Democratizing Energy Systems: An Opportunity for Planners as Cities Renew Commitment to Paris Climate Accord?

This post was originally published on the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACPS) blogs on June 19th and discusses the role of planners in advancing and supporting democratic ideals around local or grassroots energy initiatives occurring across the country.

Please check out their other posts written by PhD students, candidates and faculty members in planning schools and departments.

The absence of a national climate policy and the politics of denying anthropocentric climate change in the US have resulted in a number of states and cities stepping in to fill this ‘federal leadership vacuum’ (Byrne, Hughes, Rickerson, & Kurdgelashvili, 2007). Increasing number of states and cities are now encouraging distributed energy generation through on-site residential solar PV systems, not only by promoting the use of state and federal funds (tax rebates, tax credits and subsidies etc.), but also by overriding neighborhood restrictions on road-facing solar PV installations and especially by legislating net-metering policies. As such, with cities becoming the venues for celebrating the benefits of decentralized energy systems (DES) (Adil & Ko, 2016), the social and material changes accompanying their widespread adoption by energy consumers across cities, especially through solar PV and thermal technologies, presents unique challenges and opportunities for planners and local policymakers. Not only can planners help resolve land use conflicts — space limitations and siting issues (see Kaza & Curtis, 2014), they can also help democratize the energy sector by facilitating greater social capital and community cohesion around socio-technical issues pertaining to localizing energy systems (Hoffman & High-Pippert, 2005).

However, inasmuch as the outcome of promoting adoption of DES is economically and environmentally progressive, the rise of grid-tied energy producing consumers in a market-oriented sector has unintended socially regressive consequences. As more energy customers either reduce their consumption of retail electricity partially or curtail it altogether in what is referred to as ‘grid defection’ (Bronski et al., 2014), the utility serving them faces revenue losses. Where such losses are rendered unrecoverable, the cost burden to the utility is shifted to the remainder of its customers, in a classic move of ‘rent shifting’ i.e. shifting of unrecoverable cost burden onto the consumer (Borenstein & Bushnell, 2015). In this way, as retail electricity rates climb, solar PV technology reaches cost parity (Rickerson, 2014), but — and here is the catch — only for those utility customers who can afford it. In industry parlance, this is ominously called ‘utility death spiral’ (Kind, 2013) or ‘spiral of rate death’ (Blackburn, Magee, & Rai, 2014), which creates a victim of another, more vulnerable group besides electric power utilities — low and middle-income energy consumers.

Contrasting this with the social position electric utilities had acquired in the early days of the energy sector — i.e. as regulated entities providing a public good (Hirsh, 2002) — presents an unfortunate and unintended outcome. However, the extent to which such an outcome is in fact unintended is also questionable given that ‘rent shifting’ is something that the utilities are already accused of pursuing (Borenstein & Bushnell, 2015; Boyd, 1996). In light of these contexts and concerns, the choices facing local governments and planners in terms of whom to side with — utilities or consumers — constitutes the crux of local and state-level energy politics.

Emerging against this state of affairs, are communities of energy consumers that are advocating for a paradigm shift in order to reclaim electricity as a public good (ILSR, 2016). There are however no simple or standard answers here because of the disparate and overlapping impact of local, state and federal policies for any given community and the different set of local environmental conditions influencing their technology choices. In my research, I look at grassroots responses from energy communities which aim to affect outcomes ranging from energy independence for single homeowners to energy democracy for whole communities. Whereas the former draws on the ideals of national energy security put forward in response to the energy crisis of the 70s, the latter is a new civic movement that draws on a broad set of principles which promote socially just and inclusive wellbeing across class and racial divides, encourage environmental protection through context-appropriate use of emerging technologies and more critically, pursue a more democratic and equitable model of economy (New Economy Coalition, 2015).

Therefore, a transition from incumbent to emergent energy systems based on renewable energy technologies (RET) is bound to unfold along varying modes of governance and social organization models — from the ones benefiting individual consumers to those empowering entire communities. The fate of a truly democratic energy sector, where everyone benefits — i.e. an energy sector which is equitable and just as it is sustainable — is decidedly predicated upon the cumulative interactions between diverse community grassroots initiatives and the top-down socio-technical, regulatory and political contexts facing them.

As RET take a firmer hold of local retail energy markets with efficient storage systems and interoperable electric vehicles, urban energy planning ought to be concerned with who benefits and who loses in the ongoing pursuit for alternate energy systems (Miller & Richter, 2014; Shove & Walker, 2007, 2008). Since the take-off of residential solar PV in urban locations across the country, several investor-owned utilities have filed for rate changes with their respective State Utility Commissions citing the undue burden to customers who have not or cannot install solar PV. As fair and equitable as this sounds, with utilities claiming to remedy ‘rent shifting’ to non-solar PV customers by requiring solar PV owners to pay more under the revised rates, siding with utilities would be an egregious error (Pentland, 2017). While there is no doubt that once resolved, most likely in favor energy consumers — solar and non-solar, the question of planning for local energy projects in coordination with other infrastructure systems like transport, water and build environment will at least partially land in planners’ list of things to do. Yet, most planning programs across the US continue to graduate planners who remain untrained in key technical aspects as well as social issues surrounding ongoing energy systems transitions. Despite Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, much to the world’s dismay, there may still be light at the end of the tunnel with several mayors committing to the accord anyway (Domonske, 2017; Walker, 2017). The question that I seek to raise, as cities continue to combat the climate challenge, is: are planners equipped enough to tackle to the socio-technical challenges that new technologies and accompanying regulatory and intuitional contexts? or will the professional planner continue to remain subordinate to the electrical/civil/mechanical/environmental engineer?

Works Cited

Adil, A. M., & Ko, Y. (2016). Socio-technical evolution of Decentralized Energy Systems: A critical review and implications for urban planning and policy. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 57. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2015.12.079

Blackburn, G., Magee, C., & Rai, V. (2014). Solar Valuation and the Modern Utility’s Expansion into Distributed Generation. Electricity Journal, 27(1), 18–32. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tej.2013.12.002

Borenstein, S., & Bushnell, J. (2015). The U.S. Electricity Industry after 20 Years of Restructuring (No. 252R).

Boyd, J. (1996). The “regulatory compact” and implicit contracts: should stranded costs be recoverable? Energy Journal, 19(3), 69–83.

Bronski, P., Creyts, J., Guccione, L., Madrazo, M., Mandel, J., Rader, B., & Seif, D. (2014). The Economics of Grid Defection.

Byrne, J., Hughes, K., Rickerson, W., & Kurdgelashvili, L. (2007). American policy conflict in the greenhouse: Divergent trends in federal, regional, state, and local green energy and climate change policy. Energy Policy, 35(9), 4555–4573. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2007.02.028

Domonske, C. (2017). Mayors, Companies Vow To Act On Climate, Even As U.S. Leaves Paris Accord. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/05/531603731/mayors-companies-vow-to-act-on-climate-even-as-u-s-leaves-paris-accord

Hirsh, R. F. (2002). Power Loss: The Origins of Deregulation and Restructuring in the American Electric Utility System. MIT Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=LrDxPgAACAAJ

Hoffman, S. M., & High-Pippert, A. (2005). Community Energy: A Social Architecture for an Alternative Energy Future. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 25(5), 387–401. http://doi.org/10.1177/0270467605278880

ILSR. (2016). Introducing the Community Power Map | Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Retrieved January 15, 2017, from https://ilsr.org/introducing-the-community-power-map/

Kaza, N., & Curtis, M. P. (2014). The Land Use Energy Connection. Journal of Planning Literature, 29(4), 1–16. http://doi.org/10.1177/0885412214542049

Kind, P. (2013). Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business. Retrieved from http://www.eei.org/ourissues/finance/documents/disruptivechallenges.pdf

Miller, C. A., & Richter, J. (2014). Social Planning for Energy Transitions. Current Sustainable/Renewable Energy Reports, (September), 77–84. http://doi.org/10.1007/s40518-014-0010-9

New Economy Coalition. (2015). What is Energy Democracy and Why Does It Matter? – YouTube. New Economy Coalition. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uE8FWors3TU&list=PLEJWmLm4zo60WE5ubklvf_gRFioJjcHbl&index=8

Pentland, W. (2017). Why the net metering fight is a red herring for utilities | Utility Dive. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from http://www.utilitydive.com/news/why-the-net-metering-fight-is-a-red-herring-for-utilities/307061/

Rickerson, W. (2014). Residential prosumers – drivers and policy options (re-prosumers).

Shove, E., & Walker, G. (2007). Caution! Transition ahead: policies, practice, and sustainable transition management. Environment and Planning A, 39, 763–770. http://doi.org/10.1068/a39310

Shove, E., & Walker, G. (2008). Transition management and the politics of shape shifting. Environment and Planning A, 40(4), 1012–1014.

Walker, A. (2017). 246 mayors adopt Paris climate accord after U.S. pulls out (updated). Retrieved June 6, 2017, from https://www.curbed.com/2017/6/1/15726376/paris-accord-climate-change-mayors-trump

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How to be a postmodernist in practice?

It is troubling to say the least that the country that claimed itself to be the paragon of progress and civilization is crumbling at its very foundations under the influence of, to put it simply, pure b.s.

Besides the obvious ones — the US and the UK, it wouldn’t be that far fetched to impute a number of other North American, European as well as Asian countries into the above statement, for having achieved the alleged “greatness” that they did, there are gross injustices and unparalleled inequities being relentless produced and normalized across all nation states. In the spirit of being comprehensive, I would say that the statement also fits some of the Middle Eastern petroleum corporations masquerading as countries.

There are but a few simple ways one can seek to master the skill of spinning pure b.s. Evidence for these can be easily teased from 3 to 5 minute clips from any news media which are just about enough to grab the attention of viewers with ever-shrinking attention spans and ever expanding need for instantaneous gratification. Political discourse becomes “tea” that is “spilled” and videos of partisan bickering are titled as ‘one party affiliate CRUSHING, DEMOLISHING, DESTROYING the opponent party affiliate.’

But I digress.

Spinning pure b.s., right!

or simply the art of becoming a postmodernist who speaks and behaves in a manner that unravels the semblance of objectivity, offering no clarity on positions taken or any recourse to any solid rational foundation from which to adjudicate responsibility and place blame.

Step 1: Your statements or utterances should be able absorb just about any meaning that your audience wants to infer. 

This clip from Last Week Tonight shows how easy it is to project whatever meaning one desires into statements that themselves have no clear meaning.

This skill is not just the forte of individuals who are the subject of the above clip, but is quite prevalent among people who hold positions of power across our public institutions. Just like the word, HOPE, ironically the theme of a preceding political campaign, can be made to have different meanings depending on the circumstance, I’ve come across individuals in my educational career in the US, who I would typically have respected, but who are hypocrite enough to change the meaning of their statements to suit the context in which they are asked to justify them.

Step 2: Stand behind grand visions that are as broad and vague as possible but which are idealistically appealing to the sensibilities of those who are desperately seeking a change in the status quo. 

I will admit that there would be nothing wrong with such grand and ambitious visions had they been rooted in verifiable truths (problematic, I know but inescapable) and supported by clear and concise goals, with outcomes that can be measured or at least assessed periodically to take us from where we are to where we need to be under the dictates of the vision. When those in-charge of steering the course for the rest of us are deliberately vague and imprecise about their plan, and who create artificial platforms of engagement and dialog to give a mere impression of participation, such individuals do not, in earnest, hold themselves responsible for the eventual outcomes. They are in it just for themselves, seeking one position after another, failing to stay put and accomplishing what they intended atond had claimed to achieve in the first place.

This clip from the Late Night shows how the ‘drain the swamp’ mantra, one of the few grand visions, turned out to be a clever verbal ploy when the ‘swamp’ was not only rehabilitated but reinvigorated by the inclusion of the vilest creatures ever to inhabit it.

Step 3: Create a tight-knit circle of loyalists, the core group, connected as if like a network of hemorrhoidal nerves, who legitimize your agenda while making sure that they too gain from their involvement in your self-centered endeavor. 

In what can only be described as ‘bizarre’, this clip shows how difficult it can be to witness undeserved adulation, whether it be of the unhinged individual in the position of the highest office in the country or an egotistical maniac occupying the position of a state government employee.

There is much to be learned from postmodernism politics as well as loathed about postmodern individuals who paint a pretty picture of the future, encouraging the desperate and intellectually meek to dream, recruiting their viciousness to advance their personal agenda, but ultimately leaving these very recruits to fend for themselves in a situation much worse that they were previously in.

Anti-neoliberalism: The undercurrent in JNU protests

Read the indented paragraphs chronologically to know about the key events of JNU protests. Read the whole text for context behind them.

Incident #3: A student leader, PhD student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), got arrested under charges of sedition for allowing anti-national slogans at a student event organized in commemoration of a dead convict, the legitimacy of whose indictment and subsequent conviction (capital punishment) by the then Indian government, UPA (coalition of secular, so-called left wing political parties), continues to be questioned within activist and academic circles. Soon after, student protests erupted while calls to shut the university down were made in the mainstream and social media.

That happens to be one point in the evolution of the story as it unfolds in India with continued protests by students and teach-ins by faculty at JNU, which is one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Inasmuch as this situation seems endogenous to India, it hardly is because the underlying sentiment expressed in the speeches by Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of JNU Student Union (JNUSU), Shehla Rashid, the vice president and others is that of anti-neoliberalism.

Incident #1: Late last year, the BJP (right-wing, anti-secular, fundamentalists) sought to enforce a rule that would slash funding of post-graduate fellowships (for Master’s and PhD students) without explanation of the reasoning behind it. The decision undertaken by the University Grants Commission (UGC), a statuary body of the Government of India tasked with the maintaining university education standards in the country, reflected a deep lack of concern for the financial conditions of students, particularly low-income students.While the decision was later overturned, the stipulations under which students could secure fellowships was modified to introduce eligibility restrictions leaving a number of students at a disadvantage, particularly low-income and minority students.

For many students disadvantaged by UGC’s decision, the answer was agitation and protest under the #occupyUCG movement. By breaking down of the university system, by siphoning the already meager funds and resources, the government seeks to to cultivate student dissatisfaction with public universities that creates spaces for private ones, owned and operated by foreign conglomerates competing on the Indian education market; a commodification of education as in the west. Something that is bound to hurt the most economically vulnerable sections of the Indian society, against whom discrimination is already in full assault mode.

Incident #2: In January this year, the suicide note of a PhD, this time from my city, rocked the campus of Hyderabad Central University (HCU) on accounts of discrimination against dalits (lower-caste Hindus). Rohit’s crime, in the eyes of HCU administration and the government, apart from being a dalit was his participation in protesting for screening a movie that was disagreeable to the higher caste Hindus on campus. One thing led to another, until his suspension under a false pretext and accusation of being anti-national and casteist materialized his suicide — because what is a 26 year old to do when his academic career, on which hinged his entire family’s future, is taken away?

The call made by JNU and its students, then, is one for Azaadi, for freedom to think for oneself and to express anguish and anger, against the systematic sale of the country on the global market. Freedom from the neoliberal ideals enthusiastically adopted by the ruling government that professes to have more nationalistic fervor than any other political party in the country; a fervor that proffers private companies power and privilege over indigenous population, displacing them from their own  lands and depriving them of their health and livelihood. The same nationalist sentimentality that hides neoliberalism in its belly, barricades and stifles the future of dalits like Rohit. The more nationalistic , anti-secular and anti-free speech that India seems to get, the more conducive it becomes for global market penetration.

Incident #5: In the wake of protests against Kanhaiya’s arrest and the witch-hunt by Delhi police to find and arrest other student leaders, the government and state-bought media orchestrate a smear campaign to paint JNU as anti-national breeding ground and falsely accused some students as foreign agents and affiliates of terrorist organizations. However, despite fabricating videos and conjuring false identities of students like Umar Khalid, the state propaganda failed miserably, drawing further attention to the embarrassing attempts by the government to suppress dissent in the country. Out on bail for now, Kanhaiya is back on JNU campus but two other students Umar and Anirban are still under judicial custody.

Yet, somehow, the blind remain blind. Events at JNU seemed to have provoked self-professed nationalists to burst onto the social media to fight their good fight for Modi ji, parroting the exact sentiments used by government officials like Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani to accord the status of anti-national to anyone who demonstrated even the slightest sympathies with the ideological stand of JNU students. The inability to make the connect between promotion of neoliberalism in India and the perverse use of nationalism by the government as an instrument to do so, will be the end of Indian consciousness. If nothing else, those buying into the nationalist rhetoric without expressing doubts about the convictions of their political leaders, will be the ones selling Indian sovereignty to global powers for cheap. In the end, it is the enlighnment of speeches and teach-in lectures coming out of JNU that will be remembered for its intellectual grit and capacity to relentlessly hold on to ideals on which the Indian constitution is predicated. One such speech was by Shehla Rashid soon after Kanhaiya’s arrest.

Incident #4: Responding to accusations that students are wasting tax payer money by protesting and not studying, Shehla Rashid, VP student union argued, “JNU students indeed are subsidized by tax payer money and that is precisely why they are more aware of their  responsibility and duty [to forewarn the country about the dirty tactics of government]. She questioned the subsidization of large banks, international companies and bankrupt financial organizations under the neoliberal regime, blaming the government of pimping out and systematically selling the country.

Problem of Modernist Legacies in Urban Planning

The question of multi-scalar or cross-scale implications of decisions taken at the supranational and international levels is seldom ever a topic of discussion or concern in planning practice or, at least in the classes I’ve taken. For instance, it is hard to find an objective debate pertaining to Transnational Trade Partnership (TPP) and its implication for the urban society, particularly among practicing planners–well, at least the ones I know. This isn’t a consequence of choice that planners have consciously exercised, to select an urban issue or aspect to be involved with, but I think its a failure of the profession which essentially relegates its activities to a single-scale of analysis–the ‘urban’.

The other aspect is lack of integration of intra-urban aspects; impact of water use on carbon emissions? impact of spatial structure on social cohesion? I’m sure these topics are of consequence and I wonder why they’re relegated to academic communities. One reason could be that planning as a profession originates from modernist tendencies of reductionism and fragmentation of the urban (read Splintering Urbanism by Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin).

The modernist legacy in planning profession continues to be questioned and debated; how legitimate is it when the fall of modernist projects like the Pruitt-Igoe have long indicated modernism’s demise within planning? There are of course differing and often valid opinions on this argument, but in either case, the question of the profession’s validity remains unconvincingly answered, especially in practice, where the underlying models or ‘ways to do things‘ haven’t changed much. I think my answer to a question on this subject on Quora explains why planning might still remind us of its modernist origins. Interconnected urban problems are resolved through piecemeal projects, their efficacy being predicated on cost-benefit measurements, while discounting the social and environmental externalities that may arise in the future. One would argue that these aspects have been covered within planning decisions, especially after the social and environmental movements of the 70’s. But the substance that these value-laden aspects contribute to urban affairs gets consumed within the fragmented framework. Previously, a transportation project wouldn’t have involve environmental or social impact assessments, now it does. But the entire exercise still has a neatly ‘contained’ characted with components of social and environmental analyses simply added on to justify the project’s legitimacy.

What I’m suggesting here is that we ought to care about the implications of ‘contained’ or piecemeal efforts across disciplinary and sectorial boundaries, and not least across local, regional, national scales and above. I guess this can be considered as the academic version of the concern I had pointed out earlier for overcoming our reductionist tendencies when it comes to dealing with social and environmental issues. 

The Rallying Cry

This post will go off-topic and perhaps set the tone for subsequent posts on this blog. I would like to admit that the issues I talk about here, have so far been ignored by me in favor of remaining within standard, conventional boundaries of academic blog writing–something that is worth criticizing knowing what I know from my own research.

In earlier posts on this blog, I endeavored to mention the relevance of consumer vigilance when it comes to local energy transitions, the problem we face with framing our sciences the way we do, and our self-defeating fascination with technological solutions as a global society, irrespective of the nature of the problems we face. These posts in general represent some of the topics that have led me to hold deep contempt for the world we live in. As I read more, I grow more contemptuous of some scholarly work that clearly seeks to preserve the status quo–pertaining to social, political, economic, technological and environmental aspects of our life on Earth. Simultaneously, I’ve grown more and more in favor of alternative arguments, scholarly and otherwise, that acknowledge that things are not  ‘going right’, and that we are reaching a point, until inaction persists, where our natural and societal Earth systems will flip into total chaos. The kind of chaos that none of the movies in Hollywood have been able to capture.

Crises in Earth systems are articulated in the latter scholarship that I am in favor of as “windows of opportunity” to create meaningful change. But knowing what we know from history and our own experience, not only are efforts to bring such radical change inherently uncertain in terms of their eventualities, they are also exposed to vehement subversion by those who seek to preserve the status-quo. The crises of our time include some of the most pressing issues, issues that we see erupting on social media championed by some of those who are, more often than not, single issue activists and social justice seekers. Generalists, like me, have a hard time articulating recommendations for such issues knowing that the change being sought, praiseworthy in and of itself, will create little to no radical outcome in the directions being desired. Almost all the issues we’ve spent our time and effort on, from economic inequality, to police brutalization, to corporate hubris and exploitation across public and private spheres, while extremely important, are being engaged with within the paradigms or frames of reference that created them. It is no wonder that, as a society, we are far away from grasping at the elixir of radical transformation in every single issue which asymmetrically favors the minority over the majority–across race, income, and gender, and other issues which haven’t yet permeated our social justice dictionaries but are just as important.

I argue that we are operating in an ontological culture of reductionist tendencies. To put that more simply, we have factionalized ourselves, dividing among ourselves the issues we care about, not because we care less about things beyond the purview of our radar, but because of reductionist tendencies all around us. Let’s take for example a highway infrastructure project, which seems to have been a flavor in DFW metroplex in perpetuity. There is an environmental assessment which invariably gets passed. But the intensity of energy or water consumed by the project is seldom ever considered, not during project implementation, and certainly not thereafter. In fact, the lack of cross-sector communication and the need to synergize across water, energy and transport sectors was an important closing remark made at the end of the 13th Annual Buildings Science Expo held in February at UT Arlington. It follows that we have been conditioned at the very least to have a distaste, and at the very best, contempt for complexity. Ironically, this is despite the fact we are as a species biologically, neurologically and psychologically most complex. We have effectively forgotten that we are designed to work through complex issues, allowing those who have set the hegemonic power structures in place to manage us, more easily than one would think is possible. The tactics employed by our overlords to make this possible are best described by keywords which have permeated alternative media; indoctrination, manipulation, white-,pink-,green-washing et al.

In a time when almost all of us are aware of the pseudo-dichotomy of the political process in every country on Earth, particularly those which claim to be “democratic”, we have to realize that our efforts will remain unsustainable, and more likely to be cracked-down upon without immediate or subsequent gains to be had, if we do not find a common ground; a common rallying cry that unites our siloed issues in an integrated, cogent and coherent manner, that is able to reflect the complexity of our collective convictions without washing over our individual issue areas. To borrow words from former anarchist socialist Gavin Mendel-Gleeson, only at least an equal amount of complexity can ever have a chance of securing radical change against power structures that are themselves complex. Its only that we have been taught to reduce them and embrace pieces of it, not the whole, and the sooner we realize this the better.

DES, DER, RET, RES, DG…..ZZZZ

Those who study or are interested in the subject of Renewable Energy (RE) may have come across all these acronyms one time or another. They may also know the extent to which these terms are applied interchangeably, in research as well as in practice. If it was not just for the ambiguity of philosophical terms like sustainability, we have gotten ourselves confused about what someone means when they say Distributed Generation (DG): do they mean systems that employ Renewable Energy Technologies (RET) at the scale of distribution networks or do they simply also mean conventional energy technologies at that scale? When people say DES: is it D for decentralized or D for distributed ? Also, what’s the difference between D Energy Systems and D Energy Resource ?

While most of the communications that employ these terms, mainly journal articles, are clear enough for their readers to comprehend the connotations attached (as they are usually clarified in the beginning of the article), it would be useful to clarify these terms in general as well.

Here’s a very informal attempt to impart some clarity. Please note that this is by no means absolute or given and is liable to change as the scientific community arrives (hopefully) at a system of meanings that proffers further connotational quality.

Renewable Energy (RE): A form of energy whose rate of resource replenishment is greater than the rate of utilization it can ever be subjected to.

Renewable Energy Technology(ies) (RET)Technologies — material or physical artifacts — that harness RE.

Renewable Energy Systems (RES): Systems — inclusive of the material (RET) and immaterial (institutions) — that refer to alternate forms of energy production, distribution and consumption.

Decentralized Energy Resource (DER): Energy resources that are locally available and harnessable by technologies. Here, scale is important. An oil well used locally without connections to the global markets can be considered as a decentralized energy resource, albeit conventional. Similarly, given their nature, RE like solar, wind and biomass, are classified as DERs because harnessing them through large scale centralized power plants (like Ivanpah or PS10) doesn’t take away from their being utilized at smaller decentralized scales.

Decentralized Energy Systems (DES): The system of energy production, distribution and consumption that outlines the alternative ecosystem of technologies, institutions, along with their enabling actors. This is better understood when contrasted with Centralized Energy Systems (CES) which are based on central production with consumers situated at the end of supply lines. Contrastingly, DES is the constellation of different techno-institutional configurations like DG, Microgrids, Smart Microgrids and Smart Grids.

Distributed Generation (DG)Energy production at the scale of distribution networks. It can be conventional or renewable depending on the technologies being used to harness energy, but typically taken to mean Distributed Renewable Energy Generation.

Microgrids (MG)Local systems of energy production, distribution and consumption that are semi-centralized through aggregation of DG locally, and having a switchable connection to the main grid.

Smart Microgrids (SMG): Microgrids with an additional layer of technical functionality through ICT (information and communication technologies) like smart metering or advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), and smart sensing and automated switching technologies.

Smart Grids (SG): Large-scale counterparts of SMG. These are national, regional or utility grid-level implementations of ICT over existing electricity grid infrastructure or/as well as aggregation of SMG eventually leading to a system of microgrids all tied together to form the main grid. As such, microgrids are building blocks of smart grids.

The definitions can be developed further and are obviously subject to change as technology and its use changes overtime.

Let me know if I had missed any acronyms or if you’d have articulated any of these differently.

Have a great week ahead!!

Beyond Perspective

Perspective still matters. But that isn’t just what matters anymore.

A while back, drawing from my readings based on ecological and socio-ecological systems (SES), I wrote a blog post on the continuum of sciences. The post mainly discussed the way in which human agency lies centrally between ecological (nature) and technological (man made) systems. I intended to point out the focus of humanity on the technological or artificial side of the spectrum. The obsession with technology, oftentimes seen as a panacea approach to resolution of problems, has had a fallback on the fine balance between the social and ecological systems — this consequently becoming the subject of many concerns outlining sustainable development in general.

I had spent the larger part of my research (before I joined the program) on socio-technical aspects of urban systems (mainly focusing on urban energy technologies). The socio-ecological lens, therefore, provided a very different perspective, enabling me to revisit the same concepts from a different theoretical lens. Perspective matters, as I said earlier, but what seemed to matter more is the perspectival lens which I used to view the other side of spectrum. Had I studied socio-ecological systems before socio-technical systems, my conceptions, I contend, would have been very different. It wasn’t the case for me and so my inability in upholding this contention with any certainty.

But here’s what I can say about the perspectival lens given my experience in studying diagonally opposite perspectives — human-technology and human-environment. The recurring lamentation (an academically sound one rather than a dramatic one — just to be clear) in literature appears to underline the problematic singularity of technological fixes. These technocratic solutions have taken away, in fact obscured, deeper and more meaningful conceptions of interfaces between humans and their surroundings. Human proclivity to material assets, in entirety, frames all of human understanding — from social (social media and networking) to environmental (geoengineering solutions) to even biological (GM foods) aspects of life.

Nevertheless, the undesirability to break away, and rightly so, from technology, is accepted within socio-ecological theory when it discusses the ability to encapsulate internal and external disturbances on systems through technological advancement (resilience and disaster management). This openness and malleability to accept the opposite side of the spectrum, evident when viewing from the socio-ecological perspectival lens, hardly appears to be so from the socio-technical one. This is to say that human-nature dichotomy is a human construct and the ability of ecological systems to accept and obey informed human intervention contrasts incriminatingly with the inability of most technological systems to conform to natural laws and regulation.

To me, therefore, perspective matters inasmuch as the contrasts in framing an issue; be it from ecological side of the spectrum looking to the technological side or vice versa. It would be really interesting to meet someone whose research journey has taken them in the opposite direction — studying first the ecological aspects and then the technological ones. Please let me know if you are that person or know someone who is.