Is the carbon-dependent view of our energy and environmental options, as widely advertised by some, the only choice we have? What if we change energy strategies? Is it a given that we must we lose jobs? Live in cold, dark houses? Drive less and pay more? Forget cookouts and mowing the grass? Or could it be instead that the energy situation we face today is a huge, and vastly profitable, business opportunity? Consider that 40% of the world's population, 2 billion humans living in over 600,000 villages, has no electricity. This suggests that we are currently producing only about 60% of the electricity the world requires(!) ie., the market needs to grow tremendously. Changing energy strategies presents us an enormous opportunity for a better quality of life as well as an enormous market to develop.
Far from decreasing global energy production, it must be increased dramatically. This is the only way the Industrialized Nations can meet their obligations with respect to the Less Developed Countries. Yes, energy should be used more efficiently and with better understanding and wisdom, but no amount of conservation will ever deliver electricity where there is none.
The required growth in kilowatt hours generated must both occur without further degrading the environment and also be sustainable. Also, it is reasonably clear that the 40% of the population which is currently not served will never be served by very large, centralized, electrical generating plants and mass distribution systems. There is not enough capital, nor copper, nor fossil fuels to extend our 20th century power system to create sustainable universal access to electricity. This is quite similar to our historical experience with computers. There is no way we could have delivered a mainframe computer, or its use, to everyone who would have benefited from using one.
We need new technologies and organizing principles if we want to solve our power distribution inequalities and reap the benefits of commercializing the solution. Fuel Cells and Photovoltaics may be just the sort of technologies which could unleash this huge growth opportunity. This process of discovery and commercialization is exactly the sort of challenge America has historically thrived on. It’s time to get to work. It is time to stop wasting energy advertising dystopic and dysfunctional visions driven by our addiction to carbon.
Clayton Christensen's excellent book "Innovator's Dilemma" helps explain this way of looking at the opportunity before us:
Today's 600+ large-scale electrical generating plants in the US are the equivalent of mainframe computers. They have their high costs, long development cycles, complex support logistics and, consequently, high required gross margins. This is why the conventional utility company, looking forward market, can see no value, or opportunity, in servicing the 2 billion people living in over 600,000 villages who cannot afford access to a mainframe-like power system.
What the New Energy Resource Alliance project [New ERA] wants to do is provide these forward market’ customers with electrical power sources equivalent to palmtops! New ERA can operate at much smaller scales, at rapid development times, with simple support systems, with lower overhead and thus with much lower margins. Then, as its innovation curve accelerates, it will cross the benefit curve offered by the equivalents of the electrical mainframe, mini, and desktop vendors!
By moving away from the large scale, complex, mechanical generating schemes of our industrial electricity mainframes, and moving towards Photovoltaics and Fuel Cells, new sets of possibilities arise.
For example, New ERA can envision, as a first step, an all-wireless solution, using satellite and solar cell technologies, which could provide benefits such as:
UV water purification
The New ERA solution will of course be scaleable and extensible. It will take advantage of Internet standards represented in the Internet Protocol. Further, unlike today’s telephone networks, it will be designed so that the ‘smarts’ are at the edges of the network, not in the middle. This supports, as David Isenberg has written in his essay on Stupid Networks, the rapid evolution of the end-point technologies.
The New ERA team has on-the-ground experience around the world with business partners in over 90 countries with 10 - 15 resellers in each country. We have some especially rich data from India. The PV electric generator-powered red-headed hairy caterpillar killer is a particularly good example of what a 5 watt light source can accomplish! Don'’t laugh. It increased crop yields by over 50% with no chemicals. A small, PV electric generator-powered electric motor attached to a manual sewing machine can more than double productivity and pay for itself in 120 days. Examples such as these, we are confident, are just the tip of the iceberg.
New ERA’s integration of the existing technologies of its partners will allow it to create a series of very powerful tools for the Peace Corps and similar service organizations, both domestically and abroad.
The ‘Developed World’ will soon see that generating electricity using large, complex, mechanical devices, with lots of moving parts, energized by carbon derived from fossil fuels, was the best that could be done by an industrial society. Recent history indicates that we are clearly moving towards a post-industrial world. This world will be based upon an electrical generation paradigm with the least number of moving parts, scaled to point source distribution, consuming carbon free fuels, and providing ubiquitous green electrons.
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