Setting: A remote homestead in the Sierra Nevada foothills, in the somewhat but not exceedingly distant future.
A column of dust rises in the distance, and soon the sun flashes off the stainless steel exterior of a trapezoidal personnel carrier winding up the unpaved switchbacks. The driver crosses the moat into the compound, comes to a silent, regenerative halt and emerges, overcoat flapping in the wind. By now, the home’s inhabitants have lined up in front of the main house, staring down the new arrival.
Mother: Hello Mister, and welcome to Grid’s Edge. We don’t get many visitors out this way. We mostly just look after ourselves. What brings ye here?
Traveler: I was just passing through the barren wasteland and needed some place to charge my Cybertruck. Ain’t she pretty? I got one of the first ones to roll off the line, just last week. Sure am glad I spent my first paycheck on the deposit, back before the dissolution of the electrical network and all.
Mother: That was years ago. We don’t talk about that time much.
Traveler: You can’t rush a visionary. So whaddya say, can I plug her in?
Eldest Son: I can lead him around back. We’ve got plenty of capacity yet in the pumped hydro tank.
Mother: You do that, son. There’re but a handful of DC fast chargers this side of the Central Desert, and this ain’t one of them. Our inverter is humble, just like our home. But while it discharges, you may as well come inside. We’re about to feast like they did before the Disconnection.
Later, inside, Traveler follows Mother, Eldest Son, and Daughter over creaky floorboards to a candlelit dining room. Father enters bearing a platter largely filled by a golden roasted bird, wings folded back like single-axis solar trackers after a long day. He is joined by Jed, the family’s farmhand and general purpose distributed energy resource mechanic.
Traveler: I’m mighty grateful to you for bringing me in for this feast. Say, if you’re strapped for lighting, I could contribute some of them solar lanterns I’ve got stowed in my frunk.
Father: I appreciate the offer, but this here microgrid can power a 100-kilowatt peak load. We’ve got recessed LEDs in this ceiling that’d blow your irises clean to Cyber Monday. We just like the candles for their old-timey aesthetics, and the reminder of what life was like when we depended on the investor-owned utility. Ain’t that right, Jed?
Jed: Sure is, sir. We’ve got ground-mount solar, as there’s no shortage of land on this remote hilltop. Also, solar carports to keep the sun off the vehicles. Micro-wind to capture some nighttime generation. The lithium-ion cells burned out after seven years of daily cycling, so we turned our fire moat into the low reservoir for our residential pumped hydro system. And of course the house is all-electric, and highly efficient and insulated. Don’t let the creaky floorboards fool ye, that’s just another design choice. It may look like an old homestead, but with our locally sourced power, we sure do maintain a modern standard of living.
Traveler: Why not switch to flow batteries when the lithium went bust?
Jed: We’ve been following that technology closely. I think it needs a few more years.
Mother: Now where are you joining us from?
Father: With that Mars Rover contraption, he can only be from the coastal enclaves.
Daughter: Perhaps you can help me, friend. I’m studying the end of the Old Grid for my online secondary school credential. Did you live through it? Did you watch it happen?
The winds whip up and the microturbine outside creaks to life. Surplus electricity begins pumping water out of the moat into the elevated tank.
Traveler: The change started when PG&E began turning the lights off. You see, back then, electric utilities had one job: keeping the lights on. But the company’s wires kept starting fires, and it was easier to cut off power to millions than to build a grid that could safely deliver throughout its territory. People got fed up and demanded change.
Daughter: How did the political leaders react?
Traveler: After the first big manmade blackouts, the governor said PG&E should take accountability for its actions and give everyone who was affected $100
Daughter: Was that enough to compensate for the lost food and productivity, not to mention emotional distress?
Traveler: Not really, no.
Daughter: Did the ambition of that proposal match the scope of the entrenched structural problem?
Traveler: Not at all.
Daughter: So what happened to actually change things?
Traveler: The people of Northern California got fed up with the fires and loss of power and the disruption to the economy, in a region that was considered at the time to be the heart of technological innovation for the world. Some moved away, down to Los Angeles, which was already sunnier and more laid back and better-looking. But those who stuck around rose up and seized the utility for the people, instead of the Wall Street profiteers and fixed-income retirees who used to own it.
Daughter: So that made the fires and the blackouts go away?
Traveler: Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. It turns out if you swap out shareholders for the people of California as your owners, that still leaves thousands of miles of aging transmission lines through arid landscapes increasingly beset by 80-mile-an-hour gusts of wind. The threat of fires remained, as did the need to cut power to prevent them. But the public ownership did make one change that was well received, and that was investing in a power shutoff website that didn’t crash.
Daughter: That seems like a good idea.
Eldest Son: So how did we end up where we are today, sir?
Traveler: Once the utility became a public concern, it turned out the people didn’t much like spending billions of dollars to stretch sturdy modern poles and wires across this far flung territory. So they cut ties. The big cities got their microgrids, with reinforced lines to bring power in from the wind floating offshore and the solar plants in the Central Desert. The smaller communities in the hills got support to supply and store their own power, before the old wires came down for good. When the dry winds whipped up, we didn’t need to be pushing high-voltage power through the forests and hills, and people still had their lights on thanks to the local power. And that’s the story of the Great Disconnection.
Father: See kids, that’s why we supply power all by ourselves, and you don’t see your daddy writing a big check to some old monopoly each month.
Traveler: You must feel very grateful. So what is it you do out here, exactly?
Father: Zero-marginal-cost Bitcoin mining, mostly. It ain’t much, but it's enough to get us to the Caymans twice a year. What about you, friend? What brings you out here?
Traveler: Needed some fresh Instagram content for my #cybertrucklife influencer account.
Father: God bless ye. It warms my heart to know real American entrepreneurs like you and me can still thrive in this fallen world. May yer lights shine bright and yer truck never break!