What renewables say about Egypt

This is far afield from our regular discussion so indulge me. Or feel free to move along.

In a resource-based economy a Hosni Mubarak would have no problems. It’s just a small minority producing the nation’s wealth. You can control those jobs, treat everyone else like a mushroom, and do what you want.

Democracy has a tough time where fossil fuels dominate. Think of today’s big oil exporters. Saudi Arabia. Venezuela. Libya. Russia. All run by dictators, each with their own ideological trip. The police state and the oil field workers keep the lid on everyone else because they don’t want to lose their jobs.

Now consider Egypt.  It’s a trading economy, based on tourism and the Suez Canal. This doesn’t supply enough wealth to keep the lid on, but even these industries depend on things a police state can’t control. A reputation for safety. Friendly people. Enough network capacity to keep business moving.

Hosni Mubarak’s regime is going down, sooner or later, because the crackdown needed to keep it going destroyed the twin pillars of its economy – tourism and trade. Next door Moammar Gaddafi continues to live like an Arabic Hugh Hefner, because his business model insulates him from having to deal with reality.

But let’s get back to renewable energy.

Renewable energy is going to employ a whole lot of people. People to make windmills and solar panels and geothermal plants, people to harvest crops for ethanol production, installers and maintenance people. Wichita linemen still on the line, upgrading it, decades from now. A renewable energy economy is also very complex, with lots of small inter-dependencies, while at the same time promising independence, with more people living off the grid, either by choice or because the grid never got there.

A successful renewable energy economy needs a lot of Internet capacity in order to do business. It needs a lot of cooperation, the management of supply chains, a strong system of laws where fairness can be litigated. All this works against the interests of any small elite. It works for the interests of a system of laws, of free, open inquiry and capitalism that drives out the inefficient.

I’ve come in for some stick here for claiming the renewable energy revolution rides on the Internet, and that the Internet is a great tool for human liberty. But today’s solar panels remain fairly primitive, they need to get more efficient and cheaper, we need to agree on standards that will drive down installation costs, and we still need good research and entrepreneurship if we’re to produce the abundance of harvested energy everyone here seeks.

I know what you’re thinking. China. Egypt’s rulers can survive by going all Tienanmen on the protestors. Isn’t China prospering, isn’t Red China growing like gangbusters, aren’t they a dictatorship?

No. China was creating what its people considered prosperity before 1989, and most Chinese accepted the need for order that the crackdown implied. I’ve been to China. I have friends there. People can make a buck in China, they can do research there, they can talk among themselves (and do). China is not Egypt. It’s more like Texas.

For success, renewable energy demands open inquiry, a government of laws we all agree to accept, and an economic system that rewards new ideas and punishes the lazy monopolist.

A top-down, command economy waiting for money to come out of the ground won’t work for this industry.

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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, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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