The Alternative 12V Grid

The National Grid, which is in reality an international network, is truly an amazing feat of engineering and management. It is in the most part reliable, dependable, and affordable – and much of modern Western living would be impossible without it.

However I think there is scope for a secondary, alternative grid.

For a start, many of the things we plug into the mains on a daily basis now come with chunky adapters that convert the 230V AC current into the lower-power DC current that they require. Managing all these cables and plugs is a pain, and each one must add a fair chunk of cost to the price of new appliances.

We’re also increasingly using batteries to even out the supply of electricity for the times that we’re not plugged in. It’s not just phones, computers and drills, you can now buy cordless irons and vacuum cleaners. These batteries need to be charged, but it often doesn’t matter precisely when, or how long it takes.

There’s also the environment to consider. Whilst the proportion of renewable energy is growing, most of our electricity is still generated by burning fossil fuels. This happens many miles from our homes, sometimes in other countries. Whilst long-distance transmission at high voltages is fairly efficient, we still lose about 7% of the power produced just from moving it around.

As well as wanting to reduce greenhouse gases emitted in the future, we also need to deal with the climate changed caused by the emissions of the past. In recent times this has meant more storms, hurricanes and floods, all of which can often result in electricity blackouts.

These factors lead me to propose the Alternative 12V Grid.

An electricity socket, shown just above two standard UK plug sockets, labelled '12V'
A retrofitted 12V socket

This grid would not be a National grid. Instead, it’d start local. Possibly even just in your own home.

The nominal power rating of this grid would be 12 Volts DC, with a fairly big tolerance of ±3V. Not coincidentally, this is also the voltage used in cars and caravans. You can thus re-use the devices and adapters designed for those environments (In time, I’m sure that new appliances would be designed specifically targeting the 12V grid).

Homes would be free to use whatever plug sockets they like, but the common standard would be the cigarette lighter receptacle, as used in cars (originally for lighting cigars, but now used for charging phones and powering GPS devices). This isn’t the ideal solution, as those plugs are prone to falling out, but its ubiquity gives it a huge head start.

As well as being able to use the wide 9V-15V range of voltage, 12V Grid devices should also cope with an intermittent supply. This means using small batteries to avoid having to reset the clock after a cutout, or simply being non-critical. So, radios and toys are ok, but heating and refrigeration should stick to the mains. Christmas tree LED fairy lights is a perfect use-case.

The reason for the likely intermittency is that the power would be generated solely through alternative, renewable sources, be that a rooftop solar cell, a garden wind turbine, or the mini hydro plant by the nearby stream. Wood chip or waste-burning steam turbines might be an option too.

The electricity from this alternative grid would be unmetered. Usage would be subject to community norms rather than a payment tariff. The only costs would be the upfront costs for the generating equipment and wiring. Each home connected to the grid might contribute through their own microgeneration, or a few homes might club together to buy a communal system.

This isn’t about living off-the-grid in some remote outback.

It’s also not about isolationism.

The Alternative Grid is just that, an alternative. Designed for cities and urban areas, in day to day use it simply provides a cheaper way to power small devices, but during mains supply blackouts it’s a way to stay connected and keep a few lights on.

Who knows, it might also kickstart an increased sense of community organisation and belonging.

Part 2. in a series of Hypothetical Infrastructure posts