We often hear comparisons between the human body’s circulatory system and the power grid. Indeed, the power grid evolved into a similar hub-and-spoke topography, as electrical wires were built and have since functioned like blood vessels transporting electrons from generation sources (large power plants) to load centers (homes and businesses). This system worked – so well, in fact, that our electrical blood vessels now crawl through national parks, wetlands and busy city centers to deliver us the constant power we need to live our lives.

But this format is creating more acute problems over time. Our infrastructure ages just like our bodies do – and needs regular replacement. Drier conditions and more volatile winds have increased the likelihood of grid-borne wildfires, especially in the West. More frequent and stronger hurricanes knock out electrical “vessels”, leaving hundreds of thousands without power, especially in the South. Meanwhile, to keep up with societal growth we are building more transmission lines (“arteries”) and distribution lines (“veins” and “capillaries”) – further increasing the cost of maintaining our grid. Over time, outages start to resemble blood clots, rendering entire sections of society virtually stranded and, for some, in mortal danger.

Meanwhile, natural disasters are expected to increase, leading to more frequent outages (mitigated in part by system hardening), and the costs of expanding and maintaining infrastructure will continue to increase along with congestion costs (think “high blood pressure”). Further, the costs of outages will increase as our reliance on electricity intensifies.

Where does all this lead us?

Some propose new transmission lines. They relieve congestion and expand renewables penetration – yet they still require maintenance and are prone to outages. So, is this a long-term fix?

Instead, what if we produced and used energy like our bodies do? Remember from high school biology that “mitochondria” take oxygen and nutrients to make ATP, the form of energy our cells use. What if we empowered homes and businesses to operate their own mitochondria and produce their own energy onsite?

Distributed energy infrastructure is not a new concept. It’s been written about by journalists and other experts for years. But let’s use the principles of biomimicry to better understand what this transition really means – and how to get there.

First, consider the counter-factual: what if we had “energy hearts” that created energy and distributed it in our circulatory system?

Well, that would be risky, likely resulting in death if it were even damaged. The distribution system itself could cause problems, affecting organs and tissue along its paths if it were to malfunction or get interrupted. And, the allocation of energy could get difficult – what if you were to start an intense exercise regimen, but your energy pathways weren’t robust enough to serve such big and strong guns? And then you got injured, and all of a sudden had all of this wasted energy distribution capacity?

In reality, our cells do not require the delivery of energy, but rather the raw inputs from which energy can be derived (oxygen + nutrients). For example, it makes more sense for our oxygen center (lungs) and nutrient center (stomach) to be centralized, as we need both from our external environment to which most of our cells do not have access.

OK – zoom out to society again. We have the “raw building blocks” of energy everywhere, right? Sunlight, wind, and geothermal energy are accessible no matter where you live – so our society’s “cells” should all have access to some form of raw inputs required to create energy themselves.

These raw inputs can be intermittent, not constant: the sun doesn’t always shine (hello, Seattle), and the wind doesn’t always blow. Luckily, we have developed – and are still improving – ways to store energy beyond earth-borne fossil fuels like oil and coal: in chemical batteries, as kinetic energy, as compressed or liquefied natural gas, as hydrogen – even as compressed air.

Indeed, with electrical “mitochondria” – think rooftop solar, small modular wind, geothermal wells, etc. – we would no longer need our big electricity arteries. Sure, we may still need smaller veins to share and balance energy across neighborhoods or cities. But when those lines break, it is hundreds – not hundreds of thousands – of electricity users who must live temporarily without power (unless they have backup power) and many dollars of lost revenues are saved.

The private market is already guiding us in this direction. Tesla Powerwalls are filling garages, Sunrun solar arrays are covering roofs, and fuel cells are powering grocery stores. (Indeed, with every outage, these products look even more attractive.) Private service providers and OEMs are likely to push this transition to a “mitochondrian” system as electricity generation and storage technologies become smaller-scale, cheaper to manufacture and maintain, and faster to install. If our society becomes more transient, we should expect an even higher premium on technologies that travel with us.

So – takeaways?

Takeaway 1: Let’s make mitochondria cheaper and smaller. Make it easier for households and businesses to purchase, install and operate their own – and potentially even move them around.

Takeaway 2: Let’s invest in energy efficiency. Energy efficiency reduces the barrier to acquiring our own mitochondria. The less electricity we need, the less it costs us. We have some decent resources today, but much more work to be done.

Perhaps more pertinent is how the owners and operators of our electricity vessels – utilities and ISOs – could shift their sails to catch the winds of this transition. It is not profitable when customers begin generating their own electricity, paying utilities for less, and yet still benefiting from the grid as a resource. This is already happening, and the utility’s challenge is anything but trivial. But it’s also not Sisyphean.

First, ISOs and utilities must reduce grid maintenance overhead. Some tools to help this may be:

  • Optimizing O&M labor practices with better field support tools
  • Better “monitor and mitigate” technologies for grid incidents such as vegetation encroachment
  • Improving grid data collection and analytics systems
  • Investing in automated load balancing and grid stabilization technologies
  • Empowering – and incentivizing – the private developer community to site DERs in locations conducive to T&D expense deferral
  • Stronger organizational support for non-wires alternatives

To make this happen, utilities, ISOs, and governing bodies could re-imagine how utilities make money. The IOU business model of locking in profit on capital expenditures worked well – until it didn’t. Rather than getting paid for new infrastructure, what if a utility got paid for less infrastructure (think remote microgrids)? Could we incentivize our utilities to keep the grid small and healthy (read: profitable) instead of big and strong?

Finally, all stakeholders – including individuals – need to understand and appreciate the value of the grid and the role of grid optimization in the Pareto efficiency of society at large. We need the grid – in fact, we depend on it every second – and we shouldn’t accelerate its death spiral. That is Pareto inefficient! There is still great value in common “connective tissue” to support individual cells when they malfunction or fail, provide load balancing, and facilitate shared growth. The vast assets and expertise utilities possess can prove a great lever for transitioning to low-carbon generation – if we can design the right incentives.

We’d love to open a wider conversation about how our utilities – not just ourselves – can thrive as we transition to a distributed “mitochondrial” electricity system. We at ADL Ventures spend a lot of time thinking about this problem and welcome any thoughts at ben@adlventures.com.