The Energy Electranet

Over the past 200 years, the industrial revolution has created vast wealth and huge improvements in the human condition--in a few dozen highly industrialized countries. The engine of that revolution was fueled by coal and then supercharged with oil--multiplying the productivity of human labor many, many times over. Although we have reaped many benefits from this intensive use of energy, we are now faced with an urgent crisis--a crisis that is altering the very nature of the Earth's climate.

Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the former Saudi oil minister, once said, "The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones, and the Oil Age will end, but not for lack of oil." It is the climate crisis that is the forcing mechanism for a change away from the fuels of the Industrial Revolution to a new age. As many know, the Chinese expression for "crisis" consists of two characters side by side: the first is the symbol for "danger," the second the symbol for "opportunity."

And what will the technological opportunities look like? Taking a page from the early development of ARPANET (the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency Network)--which ultimately became the Internet--we will rely on new kinds of distribution networks for electricity and liquid fuels. We will be less dependent on large, centralized coal-generating plants and massive oil refineries. Societies of the future will rely on small, diversified and renewable sources of energy, ranging from windmills and solar photovoltaics to second-generation ethanol-and biodiesel-production facilities. Widely dispersed throughout the countryside, these streamlined facilities will make the industrialized world more secure and less dependent on unstable and threatening oil-producing nations. Off-grid applications of renewable power sources can provide energy for the 3 billion people now stuck in poverty.

In the industrialized world, these systems will require a newly designed distribution grid. An "electranet," or smart grid, will be flexible and allow homeowners and businesses to sell or buy electricity on to and off of the grid. It will allow individuals and families to monitor their consumption much as they monitor budgets and bank accounts today.

The largest energy users of the grid are buildings. Due to rapid urbanization, we are on pace to erect more new urban buildings in the next 35 years than we have in all previous human history. These buildings could be constructed with breakthrough solar and nanotechnologies, reducing prices and increasing efficiency by 50 percent.

And then there are the vehicles we drive. We are in the midst of a revolution, a technological revolution, as hybrid engines and plug-in hybrids gain market penetration around the world. A 500-mile-per-gallon car is within reach in the near future with the right fuels, the right cars and the right leadership.

I believe that this future will come to pass, one way or another, because of the market forces that are now in motion--driven by visionaries at companies as diverse as Wal-Mart, British Petroleum and General Electric. But we need to hurry the future, because the climate crisis really demands immediate action.

So that means governments around the world will have to step up and exert real leadership. As a first step, the United States and Australia should join the rest of the global economy by adopting the Kyoto treaty and its market mechanisms. The successor agreement--currently under negotiation now--should then be adopted as quickly as possible, creating a globalized system like that of the Montreal Protocol, which is well on the way to solving the ozone-depletion problem. Undoubtedly, this will be a challenge, but also a rare opportunity for our generation to unite behind a historic mission.

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