Changing the Way We Light Our Way

SEATTLE, WA. -- Most of us hardly give a passing thought to electricity, let alone what resources are used to produce what we call "power." Electricity's details remain mysterious because this elixir of the metropolis is virtually unseen and has always been supplied by a faceless "utility."Our lights, computers, stereos, refrigerators -- and soon even our cars -- run on a substance Nikola Tesla, a scientist many considered mad, wanted to give away for free. His arch-rival Thomas Edison came up with a measuring and pricing scheme that became the basis for electric utilities -- now the world's largest monopoly business enterprise.Most power plants burn fuel -- coal, oil, natural gas -- which creates steam to drive a turbine that generates electricity as well as pollution. In the past, the average person could do little about choosing where his or her power came from -- or what it cost.That is changing now. By breaking up electric monopolies our leaders are either getting rid of an onerous responsibility or empowering individuals to better the world. Perhaps both. Consumers in California and Pennsylvania can choose their own power supplier and 20 other states will soon follow.Thus the last of the great monopolies is following telecommunications. Soon, the way we power ourselves will have a lot more in common with the Internet and cell phones than today's antiquated energy delivery system.At least that was the picture painted at a recent Seattle symposium on "Clean Energy: The Next High Tech Revolution." According to Denis Hayes, one of the architects of the first Earth Day thirty years ago, the future will rely on "quantum power," which takes advantage of "flows instead of stocks" of fuel. He believes our ultimate fuel will be liquid hydrogen.Government can play an important role, Hayes told a crowd fairly equally split among business types, egghead scientists and bureaucrats with their subsidized laptops. Hayes pointed out that the Department of Defense jump-started today's information revolution by making the first purchases of integrated circuits.During the first year, 1962, 100 percent of sales went to the military. But two years later, just over half was being purchased for defense applications, and by 1970 some 90 percent went to the private sector."If the federal government would make a $4 to $5 billion annual purchase of solar photovoltaics -- the same approach that worked with integrated circuits -- this clean power would be the cheapest source of electricity for half the world within four years time," said Hayes.In contrast, Sam Wyly, board chairman of GreenMountain.com, a leading green power retailer, gave free markets a bear hug. "Washington D.C. has copped out," he said.Wyly, a well-heeled Texas Republican and a major backer of George Bush Jr's presidential campaign, said the most valuable lesson to be learned from computers and telecommunications "is to skip the poles and wires in the deregulated world." Noting that cell phones dominate new communication systems in the developing world, he said, "We can do the same with electricity with micro-generation systems," and not bother to install the grids which dominate the distribution of electricity in the industrialized world.Chris Flavin, senior vice president of Washington, DC-based World Watch, says the shift toward cleaner, decentralized power systems is already underway. The fastest growing power source in the world over the course of the last decade was wind power, up an average of 26 percent a year throughout the 1990s."As we enter a new century, our current energy system has too many liabilities. It is highly polluting, highly centralized and not at all consistent with the way the world is moving."Local smaller power sources offer all kinds of benefits -- they eliminate the need for tearing up streets and installing substations, for example.A third of the world's current total population -- live in the developing world without electricity. This can be interpreted as a sign of poverty but it can also be seen as a trillion dollar business opportunity.Quantum power installations in remote places make it possible for young people to stay in their villages. Micro-power stations, linked to computers, the Internet and wireless communication systems, may allow many rural villages to preserve their cultures -- while joining the information revolution.This apparent paradox may be a pipe dream, but Flavin pointed out that developing countries typically lack fossil fuels and have an abundance of renewable sources such as the sun and wind.Hayes, Wyly and Flavin all seem to see solar power -- the darling of the 1970s -- and other cleaner sources finally finding their place in the sun. The future of electricity in the developing world clearly holds our fate. Thirty years from now, we will surely know whether we did too little too late.

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