Jeremy Rifkin, author and president of the think tank Foundation on Economic Trends, gave a rousing talk at the Research Connection conference in Prague last week, held by the research arm of the European Union. His thesis, according to this BBC article is that the EU will need to change its approach to generating, using and monetizing energy in order to emerge from its energy and economic crises.
One of the ways it should do this is by looking to the revolution of communication technology and the growth of the Internet. Also vital will be spreading power generation across a region and encouraging small – even home-based – renewable energy stations, he said.
Rifkin says Europe lacks the capacity needed to meet its eminent energy needs using the established, centralized power generation model and therefore must turn to microgeneration, wherein buildings are transformed into their own power plants. The power source would be whatever is most appropriate to the location: turbines in windy areas, solar in the sun, tidal power on the coasts and methane power in agricultural settings.
“Your building becomes your power plant, just like your computer becomes your information vehicle to the world,” Rifkin told the crowd.
For older buildings, this on-site generation would supplement the existing links to the power grid, but new buildings would generate more power than they need, turning into power sources feeding into the grid.
Building owners would manage all this power using online tools, creating a major element of the smart grid. By tapping into the needs of utility providers in real time, buildings will eventually be able to regulate their energy consumption based on whether or not energy is at or near peak demand at any given time.
But you don’t have to look far to find microgeneration detractors, who say the economics behind the practice don’t make sense and that using renewable power onsite leaves building managers scrambling for energy when the wind isn’t blowing or solar panels aren’t being juiced up by the sun.
Indeed, it seems as though merely improving the insulation and general energy efficiency of existing – especially older – buildings is where the immediate focus should land. But as the technology behind wind, solar and other alternative energy sources continues to improve and costs come down, it seems inevitable that more and more power generation will occur right at the points of consumption.
And then there are the questions about how to link decentralized power sources through new transmission lines. Some argue that new lines aren’t needed and will be too costly, while others say that existing lines are woefully outdated and in great need of upgrading, anyway. But that’s a whole other (though, obviously, crucial) topic.
Rifkin isn’t just some guy who gives speeches. He has the ears of important political leaders in the EU and he has also been a force in shaping US policy. And more than 100 influential CEOs government leaders participate in his think tank.
So what do you think of this grand plan, which Rifkin dubs the third industrial revolution? Will micro-generation and peer-to-peer power sharing work? And if so, what will it take to get us all participating in the new, smart grid?