Building a community around renewable energy

Lately I’ve been thinking about what it would look like for an entire community to go “off the grid” and power itself exclusively with renewable energy sources.

Critics of renewable energy are quick to point out that the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. A more savvy critique of renewables focuses on the challenge of “green” energy storage: lithium for batteries is the “new oil”; there’s an environmental cost to its extraction and processing, and a geopolitical cost to taking it from the places that have it and giving it to the places that want it.

But both of these critiques are more relevant to attempts to increase the use of renewable sources in a conventional power grid. What if we went back to the drawing board and considered how to make society work while only using renewable energy?

One of the challenges of running the contemporary power grid is that demand varies through the day, and the energy sources need to be kept in careful balance to match production to this demand. Electricity demand peaks in the early evening when solar power is unavailable¹. Yet the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors each account for roughly one third of energy demand². Sure, we deserve to light our homes at night, but what if in the evening, “commercial” consumption was reduced significantly, and “industrial” consumption was slashed to nearly nothing?

Plenty of people have taken their homes “off the grid”, but I’d be much more interested in seeing an entire community attempt it, because a sufficiently large community will have a need of “industry”. Imagine a community that’s entirely reliant on renewable energy choosing to yoke industrial activities entirely to power availability. This arrangement is unthinkable under capitalism because the capitalist order demands that workers spend most of their waking days selling their labor.

But if we move away from this paradigm of work — and we won’t avoid the worst impacts of climate change without doing so — these things become possible. Personally, I’d gladly trade away some of the rigid predictability of my work hours for a drastic reduction in their number³. I bet most people would take this bargain; when you add consensus-based decision making about what work needs to be done, it feels positively utopian⁴.

Traditional industrial activities, like milling lumber and textiles, seem like an easy target — and it makes sense to start there because even small communities need building materials and clothing. But this approach can go well beyond those. For instance, if we deem it necessary to carry on an amount of computation similar to what we do now, this too can be scaled with power availability⁵. Traditional approaches to supercomputing applications already provide a template workflow for submitting jobs and fetching the results after resources have become available to run them. There’s no reason this approach can’t be extended to applications like software compilation, video compression, machine learning model training/tuning, and other smaller but still demanding tasks.

Let’s make hay while the sun shines.

¹ This relationship is called “the duck curve”.

² Info from the EPA

Note that environmental uses like lighting, HVAC, and water heating account for less than half of residential use. If people reduce their use of appliances in the evening — for instance, because they weren’t at work all day — evening residential electricity use can also be reduced. HVAC and water heating related consumption can be further reduced by designing houses that are comfortable and efficient in the environment in which they are built.

³ To clarify, I’m not using “work” in the physics sense, but in the vernacular one. Here, work means doing something you don’t want to do because you feel compelled to do it. Washing the dishes is “work”, but taking a shower when you feel dirty isn’t.

⁴ Some people would rather not let anyone have a say in how they spend their time (although many such people seem to have a blind spot for the coercion inherent in our current society). Still, I do feel that these folks should be left free to go “off the grid” in the traditional sense, on their own, if they please.

⁵ I first encountered the idea of scaling computing to power availability in Viznut’s “Permacomputing” piece.