Resilient Power is the New Black

​Now that America’s great again, the Clean Power Plan is in limbo, we’ve got a brand-new tariff on solar panels, and clean coal will save us all. Or something like that. When policy and regulation aren’t your friend, there’s still the market, erstwhile darling of conservatives. The story goes like this: If your product is any good, people should want to buy it, and government should get out of the way of that.

Since unfettered capitalism also produced child labor and sweatshops, the market is less panacea and more unreliable ally. Nonetheless, plenty of people are discovering that resilient power — renewables and distributed systems — can in fact outcompete conventional systems, in US markets and elsewhere.

Image from author’s collection

The market is supposed to be rational decisions based on cost and benefits, but I bet you can look around your house and see things you bought even though they weren’t the most benefit for the least money. Why do we buy these things? Two big reasons are status and style, to look good or to impress the cool kids. We don’t outgrow this. We just buy bigger cool things.

In research terms, this involves peer effect. In terms of resilient energy, peer effect means that the more exposure a person has to renewable generation, the more likely s/he is to install his/her own system, specifically with photovoltaic (PV) systems. This produces clusters of PV installations. Peer effect can be one of the most influential factors in deciding to install a PV system. You think it’s weird, until you see it enough. You see it some more, and you start to want it.

This implies a tipping point: eventually enough people live near solar panels to change the average perception of solar generation from oddball to normal. Same with home standby generators, seen and marketed as desirable in higher-end homes. This presents on-site power generation not just as normal, but desirable. Higher-end homes that feature generators (or PV) make resilient power an aspirational home feature, advancing even farther from normal to trendy, a feature to covet.

Fashions tend to start at the top of the income scale and spread downward; tastemaking trickles down. Fashion has the power to really increase adoption of energy systems. Only environmentalists (who can afford it) want eco-friendly systems, but everybody wants the next hot trend. Once it stops being weird, it can start being desirable, and once it’s cool, it’s a whole new landscape, energy-wise.

Speaking of landscape, do these dynamics work just anywhere, or can the location stack the deck? I recently moved from upstate New York to Connecticut, one renewable-loving, overburdened grid blue state to another. Upstate New York is famously gloomy, but solar is still worthwhile there, and New York does a good job of making it worth your while with incentives and policies. You wouldn’t expect a difference, and yet there is: Connecticut loves rooftop PV. Property listings include an index of solar energy potential, with “Good!” in the description where appropriate. Connecticut home listings also feature home standby generators. Generator-ready homes are not at the bottom of the price range, either — this is a selling point to buyers with means.

Why? It could be Superstorm Sandy (2012) or her predecessor Irene (2011) or Connecticut’s pioneering Green Bank (also 2011). Power is no bargain in Connecticut, which makes alternatives appealing. But Connecticut also is ideal for peer effect’s effect. It’s dense, in number of people per square mile. It’s also dense with people with means, or enough means to be in the market for rooftop solar, whole house generators, and the like. It’s in constant competition with New York City and Boston for people and businesses. This tiny state with all the people and the coastal storms could be poised to cross the threshold into resilient power being… cool.

Style has a price tag for places. A few years ago, every city wanted to lure the Creative Class. These days, that’s evolved into places for innovation. Amazon’s HQ2 competition is a new iteration of this same idea, with the criterion “potential to attract and retain strong technical talent.” Could resilient power belong on the list of magic factors that make a place cool? Obviously, it does a lot for your business to keep the lights on, but it’s much more than that for some energy-intensive businesses, like data centers. For them, the extra assurance of a microgrid can make the decision about where to locate.

If you want to add cachet to practicality, installations have to be visible and recognizable, not just to the trained eye of an electrical engineer, but to the public — the property-buying, disposable-income-spending public. People who don’t know a watt from an amp have to recognize resilient power installations to know they want one — peer effect can’t work if you can’t see what to want. Rooftop PV has the edge here, because it’s readily seen and recognized by the non-expert. Rooftop PV and on-site wind are like driving a Prius, an immediately recognizable statement of eco-consciousness, and the affluence that goes along with being able to spend to make that statement. Contrast that with geothermal, microgrids, or weatherization, all of which are legit green, but invisible to the layperson passing by. These are like driving a Hybrid Civic. Only you, your pocketbook, and your carbon footprint know for sure.

Other resilient power components need visual signatures as distinctive and universal as rooftop solar. As long as no one sees your geothermal, only environmentalists (and engineers) will buy it. Once everyone can see it, and see it as something the richer neighbors have, in the house, the subdivision, or the city next door, everyone who wants to impress someone will want one. And that’s all of us.

(Also posted on the blog City Wild.)

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Susan Dieterlen

Urban designer and environmental scientist, looking at the world.