Will we be living in city-states in the near future?

As we shift away from fossil fuels, there will be a few cultural changes that you might not expect. For one thing, political and economic power will become focused in cities rather than regions or states. That's what energy expert Joe Browder says in an intriguing essay.

Image by Jake Murray

Browder, who consults with both companies and NGOs about changing energy policies, recently had a guest post on ecologist Daniel Botkin's blog. In it, he describes how cities will begin to produce their own fuel — partly thanks to new energy sources, and partly thanks to developments in information technology:

The cities’ increased influence over their own energy investments is important because most Americans, and most citizens in the world’s industrial economies, now live in urban societies. Technology developments now make it more economic for most major metropolitan regions to invest within and near their own urban economies, in the distributed generation of electricity, from multiple and often small-scale resources and technology systems—rather than continuing to depend on and pay for the old model of importing electricity from very large remote generating plants . . .

The energy patch itself has now expanded, to include production of shale gas in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, West Virginia and perhaps New York, and will include new oil production in California. The Southwest, Gulf south, Rocky Mountain and Appalachian fossil fuel producing states, which, with Alaska, have dominated US energy policy for so long, will see their influence diluted as California and the previously declining eastern and midwestern industrial states become important energy producers.

The abundance of American shale gas means that natural gas will displace coal and even some nuclear power in the US electricity industry, which will make solar and wind more economically competitive in electricity markets. The variable nature of solar, wind, and energy created through demand-side management will no longer be treated as unreliable when they are sold into natural gas systems that can easily be made to produce more or less electricity as inputs from solar, wind and demand management supplies vary. Natural gas is the only baseload fuel useful in small-scale generating systems to support distributed solar. The combination of natural gas displacing coal to make electricity, and the trend away from remote power generation toward urban distributed generation, will stimulate greater penetration of solar and wind into the new and more efficient urban electricity infrastructure.

It's interesting to think about the mechanics of how we'd use natural gas in concert with solar and wind energy. But what's more interesting still is Browder's idea that cities could become crucial as energy producers as well as consumers. It reminds me of Jane Jacobs' assertion that cities thrive when they begin to produce their own goods, rather than importing them. Perhaps the next stage for modern cities that want to survive is to bring energy production in-house.

Read the whole essay on Daniel Botkin's blog.