Increasingly, the energy we consume to heat and power our communities, will be produced locally. Unfortunately, many of the strategies we use to produce energy are vulnerable due to specialization. We are too dependent on specific forms of energy and the dedicated equipment used to utilize it.
One of the methods I recommend to reduce that vulnerability is to use microgrids. Microgrids are essentially a local controlled electricity network that makes it possible for communities to create dynamic local markets for electricity production and consumption that can zoom innovation and investment. When we first began to talk about microgrids, the technologies involved were merely plans on paper. Now, a mere three years later, we see offerings from many major technology companies (with the potential of open source projects that can open up this tech for everyone).
So, let's repeat the process with another forward looking technological innovation that will add to local energy resilience, production, and innovation. The technology is what I'm calling omnivorous energy (which is obviously a placeholder name until the tech emerges). Here's what omnivorous energy entails.
A truly resilient strategy for the local production of energy (both heat and power) should be able to consumer nearly any type of fuel. In essence, our energy consumption strategy needs to be omnivorous -- it can eat anything. Currently, the vast majority of the energy we consume is produced through purchasing and running dedicated systems -- i.e. furnaces that burn natural gas, oil, or wood. Also, these systems must be able to produce a range of outputs, from heat to electrical power as needed.
Why is this strategy better than the one we use currently? In a world of flux and potential breakdown, all the assumptions we currently have on pricing and availability of energy go out the window. Shortages and price spikes will be commonplace but the need for energy will be constant. So, in order to mitigate this vulnerability we need to become locally omnivorous (or, in others words: scale invariant in terms of energy).
What does this omnivorous energy production look like? It takes three elements:
- A generic source of heat. An ability to burn anything -- oil, natural gas, wood, etc. -- and concentrated solar thermal.
- Combined heat power. The ability to use that heat either directly (to heat water or a structure) or as a means to generate electricity through a heat engine (i.e. a stirling engine).
- An ability to store excess heat locally and efficiently for use when needed. Think phase change materials (i.e. a buried molten salt container).