When I started my research into telework my goal was to reduce the time and energy spent in the daily commute to work in a world where commute distances and times were steadily increasing. As global warming accelerates it is time to look at the bigger picture: energy tradeoffs in a distributed world.
At the heart of this concept are distributed networks as initially developed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense (now called DARPA). Their core idea was that, to avoid being shut down by attacks on key facilities, distribute and interconnect the facilities so that removal of one or more won’t affect the operation of the whole network. The system just works its way around the damage point. The Internet grew from that start.
Here’s a brief look at four types of network-related tradeoffs in the world’s growing dominance of electricity.
Of course the first substitution in my research was: telecommunications for travel. Originally, I was focused on commuting because that was where the greatest impact was: tens of millions of information workers telecommuting instead of commuting by car or mass transit. Significant reduction in energy use was likely just from that. Longer distance work-related travel was a lesser impact at the time.
The covid pandemic played a major role in overcoming management’s objections to telecommuting. Now, while some management resistance remains, the 2020 mass-move out of offices persists, hovering around half of working days. It is still hard to see the impact on energy use because “normal” statistics aren’t sufficiently fine-grained. Teleworking is also growing in importance as a business travel substitute
A second significant substitution is: electricity for fossil fuels. In my neighborhood in California it often seems that electric vehicles (EVs) are the dominant means of personal transportation. Types of vehicles, such as battery-electric, hybrid gas-electric and hydrogen-electric, are rapidly supplanting fossil-fueled cars and small trucks as they become less expensive. Electric large trucks will soon make their appearance on the highways. These trends will continue to grow in the near future. The result will be decreasing demand for fossil fuels and increasing demand for the minerals supporting the electrification trend.
A third major substitution is: distributed versus central electrical power. Solar electric power from rooftop arrays is a growing means of relieving peak usage stress on power grids, particularly in southern latitudes. As solar arrays continue to grow in efficiency and decrease in price the substitutions will spread farther away from equatorial latitudes. Developments in batteries and other energy storage systems will grow to complement the limitations of solar and wind power. Central power providers will be able to have systems that are much less sized by peak demand and consequently are more efficient. Coal will disappear as a fuel for central power stations, followed by natural gas (although at a slower rate).
Fourth, an important tradeoff is between regional and national power grids. The tradeoffs are both in connectivity and versatility. The 2021 power grid failure in Texas is an exemplar of the problem. The United States comprises several independent power grids that have limited, if any, ability to interconnect in cases of disaster. If a national power grid had been in place at the time, the Texas power plant failures would not have had such a major impact. Similarly, if there had been widespread ability to support the grid by renewable energy sources, accompanied by backup storage, the crisis might never have occurred.
Consider Russia’s continuing efforts to destroy Ukraine’s power grid as another example. Ukraine is busily replacing and/or moving destroyed power plants to keep the grid intact. A robust, distributed system is vital for survival of a democratic, independent country.
The rosy picture of possibilities just outlined comes with many ways of impeding their development. For example, the spread of telecommuting was impeded by management resistance for decades after it was proven to have net benefits for all concerned. It took a pandemic to shake out the deniers. Fear of change is powerful in many situations.
Electric vehicle production has reached a point where prices are attractive, at least for well-to-do and/or highly motivated customers. Prices will continue to drop as the major manufacturers get their acts together. EV automation still has a way to go until it can be seen as safe for most customers. Figure another few years. Steadily increasing demand for EVs seems to be certain, hopefully in time for significant decreases in demand for fossil fuels. All this despite continuing resistance from the fossil fuel industry.
Solar and wind power installations have ben growing rapidly in the past decade. The Inflation Reduction Act will supply incentives for even greater growth if it is accompanied by some regulatory reform. Regulations are a definite impediment to growth of these technologies, particularly at the state and local levels. Nimbyism* is flourishing there.
Regulation is also a significant impediment to the growth of a national energy grid. Like some wind and solar power plans it can delay new construction for decades. Serious attention must be given to the layers of bureaucracy now required for a coherent plan.
The point now is: what next? You can:
- Keep on, or start, telecommuting, teleworking, remote working or whatever you care to call it. Adjust your schedule to benefit all concerned.
- Trade in your car for an EV.
- Get solar or wind power for your house or implore your landlord to get it.
- Require your Pubic Utilities Commission to make/enforce rules to quickly reduce all types of fossil fuel use for electrical power production.
- Implore Congress and the federal state and local governments to get organized in development and execution of an adaptive, unbreakable national power grid.
If all this happens on schedule we may actually make to zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030
*Nimby = Not In My Back Yard