Don Pettit: The worldwide grid

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“The 20th Century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.” — Arnold Toynbee, English historian, 1889-1975

Toynbee, one of the great historians of our modern era, understood that the well being of a civilization depends on its ability to respond creatively to challenges, both human and environmental. He thought that the rise and decline cycle of past civilizations was not inevitable, that the future was not necessarily determined by the past. He believed that a civilization could choose to act wisely in the face of recurring hardships.

 

Well, I guess we are about to find out. Our world now faces profound challenges and recurring hardships, many brought on by innovation itself. But if you look around the world, beyond day-to-day media, fake news and conspiracy theories, you can see extraordinary new forces coming together around these great challenges.

Although optimism is not in tune with the mood of our times, if you look carefully you will see that humanity now has the knowledge and ability to do just about anything we need to do, and to do it now.

Solar energy

Other than tidal energy (from the gravitational pull of the moon), or geothermal energy (heat from the molten core of the Earth), all energy is solar energy stored in different forms.

Every two minutes, the sun gives the earth more energy than is used annually worldwide. If we are looking for one energy source with the capacity to provide all the energy we will ever need on a global scale, it is probably solar energy.

Cheaper than coal

Our main technological challenge over the last 15 years (although you probably haven’t heard much about it) has been to make solar energy cheaper than coal. Nobody thought this was possible so quickly, but this historic goal has now been achieved.

Recent studies published in Nature Energy show that solar power has become cheaper than present grid electricity across much of China (China leads the world with more than one third of all installed solar).

Taking into account net costs and profits, project investments, electricity output and trading prices over the total lifetime of a solar energy system, the study found 22% of Chinese cities could now build solar systems that produce electricity cheaper than coal, presently the cheapest power in the country (but also by far the most polluting).

This “grid parity tipping point” for solar energy is being reached almost as we speak in country after country around the world. This present moment marks the historic transition to a whole new way of making abundant, cheap, clean electricity for all of humanity.

The worldwide grid

“Electricity-energy integration of the night and day regions of the Earth will bring all the capacity into use at all times, thus overnight doubling the (solar) generating capacity of humanity because it will integrate all the most extreme night and day peaks and valleys.” — Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1969

The world has now been integrated electrically and electronically in ways that even Bucky could not have imagined. But the future of humanity may now depend on a redesign of our current power systems, which rely on large-scale, centralized generating stations. We need to produce energy locally and then distribute it globally.

Distributed energy

This critical transition is now underway. Renewable energies, like solar, wind and geothermal, are widespread around the globe. They are called “distributed energies” because every home, every business, every city, every state, province or country has wildly abundant amounts of it. Like solar, wind and geothermal are now also reaching grid parity. When these are the cheapest energies and widely available, everything else will fall away.

Unlimited, abundant and cheap energy, distributed across the globe and shared around the world on the worldwide grid could “provide a higher standard of living for all of humanity – higher than has heretofore been experienced by any humans – and on a continually sustainable basis for all generations to come…”

Bucky’s vision has now not only become possible, it has become the necessity he knew it would be.

Don Pettit is a founding member of the Peace Energy Cooperative in Dawson Creek. He can be reached at dpettit@pris.ca.

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