Getting more done locally

We’re going to find ourselves, in the years ahead, having to rely more and more on the places immediately around us and the people therein.

Peak capital, peak energy, etc. are already biting into the ability of globalised or national-scale anything to function reliably and cheaply. As times move on it will become harder and harder to keep big entities moving smoothly: local initiative will again be able to compete.

Fortunately, there are positive signs on the horizon.

We all know, for instance, how hard it is to get an adequate but safe return on savings today. Zero interest rate policies are in place to allow heavily indebted governments to survive, alongside the broken financial institutions they’ve supported. Meanwhile, our pensions, and our investments, pay the price.

Here in Ontario, a not-for-profit cooperative venture has been formed to create more renewable energy sources. You can buy one of their bonds — five year term, 5% per annum investment — and the coupon is underwritten by their contract that requires the Ontario power grid to buy all they produce at a price that’s been negotiated. Safe, secure — and our communities get more stable power for the future.

What’s not said in the mix is that this has also created a few jobs that would fit well into a portfolio approach to working, or for managerial types that have been dumped into the street by a large organisation downsizing the plus-fifty contingent to save a dollar or two.

In other words, it’s not just the power generation, or the ability to earn a decent yet safe return close to home (where frauds and computer glitches in the high-frequency trading world can’t suddenly decimate your account). It’s about the model: form something local to do something proper and useful, do it in a way that locks in pricing for a defined period of time (much like, say, community supported agriculture does for farming and food production), create a few jobs running the service, and providing not only needed infrastructure and life improvements locally but offering a way for people to save safely.

This is part of a much bigger change sweeping over our societies, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Government will not be the answer to our problems.

Government is institutionally strained, bankrupt, and not agile enough to reinvent the macro-economy in this way.

When Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams laid this out in Macrowikinomics — this notion of reinvention of the world one piece at a time, using the power of collaboration and networks to rethink how we do things — part of what they had in mind was certainly the idea of reindustrialising the world as well. In other words, at the end, we’d have things operating at similar scales to what we’ve got today, but working more appropriately for the conditions we face.

I’m not at all sanguine about that. I think scale is part of our problem.

We wouldn’t, with SolarShare, for instance (the solar power not-for-profit described a moment ago), be better served by SolarShare growing to national and global scale.

Far better would be for a thousand or more SolarShares to bloom, each tailoring themselves to a community and its needs. The point, after all, isn’t about using a feed-in tariff and power generation contract to good effect: it’s about meeting a need in a way that serves the community.

For instance, the big missing element with both wind and solar solutions is power storage. Electrical grids are an odd duck: power in must match power out. If the sun is blazing — or the wind is blowing — and the demand isn’t there, the supply can’t be, either. Meanwhile, on a still day, or in the middle of the night, there might be demand galore, but no supply.

Storing power — think of what a battery does — is the bridge element that’s needed.

Now Tapscott and Williams talk about the Frasers of 75 Ravina Crescent in Toronto, who have spent the past six years exploring the facets of being energy independent. They’re installed generation capabilities on their 1920s-vintage house. They’ve also insulated, put in batteries, etc. They’re looking at this as an experiment, and have kept (and made openly available) years of data on how much generation they get, how well their storage bridges are working, what their demands are, what actions they took changed and how … and they’ve established just how much would be possible.

But here’s the thing: the reason they’re not grid-independent, yet, is that problem of storage.

Anyone who’s ever run a major data centre knows what batteries are like: to deal in any quantities of power, they need to be types like lead-acid. Big, bulky, very heavy, special ventilation required, a host of issues in maintaining them.

There’s only so much you can do on a house-by-house basis.

Ah, but what if there was a community power generator coupled with a community storage facility? Now we might get somewhere.

That same facility could have a “car borrow” facility attached — a ZipCar or Autoshare type location — using 100% electric vehicles. Charging could occur on the spot.

Take a corner lot in a neighbourhood, put this on the property (instead of the house that’s there), serve the needs of a block or two. Replicate as needed.

Everything very local, everything scaled to fit, well within the carrying capacity of a community. Plus work.

Let’s start thinking outside the box of “someone else needs to do this”.

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