It’s Time We Looked Toward the New Power Generation

This week?s RE Insider is Scott Kirsner, a Boston-based writer and contributing editor at Wired and Fast Company. In his column, Kirsner says it?s time we move toward a Renewable Energy economy – we agree.

Somewhere between trouncing the Taliban, hunting Osama, marking the anniversary of Sept. 11, and setting the stage for “Gulf War: The Sequel,” we forgot two things. One: So many of our current woes in the region are rooted in our oil addiction. Two: America, as a technological innovator, has more than enough smarts to dramatically reduce our reliance on barrels of crude shipped over from Saudi Arabia. It’s not unrealistic to imagine that, within our lifetimes, we could propel “alternative energy” technologies that are today on the fringes of economic viability and the public consciousness ? wind, solar, waves, geothermal energy, and hydrogen ? into the mainstream. But we’re not applying ourselves. Let’s be honest, the biggest technology issue in America right now isn’t, as many techies would mindlessly argue, the limited availability of broadband Internet access. It’s cars and homes that consume too much oil ? and big, hulking nuclear plants that are suddenly appealing targets for terrorists. What needs to follow the dot-com generation is the new power generation. Nobel laureate Richard Smalley hit the bull’s-eye last month when he said in a speech: “Energy is the single most important problem facing humanity today. We must find an alternative to oil. … The cheaper, cleaner, and more universally available this new energy technology is, the better we will be able to avoid human suffering, and the major upheavals of war and terrorism.” In July, Smalley delivered the same message to the House Science Committee’s energy subcommittee. It’s hard to imagine leadership on this issue coming from the oilmen in D.C. (What would it take to get President Bush the younger into a Carter-style cardigan sweater, suggesting that we turn down the heat this winter? Probably another pretzel-induced clonk on the head, plus a few rounds of electro-shock therapy.) What’s needed are innovative solutions served up by the high-tech sector, coupled with a willingness on the part of consumers and businesses to rapidly adopt these new technologies. “We have two problems that really need to be solved,” says David Eisenhaure, chief executive of the Cambridge company SatCon Technology, which sells power and energy management technology. “One is that dependence on foreign oil imports shapes our whole foreign policy. And the other is that autos and [electrical] power generation are the number one and number two causes of air pollution.” There’s really a third problem, too. It’s that generating all of our power at big plants, whether they’re coal- or gas-fired or nuclear, is inherently inefficient, since somewhere between 5 and 8 percent of the electricity those plants generate is lost in transmitting it to your house. And these days, there are new security risks and security costs built into operating big power plants. What’s going to change? Eisenhaure says that “ultimately, the power system is going to look much like the Internet.” Instead of big centralized “mainframe” power plants, we’ll have smaller, decentralized, PC-like plants. “Most major manufacturers and even homes will have their own little power plant that provides heat and electricity by burning hydrogen,” Eisenhaure says. A less centralized system like that, with generation technology in everyone’s basement, is far less vulnerable to a terrorist attack. And the only pollution it generates is warm water vapor. In addition to a less-centralized system, we also need new options for how we power our cars, homes, and companies. A few have already hit the market. The hybrid gas-electric vehicles being sold by Honda and Toyota, which get in the neighborhood of 50 miles per gallon and don’t ever need to be plugged in, have enjoyed brisk sales so far ? but they’re not yet a mainstream success. (Does anyone on your block have one?) General Motors is actively promoting a hydrogen fuel cell concept car called the AUTOnomy, but the company had a miserable time building and marketing its EV-1 all-electric vehicles, and it remains to be seen whether it can bring a viable version of the AUTOnomy to a dealership near you. On the Web, you can buy a small windmill for under $2,000 for the backyard that will provide some of the juice for your Jacuzzi. Tech types need to keep turning out new energy technologies that are cost effective, easy to adopt, and easy to maintain. Consumers need to be willing to abandon the status quo and embrace them. That will help alternative energy shed its hippie aura and become simply hip. Boston is already in the forefront of the renewable power revolution. We have companies like SatCon, helping to bring about what Eisenhaure calls “the hydrogen economy,” and Konarka Technologies, a start-up spawned by UMass-Lowell that is developing a kind of solar cell that will be dramatically less expensive to manufacture. A local venture firm called Rockport Capital Partners manages a $100 million fund that invests, in large part, in start-ups with new ideas related to energy. In Hull, they’ve got a gorgeous new wind turbine, easily visible from commuter boats and airplanes departing Logan, that helps generate power for the town. Seen from the sky, it looks like a white pinwheel on water’s edge. The 240-foot tall turbine is expected to save the town and its residents roughly $1 million in electricity bills over its 20-year life span. In Kendall Square, what will likely be the area’s most energy-efficient building is nearing completion ? the new Genzyme headquarters, designed by the “green architecture” firm Behnisch, Behnisch and Patner, with solar panels on the roof and a glass facade specially designed to help heat and illuminate the interior. But the issues of alternative energy, decentralized power, and energy independence are still far from the top of the national priority list ? where they ought to be. “Energy seems to rise in the national debate for two reasons ? either the price goes up quickly or it becomes unavailable, as with the California rolling blackouts last year,” says Paul Wormser, Konarka’s chief operating officer. “If we can figure out how to get it into the debate and keep it there, then we really will have an opportunity to do something to enhance our security and enhance the environment at the same time.” Technologists, at their best, imagine a better world and then set about building it. Clearly, the biggest opportunity right now is increasing the number of energy options we have. What are we waiting for? About the Author Scott Kirsner is a Boston-based writer and contributing editor at Wired and Fast Company. His @Large column appears in the Boston Globe each Monday. This column originally ran in the Boston Globe earlier this month. For more of his work, see his Web site at home.att.net/~kirsner. Copyright 2002 Steve Kirsner Used with author’s permission.

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