We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Resource Based Economy Requires Electric Grid Modernization First

Those wishing for serious political change should take a look at electricity technology infrastructure. Major investments into smart meters, public energy ownership + storage, HVDC transmission cables, modernized electric grids, and a digital network to manage it all.

Let's provide a bit of context for advocacy of something as seemingly dull sounding as digital electric smart meters.

Conceptualizing and verbalizing political alternatives to current socioeconomic stagnation is widely understood to be preferable to mere critiques. As important and vital as a critique is, it has little power without provision of an alternative to fill the vacuum. Critiques are now a booming mainstream industry with today's internet enabled resurgence of muckraking journalism. Provision of serious socioeconomic alternatives is in the early stages of becoming a major trend as well. Online video debates and video replies to recorded educational speeches are a modern example of 18-19th century political debates via pamphleteering.

Similarly, provision of an alternative is toothless without certain technological infrastructural components to make it viable and workable. Tangible investments into physical precursors that make any major political alternatives possible ought to be focused on more than ever. All of the above 3 approaches to social change (critique/alternative/technology) gain maximum power when conducted in parallel with certain emphasis on actual technology induced physical change on the ground. For example, a political faction ought to focus on energy production and distribution regardless of whether the group advocates more political decentralization, more centralization, or a novel hybrid of both for different areas of societal management. Precise vast storage of energy, transmission of it over large areas, and precise computer tracking of production and distribution of vast quantities of electricity is needed to make each different political concept work.

For the most part, specific policy proposals currently are not often tied to technological solutions but rather monetary incentives and disincentives (there is currently an elite driven trend towards soft paternalism). This carrot and stick approach to prod the herd into an even more technologically complex society in the 21st century is inefficient. Considering that economics is an engineering challenge, there is a better way. Government ownership of electric generation used to be more widespread in the United States and contributed to rapid regional development from 1930s to the present. Surviving remnants of it such as the Tennessee Valley Authority are the best examples of a wide scale public system of beneficial power management.

It is immediately clear how ability to manufacture, transmit, and monitor electricity directly affects ability to provide a life artery to any policy proposal in raising human standards of living. The only discussion here concerning public ownership of a sophisticated electrical smart grid (acting as a sort of "skeleton" on which developmental and social projects can grow) is whether ownership is at the municipal, state, regional, national level, or a federated sharing combination. For instance, if a city owns a fission reactor and produces a megawatt of power, does it reserve 20% of it for use by its regional and national neighbors? Or conversely, does it receive a stipend of additional 20% of power from a regional outside authority? Does the city sub-network just continuously release surplus power into the larger grid or is it collected in local large scale energy storage facilities? [You may begin to notice here and in later articles that electric power achieves certain characteristics of money such as liquidity which can be taxed and redistributed as needed.] Various economic projects involving housing, employment, healthcare, and general infrastructure will require for municipalities to figure out their energy generating and energy sharing arrangements. For them to do so, they first need technological components to make futuristic power management possible.

This cannot be stressed enough. Vast majority of what The Pragmatist suggested over the last few years is not possible without the above. Electric smart grid (and overlapping digital data grid to monitor/control it) is the distilled essential for any future society. We can call it various colorful names to promote it (circulatory and nervous systems of a society for instance) but after much deliberation it is clearly the primary step to take. Even if a high tech liquid direct democracy is achieved, it will not be able to accomplish as much without public energy accounting that the grid allows. People's will and political will is shaped and checked by underlining physical technological realities. A lot of current political and social projects would not be possible in a society at a 19th century level of technological and electrical development. In this way, much like economics is an engineering challenge, so is politics and popular consciousness.

Resource based economy and resource accounting is not possible without very effective energy accounting first. Smart Meters and grids give rise to possibility of technocratic governance.

During the hay day of America's Technocracy movement in the 1930s, the main piece of literature (explaining the functioning, goals, and reasons for an empirically managed society) emphasized the need to measure the total amount of electrical generation on the North American continent in real time. This was to understand exactly how much power various extraction, production, and distribution industries use in order to drastically reduce inefficiencies in the national economy and to have the highest possible load factor at all times. This type of informational awareness was obviously not possible at the time especially considering the additional energy accounting complexities that Technocrats advocated (such as energy certificates to be issued to each individual).

Figure 1. Click to Enlarge
As of 2014, North America is covered by a handful of regional wide area synchronous grids (Fig. 1) that are themselves in the gradual process of merging into a continental Unified Smart Grid as mentioned in the previous article. The backbone of the Technocratic vision is thus forming. Potential susceptibility of smart grids to cyber attacks and infiltration necessitates public involvement for security reasons. As the most vital infrastructure component in the country, government authorities have a responsibility to ensure safe, constant, and reliable functioning of the grid as a whole. Military grade encryption will also be required here to ensure that this "Energy Internet" is free of outside disruptions. Subsequently, public control of the energy industry allows public leverage over all other heavy industry. "Security reasons" are a good way to market technocracy to groups in society which may not otherwise be as open to it.

The energy usage of machines that dig up, process, turn raw resources into finished product, and transport it to your locality can now be tracked accurately. The flattening of production and distribution chains that has occurred in recent decades under the guidance of such multinationals as Siemens and Wall-Mart already allows careful monitoring of the entire process. A two way directional energy grid further enables the measurement and control of energy usage of every piece of hardware within this chain. Efficient public industrial and infrastructural policy is now possible via these precise assessments of non-monetary costs. Currently, the cost of any project is measured in money where many blind spots, inefficiencies, and corruptions can be found (such as bloated overhead, middlemen, and undue distortions from non-physical financial sector.) Smart meter management software allows projects of the future to have a transparent real time digital record of the entire process on the physical level. This enables audit of records at any time and subsequent rapid corrective actions.

This ultimately will result in ever increasing representation of technical experts in governmental bodies at all levels. Fusion of technical cadres with governmental cadres is the smoothest way to gradually and peacefully replace the latter. Government cadres increasingly filled with greater and greater proportion of electrical and software engineers is by definition a growing technocracy. This may not exactly be 1/3 of the national legislature staffed with technical experts and scientists like in France but the necessity of greater physical efficiency in government puts us on the road towards legislatures staffed like that.

HVDC cables allow regions, provinces, and counties to act like metropolitan areas

With rapid projected urbanization for most people throughout the world, it may look like very large cities will inevitably become dominant political actors that leave scattered towns, small cities, hamlets, and villages between them increasingly economically and socially isolated. This doesn't need to be the case as hundreds of towns and/or entire counties can band together via efficient high powered long distance transmission HVDC cables and function as singular large cities. Much like diverse energy sources of various strengths can join together into a virtual power plant, local governments can collectively function as one unit without actually politically merging. For example, rather than the economy of New York State being dominated by New York City, counties in upstate New York may use the smart grid technology to work together to manage their energy, resource, and development needs. Hundreds of small spread out populations and political units can thus create a decentralized entity with population, economic size, and political bargaining power similar to a nearby metropolis. Additionally, being able to see precise electrical data for any sized political unit allows municipal role modeling behavior, emulation of successful technical projects, mutual learning, and rapid adaptation of what works. There is no need for small city mayors to wait for urban sprawl from nearest two large urban centers to swallow the town so large infrastructure projects can begin. Distributed generation of electrical power on a regional scale finally enables them to collaborate and pull resources together on projects larger than would otherwise be possible. A highly spread out region of 5 million people can create a similar concentrated economic focus as a densely packed and compact city of 5 million.

First resource based economy (RBE) experiments will likely be conducted in smaller cities. Their success will not only depend on their ability to generate their own power independent of the larger grid but their ability to trade surplus power to the larger grid as well as cooperate with fellow resource based economy settlements via HVDC smart grid network. As mentioned earlier in the article, regardless of whether one's policy requires more municipal autonomy/localism, municipal collaboration, or centralization, these emerging electrical platforms facilitate any proposal. However, our focus here is infrastructural ability of say, 10-30 small RBE cities to act in a synchronized political unison even if separated by hundreds or thousands of kilometers. Much like transnational corporations achieve certain critical mass with economies of scale, smart grids will allow spread out political experiment social units to reach economies of scale with collaborative energy use.

Regardless of where a person stands on the political spectrum, it appears that a political faction that makes best use of modernizing the electric grid first will begin to dominate in the market of ideas.

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  1. Hi . Very interesting and informative . This is great source of information which is very useful for me. Thank you very much .

  2. Good info, but it's a bit reader unfriendly. Use simpler sentences. Instead of "Tangible investments into physical precursors that make any major political alternatives possible ought to be focused on more than ever." Try:
    "We ought to focus on investing in physical precursors to make those major political alternatives possible."
    Simplicity gets the message across.