Monday, March 02, 2009

Towards a Scale-Free Energy Policy

With gas and oil prices far below recent highs, and the nation’s attention turned to the “financial crisis,” energy policy is no longer in the political spotlight. But for a variety of reasons, such as the relentless march of depletion and the effect of low prices on investment in future oil and gas production and the development of renewable sources, there has never been a greater need for a bold new energy policy.

But energy policy is not the only crisis that we face. Far from it. More than a brilliant new political solution to our energy problems, what our civilization truly needs is to adopt a bold new process for developing political solutions in the first place. We need a process for developing political solutions that doesn’t depend on someone else to solve our problems for us, but that simultaneously allows people with more power to carry a commensurately larger share of the burden. We need a process for developing political solutions that increases systemic resiliency, rather than driving ever lower civilizational marginal returns on investments in hierarchal complexity. We need a process that leverages parallel information processing and develops locally-appropriate solutions, rather than clinging to the Nation-State fantasy that a single state solution can adequately serve a monolithic “nation.”

In short, we need to implement a system of scale-free design.

Scale-free design describes a process that operates similarly at any scale, at any level of organization, that is fractal in structure. It is neither grass-roots nor top-down, but rather consciously, simultaneously “all of the above.” More than that, rather than merely a collection of separate national, local, and individual programs, it strives to develop programs and practices that operate simultaneously at all these levels. A simple example would be the achievement of 25% energy self-sufficiency—that is, for individuals to produce 25% of their energy needs domestically, for communities to produce a further 25% of their energy needs locally, etc.

Scale-free policies provide all the benefits listed above. A scale-free energy policy does not reinforce a top-down structure of society, but rather builds resiliency by increasing self-sufficiency at all level and eliminating single points of system failure and the potential for cascading failures. For those who have read my writings on rhizome, it is a process that is fundamentally compatible with both our present political structure and with a rhizome alternative, and that can help to foster just such a “diagonal.” Rather than increasing the hierarchal nature of our civilization, it presents the potential to facilitate a more networked, peer-to-peer version of society—critical in an age of resource constraints because this at least reduces our structural need for perpetual growth. Additionally, scale-free processes abandon the antiquated, serial method of innovation and information processing favored by traditional politics (the “cathedral”) and instead leverage parallel processing, a “bazaar” of innovation. The result is that, rather than trying one solution until we can confirm that it fails to meet our diverse demands, we simultaneously develop thousands of solutions that are tuned to our many separate needs, and then share what works, what doesn’t, where, and why for the next iteration.

Scale-free energy policy promises all of these benefits. Such a policy will also focus on renewable sources and simple, vernacular technologies where possible. While renewable, carbon-neutral sources are not a strict requirement, any honest search for resilient solutions must avoid those “solutions” that actually do nothing more than shift the timing or mode of our crisis. Similarly, a solution cannot be truly scale-free, and does not provide the promised resiliency, if it does actually enhances an individual’s or community’s reliance on technologies or materials that it cannot itself produce. This is not an orthodoxy that individual solutions must not use metals they cannot mine and smelt themselves, as an extreme example, but rather suggests a guiding principle that simplicity—of materials, construction, operation, and repair—appropriate to the level of organization is yet another means of enhancing long-term resiliency.

This notion of scale-free design is applicable to many political problems: the fundamental structure of our economy, our system of law and norm-enforcement, our military tactics, etc. While I plan to elaborate on specifics of a scale-free energy policy in the near future, today I’ll briefly outline a pragmatic approach to this theory. A scale-free energy policy should, at a minimum, invoke simultaneous actions at the individual (household), community, regional, and national level. It should not focus exclusively on only conservation or generation at any of those levels, but instead realize that 1) generation (in whatever form) is necessary on every level, 2) conservation is similarly necessary, but 3) conservation must be approached with an understanding that picking the low-hanging fruit first (the highest elasticity demand) is counter-productive in that it actually reduces the overall systemic elasticity. These ends can be achieved through tax-breaks, direct subsidy or works programs, and (not to be neglected) simple explanation and coordination (public-private partnership, state-federal cooperation, etc.). More important than describing specific programs at this point (at least in a post intended to explain the scale-free design process) is the statement of a simple imperative: every action, at every level, should be conceived and executed within this scale-free framework. What that means is that people don’t need to wait for their government to get with the program: any level can independently implement a scale-free solution, part of which includes advocating its adoption at other levels…


Jeff Vail said...

A quick follow-up: I've seen a few comments about the need to reap economies of scale by centralizing our efforts--both in energy policy and in general. While I agree that economy of scale is important, it carries with it the usually undisclosed issue of increased information processing burden. I discussed this here. I also discussed a general theory of "anti-economies" (independence, simplicity, diversity, and ontogeny) here.

That said, one of the key benefits of the scale-free approach is that it leverages economies of scale by using massively parallel processes (economy of scale in information processing and best-practice sharing) without requiring participants commit to dealing with information processing overload. It does not, admittedly, leverage economy of scale when individuals produce solar power or food, for example, rather than using giant industrial farms. But it does avoid the massive inefficiencies of information processing required for those industrial scales (not to mention the political results that necessarily follow...).

In my mind, scale-free provides the best appraoch to balancing the benefits of economy of scale with the burden of operation on such a scale...

Kotare said...

I like the idea of a scale-free energy policy, Jeff, but feel that it would work most effectively (at the individual and local level) with energy conservation rather than generation.

It's fairly simple to save energy; it's more difficult to generate energy, particularly through renewable means, and if the parameters of an energy policy include using only technology that is developed nearby (as you seem to be suggesting).

The other risk is that people will burn wood or coal...

Nick said...

For the sake of discussion why not allow homeowners to burn biomass or even coal for electrical/heating use? There would of course have to be some rules like for starters homeowners would need to meet the same emission standards as large utilities.

In the case of coal 60-70% of our electrical power comes from this source anyways, if done on a distributed basis it would probably reduce overall coal use since they would not incur line losses and additionally the waste heat from the cycle could heat the home.
Finally I suspect overall costs would be much lower as the homeowner is no longer paying for the large corporate overhead a utility carries.

The case for distributed biomass makes much more sense, as mentioned above you eliminate line losses and allow for cogeneration. These are significant increases in efficiency, for a centralized power plant you may have 35-40% cycle efficiency to the line and by the time it reaches the homeowner you may have 17-20% efficiency. On site cogeneration can have overall efficiencies of 90%.

To ensure clean burning of biomass I’d lean towards using pyrolysis to produce biooil. This makes for economical field to home transport with 15X energy densification; home boilers can also be tuned to burn this very cleanly. More importantly pyrolysis allows the use of any sustainable grown feedstock from grass to wood. This method has a very positive net return on energy invested as opposed to conventional biofuels, furthermore if the right feedstocks are used (woody crops) carbon sequestration is occurring.

Robert said...

It certainly seems a good idea and the statement of the goal as a percent leaves wide open the possibility of energy conservation knowing that using less energy while producing some of your own energy would also work toward the goal. But it seems to my limited observation of western society that few communities produce even small fractions of their own energy and the handful of locations that do produce massive amounts of energy to feed the others; those communities do not take their energy needs out until after it has been gathered in the collective pool so that the current system of energy distribution maintains the power of control in a relatively small group of individuals and governing bodies and to institute a system that would massively reduce the dependency of individual communities on the central agency/ies would take away much of that controlling power. It also seems to my limited observation of society around me specifically in the USA that the real governing control of communities is essentially distributed through and maintained by their local branches of applicable bureaucracies and where are the bureaucracies that have ever quietly reduced themselves when their purpose has been fulfilled or redistributed?

Jeff Vail said...

My response to Kotare, at his blog The Strategist:

I agree that it is far easier for individuals and smaller communities to focus initially on conservation/efficiency rather than generation. Two points in defense of keeping the focus on generation:

1. If we define "energy" very broadly, then it becomes easier for individuals and communities to focus on generation. For example, local gardening and food production, rainwater harvesting, solar PV on the roof, solar hot water heating, and enacting building codes that require certain elements of passive solar design can all be seen as "generation" to a certain extent. These are very much within reach of individuals and communities.

2. Precisely because conservation and efficiency are the "low-hanging fruit" in an individual's or community's energy picture, there are dangers in picking them first. Specifically, by tackling the easy solutions first, we leave the more difficult to implement solutions for later. The result is that our aggregate energy demand becomes less elastic--and our system becomes more brittle (see longer discussion of this here: If we knew that we would always have the same amount of seed-capital and seed-energy to embark on these solutions, then that would be fine. However, because of the very realistic possibility that we'll have less ability to implement solutions in the future, rather than more, we should focus first on the more difficult options.

I'm certainly not suggesting that we avoid conservation or efficiency, but rather that we focus our limited political, economic, and energy capital on producing distributed, renewable, carbon-neutral generation first precisely because it will be more difficult to accomplish, and because, while it will be a challenge, it may never be as easy as it will be right now...

Tom said...


I don't know enough about scale-free policies, but your (and others) comments about "anti-economies" and local level action strike a chord.

Thirty years ago, my company built small scale water purification systems for a very bright man in Sacramento, California. He was focussed on the small scale (single house level) because his business plan showed that it was more cost effective than 'community scale' or larger systems in spite of their 'economies of scale'. What the economies of scale rarely consider is the question of 'change'. The smaller the scale, the faster, easier and less expensive it is to change. His example worked for water as I think would be the case for energy. If a contaminant was found in the water system for a city, the entire system would have to be scrubbed or replaced before pure water could again be safely transported. With small scale systems, nothing need be done to the huge system since the contaminant could be removed at the point of use.
With energy, small wind, small solar, passive solar, etc. are all independent of transmission systems. As such, they are (as you point out) less vulnerable to single points of failure and are more easily adapted to changing needs.
The current talk of huge wind farms is a classic example that points out why you are right on this. If we did overcome the bureaucratic hurdles to actually install such a system, it would take many years to come on line and we lack the transmission system to distribute the generated power. I contend that we can have a bigger effect if we do more small scale projects at the point of use avoiding the huge cost of building/maintaining the transmission system.

michelle said...

Jeff - I agree with your scale free energy concept. This is why I set up - as a learning resource for those of us with more "power" to become more energy self-sufficient. People need to see working, feasible models to adopt. The Solar PV solution - for example - if enough of us with "power" adopt this with grid tie systems - we actually become part of the power producing grids in our local communities. Local communities can make it easier for people with "power" to create their own power with their local zoning laws, tax assessment policies, and building codes. It will be the people with "power" who will create the models that others can eventually adopt - this is why it's important for those of us who have the minds and the resources (i.e. the power) to step up to the plate and work on becoming individually energy self-sufficient. Bravo for a GREAT piece of work here!

Michelle LaBrosse, MSME, PMP
Founder Cheetah Power

Ryan said...

This is in response to Kotare.

I think that when people have to generate some of their own electricity and see how difficult it is to do so, they will be properly incentivized to conserve.

Like when I was a boy, and my folks made me work a menial job for my spending money, I realized what the proper value/trade off of that spending money was. As a result, I didn't work more, I spent less, because I valued my leisure time more than I did buying things.

If we just say we want people to conserve, but continue to offer them cheap electricity, where is the incentive? The other "central planning" solution is increased taxes on electricity. But if the goal is individual independance and robust communities, then being responsible for some of your own generation is the key. In many ways it is "back to the future" to a time where water wheels and wind power was commonplace.

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