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Welcome to the Decentralized Energy Revolution: Cleanly Electrifying the World

April 7, 2015
by Glen Martin

While the boons of electricity are obvious to anyone who has watched a 49ers game on a 70-inch ultra HDTV or whipped up a frozen margarita in a blender, it also has its downsides—most of them environmental. Coal and natural gas power plants belch planet-warming CO2 into the atmosphere, while nuclear plants produce highly lethal radwaste.

Still, access to electrical power is a basic social-equity issue. About 1.5 billion of the planet’s 7 billion people lack electricity, and their lives are impoverished, physically and culturally, as a result. Further, a deficiency of electricity generates environmental problems of its own. If people lack electricity to cook their food or warm their homes, they’ll substitute wood or charcoal, resulting in deforestation and yes, more carbon spewing into the atmosphere.

But a paper by UC Berkeley researchers Peter Alstone, Dimitry Gershenson and Daniel Kammen indicates that a major change in the way power is produced and consumed is in the offing—one that could electrify the developing world (literally and figuratively) while promising reduced carbon emissions.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, identifies the present moment as a tipping point, one in which decentralized transmission networks, cheap photovoltaics, sophisticated low-energy appliances, mobile phones and “virtual” financial services are all merging to create a kind of alt-grid that will, as one addicted to clichés might say, shift the energy paradigm.

Here’s what’s happening: Solar panels and batteries have gotten both better and cheaper, to the point that the developing world’s mini-grids (for communities) and micro-grids (villages or individual homes) can afford them. Such systems are easier and cheaper to set up than legacy systems dependent on big, centralized power plants and tower-supported transmission lines festooned around the countryside. Ultra-efficient appliances—everything from TVs to refrigerators—also are now widely available, as is LED lighting (which uses minimal power).

“What’s making this new system possible is the merging of information and energy technologies, of aggressive innovation in both the power production and smart phone worlds,” says Kammen, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy and the director of UC’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory.

Kenya was once an en­ergy black hole. Today Mas­aai mor­an (war­ri­ors) herd their live­stock while sim­ul­tan­eously check­ing cattle prices in Mom­basa on their cell phones, which they hol­ster in beaded pouches worn around their necks.

The abrupt and massive spread of cell phone technology has encouraged virtual banking systems that allow small-scale energy producers and their customers to do business from anywhere, and on a pro-rata basis. Customers are able to buy power in exceedingly small increments—say, enough to recharge their cell phones and power an LED light or two, or a tiny refrigerator and a high-efficiency hot plate. That’s a big deal in the developing world, where even a few such amenities make a gigantic difference in the quality of life—and where cash always is in short supply. It allows customers in rural Africa and Asia to analogously do with energy what they do when they visit a village store: buy a single stick of gum or a matchbook.

Indeed, Kammen says, trusted e-banking systems are essential for the support of the mini-grid network, and he notes that the developing world has led in creating apps for such services.

He cites Kenya as an especially shining example. Fifteen years ago, the country was a communications black hole. Hard-line telephony was the rule, and spotty at best. Outside Nairobi and Mombasa, people made do with CB radios or word of mouth. Then mobile technology arrived, and within a few years everyone was connected. Today, when visiting the country’s wildlife reserves, you’ll see Masaai moran (warriors) herding their livestock while simultaneously checking cattle prices in Mombasa on their cell phones, which they holster in beaded pouches worn around their necks.

“In the 1990s I helped start up Mpala Research Center in Laikipia [in northern Kenya],” recalls Kammen. “We had to wait for a satellite to pass overhead so we could make our 35-second phone calls. Now researchers are receiving streaming data on individual lions and African wild dogs that they’re tracking.”

In 2007, a proprietary mobile system known as M-Pesa was launched in Kenya. Originally promoted as an easy way to post payments for microloans, it was soon used by working urbanites as a means of sending money to relatives back on the rural shamba. M-Pesa is now Kenya’s preeminent banking system. As of late 2013, 19 million of the country’s 44 million people were signed up, with 25 percent of the national economy flowing through M-Pesa’s virtual conduits. In terms of energy development, that means small-scale power providers can receive payment for specific services from customers seamlessly, bypassing everything from poor infrastructure (people don’t have to walk miles over cattle trails to pay their bills) to government and corporate corruption.

“And we’re seeing other IT applications all around the developing world,” Kammen says. “In Bangladesh, for example, phones are being used to test battery [arrays]. Keeping battery systems fully functional is critical for mini-grids, and it’s a big problem in Bangladesh, where a third of the country floods each year. Mini-grids don’t have maintenance teams regularly checking the systems, but you can upload data on cell phones when there’s a specific problem, and the provider can deal with it.”

“We’re mov­ing from an era that has re­mained un­der-in­nov­ated for dec­ades—the sys­tem where you pay a big util­ity for your en­ergy—to de­cent­ral­ized sys­tems…. It’s es­sen­tially the demo­crat­iz­a­tion of en­ergy.”

Decentralized electrification also reduces the causes of deforestation. When people have electricity, the rate of charcoal and wood burning typically decreases dramatically, Kammen observes.

And decentralized energy isn’t just an accelerating trend in the developing world. In America, solar panels are sprouting on suburban homes like chanterelle mushrooms in Mendocino after a winter rain; cell phones are ubiquitous. The United States, in short, is experiencing its own decentralized energy revolution.

“I have solar panels on my roof, and I can use my phone to track how much power each one is producing,” Kammen says. “I can determine which ones are dirty and may need a cleaning to improve performance. I can see how green my energy consumption is at any moment.”

That points to a shift in power (political, not electrical) from the energy producer to the consumer. In fact, Kammen contends that the “Big Grid” of the existing utilities must adapt, melding with the growing mini- and micro-grids, to thrive.

“We’re moving from an era that has remained under-innovated for decades—the system where you pay a big utility for your energy—to decentralized systems that have a lot of networked components and consumer input, all driven by powerful IT,” Kammen says. “It’s essentially the democratization of energy.”

But to really accelerate the trend, Kammen says, a big dog must emerge from the pack of alt-energy advocates.

“We’re working with a number of start-ups that are wrestling with the best way to put this all together,” Kammen says. “Nobody has hit on the right approach yet, but I anticipate somebody will do a Facebook kind of breakout sooner or later, come up with an off-grid version of Tesla. Our paper has been getting a lot of response in the week since its publication, in part because it demonstrates just how negative the impacts of poor energy access are. We show how it stymies educational opportunities and exacerbates gender inequality. It accelerates deforestation and can increase carbon emissions. But we also identify a goal: providing electricity to the 1.5 billion people who don’t have it by 2030. And with the systems we discuss, we think that’s achievable.”

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