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Politics

The Irreverent Punks Trying to Flip the Energy System on Its Head

I got DER-pilled at DERVOS 2023.

A punk flyer for distributed energy.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The hottest ticket in Brooklyn last week wasn’t for an indie rock show or a buzzy new restaurant. It was for the most niche, nerdiest clean energy conference of the year — the sold-out DERVOS 2023.

The conference name — a satirical play on Davos, a stuffy, World Economic Forum event attended by governmental and business elites — tells you much of what you need to know about this irreverent subculture of the climate movement. A teaser video for DERVOS described it as a “rad clean energy summit … where youths get DER-pilled and the hot takes haven’t been approved by PR.”

To translate, DERVOS is for people who are stoked about a category of technologies known as “distributed energy resources,” or DERs. They encompass pretty much any device that can generate or store energy, or use energy flexibly, at the scale of a single building, like rooftop solar panels, batteries, and smart thermostats. This kind of tech has historically been written off as less important than big projects like wind farms — “nice-to-haves” but incapable of cutting emissions at climate-relevant scales. But once you get DER-pilled, another vision for the future emerges.

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  • Imagine a solar panel on every roof, a battery in every basement, and a smart thermostat in every home. Now imagine these devices being aggregated and synchronized across neighborhoods, cities, or entire regions. If 5,000 batteries discharge at the same time, you’ve got the equivalent of a new power plant. If 5,000 smart thermostats turn the temperature up by a few degrees on a hot summer day, you can prevent a natural gas “peaker” plant from firing up. In that sense, DERs offer a potentially faster option for growing the electric grid than large-scale projects, and could provide significant savings — around $10 billion in avoided infrastructure costs by 2030, according to a recent Department of Energy report.

    But that’s not all. To the DER-pilled, this future will also be a “better world, a higher performing world,” as James McGinniss, one of the organizers of DERVOS, put it. It’s a world where your heating and cooling and EV charging are orchestrated seamlessly to utilize the cleanest power at the lowest cost; where solar panels and batteries aren’t called upon to keep your lights on when the power goes out, because they are preventing system-wide blackouts from occurring in the first place.

    “How many industries can you work on that are going to completely change the way one of our foundational systems works and flip it entirely on its head?” Nathaniel Teichman, a DER-pilled former financial analyst, told me at the conference. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else with such importance or at such an inflection point.”

    To kick things off at DERVOS, McGinniss painted a picture of an industry on the verge of an explosion. “It feels like if DERs were the internet, it’s 1995,” he told the roughly 250-person crowd. “We’re very, very early in this. And I think there’s massive, massive growth coming to this space.”

    The event was held at Newlab, a startup incubator located in a renovated shipbuilding warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Unlike other energy summits, it’s not put on by a trade association or a professional organization. It’s organized by a loose collective called the DER Task Force, a bunch of enthusiasts who met on Twitter.

    The story is a roadmap for movement-building in the modern age. It started in March 2019, when McGinniss posted a tweet asking if anyone in New York wanted to start a monthly happy hour to talk shop about distributed energy. “Like 30 people responded. And I had like 100 Twitter followers,” he told me.

    The tweet led to a group message called “DG Beers” (for distributed generation) and eventually to a series of real life hangs. They got drinks. They went to see The Current War, a movie about the 19th century battle over which electrical current system would prevail. They had people give powerpoint presentations. When COVID-19 hit, they moved the monthly meetup to Zoom and started a podcast. The group blew up. “Suddenly we had people from like, South Africa and like, rural Alaska joining us,” said Duncan Campbell, another one of the original members.

    Regulars at the meetups told me it was unlike other networking spaces. “What stands out the most is the atmosphere of strong opinions, weakly held,” said Kyle Baranko. “I think there’s a lot of people who are intellectuals, who like getting into the big picture and the small details. But they never take themselves too seriously.”

    That’s also a fitting description of DERVOS, which covered broad, heady topics like the concept of “energy abundance” with a combination of deep expertise and lighthearted, often crude informality. “We need to double or triple the grid. That is crazy,” said Pier LaFarge, the CEO of a company called Sparkfund, during the first panel, which contemplated the potential for centralized grid planning. “That is like the technical challenge of the space race and the economic scale of the highway system. That is non-trivial, societal shit.”

    During the next session, Andy Frank, founder of the home retrofit company Sealed, was talking about how DERs can help avoid the need to build transmission lines and power plants. “We need a — and this is a very technical term — a fuck-ton of DERs to try to avoid an even more fuck-ton of costs,” he said.

    “Is it a metric fuckton?” Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems engineer from Princeton University and Heatmap contributor on the panel, shot back. The audience burst out laughing.

    The conference skewed very white and male. Nicole Green, another founding member, speculated that it might be because that’s still the demographic at a lot of university engineering programs. Integrating DERs into the grid and into power markets is technologically complicated, and the community is largely made up of engineers.

    When I asked other attendees to describe the vibe, one said it was “tech bro-ey, but better — not as toxic.” Another said “young and exciting.”

    “It feels a little bit like the energy industry underground, in a way,” Baranko told me.

    “There’s a rebellious, counter-establishment ethos within the DER community,” said Teichman, “both by the nature of what it is and the people it attracts.”

    Part of that comes from the fact that these technologies challenge the monopoly utility model — the way that electricity has been generated and distributed and commoditized for decades through big, corporate power plants. The DER community also likes to push back on the narrative that tackling climate change requires sacrifice. “That’s also where the irreverence bleeds in,” said McGinniss. “It’s just like, this is an awesome, exciting future. That’s what we want people to feel.”

    To illustrate the point, McGinniss and his friends organized a DERVOS afterparty with the first-ever “vehicle to rave” demonstration. Working with another group of DER-enthusiasts called the SOLARPUNKS, who specialize in sustainable event production, they used a Ford F-150 Lightning to power the sound system at an old fire station-turned-event space in lower Manhattan.

    But this better, higher performing world is still mostly out of reach. “We’re mired in a lot of decades-old thinking at this point about DERs and how they can be a part of all of this,” Campbell told the audience at the start of the conference.

    The obstacles preventing DERs from realizing their full potential was a major theme of the day. Frank talked about how DERs aren’t properly valued in energy markets. Leah Stokes, a political scientist from the University of California, lamented that utilities haven’t taken DERs seriously or integrated them into their resource planning. Jenkins suggested we regulate utilities differently so that they have more incentive to utilize DERs. Jen Downing, a senior advisor at the Department of Energy, said regulators need data showing that DERs are reliable.

    Part of the problem is that there’s no DER industry association, no one advocating for funding or policy changes to support these solutions at the state or national level. During last year’s conference, Jigar Shah, a Department of Energy official and a sort of Godfather figure in the DER scene, pushed the community to be more ambitious. “You guys are left out of the narrative, and it’s just fun, it’s sort of like, 'oh that’s so cool, I’m glad that they’re doing that,’” he said, calling in to deliver the keynote speech from the car during his family vacation.

    The DER Task Force took up Shah’s call to arms and decided to use its revenue from events and the podcast to hire Allison Bates Wannop, an energy lawyer, to work on policy full time. At this year’s DERVOS, Wannop announced the group’s initial plans, which include turning New York State into a DER “nirvana,” and a campaign to “occupy NARUC,” the association for utility regulators that holds triannual conferences, which are heavily attended by the natural gas industry.

    Colleen Metelitsa, one of the founders of the Task Force, told me the current landscape for DERs was like the internet before the iPhone came out. There was a lot you could do with the existing technology, but the iPhone “proliferated so many things we do on the internet that we didn’t even think about.”

    What else, besides raves powered by pick-up trucks, does the future hold?

    Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.

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    Emily Pontecorvo

    Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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