renewable energy projects. This key bridge technology in the shift from the very large, remote, just-in-time centralized system is cost-effective energy storage, which has only recently become available and viable because site-based systems are here.

Need to store surplus rooftop solar power to offset peak consumption later in the day? Worried about intermittent generation and variability?  Sophisticated battery operating systems now make local power appropriate for export to the grid.

An analysis commissioned by the BlueGreen Alliance from the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst finds that the more than 100 climate, energy, and environmental investments in the Inflation Reduction Act will create more than 9 million good jobs over the next decade—an average of nearly 1 million jobs each year. A state-based labor model, tailored to the context of energy system transitions like decentralization, has the potential to drive long-term expansion in the supply-side energy workforce.

While many companies and cities are moving ahead strategically toward decentralization, current market design and existing regulations are not yet ready for this energy model. Fossil fuel subsidies, lack of a carbon price, diverse fiscal regimes, or uneven cost sharing for electricity grid costs are all obstacles that mean there is no level playing field. The IEA has promoted a more integrated approach to policy making for many years in which the power, heat, and transport sectors are linked, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

Naysayers bemoan the costs associated with the shift to energy decentralization. Perhaps these critics are forgetting the massive capitalization that was required to build out the current centralized systems from end-to-end:

  • Generation — huge, remote fossil fuel and nuclear power plants
  • Transmission — massive arrays of long-distance high-voltage towers and lines
  • Distribution — local medium and low-voltage utility poles, power lines, and substations
  • Retail — analog then digital revenue meters and billing systems

Final Thoughts about Decentralization

If we could move to more decentralized energy systems, it is also likely that the public would become receptive to holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their decades of climate pollution.

  • Perhaps the model of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds (IOPC Funds), which provide financial compensation for oil pollution damage that occurs in member states, resulting from spills of persistent oil from tankers, could become a model for other restitution.
  • Carbon Majors” and other cases involving novel legal arguments about holding high emitting corporations to account for the adverse consequences of climate change could become the norm.
  • Investors from a variety of political persuasions may become more willing to assess risks and opportunities across all areas of fuel and electricity supply, critical minerals, efficiency, research, and development and energy finance.
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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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