How We Move from There to Here

Think about moving things that are valuable. Things we can’t afford to waste. Things like water, electricity, food. Think about how we do it now and how we might do it better.

Better Food

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There are many good reasons why the locavore movement is sweeping agriculture. Food is best that is locally grown, we are coming to agree. It is fresher; it comes from local farmers, whom you can look in the eye and ask how it was raised; it employs local people, so the money spent on it circulates in the community rather than winging its way off to Arkansas; less energy and therefore less pollution is spent in transporting it; and, less space is required to store it before it reaches our dining room table.

There are direct comparisons we can make to other precious commodities, as well.

Better Water

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Let’s use water as an example. If we build big reservoirs behind big dams to trap the peak flow of water coursing through rivers, we flood the surrounding land with water that otherwise would drain through the valley below in the rainy season and eventually run off into the ocean, leaving nothing behind to wet the thirst the dry season brings.

We install pipelines and canals to move the water we’ve captured to towns and cities nearby, where it can be parceled out on an “as needed” basis. Of course, the pipes leak, the canals lose volume to evaporation, water is wasted. But the net gain far exceeds the proceeds of the moisture cycle left to its own rhythms.

When water becomes scarce, the reservoirs are low and rain comes seldom, what is wasted is more noticeable. Some of the simplest, most modest methods of saving water become attractive. We can’t afford to rebuild the system of reservoirs, pipelines and canals merely for greater efficiency, but we can reinstitute earlier methods of capturing water that stood our ancestors in good stead. We can supplement our supply system with distributed collection.

Rain barrels can capture a lot of the water that falls on our roof and hold it for the dry spells that inevitably follow. It’s a method of saving water that is as old as time.

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In addition to the life-giving moisture that soaks our lawns, trees and gardens, an impressive amount falls on the buildings, too. A 3,000 square foot ranch style home may have hundreds of gallons of water run off its roof in a decent thunderstorm. And, in fact, if you bother to collect it, that water suffers little waste when it comes time to apply it because it’s gathered and used at the source of the need. Nothing is lost in transmission. It’s a locavore solution.

Better Power

Make that comparison to electricity. We build big power plants that burn coal or natural gas, or collect power from wind and solar farms, and distribute the electricity to where it’s used, which is usually a long ways away.

The electrical grid is a marvel, the world’s largest machine. It moves massive amounts of power and has enabled a quality of life that is the envy of the world; but, it is a vestige of a time when power was cheap and its cost to the environment was unrecognized. A lot of what is generated at the site of the big power plants and fed into the grid is lost in transmission to the end user. It’s electro-magnetic pollution.

Like rain barrels, a rooftop solar system collects energy at the point where it’s used. Distributed generation of power is vastly more efficient in serving the customer and cheaper, too, than relying on the grid. This illustration of a Solar City™ rooftop system is a state of the art example, but the common solar panels lining rooftops work well, too.

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As the company’s founder, Elon Musk, is fond of pointing out, our entire ecosystem, the earth itself and all life on it, is solar powered. We might add that it is power best collected and used on site.

But there is a problem to be addressed in distributed generation: it is unreliable and not available on demand. If you’re cooling your home on a hot, sunny day, the power those solar systems generate may be driving the air conditioner in real time. But if the night comes in winter, the sun has been blocked by clouds all day and the temperature is plunging, you need either to have a superior storage system or an alternative source of heat, such as bio-mass, wood or natural gas.

Or, like most homes with solar panels, you need to be connected to the grid as a means of supplementing your power needs. That has been the norm for years now, ever since the public utilities were required to buy power from individuals as well as sell it to them.

Better Future

Distributed generation works very well in its current incarnation. It’s as locavore as you can get in the power business. However, it erodes the revenue stream of the utilities and they have begun to mount a variety of objections to the process.

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They reasonably ask why they should subsidize the storage and distribution of the energy you generate, and in turn provide you power on demand, when you provide them power only intermittantly? If they are required to acquire “clean” energy, why shouldn’t they build their vast wind and solar farms and feed the grid as they choose rather than as you require them to do? It’s probably more efficient from their point of view and therefore more profitable.

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Some of those utilities are lobbying for the right to charge “connection fees” of up to $25 monthly for solar systems hooked up to the grid. They are seeking, too, to lower the amount of power they’re required to accept from rooftop solar systems, claiming that their non-solar customers are being forced to subsidize cheap solar power.

An elderly man exercises in the morning as he faces chimneys emitting smoke behind buildings across the Songhua river in Jilin, Jilin province, February 24, 2013. China's new rulers will focus on consumer-led growth to narrow the gap between rich and poor while taking steps to curb pollution and graft, the government said on Tuesday, tackling the main triggers for social unrest in the giant nation. Picture taken February 24, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT BUSINESS POLITICS) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA - RTR3EL55

One could turn the argument around to suggest the solar panel people are being forced to subsidize the pollution created by non-solar energy users. But until some sort of price is put on carbon, that argument has only modest traction.

Nonetheless, we should keep making it.

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