Let's get small

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To combat climate change and get the middle east oil monkey off our backs, the U.S. is going to have to take a hard look at developing alternative fuel and energy sources. So where is the alternative energy going to come from in the future? Vast windfarms? Solar-paneled prairies? How about thousands of U.S. rooftops?

Americans may be culturally inclined to think big. We like our power plants super-sized: natural gas, coal or oil burning behemoths or nuclear-powered marvels. Looking at the world through E.F. Schumacher-colored glasses, however, you begin to see that small is beautiful and it can even be powerful.

In Illinois Commonwealth Edison has begun an experimental program that plans the installation of micro-solar power plants on the homes of 100 local energy consumers in Chicago's northwest suburbs. "We want to see whether consumers have the ability, with this technology, to become little utilities. They will be able to buy and sell electricity at a real-time hourly price, which is very close to the wholesale price, from their homes," Val Jensen, ComEd's vice president for marketing and environmental programs, told the Chicago Sun-Times.The utility will outfit 50 of those homes with smart electric meters, hourly electric pricing, battery solar-power storage and the ability to gain credits for emitting excess solar power back to the electric grid for others' use. The other 50 will get those same additions, except they won't be able to store their energy.

This model of microgeneration is already being developing in Europe, but the U.S. can catch up quickly with a little more imagination and political will. This specific program is being funded with an $5 million in stimulus money from the U.S. Department of Energy, plus $3 million in a matching funds from ComEd and its vendors. More public and private investment will necessary to make this model of co-generated power a practical alternative for lighting up our world.