Like 360,000 other customers in the Washington, D.C. area, I lost power during last week’s snowstorm. This was no blizzard, no “snowpocalypse,” just 5-10 inches of wet snow, and yet it wiped our electricity for a large portion of residents in the region.
Now I have young children, and being without heat in the middle of winter, and without lights at night, and without a refrigerator – well, to call it a hassle would be an understatement. As far as work went, I took a conference call in my 58 degree house (the thermostat ticked down every hour) until my phone battery died. We spent the night at a very generous neighbor’s house.
An event like this makes you realize how much we take cheap, abundant electricity for granted, and how dependent we are on it. It also makes you realize how fragile our electricity system is. With our entire economy dependent on power, outages cause large economic losses.
Forget air pollution, climate change, mountain top removal coal mining, gas drilling on our public lands or the myriad other problems of our dependence on dirty energy sources. At the end of the day, concentrated power stations transmitting electricity over thousands of miles of cables are prone to outages – which means economic losses and personal hardship, even loss of life and other health effects (particularly for vulnerable populations) in extreme heat or cold.
That’s why I want to see “distributed” renewable energy – energy that doesn’t give your utility complete control over whether and when energy is available to you. Imagine if all the shingles in your roof transformed solar energy into electricity, and a third of that electricity was stored in batteries for use when it was dark. Imagine your house, your heating, cooling, and all your electrical appliances and devices used ten times less energy than they do today. A little snow storm (or other weather event) wouldn’t affect you.
There has been a lot of talk lately about making America “energy independent.” Well, distributed energy makes every American energy independent. Talk about freedom! Distributed energy would make us more secure, safer, protect our economy from shocks and provide a whole new industrial sector to provide jobs that can’t be outsourced. Someone overseas can’t install or maintain solar panels on your house. Only someone in driving distance can.
This vision is not science fiction. We already have the vast majority of the technology needed. But there are a lot of barriers to making this happen, from federal policies down to local zoning ordinances. The first step though is creating the demand. So demand that your city council member, your state assembly representative, your U.S. Senator and your local power company make distributed energy a reality.