A Crisis of Ignorance

There is no energy shortage, there is no energy crisis, there is a crisis of ignorance. Over three decades ago, visionary engineer Buckminster Fuller made the statement that seems heretical today. Any rational person viewing our energy quagmire would dismiss Dr. Fuller’s notion as utopian and out of touch.

Yet it’s possible that our present situation in California and the Western U.S. has everyone focused on immediate answers — and that few are asking the larger questions. The numerous players in the energy game see the issues from completely different perspectives: consumers want cheap, reliable energy, California utilities want a rate increase to avoid bankruptcy, out-of-state producers want to make a profit for shareholders, and legislators want a solution to salvage their deregulation vote of four years ago. This stew of vested interests offers little confidence in finding a strategy that meets everyone’s needs.

The major problem with deregulation is that market forces were unleashed before energy supply and demand could be balanced. While the regulations were changing in California, no additional generation was built. Who would invest millions into new power supply when the rules of the game are unclear? Then, in that same period, California’s economy boomed, more people and computers moved in and a hot summer offered up a triple whammy.

So, what are the questions that we should be asking? First, how can we reduce our demand during the peak hours? Where the utilities and their customers are getting killed is at the Power Exchange (the hourly marketplace where the big three utilities must go to buy their megawatts). During the mid-day hours when demand is highest, our supply must be purchased from out-of-state. While the utilities are limited to charging a fixed rate, they must purchase that power at the highest bidder price.

Governor Davis promised to address this folly in his State of the State speech. But 30 million consumers could dramatically affect this mid-day cost/rate gap. How many lights, radios, computers, TVs, are just left on during the day — doing no work, but causing utilities to purchase power at peak prices? Yet without brownouts or blackouts, consumers are oblivious to this basic inequality of the daily electricity market. The print media could make the difference here. Newspapers could publish the hourly price of power for the previous day and week. This information is as critical as yesterday’s stock prices. When consumers understand that the bulk of their rate increase comes from 3-4 peak hours, they can choose to turn off those electrical devices — thus reducing power demand when prices are their highest.

What about the supply side? Experts are projecting that an additional 10,000-12,000 megawatts of new capacity is needed to balance the supply/demand equation. Some of this new capacity is under construction, and the Governor wants to help fast-track even more. Yet, power generation takes 2-3 years from groundbreaking to commissioning. Almost all of these new projects are fired by natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels. Our growing demand has caused a spike in gas prices, which is also being added to our utility bills for household heating and cooking. This increasing fuel cost to the generators translates into higher prices for power at the Power Exchange.

As all these new natural gas power plants come on-line, does anyone believe the price of fuel will return to last year’s level? And nowhere are the greenhouse gas emissions being considered when our pocketbook is in peril.

If we return to Buckminster Fuller’s thesis – there is no energy shortage – one must examine the larger energy potential of our region. For bulk power, the western United States, British Columbia, Alberta and northern Baja California are all linked via a high-voltage electric transmission grid. This network acts as a “freeway for electrons”, enabling power generator and customer to be hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of miles apart. This grid is indifferent to the power source, equally delivering power generated from non-renewable energy sources: coal, natural gas, nuclear, or the renewable sources: solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydropower.

The difference? Nonrenewable sources are mined, transported and then burned to boil water, creating steam to turn a turbine and generator – producing either atmospheric or toxic waste. On the other hand, with renewable resources we simply need to harvest them: solar radiation in the desert, high winds in the plains, underground steam and falling water. These resources are virtually unlimited in potential supply.

And what few people seem to know – these renewable resources lie within our western region, and could meet the lion’s share of our power needs. The Department of Energy studied the wind resources of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, and reported enough potential to meet all the peak energy needs of the United States today! Sanyo Electric has found that using just 4% of the world’s deserts, photovoltaic cells could meet the entire electrical needs of the planet! The southwestern U.S. has more than 4% of the world’s deserts. Combining these renewables with existing geothermal and hydropower offer an abundant potential that is far beyond our immediate shortfall. The cost? Wind, geothermal and hydropower are cost-competitive today.

The crisis we are facing is very real – but doesn’t have to persist. Asking the right questions now can alter our path and economy for decades to come. Can we meet the energy needs of our region and reduce pollution at the same time? Absolutely.

The Global Energy Network Institute (GENI) focuses on the interconnection of electric power networks between nations and continents, with an emphasis on tapping abundant renewable energy resources. This strategy is the highest priority of the World Game simulation developed by Dr. R Buckminster Fuller several decades ago. Linking renewables between all nations will mollify conflicts, grow economies and increase the quality of life and health for all.

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