In a recent radio commentary, Doug Henwood of Behind The News and the Left Business Observer asked with some frustration why we should treat energy, in terms of self-sufficiency, differently from coffee or computers. At the risk of sounding pedantic, the difference between energy and coffee is that energy is a fundamental aspect of the physical universe. Coffee, despite what caffeine addicts might think, is not.
It is often useful to treat energy as a commodity. It is special, however, because it is a commodity that makes all other commodities possible — in addition to the transportation of commodities.
If we must treat energy as a commodity, then water is the best comparison I can think of. Societies source water as close as possible because they need it –every day– to live. If the coffee supply drops off for two days, you get a headache. If the water cuts off for two days, you get a riot.
However, I agree that complete self-sufficiency is an unrealistic, nativist power fantasy of “cozy catastrophe” and we must abhor it. I prefer the word “resilience”, as used in the permaculture and Transition Town movements. Resilience acknowledges our capacity to trade as an asset to be utilized, but asserts that dependence on energy-intensive trade for the necessities of life is dangerous when entering an era of potentially expensive transportation.
The current alternative energy candidates –solar, wind, biomass, etc– are great for putting energy into the grid (and making every node on the grid a consumer *and* producer, more on that later) but they don’t come anywhere near the portability of a tank of gasoline. And I am not confident that batteries, powered up on the grid, are going to keep the Interstate Highway System humming with semi-trucks. I have high hopes for rail, but big adjustments will still be required.
The point is, alternative energy sources tend toward requiring a broad deployment because we’re collecting ambient, “living” energy rather than mining potential energy concentrated through millions of years of geological processes. Broad deployment inevitably means local deployment, if we’re going to do this sanely. Let’s call it the Bittorrent Model Of Energy Supply, where every home has a share ratio!
Some communities will contribute more to the grid than others, but decentralized (and localized) energy sources mean that if one node goes down for a while, the rest of the network will route around it and survive (even if left with a less-than-optimum capacity). That’s resilience.
Resilience, as a framework, has the added benefit of excluding things like offshore drilling platforms which, of course, can be local, but are also massively complex, expensive, and vulnerable to catastrophic failure to the detriment of an entire bioregion.