A Different Future for Energy

December 24, 2015 | ProgressTH Just this past week, private rocket company SpaceX headed by entrepreneur and innovator Elon Musk, not only sent 11 commercial satellites into orbit upon its Falcon 9 rocket, but the first stage returned to Earth, landing under its own power, like something out of a science fiction movie. SpaceX not only hopes to put humans into orbit with its Dragon space capsule, it has aspirations to land humans on Mars and beyond.

But SpaceX's CEO Elon Musk has another science fiction-style future in mind as well. It's one closer to Earth, an alternative to how we power our homes, our cities, and our transportation.

His other companies, Solar City and Tesla seek to build up the infrastructure, first in America, then worldwide. Solar City creates solar panels while Tesla creates electric vehicles, batteries, and battery charging systems. Together, both compliment each other creating a total solution for energy and transportation.

The concept is to harness the power of the sun through rooftop solar panels. Homes, offices, and factories would power themselves with their own arrays, or could link up together to form small, localized grids. People's electric vehicles would also be charged at home or work, or at charging stations spread out nationwide.

The result would be an increasingly decentralized means of producing power. Instead of centralized power plants, solar power requires rooftops seldom used for anything currently.

While Musk's Solar City and Tesla would lead the way, many more companies would follow, and from all parts of the world. Eventually, a community's power production will be a matter of community business, and one less thing it would have to depend on others, either governments or companies for.

The Future is Taking Shape 

Already, Tesla's electric vehicles are popping up on roads all over America, Europe, and even Asia. There is even a Tesla Model S in the streets of Vientiane, Laos. Because of the range of the cars, and with your own charging station at home, a single Model S in Laos is still a viable mode of transportation, and will be more so as soon as others take to this new technology.

There was the announcement of Tesla Energy and the Power Wall, a battery system that will allow home owners to power their homes just as Tesla customers power their electric vehicles. Musk also envisions Gigafactories that others would build to create battery systems all over the planet.

It is just this sort of concept that will, and already has sped up the transition of power production and transportation from its current state, to a more decentralized, cleaner system.

What You Can Do Now

And while Solar City and Tesla are developing cutting edge technology and pushing this technology mainstream on a national, even global front, people should realize that there are many people already working toward this locally with existing technology. As the price goes down for solar panels and batteries, homes providing for themselves at least a percentage of their daily electricity through solar power have been increasing in number.

Here in Thailand, remote areas where the national power grid has yet to reach, community leaders have used solar power to light villages, run water pumps, and perform other tasks most of us take for granted. In the process, villagers have been taught how to maintain and even improve their solar power energy production, turning everyone, from children to the elderly into energy production and management experts.

A rural home in Thailand's Pedang area, Phetchaburi province, powered by a solar panel. The national electric grid didn't reach this remote, hilltop village, so community leaders made their own grid. 

As solar and battery technology improves, these communities, once left behind, will be at the forefront of moving forward into the future.

Electric vehicles, for those unable to access or afford Tesla cars, are still a ways off. However, personal transportation like bikes and scooters are increasingly turning to electric motors and batteries to propel them, and as these motors and batteries improve, it is likely local companies will continue making larger and more capable modes of transportation. As Tesla lowers the cost of each successive model of electric car, and as local companies produce more capable personal electric transportation systems, they will meet somewhere in the middle, and the days of suffocating on sidewalks, choked by smog billowing out of cars stranded in gridlock may be a thing of the past.

It is not just a matter of environmental concern, it is also a matter of human health, and even a matter of economic opportunity. Decentralizing power production and transportation will create opportunities and wealth for a much larger number of people worldwide. Turning to solar power and other forms of renewable, local power production will clean up our air, and provide cheap energy we can use to improve our communities in ways we've only dreamed.

If you haven't heard of Elon Musk's Solar City or Tesla companies, keep an eye on them in the future. Together with SpaceX, they are challenging a status quo many have resigned themselves to, but clearly should not have, and need not have.

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