Future of Home | What Happens Next | Retro Report

Future of Home | What Happens Next | Retro Report


This is about trying to take control of how our lives are wired. In these backlands of northern Guatemala, you can actually see where the energy grid stops. The power line runs by the road until, suddenly, it just doesn’t. And, out past this point, people’s homes work without the modern conveniences that most urbanites take for granted. So it may be easy to look at this family’s homestead and think it’s a picture of past. Except for one small thing. That little square on the roof there? It actually may be a window into the future of powering homes, no matter where you live. The price of a solar panel has fallen 80 percent in the last decade, to the point where now, around much of the world, it’s the cheapest way to generate energy. This family’s solar panel powers a cell phone charger, a TV, and, most important, lights at night for the kids. A few years ago, a company called Kingo started giving out solar panels, batteries, and bulbs in rural Guatemala. They make money on how much power people use, billing them on a model similar to pre-paid cell phones. Kingo does not compete against the grid. We compete against candles, kerosene, diesel. Our most basic unit costs around 9 dollars a month. That’s around half of what candles cost. We envision these communities leapfrogging the traditional grid. In rural Africa, there’s not a telephone pole to be seen, because everybody, their first phone was a cell phone, and it just went right over all that. Much more importantly, the same thing now seems to be happening with energy. The impact of this growing energy source won’t just be felt in rural areas off the grid. There are likely to be changes in store for places like the United States, where the grid is so omnipresent, it’s taken for granted. Even though it’s impacting us every day, it’s invisible to us. No one knows, or hears, how much energy they’re using. I can say, oh, the average household in the US uses 30 kilowatt hours per day, but it’s fairly meaningless. And because you don’t see it, and because you don’t hear it, it’s really easy to just use it. You’ve got a socket on the wall, and that’s where electricity comes from. But, of course, that’s not where electricity comes from. It comes from going someplace, and blowing the top off a mountain, and collecting the coal, and taking it to a big, huge power plant, and burning it in a huge boiler, and then taking the power that comes out, and running it over hundreds of miles of power line, and it’s all of that to accomplish, I don’t know, drying your clothes. And it’s an important thing to pay attention to. Energy is central to everything that we do, right? The electric grid was called the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. It has these tendrils that just penetrate everything in our world. There’s all these power plants, and all these wires, and all these poles, and all these people, and all these cell phones getting charged, that are all actually, in fact, part of the same machine. As more and more of us have hooked into this vast machine, it’s beginning to feel the strain of age. At the same time, the interconnected grids face mounting security risks from hackers and terrorists, not to mention, increasingly extreme weather. Yeah, you don’t trust the big entity to function the way it should, because it doesn’t. Even in places where utilities are working relatively well, there’s still power outages all the time. And even when it is working, this vast machine takes a tremendous amount of fossil fuel to keep going. All that fossil fuel started creating other problems. It’s not a workable system, in the long run, if it melts your icecaps as part of its function. Being raised on the South Side of Chicago, I lived within 10 miles of three coal-fired power plants, which were polluting our community with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, arsenic, lead, all types of toxins. While the smaller environmental footprint of solar may be a big deal, people who study the technology say that’s not necessarily the only thing that’s transformative about it. It’s not that it’s renewable. It’s that it’s distributed. You’ve just taken a power plant, and you’ve smashed it with a, you know, like a giant cudgel. And you’ve spread the shards of that power production around everywhere. But challenges still remain for a power source that relies only on the sun. The sun is only out a certain amount of hours a day. What you really need is storage. And our storage technologies just aren’t great yet. And that’s not the only reason people already on the grid aren’t likely to abandon it entirely. As it stands, the grid is still cheap and easy for the people it serves. But backup power that’s less dependent on scarce fossil fuels, and generated closer to home, could have plenty of appeal for individual power customers, neighborhoods, or even towns. For example, here in Humboldt, we have an excellent mini grid. So we could lose power to our whole coastline, and just 10 minutes inland, there’s enough energy to provide the services that you need to keep people healthy until you can rebuild the other systems. To encourage people to embrace solar, places like Michigan give tax credits, which make it more affordable to supplement grid power with solar, or even build homes capable of going off-grid entirely. In the town of Ypsilanti, a lot of these homeowners hire Amy Strutz to do the wiring. Most of the people that I deal with, it’s a financial decision. Some people, it’s a green decision. Some people, it’s a combination. So, you could do up to 29 panels. That’s an 8.55-kilowatt system. Right now, you’re constantly throwing money at that power bill. This is not a Republican/Democrat, a red state/blue state thing. It’s about being in control. They’re wanting to be responsible for their own power. They’re wanting to be responsible for themselves. Amy is building a new home of her own around exactly this idea. My house will, sort of, be the house of the future, because it’s going to obviously have a lot of solar on it. I love building. I love having the control. I do like control. I’m a control freak. To some extent. And for rural communities untouched by the grid, making your own energy could mean an entirely different standard of living. More than a billion people don’t have access to electricity, which means they don’t have access to the world that you and I inhabit. A hundred years from now, people will look back and shake their heads in wonder at the thought that people could be deprived of energy simply because they were poor. That’s crazy. And it’s not going to happen now, because the solar panel is going to intervene. So, once you have distributed, renewable energy, inexpensive and distributed high-speed internet, you can do anything in a rural community. As soon as it’s possible, Odilia Arana Ochoa has her sights set on getting one more appliance for her family. A refrigerator. And in the future, she hopes her kids won’t have to stop there. What is the future of home? I think that it’s up for communities and individuals to decide. And what excites me, is being part of creating a world where communities have the resources they need in order to invent what their homes are going to look like. To invent what their infrastructure is going to look like.

8 COMMENTS

    I grew up around a small town in Wisconsin called Soldiers Grove. In 1978 they had a severe flood that destroyed most of the downtown area, there had also been many, many floods in previous years. When they rebuilt further from the river they decided to make all of the businesses solar powered. I believe that the solar is used for heating purposes only. It's my understanding that those early solar panels are no longer very efficient, but it's still pretty cool. I would love to see more adoption of solar power. During the time when this was all taking place the US was in the midst of the energy crisis, so I imagine that solar heating probably seemed like a good solution, even though solar panels were very expensive at the time.

    Here's what you are missing about this story. Those solar panel companies charge poor people per kilowatt, even though it's free energy from the sun. They provide panels and converters for cheap, but the catch is: the converter is linked to a sim card which is disconnected if you don't pay a daily fee. They are predators. In the long-run, those poor people end up paying way more that it would cost them to buy their own panels, batteries, and converters instead of signing deals with companies like Kingo.

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