Building an Internet-Based Energy Structure

Back in 2005, I remember Atlanta gas prices being even higher than they are now.

The cause was Hurricane Katrina. It knocked out two pipelines running from Louisiana, which supplied Atlanta and other cities along it with gasoline. That single point of failure caused untold financial havoc

Most of our energy infrastructure remains just that vulnerable. We refine petroleum in a very small number of places. We don’t have that many pipelines, and an interruption of any one can disrupt service to millions. A massive blackout can result from a single failure.

It’s in the nature of fossil fuels that things are this way. As Mark Twain said, “Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket.”

The Internet doesn’t work that way.

If this file is blocked from reaching you through one pathway, it will automatically route through another. Redundancy is built into the Internet’s architecture. There is no single point of failure. This makes it robust.

Dictators can take down the Internet in places where connectivity is limited, for some time, but America’s Internet has no single “kill switch”  – an order would have to go out to take out many, many systems before service would be disrupted. The same is true on a local level.

Renewable energy can, and in time will, make our energy system more like the Internet than the present system. It’s a point we need to emphasize again-and-again in the energy debates that will follow Libya’s revolution.

We don’t have to build solar systems the way we do fossil fuel systems, with huge plants hundreds of miles away from cities, connected by single power lines to their markets. We can have smaller plants in many places. We can produce solar energy on our homes and businesses. Even geothermal and biomass plants can be dispersed.

When we talk about having a smart grid, this is also what we mean. By adding intelligence to our power systems we can draw electricity from more places, and route it to customers in multiple ways. There should be, and will be, no single point of failure in a renewable energy system, no easy way to cause a massive blackout.

We can’t create this new distribution system if we base it on burning stuff. There are fewer-and-fewer big sources of stuff we can burn. We will inevitably become increasingly dependent on that dwindling number of sources. Even if we can get by a while by destroying our water tables for natural gas and squeezing oil from North Dakota shale.

We can only create stability by harvesting the energy all around us. The Sun doesn’t just shine on North Dakota. It shines on everyone. The wind doesn’t just blow in Libya. It blows everywhere. Algae doesn’t just grow in Louisiana. The only renewable power source that’s unevenly distributed is geothermal energy – it’s closer to the surface in the American West than the American East.

But we don’t have to tap it all to create a stable energy future. And there’s no threat that we’re going to run out.

The technology exists to make all this happen, if we continue investing in it. If we care about our national security, and our energy security, that’s what we will do.

If we don’t care, of course, just listen to the Koch Brothers, listen to Exxon, and listen to the dictators who control the oil we now so desperately need to keep our economy going. Listen to them and their paid minions tell you that a renewable future is impossible, or that it will cost too much, that the obvious scarcity of fossil fuel energy isn’t what it appears to be, and that global warming is a crock.

This is America’s choice in 2011, and it’s up to the renewable energy industry to help us make the right one. In part, by using this highly redundant technology called the Internet.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog,, in 2007.

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