Here is an observation: If we build a clean energy economy and infrastructure, there are three major shifts in the overall energy picture that will be realized:
- Energy will evolve from an invisible entity we take for granted to a visible resource we measure and manage.
- Energy will transform from a mostly commodity market to a service industry.
- Energy technology and services will improve; creating a network of generation and distribution that transcends our current linear, hierarchical flow of electrons.
In many ways, the transformation in telecommunications over the past decade may be very similar to this coming energy revolution. The recipient of information by way of a phone call or a broadcast news program on a television set has become an active participant in this information exchange; where ten years ago an individual was simply the recipient in a one-way flow of information to her, now she can post a blog on her personal website, power up her iPhone to run numerous “apps,” and engage myriad other interactions in this information space. In other words, she is now an active participant in the exchange of information, reading an article online and commenting on it on her Facebook page.
When we think about an energy transformation, we can begin to visualize how our own assumptions may be holding us back from imagining the possibilities on the cusp of our horizon (for example, very few opinion leaders thought anyone would want a mobile phone in their early days). Already analysts and experts who are keeping tabs on the nascent “smart grid” industry are starting to coin terms like “prosumer” as opposed to “consumer.”
The concept of prosumer starts to paint a picture of a system in which the end user is also a producer. She becomes a “participant” enabling the types of technologies that allow her to understand which appliances are using the most energy and when that energy is most expensive. She is able to plug in her electric vehicle to a household socket that is powered by solar panels on her roof. She is able to sell excess energy back to the energy service company for a specific rate. The energy service company then monitors all of this information and suggests upgrades that better fit her lifestyle. It is an engagement between a network of participants, all mitigating the creation and flow of electrons within the larger system.
It is that active engagement of a network to create an energy ecosystem that I refer to when speaking about the medium as the message; in this case, the medium is an open platform that seeks to facilitate clean energy economic development through active engagement by clean energy business and community leadership.
The Clean Energy Economy Gateway (CEE Gateway) is an experiment in community building. Like Wikipedia, the community drives the content of this open platform of information about the newly forming clean energy economy. Unlike Wikipedia, where content is largely created for its own sake, the CEE Gateway is meant to be used as a tool for regional clean energy economic development. It is meant to engage a network of clean energy companies, researchers, developers, policy makers and financiers to collectively help create strategies to shift from a 19th century energy paradigm to a 21st century one.
Through the gateway, active stakeholders can understand the complexity of regional energy infrastructure issues and set realistic energy goals to move the industry ahead. The goal of this endeavor is for the CEE Gateway to help deliver a cohesive approach to shifting our dependence on the old system of energy to enabling active participation in the new one.
A critical element of this new mechanism is the synergy between organizational information, infrastructure (utility-scale clean energy facility descriptions and clean transportation data), and policy context. We often talk about clean energy success being dependent on market factors, technology development and policy implementation and the CEE Gateway attempts to provide accessible insights on all three fronts. We accomplish this by using virtual tools to map this activity both on the social media platforms and on both static Google maps and the more dynamic Google Earth platform. The CEE Gateway on the Wiki feeds in to the Clean Energy Landscape on Google Earth.
It is in the landscape that context is truly key; on the platform users can visualize layers that include renewable resource maps, congressional districts and new applications that the global clean energy community develops. So in other words, an economic developer can see which companies in clean energy are developing projects in what districts and where the resources are for future expansion.
More importantly, the content of the landscape is driven by the clean energy community’s contributions to the open platform of the Gateway, so this is a dynamic and iterative mechanism with which to view these relationships.
Cautious optimism is the general feeling on many fronts these days in the realm of clean energy. We have a tremendous opportunity to rethink how we engage with our energy infrastructure and clean energy leadership knows very well already the power of networks. It is our fierce hope at NREL that the Clean Energy Economy Gateway will be a catalyst for accelerating our transformation from an extractive economy to one fueled by innovation and creativity. Now it is up to us to build the future we want for ourselves.