It may be an urban legend, but supposedly Henry Ford shared, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It was an acknowledgment of the power of the status quo, and it is playing out here as municipalization engages its latest obstacle. Let us be clear that the 10 years this initiative has been working on behalf of the good people of Boulder, many of the delays have come from an entrenched investor-owned utility (IOU).
The parallels between municipalization and the rise of the automobile are striking. At the turn of the 20th century, horse pucky was becoming a problem even though horses could travel dirt roads, were cheap to operate, provided ancillary jobs, and were almost a natural, human-scale solution to transportation. However, with the growing population, the tonnage of horseshit was reaching unmanageable proportions. There were associated side effects like rodents and flies, dead or dying horses, public health concerns, horse-related traffic deaths, and feeding and stabling the animals. Unlike our utility, which is pouring its pucky (greenhouse gas pollution) into our atmosphere for free, the horse industry tried to clean up after itself.
That horses were dying on the streets is a metaphor for what I see happening with the changing of the energy guard here in the 21st century. The accumulated waste stream from dumping greenhouse gas sludge into the atmosphere is increasing the frequency and intensity of climate disruptions. Think Sandy, Katrina, Harvey, Maria, Isabel, Hayan and Derecho. Think shrinking glaciers —the source of the world’s water —through slowly trickled distribution: these are water storage batteries that are going away. Think wildfires, heatwaves and droughts. Think rising sea levels and bleached coral reefs. It is probable that large-scale, centralized, regulated energy has run its course and is a dying horse.
So what is the automobile that is going to replace it? Well, the first step may well be to acknowledge that entering into a 20-year franchise agreement with its carefully crafted five-year off-ramps is our way of asking for faster horses. Silly then, and more irrational now because we know better? Einstein gives us some guidance here by reminding us that: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” and, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
The second thing to acknowledge is that the very idea of a regulated, centralized monopoly responsible for short-term profit for its shareholders is thinking which no longer fits and needs to give way to decarbonized, decentralized and democratic thinking. Right now, communities in the world are using microgrids and blockchain to allow for peer-to-peer energy transactions in real-time. The energy worldview is changing from consumption to prosumption. And prosumers can store energy that can be distributed to load balance as well as selling at retail to those needing power.
Prosumers are reducing the grid load and relegates a central utility to a source of last resort. Because the microgrids are acting as virtual islands when the distribution grid is down, the power switches to off-grid, and the lights and refrigeration and heat stay on inside the meter. In a prosumption model, we are the utility.
This is not the outcome that the entrenched horse and IOU envision. The horse industry had some stranded assets it had sunk capital into. The public was more comfortable with an ill-fitting reality than an unknown replacement. Do you honestly think that our IOU is going to be happy with peer-to-peer energy transactions in real-time and with the energy prosumption that climate change adaptation is inventing for us?
The good people of Boulder are affluent, intelligent and Earth stewards. We do not wish to see ourselves stranded on a dead horse. We are in a declared climate emergency. We have 10 years to act. A 20-year franchise is not what Einstein had in mind.