Customized Energy Futures

Low-cost distributed energy generation and storage are here. How will people use these technologies to shape their lives and their landscapes?

Go anywhere in the United States today, and most people’s relationships to energy are pretty much the same. We drive cars to work and to the mall, and we power our devices by plugging them into centralized electricity grids. Will that sameness persist in the future? Or will different communities develop more customized energy solutions that fit their goals and aspirations for how they want to live?

Customization is increasingly possible because of the potential for integrating different kinds of systems: transportation, electricity, data, buildings, and cities. As the director of the Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, I think a lot about how the integration of these technologies as part of future urban systems will affect our lives. Transportation has always been integrated into our lives and has driven the evolution of our cities. Historically, this integration has happened through relatively slow processes: the build-out of infrastructure, which takes place on the timescale of years and decades, and the delivery of fuel to filling stations, which occurs on a time frame of days and weeks. New technology is accelerating the speed of integration and multiplying the channels of interaction. This acceleration is driven by the introduction of electric vehicles, connectivity of travelers with the internet of things, distributed electric-vehicle charging, distributed electrical generation, and soon, the introduction of automated vehicles. As these technologies are developed and deployed together, they create new opportunities for communities to organize themselves differently than in the past.

In creating this world, we looked to the past to think about how the creation of a centralized, coal-based electrical system changed communities during the early part of the last century.

For the “solar futures” collected in Cities of Light, the organizers paired science fiction authors with visual artists, academics, and policy experts. As my team imagined a future San Antonio, we found ourselves focusing on many of the indirect consequences of an energy-generation system based on solar power. In creating this world, we looked to the past to think about how the creation of a centralized, coal-based electrical system changed communities during the early part of the last century. Large centralized power plants are not easy to turn on and off. They cannot be turned down quickly when demand for power is low, and they cannot be turned up quickly when power is needed again. In order to keep these generators running as close to steady-state as possible, demand was created to keep lights on at night. Machines were invented to electrify tasks that didn’t really need to be made more convenient. The shift of transportation to automobiles, driven by the development of the internal-combustion engine, had similar impacts and drove the evolution of cities for the past century. Cities were organized around automobiles as the dominant technology and evolved based on the assumption that everyone would use them to go everywhere. With these shifts, the cycles of most people’s lives changed and were locked in by monolithic systems over which they had no control.

The aspect of Deji Bryce Olukotun’s story “The Scent of the Freetails” that I find most interesting is the extent to which new technologies could give communities back some control over these cycles. Much of the motivation for this future vision was an attempt to answer the question, how might a distributed, solar-based electrical system allow people to shape the rhythms of life in their community? To do so, as the story suggests, will require strong integration across transportation, information, and distributed energy systems, as well as the rest of the urban environment. This integration makes it possible for communities to customize their relationship with both energy and mobility.

In the story, we see the community of La Estrella through the eyes of a person traveling from Houston. From this perspective, we get a glimpse of two communities that have adapted to electrification in two very different ways. La Estrella is a forward-looking urban community, while Houston is a city having trouble moving away from its past. For the residents of La Estrella, it is important that their community get closer to the natural day-night rhythm. Locally generated solar power is a perfect fit for this. For the people of the fictional future Houston, it is important to respect their legacy as a key part of the nation’s oil and gas industry. Because of this legacy, they maintain a strong preference for internal-combustion-engine vehicles.

It is interesting to imagine how other communities in this fictional future might take advantage of this flexibility to adapt energy systems to their diverse priorities. As I write this, I am sitting in my home, sheltering in place to avoid spreading COVID-19. In this environment, it is easy for me to imagine enclaves of people using these technologies to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. I also imagine rural communities in the Midwest where farmers in feed caps meet at the local diner for morning coffee to compare dividends from the local Solar and Wind Electrical Cooperative, and rehash old arguments about which had a better electric drive system, the F-150 or the Dodge Ram. I imagine wealthy communities full of energy-independent estates that reflect the individualistic self-made images the owners want to project. Everywhere in between, I imagine the vast majority of folks are still plugged into the traditional energy grid—but an energy grid of the future that must take advantage of the same integrated technologies in order to adapt quickly to changing energy generation and demand.

Critical to all of these scenarios is a need for nearly ubiquitous energy storage, coupled to local energy generation from solar or wind. Communities can adapt to the average cycles of renewable-energy generation, using more power during the day when solar generation is high and less at night, for example, but there must be some source of power for those times when there is no solar or wind energy available. Energy storage provides the needed energy buffer that allows us to decouple generation of energy from demand for energy. There are several ways this energy storage could be provided. Utilities could use very large energy-storage systems to store energy within the grid. Our imagined future La Estrella elected a community-based solution that allows them to be independent from the grid. Electric vehicles will each contain large batteries that, coupled with bi-directional charging systems, could provide their needed energy storage. The cost of lithium-ion batteries has dropped dramatically in the past decade. It is projected that electric cars will soon be no more expensive than comparable internal-combustion vehicles. There has been a similar drop in the cost of photovoltaic solar cells. The simultaneous reduction in price of these two critical technologies makes the idea of customized energy communities not only possible, but perhaps inevitable.

Our imagined future La Estrella elected a community-based solution that allows them to be independent from the grid.

Today, data and mobility are already tightly integrated. Essentially all new vehicles are constantly sending and receiving data. Even if the vehicle is not, most travelers carry a smartphone that is transmitting the traveler’s location and preferences. From a mobility perspective, these data are currently used primarily for navigation purposes, but we can expect these uses to expand. Automation of vehicles is the aspect of integrating mobility and data that gets discussed most often. Typically, this discussion goes in one of two directions: either speculation that automated vehicles will usher in an era of increased efficiency in the movement of people, or that future highways will be filled bumper-to-bumper with even more cars, many of them half empty. 

In “The Scent of the Freetails,” a more nuanced version of these two futures is presented. The story recognizes that both of these futures may exist simultaneously. Just as we have communities today that are pedestrian-friendly and communities that are not, in the future we imagine some communities that adopt integrated mobility solutions in ways that push people toward travel by car, and others that enable a more flexible car-lite lifestyle. A subtle but beautiful example of this from Deji’s story is the way in which the low-level lighting integrated into the walkways of La Estrella serves to also direct pedestrians to their desired destinations.

In the future we imagine some communities that adopt integrated mobility solutions in ways that push people toward travel by car, and others that enable a more flexible car-lite lifestyle.

In the story, the implication is that energy choices will be coupled with data-management and data-privacy policies. In the transportation world, the concept of geofencing is often used to manage and enforce different mobility policies. Geofencing takes advantage of the fact that we can tell when vehicles with GPS units enter or leave different areas. Some areas could be designated for electric vehicles only, or as autonomous mobility districts, much as parts of London now allow only taxis, buses, and delivery vans. In this story, both San Antonio and La Estrella have adopted ordinances that change data restrictions at their borders. Electronic advertising pushed to connected vehicles and mobile devices stops at the San Antonio border, as Raj and his family drive into town. Transmission of data out of La Estrella is also restricted, allowing the community to choose how their data is used and by whom. The implication in this story that data access can also be geofenced adds an interesting element to this concept, and suggests even more ways that communities can take advantage of systems integration to customize their own living experience.

The story also points out some of the many indirect consequences of these choices. Enabling communities to be less dependent on automobiles will reduce the need for roads and parking lots. Less asphalt means less localized heating, which in turn means less energy needed for air conditioning. Changes in the design of housing are another interesting consequence. The description of the houses in La Estrella presents a vision of a neighborhood full of houses of many different styles, all taking advantage of energy-generation technology integrated into building materials to create unique energy-efficient homes. The current centralized energy and transportation systems encourage neighborhoods to be very uniform. Today we see car-intensive communities that, from the road, appear to be nothing more than an uninterrupted line of garage doors. In this story, we imagine a future in which a three-car garage could be considered an anachronism.  

In the future as presented in “The Scent of the Freetails,” we get a glimpse of how people might take advantage of new technologies to customize their energy and mobility futures to create the communities they want. The story also makes it clear that how people react to technology is at least as important as the technology itself in terms of how technology is used. Central to successfully integrating technologies into our communities is understanding that people are crucial to the process. As a scientist and an engineer, I can tell you these technologies are not that far off. Low-cost distributed energy generation and energy storage are here. Information technology that ties everything together is here. What we need to understand, however, is how people will react to and interact with these technologies and put them to use to shape their lives and their landscapes. Stories like “The Scent of the Freetails” help us to imagine these human interactions and to project ourselves into these futures.

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Cite this Article

Gearhart, Chris. “Customized Energy Futures.” Issues in Science and Technology (June 8, 2021). Originally published as Chris Gearhart, “Customized Energy Futures,” in Cities of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures, ed. Joey Eschrich and Clark A. Miller (Tempe, AZ: Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University, 2021), 211–216.