THE BLOG
07/19/2010 01:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bouncing Back From the Disaster in the Gulf

Resiliency is the key to energy security;
the key to resiliency is decentralized energy production

The Gulf oil spill is yet another grim reminder that our society's reliance on highly complex and centralized energy systems renders us highly vulnerable. In fact, there seems to be a correlation: the more complex and centralized a system, the more vulnerable it becomes. The Deep Horizon explosion, it appears, was caused by malfunctions in the incredibly complex technology that has been developed to enable us to extract oil from ever deeper and more hazardous locations -- an activity that obviously increases vulnerability.

This vulnerability matters tremendously because so many things can go wrong with such systems: human errors, technical malfunctions, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and so on. And while the probability of any one thing going wrong may be small, the probability that something will is more likely. That means we are bound to take some hits. Shouldn't we seek protection that can minimize these dangers?

This protection can best be found in making our energy systems more resilient.

Resiliency, a concept drawn from ecology, means a lot more than simple survival. Resiliency is the capacity of an ecosystem to absorb disturbance, undergo change, and still retain essentially the same structure and identity. A resilient ecosystem can even rebuild itself when necessary. In nature, for example, forest fires serve to renew the forest's ecology by making room for new growth.

Today, resiliency is a hot topic in fields other than ecology. Research psychologists are using the concept to help people cope in the aftermath of traumatic events, including soldiers returning from combat.

Resiliency has become a major focus of the Department of Homeland Security. In a recent speech, John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, stated, "Instead of simply building defensive walls, we must bolster our ability at all levels, federal, state, local and the private sector to withstand disruptions, maintain operations and recover quickly."

In energy terms, resilience is the ability of the system to provide and maintain service in the face of various challenges to normal operation, including those that involve sudden and dramatic change or disruption.

The key to energy resiliency is decentralization. There's a simple reason for this: the more centralized a system becomes, the bigger target it becomes. In terms of homeland security, it gives the bad guys something to aim at. But what if there is no center, no something to aim at?

This is why we are proponents of distributed generation, systems whereby energy is produced on-site for use on-site. Distributed generation relies on small-scale, micropower devices. When something goes wrong in a distributed generation system, the impact is small scale. No one is going to target the solar shingles on your roof or the small wind turbine on your cornice to take out a community's energy supply. What's more, we know how to fix micropower devices, so even if portions of a decentralized energy system are disabled or destroyed, they can be repaired or rebuilt quickly.

Smaller footprints are another reason to opt for decentralized, small-scale energy systems. These technologies lack the capacity to do the environment permanent harm. E. F. Schumacher, author of the 1973 classic Small is Beautiful put it this way:

Small scale operations, no matter how numerous, are always less likely to be harmful to the natural environment than large-scale ones, simply because their individual force is small in relation to the recuperative powers of nature.

As an advocate for an environmentally responsible economy, I have long thought that the need for increased resiliency is vital for ecological reasons. But now it seems increasingly clear that national security concerns make that need truly paramount. What's the hang-up? Why aren't we rushing to increase the resiliency of our energy systems?

A principal obstacle is the widespread belief that small-scale renewable energy technologies are of marginal value at present and will only play a significant role in the distant future (if then) when they are cost-competitive with conventional fossil fuels. Not so, we argue. We believe that these technologies are viable today, that is, presently available, practical, reliable, and affordable, especially when you do a full calculation of costs and benefits, including upgrading and expanding the electric distribution grid.

Although the family of renewable energy resources and technologies is very diverse and many can be scaled up in size, a wonderful attribute of small-scale renewable energy technologies is that they literally can be utilized in every part of our country, creating or expanding small businesses, adding considerable economic activity in every region, encouraging new manufacturing capacity, decreasing reliance on fossil fuels and the harms they present, improving our overall resilience, and thus our overall security.

Carol Werner, Executive Director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, contributed to this post.. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a non-profit organization located in Washington , DC, has presented dozens of Capitol Hill briefings on new technologies that can increase the resiliency of the nation's energy systems. Visit www.eesi.org