Centralized Utilities are Creating Crisis. We Need to Take Back Control | Opinion

Centralization—where governments bulk buy resources and distribute them to their citizens—is failing. In energy, unprecedented pressure on the global supply means the world's richest countries are in danger of what would normally be seen as "developing world" conditions.

From power outages in Texas to the current British energy crisis (where the U.K.'s National Grid has told Brits to expect power outages this winter), we are paying the price of using 20th-century power networks to fuel 21st-century societies.

We need to replace top-down centralization with a bottom-up, user-generated system. Decentralization can prepare us for the decades ahead; and looking beyond energy, to the life-critical area of water supply and recycling, both of which are already being affected by climate change and increased geopolitical instability. Infrastructure independence is essential, and decentralization can help deliver it.

The world is unpredictable; depending on factors outside one's own borders is a high risk game. China's post-COVID bounceback has led to an increase in energy usage by around 8.4 percent. The Russian energy company Gazprom has refused to increase its energy exports to Europe, despite record-high prices across the continent. Given the fact that gas powers 80 percent of homes, scarce affordable gas has hit the average household's pockets the hardest.

This has created a perfect storm for a country like the United Kingdom, where energy demand is high and domestic gas and electricity generation is low.

This is because British energy infrastructure was built during the 1960s and the 1970s. At the time, the only way to distribute energy cost-effectively was through the economy of scale. Investing in smaller, local energy plants, along with the associated staffing and construction costs, made little sense. That has changed.

The system was also resistant to international market forces because the majority of the county's energy was produced locally by coal mines. That has also changed, leaving the country dependent on the global market.

With the falling costs of battery storage and renewable energy technologies, the economies of small scale energy production are becoming possible. Lloyd's Register expects decentralized renewable energy to be cheaper than power from the grid by 2025. It's time for policies to make sure everyone benefits from that.

Decentralized, renewable energy means "locating of energy production facilities closer to the site of energy production." That seems like an idea that makes economic and environmental sense. And it can become a reality through the development of "microgrids" that can serve entire towns, or even energy production that only serves a single household.

In Australia, rooftop solar energy now accounts for 16 percent of all renewable energy generation. This is partly thanks to the decentralized energy exchange—a government-backed flexible energy marketplace that allows users to sell energy back to the grid in times of high usage. This reduces costs and allows individuals to profit from energy generation while promoting investment in renewable energy.

The German start-up Shine facilitates users to optimize their own use of energy, while also trading excess energy with their peers.

The energy shortage crisis is indicative of a wider issue; overly centralized public services are prone to inefficiency and sudden shocks to the system.

Solar panels on homes
Solar panels on homes in the United Kingdom. In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

What is true for energy is also true for water. Pumping water through hundreds of miles of piping so that it can be treated is an ecologically and economically wasteful practice. My company, OriginClear, commissioned a case study that showed how local treatment could create a major greenhouse benefit.

As the study's authors wrote: "With a decentralized or modular solution, we can reduce both the water and nutrient footprints (carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus) in a single package. By doing this, we have effectively reduced the impact on both the local water district and the local environment."

If we can treat water at a more local location to usage, much of that waste can be avoided. Similarly, if a contamination happens at a central plant, then that one problem is multiplied across thousands of households. The growing tide of decentralized water treatment plants, and the technologies that support them is solving that problem.

Technologies are emerging that enable us to reimagine our old, centralized attitude to public services. We can not only lower the load that is felt by centralized systems, we can also protect ourselves, and citizens from the types of sudden upheavals we have seen. This can protect people and our planet during the energy crisis, and the emerging water crisis as well.

It is clear we need to reorganize our societies and their public resource delivery in ways that cut back our carbon usage. We cannot continue to build centralized water treatment centers and power grids; a sheer limit of space, combined with increased environmental regulations, means that the centralized systems designed in the 1980s are exactly that—a thing of the past.

We need to future-proof, and therefore decentralize our public service infrastructures today.

The British public voted five years ago to "take back control" by leaving the European Union—that should start with taking back control of energy and water, both so vital to a country's well-being and survival.

Riggs Eckelberry is the founding CEO of OriginClear, which aims to create "Airbnb for water" through "decentralized water wealth."

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.