In 1996, the internet was a massive, slow-moving, and entirely befuddling entity. We’d dial up, brace ourselves for that grating AOL skronk, and click through various Yahoo! links and search Alta Vista for answers to homework assignments. It existed for us to suck information out of. But eventually, we’d stumble upon someone’s atrocious-looking Geocities page and go, well, maybe I could do that.
Then some of us built our own pages—I for one remember my first Angelfire crapfest, with those gif flames and a counter and the Metallica logo—and thus contributed to the rise of Web 2.0, wherein we were free to give as much as we took. Come 2006 or so, we’d still read Yahoo!, maybe, but we could also just as easily find good, amateur-generated content—blogs, photo uploads, YouTube vids, etc—and we could toss our own contributions to the pile wielding nothing more than a Blogspot account. Now there’s Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Vine, myriad open source platforms, etc, and there’s such a surfeit of democratically-generated info that the problem now is filtering it all.
The point is, thanks to innovation in the IT sector, information obtainment has been decentralized. We don’t get it solely from monolithic central sources like the New York Times, TIME, CNN, or The Internet anymore—it comes from everyone. And the internet itself isn’t an imposing mountain of binary for us to stare at; it’s a participatory platform that we can absorb and append at will. It’s a beautiful thing. And hopefully, it’s what the energy industry will look like in 15 years.
Now think of the narrative above, which is probably quite familiar to anyone who’s 25 or older, as an allegory for how we get our energy. Right now, the situation looks a lot like the internet in 1996—our power comes from giant, hulking centralized power plants, and we pay a massive utility to deliver that electricity to our homes. There’s a big coal plant, and we pay to take some of the power it generates. That’s it; end of transaction.
But, as with the mid-90s internet, the process is changing. Small scale solar and wind power, as well as waste-to-heat systems, are allowing consumers to create their own energy, much as internet users began to create their own blog posts as the internet evolved.
Grist’s David Roberts examined this trend toward energy democratization in a recent column highlighting a fascinating new report from Pike Research. Both argue that small-scale, locally-owned power production—aka distributed generation—hold the same promise to democratize the flow of energy that the 1996 internet did to democratize the flow of information.
The analysts at Pike were the first to draw the comparisons to early internet and energy generation. In their latest report, Five Metatrends to Watch in 2013 and Beyond, they note that “In the same fashion that the Internet has produced a democratization of information and knowledge, the availability of pico power-producing technology, such as solar panels, small wind turbines, and residential combined heat and power systems (resCHP), enables people to produce, and sell if desired, their own power.“
In other words, energy technology like solar and wind are giving people the opportunity to become not just producers instead of consumers, but mini-entrepreneurs, mini-businessmen. Much like those who weren’t content to read about the news online, and started up their own blogs and websites to produce their own—not everybody did, of course, but improved technology broke down barriers and allowed many more the option.
Pike gets that: “There will always be a large number of consumers who only want to consume and are happy to allow utilities the responsibility of producing and consuming power. However, we are seeing a subculture of consumers arise who are the groundbreaking lead adopters in this area.”
Sound familiar? The biggest tech firms out there right now succeeded by taking advantage of the eroding barriers between information consumption and provision: Facebook, Twitter, even Google gave users the opportunity to add to the tapestry instead of being complacent info-suckers.
With the falling cost of solar panels and wind power, and ample room for innovation, the opportunity is there for enterprising companies to do the same with energy. Today, solar, wind and other cleantech and energy efficiency companies—think of them as the 90s era tech companies—are exploring ways to help put more power in the hands of the energy consumer. SolarCity offers leases to help homeowners obtain and install solar panels, which they can use to generate their own power. Solar Mosaic helps whole communities buy solar. Once individuals or communities own the systems, they can sell the power back to the grid—becoming more like the twenty-something bloggers of 2006 than the teenage internet-consumers of 1996.
Pike looks at residential heat and power systems—they harvest a home’s excess heat for energy—and uses the infant technology as such an example. Here’s the analysts’ projection for the growth of that technology, which turns homeowners into power producers:
That’s a bona fide boom. And that’s going to happen all over the place. For home solar systems. For small wind turbines. Maybe, eventually, for modular nuclear power. The point is, energy tech is changing the way we think about power.
Right now, we’re dependent on some invisible, faraway source like a massive nuclear reactor or a natural gas plant. If the lights go out, there’s nothing we can do about it except make an angry, pointless phone call. Now imagine feeding that power yourself, controlling it, making money off it—whether by yourself, your family, or with your community. It’s an attractive prospect. And there’s ample reason to believe it’s the future.
But it will take time. As “the transition of the Internet from (in essence) an online library of information into an organism that is growing and changing the way its users operate” took decades, so will energy democratization, Pike notes. But we may be able to speed up the process, since we know of the potential advantages: “we are cognizant of the potential of this trend in a way that users and developers of the Internet in 2006 were simply not.”
More awareness and government incentives for small-scale solar, in other words, could accelerate the incoming boom. And the sooner the better, really—our warming, increasingly volatile world is no place to rely on vulnerable, old-fashioned power plants built in the 1930s.