M*A*S*H – as ‘smart’ as it gets

Film buffs will remember the stir caused by the release of M*A*S*H in 1970.

What they associate it with will vary enormously – the passionate denunciation of a pointless war, the wild irreverence of doctors ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce and Trapper John, the distracting presence of ‘Hot Lips’ O’Houlihan. Few will connect it to a revolution in the way we think about energy.

We live in a world in which everything – apart from government – is about to get a whole lot ‘smarter’. There is a buzz around the emergence of smart meters, smart grids, smart consumers, smart appliances, smart offices, shops and homes. Even smart wigs(!) are soon to be on offer. All are part of a world being changed by technologies our childhoods only dreamed of.

Inevitably, behind the excitement, a titanic struggle is taking place around the politics of ‘smart’. As with most things, the politics is shaped around who will own it, and what ‘smart’ will be allowed to do.

In one of its few uncapped budgets, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has been supporting work on the development and roll-out of Smart Meters. Energy companies have been knee-deep in this process, and are enthusiastic about metering that will allow for remote reading of consumption (for easier billing) and to enable households to become smarter ‘consumers’ (cutting back our own consumption levels).

Of course energy companies want DECC (or someone else) to pay for the meters. But more than this, Big Energy does not want meters to be smart enough to want to change the rules of the energy game. Specifically, they do not want 2-way meters that encourage people to think about becoming ‘suppliers’ of energy as well as consumers. It is an understandable, but ultimately futile position.

Who owns wins

Big energy is in a trap. Facing relentless criticism of rising energy prices and rising profits, it also knows that no one wants to invest in it any more. Across Europe and North America, there is a growing recognition that corporate profit-taking displaced infrastructure investment to such an extent that there are big questions about whether today’s infrastructures are worth rescuing?

While the British public are still being told to stump up an extra £200bn of taxpayer subsidies ‘to keep the lights on’, some of the world’ biggest companies are already heading in a different direction. Self-supply and off-grid solutions are already beginning to sideline today’s outdated energy infrastructure.

Google has been investing heavily in renewables, spending $1bn on over 2GW of its own generation capacity. Microsoft and Apple are not far behind, with Apple claiming it is building “the largest privately-owned clean energy facilities in the U.S. … and representing … an entirely new way for an Internet company to source and think about power”.

This is no longer rocket science. It is becoming a mainstream and profitable approach to doing business. This can range from the provision of clean electricity for corporate data centres to smart energy solutions for homes and consumers.

We are entering a world in which the power of social networks, mobile applications, and well designed IT hardware (in the form of tablets, smartphones or other digital devices) will soon make its way into the organisation of ‘smart homes’ and ‘smart communities’.

Delivering more, consuming less.

Internet and IT companies already understand that customers don’t want to buy electricity consumption. They just want the services you can power with it. Energy Utilities will be pushed to one side by IT companies who know the future is in delivering more, but consuming less. It is also a future that will revolve around clean energy, not dirty.

The storage problem of renewables will be solved in the near future. Companies like Younicos in Germany, or Ambri in the USA, are already producing solutions with new types of batteries, and with tumbling costs. Currently, for an 80GW grid, around 200 of their battery parks would be sufficient for working around the base load/storage issue.

Bloom Energy is on an even more exciting track, using sand-like materials rather than expensive metals or minerals. They have been developing new fuel cells that convert natural gas or renewable bio-gas into electricity, using a direct electrochemical reaction rather than combustion. These create electricity at a 60%+ efficiency rate, twice that of a conventional power station.

Their fuel cells come in the form of a tiny plates that can be ‘sandwiched’ together into a ‘server’ able to deliver whatever generating capacity you need. A server the size of an average car can deliver round-the-clock electricity for about 160 homes or an office block. One the size of a loaf of bread, can meet the needs of the average house.

Someone will soon grasp that, if the towns, villages or cities recycle their own bio-degradable waste, they will probably be able to source the bio-methane to run these systems from gas they have ‘harvested’ themselves.

In place of insolvency.

The point about this is that renewable energy systems are becoming smarter at the same rate at which they are becoming cheaper. The opposite is true for non-renewables.

A majority of today’s big energy Utilities are likely to become insolvent within a decade. During the same time, we will see an increasing trend to re-municipalise local energy grids. Smart consumers will give way to smart co-owners of energy systems.

Great stuff. But where the hell does M*A*S*H come into it? Forget the celebrities, this is about technology.

One issue always clouded my excitement about the coming energy revolution. It was the question “… where and how will the poor get to play?”.

Most of today’s energy cooperatives are investor co-ops. This is fine if you have the money to buy in. But the poor don’t. Moreover, in apartment blocks and multiple social housing schemes, not everyone will have a South facing roof for solar panels.

Then there is the problem of how you share out the benefits of energy generated collectively? If each property has to have its own ‘inverter’, to turn (direct current) community energy into (alternating current) home use, this adds massively to both the cost and complexity. M*A*S*H may be the answer.

All in the MASH

M*A*S*H (actually, it’s just MASH – the ‘Multi-family Affordable Solar Housing’ programme ) is a California scheme for ‘virtual’ net metering. It allows collectively generated solar power to be shared equally between tenants in the whole scheme. By July 2013, 6,265 social tenancies in California were already benefitting from schemes that deliver almost 100% of their electricity – and the power the common/lighting services – before putting surpluses into the grid.

This is a real game-changer. Moreover, it is a model that could work just as easily with community wind as community solar. In Germany, they are using democracy to transfer the ownership of energy production and distribution from corporations to citizens. In the USA, they are using technology to do exactly the same. Choose whichever you prefer, the outcome will be the same.


Photo: MASH housing: Oak Knoll Villas by Everyday Energy (California)

Big Energy – old energy – is stuffed. At the moment it is stuffed with public subsidies that will increasingly look as unaffordable as they do absurd. What the UK needs is an injection of ‘virtual thinking’ to shift the energy debate into more creative space. Smarter politics is the answer.

Last year, the UK had 31,000 ‘excess winter deaths’, a scandalous 29% increase on the previous year. The Department of Health knows that this is more connected to cold homes than cold weather. Yet the government has chosen this moment to cut its energy efficiency funding by 62%. If the government wants to ignore the scandal of cold homes, it doesn’t mean the rest of us should. The smart energy revolution could bring an end to this annual cull of the fuel poor.

Schemes like MASH, and the smart technologies they draw on, could allow the fuel poor to live warmer, longer, cleaner and cosier lives.

So, when Margaret Houlihan – now well into her ’70s – next rings Major Frank Burns to tell him her lips are still ‘hot’, we could be certain that the rest of her house would be too.

Now that really would be ‘smart’.

Alan Simpson

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