Monday, December 11, 2006

Al Gore on the Future of Energy

For a few years, after some flawed energy deregulation kicked in, I lived in a smallish town that had electricty come in on a single line that just happened to pass through a long row of trees. Six, seven, eight times a year, the wind or a storm would rattle the trees and kick out the town's power. It had a knack of happening during business hours and many stores and businesses would close or limp along for two or three hours until the line was repaired. It would have happened a lot less frequently if the power company had kept the trees properly trimmed but that would have cut into their profits. In the meantime, the town lost money when the grid was down, considerably more money, in fact, than if the power company has simply trimmed the trees.

Al Gore has an article on the Newsweek site that talks about energy; what I liked was his talk about decentralizing the power grid:
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. ...

(snip)

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 key is responsiveness at the individual level. We don't always have that and part of the problem are those large monopolistic companies that conservative Republicans like so much at election time despite the fact that such companies often discourage competition and free enterprise or, as in the case of Medicare prescription drugs, creative solutions. Computers and phone service are relatively accessible to choice by the individual but we still don't have much choice when it comes to convenient cable services or convenient power services and even the choices in healthcare are becoming more limited. And after all these years, we still do not have the alternative energy that was promised long ago.

I agree with Gore on much of what he says but market forces aren't always enough, particularly when we allow our corporations to become so large that they have trouble changing because they're top heavy with pampered executives and institutional inertia. Sometimes the government has to prod companies into change. And that day is coming.

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