A power grid for your block

What if we could build a power grid that worked at the scale of a single city block? With recent advances in solar energy, battery technology, energy efficient design, and smart metering, it may be possible.

Imagine a city where every block generates all the power that it needs from clean, renewable sources. With rapid advances in energy storage (aka batteries), it may soon be feasible for small groups of buildings to generate all the energy they require for normal operation.

Currently, the scale of the electricity grid is continental. In North America, NERC has responsibility for the oversight of this massive system. While these areas look homogeneous, they can be though of as many interwoven systems.

Source: NERC

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Disruptive technologies have the potential to render this model obsolete in places within a relatively short span.

Disruption happens

The telephone market offers an interesting analogy. The telephone, which was patented in 1876 but had reached more than 40% of American households by 1930. The invention had become so pervasive, homes were built with phone niches to accommodate them.

Source: 1929 Sears Building Materials catalog, via SearsHomes.org

But the landline telephone model has not proven to be durable. As cell phones have become cheaper and more reliable (due in no small measure to improved batteries), landline subscriptions have plummeted. By 2016, a majority of American households did not have a landline phone. This is especially stunning considering that the technology was effectively universal as recently as 2003.

Is it possible that a similar sort of transformation may happen for the market for household electricity? Investments in solar panels, ground source heat pumps, and home energy storage systems are much more substantial than phones. However prices are coming down and these technologies continue to improve. Perhaps the better question is: when will the household energy transformation happen?

The present circumstances

Today homes across America consume energy in three primary ways:

  1. Electricity purchased from a utility. This energy is typically generated at a far away location and delivered via the power grid. Depending on your utility, it may be difficult to tell what mix of energy sources went into your home’s power (sources include coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, and wind).
  2. Natural gas purchased from a second utility.  A vast network of underground pipes and meters is required to deliver this product to your home. Natural gas is used for heat, cooking and hot water.  Indoor combustion of natural gas leads to the persistent threat of carbon monoxide poisoning.
  3. Fuel purchased for transportation. Petroleum refineries turn crude oil into gasoline for use in the majority of automobiles. While gas mileage has improved and tailpipe emissions have decreased since the 1970’s, this energy source still produces a substantial amount of air pollution.

Each of these transactions pits the consumer (you) against massive corporations or monopolies. Unless prices rise suddenly, you see little benefit from conservation. But, if you are satisfied with the status quo, then you probably don’t have any motivation to change.

The one block grid alternative

Imagine instead that your home’s energy systems were tightly woven into the community fabric and aligned with your values. How might your household energy consumption look?

  1. Electricity purchased from your neighbors OR sold to your neighbors. During the day your home’s solar panels may generate excess power – through advanced metering systems, this power can be sold back to a block-scale energy storage system (aka a big battery). Or perhaps you need more power than you can generate, in which case your block-scale grid allows you to purchase electricity from neighboring homes.
  2. Heating and cooling produced from clean, renewable energy exchange systems. Ground source heat pumps (sometimes called “geothermal heat pumps”) are able to provide a carbon-free power source for home heating and cooling for a single home or multiple buildings. When these systems are shared between multiple users, the cost to install them shrinks substantially.
  3. Electricity imported OR exported by your car. Depending on the circumstances, your car may be a provider or consumer of energy from your neighbors. If you return to your garage with a “full tank” of electrons, your block-scale grid may want to purchase some of the power you brought into the area. Conversely, if you need to “top off” you can purchase energy from the block-scale grid at the convenience of your own garage.

Block-scale power grids enable a variety of energy transactions between nearby neighbors. These transactions can be structured to support the values that we want for our communities.

Why should we build one block grids?

There are several compelling reasons for cities and developers to consider block-scale energy grids as a potential alternative to our conventional system of electricity delivery:

  • Resiliency. All energy systems have vulnerability, but not all risks are equal. Consider what alternatives you have when the power goes out. A block-scale grid is not vulnerable to disruptions that occur in remote locations. Block-scale grids should be better prepared for emergency situations that strain our existing energy infrastructure such as heat waves, tropical storms, and wildfires.
  • Economy. Upfront investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies pay dividends for generations. When communities invest in their own infrastructure, they stop hemorrhaging money to far away investor owned utilities. When residents save money on energy, they have more discretionary spending power. When governments allow citizens to establish new ways of providing household energy, they open up new markets and new opportunities.
  • Democracy. Your opinion as an individual customer of a monopolistic utility or global corporation frankly doesn’t go very far. However, at the scale of the block, your opinions can matter a great deal in the management and operation of your energy system. One block grids could potentially be managed in many ways: from cooperatives to performance management. Regardless of the model, this idea presents an opportunity for communities to reestablish local authority in this sector.

PS ~ You may be thinking, what about natural gas? I may not need it for heating, but I want it for my stove. Well, have I got a compost bin for you. For about a thousand dollars (and all of your food scraps) you can generate all the bio gas you want for cooking.