Global energy grid a salvation
for developing countries
by Chris Klein and Peter Meisen
Solve overpopulation, infant mortality, chronic hunger, fossil fuel
pollution, deforestation and desertification through a global electrical
Sound like a bold statement?
If the members of GENI - Global Energy Network, International - are correct,
we could expect this and much more.
wenty years ago, R. Buckminster Fuller, self-taught
inventor, scientist and mathematician, proposed interconnecting regional
power systems into a single, continuous world electric grid. While his global
vision is still decades away, technological advances over the past two decades
have made the linking of international and interregional networks practical
The World Game
The importance of a global electrical network was a startling result of
Mr. Fuller's "World Game". The World Game is a serious exercise,
where players are asked to be world planners and "to make the world
work for 100 percent of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous
cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."
The game bypasses politics, human ignorance, prejudice and war, and is the
opposite of a war game.
The World Game is played on special maps that show the
distribution of population world wide. The input to the game is all the
planet's resources, human needs, trends and technical know-how. Society
and human needs are many: food, water, shelter, health care, education,
communications, travel, economics, and infrastructure, like roads, sewers
and energy. The goal of the World Game is to deliver resources so that everyone's
standard of living can be improved to the "bare maximum." We're
all familiar with the notion of bare minimum - just enough to survive. Bare
maximum is the set of resources that will allow everyone to fully realize
The World Game has been played many hundreds of times.
The surprising result is that the games almost always revolve around a common
point: electrical power is required for industrialization. Whether the issue
is food, communications, transportation, housing, health care or economics,
electrical energy plays a significant role. In every hypothesis about how
to satisfy humanity's needs, electricity is the key.
GENI is no dream
GENI was founded in 1985 by longtime San Diego resident
Peter Meisen. The goal of GENI is to educate all people, especially world
leaders, about the potential benefits of Fuller's proposed global electric
grid. No stranger to large projects, Peter previously distinguished himself
as the cofounder of the SHARE food-distribution program, now serving more
than a quarter of a million people in a dozen states.
GENI and Fuller's plan are attracting substantial interest
in local and international arenas, including highly placed political figures
and the technologists responsible for the electrical transmission infrastructure.
Vice President Al Gore said of the plan, "A global
energy network makes enormous sense if we are to meet global energy needs
with a minimal impact on the world's environment."
Vevgeny Velikhov, vice-president of the Russian Academy
of Sciences, acknowledged, "Its accomplishment can produce concrete
economical benefits and serve as a positive influence in solving global
ecological problems. The extensive international cooperation necessary would
mean alternative expenditures to armaments, and at the same time help overcome
socioeconomic problems which exist today in developing countries."
Numerous articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers,
and stories have run on radio and TV. Serious articles about the practicality
and technology required to establish the power grid have appeared in respected
trade publications such as Transmission and Distribution International and
Power Generation Technology.
It looks like the global energy grid is an idea whose
time has come.
Power to the people
The technology required to implement a global electrical
grid is a relatively new development. As recently as 30 years ago, electricity
could only be efficiently transported about 350 miles. Breakthroughs in
materials science extended this transmission distance to 1,500 miles.
Today, state-of-the-art ultrahigh voltage (UHV) transmission
lines extend this distance to 4,000 miles. Application of this technology
will allow power exchange between the northern and southern hemispheres,
as well as the east and west.
The most obvious benefit of this technology is to move
power from where it can be cheaply and efficiently generated to where it
is needed. However, another important benefit is the enhanced ability to
make use of environmentally sound, renewable resources.
"There are massive sources of renewables in specific
locations, not always where the big population centers are located,"
explains Peter Meisen. "But they are within transmission reach."
Major sources of renewable power include:
Sanyo Electric estimates that capturing the solar energy
available in 400 square miles of desert could supply our total global power
needs through the year 2000. According to global engineering firm ASEA Brown
Baveri, we have only tapped 14 percent of available hydropower.
- Large untapped hydroelectric sites in Latin America, Canada, Alaska,
Siberia, Southeast Asia and Africa.
- Tidal sites in Argentina, Canada, Siberia, China, Australia and India.
- Solar potential circles the earth in Mexico, USA, Africa, the Middle
East, Russia, India, China and Australia.
- Geothermal potential around the Pacific Ocean's "ring of fire,"
in the Rift Valley of Africa, and Iceland.
On the level
Another important benefit comes from load leveling -
the sharing of energy between areas of high and low demand. The need for
electrical power changes dramatically during the course of a day and from
season to season. Usage is low at night when lights are off and people are
sleeping and high during the day when people and businesses are working.
In cold climates, usage is substantially higher during winter, while warm
climates usually use more energy in the summer.
This variation is bad news for electric utilities. Electric
generators, particularly fossil fuel and nuclear, are most efficient when
run 24 hours a day. To meet peak-load demand, generators must be turned
on during the daytime and turned off in the evening. This cycle is repeated
every day for every city around the world. In addition, excess power must
be generated in case of emergencies such as a generator failure. If not
sold, this excess power is a total loss.
Long-distance power transmission lines have solved the
problem of wasted power. Utilities routinely buy and sell power among themselves.
If a utility can buy cheaper power and not have to turn on a generator,
a real win-win situation is created. The buyer wins with cheaper power and
the seller wins by being able to sell its excess power for profit.
Using high voltage transmission lines, utilities now
even out the peak-and-valley usage patterns of adjacent time zones. The
last 25 years have seen the growth of extensive interconnected power grids.
This includes the countries of the former Soviet Union, Europe, Scandinavia,
Mexico and the eastern and western United States. More than 50 nations have
interconnections across their borders.
In the future, Fuller's vision will make it possible
to interconnect the power grids of separate continents. Power generators
on the night side of the planet can continue to run at maximum efficiency
and sell the power to the day side, which can avoid activating additional
Electric utilities reserve their older and less efficient
generators - and usually their most polluting - to handle the peak load
times. With global load leveling these low-efficiency units can remain off.
Since utilities must now have peak generating capacity
that is typically no less than twice the daily average demand, this worldwide
load leveling could effectively double the available generating capacity,
with a resulting reduction in cost and an increase in everyone's standard
This also means there would be enough power for the
developing nations, plus the means of delivery.
Efficient energy generation
The global energy grid will result in more efficient
generation by improvement in infrastructure in the developing world. The
first and second world economies have learned to be more efficient with
resources; being able to do "more with less" is a natural law,
once you have gone beyond basic subsistence.
In the past 20 years the U.S. economy grew by 40 percent
while the energy demand remained constant. Still, 80 percent of energy use
generates some kind of toxic pollution. Therefore, efficiency alone is not
enough to resolve the difficult environmental issues.
In the next 20 years, the energy demand of developing
countries will double. To avoid this clear environmental crisis, we must
ensure the use of renewable resources and state-of-the-art, energy-efficient
Population and energy demand
Our global population continues to grow at an accelerated
rate. We now add a billion people in just one decade. This is striking when
you realize we had only 2.5 billion just halfway through this century, compared
to 5.5 billion today.
Most of this population increase will come from the
developing countries. Just as noteworthy, once a society reaches an adequate
living standard, the rate of growth levels off. As can be seen in accompanying
figures, population growth is inversely correlated to energy use. That is,
societies that show a higher energy use also have a lower birth rate.
Along with good family-planning practices, many development
specialists feel that a fundamental way to empower declining birth rates
in developing nations in a morally acceptable manner is to help them improve
their living standards. Once a family can sustain itself, there is no need
for "insurance births" which create the large families required
to support the elders in later life. When adequate health care and infrastructure
are available, lower infant mortality also reduces the number of births
required to ensure a stable family. Access to a cheap, reliable, plentiful
supply of energy is vital to this goal.
Paying the electrical bill
Imagine a "backbone" of the global grid: starting
at the tip of South America, proceeding through Central America to the United
States, reaching up past Canada and Alaska, crossing the Bering Strait to
Siberia, thence on to the Middle East and ending at the southern tip of
Africa. At an average cost of $1 million per mile, this 25,000-mile UHV
line would cost around $25 billion. This is a lot of money, but only 5 percent
of the combined annual military budgets of the United States and Russia.
Of course, a single line would not do the trick. To
totally and appropriately interconnect the world's population centers would
require several times this length. One must also add the cost of local distribution
systems where such do not exist. However, unlike some huge projects that
only show a benefit at the end - the "Star Wars" defense system,
for example - the global grid provides returns as each leg of the system
is put into place.
At a time when we are looking for economic conversion
- a way to turn our guns into plowshares and our industrial/military machine
to useful purposes - the global grid is a perfect target. This is a large-scale,
no-holds-barred, high-tech project that the large publicly-funded defense
establishment could transition to.
Letting the GENI out of the bottle
GENI's mission is to "accelerate the attainment
of the optimal ecologically sustainable energy solution in the shortest
period of time for the peace, health and prosperity of us all." The
organization is engaged in two primary activities to achieve this goal.
Education is the one key to the mission. "We have
to get a critical mass of people who know that there is an energy alternative,"
says Peter Meisen. "Right now, they just don't know."
To spread the word, GENI makes presentations, participates
in conferences, produces and distributes videos, newsletters, and other
information tools. GENI is currently working on an hour-long documentary
film, appropriate for international broadcast, to help tell their story.
GENI has affiliates in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore,
Moscow, Texas, Alaska and the U.K. which are helping to spread the word.
These affiliates are organized and run by small groups of volunteers who
share the vision and assist with education and fund-raising.
GENI's second major focus is the creation of a sophisticated
computer model of world energy over the next year. Peter explains, "Inputs
to the model are world energy; population; time-zone data; available renewable
and nonrenewable resources; and costs and demand centers. By optimizing
the model, we hope to produce an energy scenario with a better bottom line
and better environmentally. We'll be asking, 'is this an optimal scenario
for 5.5 billion people?'"
The purpose of the model is not to determine whether
this is a good idea - there is plenty of qualitative evidence for that.
As Peter points out, every transmission line ever built has proved to be
better economically than expected, based on the figures originally used
to justify its construction. What an incredible record.
There are plenty of individual connections going in
around the world right now, but there's no defined goal, no commonality.
Each is being controlled by the local bureaucracies, whether in California
or the Middle East, to solve local problems. GENI feels that if they can
garner worldwide agreement about the validity of the scenarios developed
from their computer model, transcending political boundaries, then there
is an opportunity and justification to create unified systems. "If
we can define a better vision for us all, then everybody will be driving
toward that much more quickly," explains Peter. "With today's
known, technically feasible technology, we can tap the world's enormous
renewable energy potential and deliver it to the world's population centers."
While Mr. Fuller's most visible and remembered contribution
to modern life may be the geodesic dome, his vision of the global electrical
grid, linking renewable resources for our "global village," may
be his most important contribution to life in the next century.