The standard three-prong plug. It’s a simple convenience that people often take for granted. But when digging a little deeper one will realize that it is really a brilliant interface that saves us from of world of complexity. Think how frustrating life would be if every electrical device came with a slightly different plug configuration and required an adapter. International travelers know all too well the difficulties that exist when this interface is not standardized. However, the three-prong plug does have its limitations. The most relevant one in the sustainability conversation is its inability to put electricity back into the grid. It is only able to send electricity in one direction – consumption, not production. What would the world look like if it did support two-way electrical distribution? How would a simple change in this common interface affect the way we understand the whole system?
A plug (and socket) that distributed electricity in both directions would open up a slew of new possibilities. In this scenario, companies could begin creating devices that produced energy rather than consuming it. An exercise bicycle could power he lights of a gym, or he punching bags could provide energy for the hot water heater. Products could also include technologies that recycled unused energy and put it back into the energy grid. Each building could be thought of as a potential energy plant, and utility companies could begin crowd-sourcing electricity. Each person could be given credit for the energy they produced. This hyper-local approach to energy production would also reduce the need for expensive and inefficient transmission lines.
Understandably, a new energy production industry would come with all sorts of challenges. Where would we store surplus energy? How could we forecast this type of energy production in a way that would allow more traditional systems to be scaled back? Are there any unforeseen negative ramifications? The answers to the questions are unclear, but in a world that is looking for ways to reduce its dependence on foreign energy and carbon-based fuels, it is something worth thinking about – and it all starts with something as simple as a plug.