Earth Day is fast approaching, yet despite the awareness this day brings, most people are powering their computers with electricity from coal-burning power plants, delivered by “dumb” networks. Change is long overdue, and it’s not a difficult matter.
The electricity grid’s basic structure hasn’t changed much since Thomas Edison came up with the idea back in 1882. That’s a long time with little innovation, especially since electricity demands continue to rise. Some might argue that the grid didn’t need changes and it’s not wise to mess with a system already working. That argument no longer holds, anyone who lives in California’s Silicon Valley knows. Blackouts and shortages are a constant worry every summer and the grid is unable to properly handle newer and cleaner sources of energy such as solar and wind.
Worse, when a blackout does happen, the utility company usually doesn’t know until someone phones in the problem. That’s because the system can’t sense the problem — it is “dumb” and only sends inputs one way. So how come the grid isn’t smarter, and what can we do about it? The answer is not as complicated as one might imagine.
President Obama has shown leadership on this issue by stating that that he wants 10 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from renewable sources by the end of his first term, a call many in America are willing to answer if the conditions are right. To make the conditions right, we need only ask how other things that society needs are produced. How is it that fresh food is always stocked at the grocery store despite complicated trucking routes and multiple providers? Or how is it that broadband providers continue to implement upgrades that the electricity grid does not?
The answer is that entrepreneurs created a diverse basket of solutions in response to consumer demand. Goods and services do not generally get produced because the government executes one centralized plan. As experiments in communist countries attest, such methods are slower and prone to more mistakes than a properly operating marketplace.
For an example of how badly America’s government-controlled electricity system is currently working, consider a recent news piece from Cnet on how a California electric utility, PG&E, “said that it will seek approval from regulators to purchase 200 megawatts worth of solar energy delivered from stealth space solar power company Solaren over 15 years.” Such a sentence should make anyone who cares about the environment cringe.
PG&E needs approval from the government just to buy from a new and cleaner power source. Imagine the lack of innovation that would result if Amazon.com needed regulatory approval to buy from a new server supplier or if Google needed government approval to introduce a new product. Such suggestions seem ridiculous, but that is the real world of regulated utilities who pay for their near-monopolies with forced obedience to Big Brother.
Such a system needs to end now, and new players need to be allowed to enter the market. This will not only bring new ideas to the marketplace, but it will also force the slow and outdated utilities to upgrade faster than any government mandate ever could.
Moving away from clunky monopolies to a market-based energy system might seem “inconvenient” to some, but the truth is that is the only way to fix things and move more quickly toward cleaner energy and smarter grids. According to the Pacific Research Institute’s Daniel Ballon, specific fixes to implement immediately include “direct access” so consumers can buy their power from any provider. Also, an end to price controls would allow recoupment of investments made to produce cleaner power. Allowing competition in standards for smart-grid technologies is a good idea too.
This Earth Day, environmentalists and the technology industry should embrace a common goal: a revolution in the energy production sector. It is time to shed the shackles of government control and venture into new frontiers that will provide all of us with cleaner and more stable energy systems for years to come.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.