Solar Power and Decentralization

November 9, 2011

The move away from big, centralized, massive-scale organization seems to be on. The Internet gives us an archetype of the decentralized, horizontally organized entity that thrives without a hierarchical structure of authority. It is mirrored in political movements such as the Occupy movement, whose birth it midwifed, as well as in many economic developments.

All this is a roundabout way to say something about energy production, but bear with me, please.

We are nearing the end of the fossil fuel era. The peak of oil is approaching (or here), and all forms of fossil fuels are becoming harder (and more environmentally destructive) to extract as the easily reachable deposits are exhausted. In addition, climate change is making energy sources other than fossil fuels increasingly attractive. Solar power is high on the list of alternatives.

But what’s interesting about solar power, aside from its green credentials and inexhaustible supply, is that it lends itself much like the Internet to a decentralized approach, with less in the way of large-scale mass production of energy and more in the way of energy produced for the individual home or commercial building. It is literally power produced on the roof and behind the garage door rather than in the megawatt-generating centralized power utility.

This is not to say that there will be no centralized solar power generation in our future. The difference is one of degree and not of absolutes.

Solar power is inherently diffuse. The amount of sunlight falling on the planet is enough to meet the entire energy demand of the whole human race some 8,700 times over, but it’s spread out over the whole planet and most of it goes to keep the water liquid and feed plant life. Because solar energy is so widely spread out, it lends itself to small-scale, decentralized application rather than to large-scale, concentrated power production.

We see this already in the market for solar power, which is dominated by smaller-scale installations. As the price of photovoltaic cells and solar panels continues to drop, the attractiveness of a home solar system that can supplement and partially replace energy from the commercial grid continues to increase. In a nicely logical move given the Internet/solar power parallel noted above, Google is investing $75 million to offer home solar systems to homeowners for either no money down or very little down, with the company receiving a fee for the power generated, which is expected to be equal to or less than their current power costs.

The economy of the future is likely to feature solar power generation as a standard feature of every building in most parts of the country and, as a result, greatly reduced centralized power generation. In the production of electricity as in other areas, it will be a less centralized world.

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Photo credit:  Some rights reserved by mechanikat



Chris Keenan

is a green and general blog writer. He also maintains a personal cooking blog.