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Published: February 22, 2011
 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62

 
 

Getting beyond Green: Envisioning an Industrial Reboot

In this thoughtful and beautifully designed book, the authors make a compelling case for a new approach to fitting automobiles into society: not as stand-alone cars, but as “personal urban mobility systems” that are fueled by electricity and hydrogen, and that function as nodes in a connected transportation network in which they communicate with one another wirelessly, thereby avoiding crashes and traffic jams.

Moreover, the authors assert that these new vehicles must appear completely different from the car. “Future vehicles must have the look and feel of a new and desirable kind of product,” they write. “Nobody thinks of an iPod as a shrunken home stereo system, and nobody should be left with the impression that an intelligent electric-drive vehicle is a dull but worthy ‘econobox.’” To that end, they propose entirely new designs for vehicles. The driver may enter from the front, control the motion with a joystick, and slide the vehicle sideways to park it like a book on a shelf.

The success of their design, however, is based on something else entirely: a new grid to distribute the electricity needed to power such vehicles. “During the twentieth century, industrialized nations built two kinds of massive but disconnected energy conversion systems — gasoline-powered light vehicle fleets and electric grids,” write the authors. “But that situation is about to change. There is, now, an emerging convergence of electric-drive vehicle and smart-grid technologies. They are maturing within the same time frame; each will be beneficial to the efficient operation of the other; each will facilitate the large-scale deployment of the other; and they are likely to be increasingly closely integrated with one another.”

In his exceptionally clear and easy-to-understand book, Smart Power: Climate Change, the Smart Grid, and the Future of Electric Utilities, Peter Fox-Penner, the former chairman of the Cambridge, Mass.–based consulting firm the Brattle Group, argues for a new kind of utility grid that can power electric cars, among many other things.

To describe the workings of an electric grid, Fox-Penner uses the analogy of a system of linked ponds in which all the ponds must be kept at the same level despite gushing waterfalls, heavy rains, and intermittent and unexpected water drawdowns. In the grid, electrical power is the water and digital controls run the system that keeps the “ponds” in equilibrium, avoiding the kind of service disruptions that occurred in California in 2000–01.

In most countries, the electric system is based on large, centralized sources of power generation. Fox-Penner envisions a system with many smaller sources of power and decentralized control. This new electric grid would more closely monitor supply and demand, and set flexible pricing based on how much power is being used at any one time. In addition, digital controls would allow homes and businesses to produce energy at certain hours and consume power at other times. The grid would also monitor energy use and adjust pricing to curtail demand in an effort to limit carbon emissions.

How the changeover to this new grid will occur, who will fund the massive investment necessary, and which companies will benefit are major questions in this scenario. Fox-Penner, who is both an engineer and an economist, does a good job of laying out many possible options and obstacles. “Creating a decentralized control paradigm, retooling the system for low-carbon supplies, and finding a business model that promotes much more efficiency,” he writes, “...together will define the future of power.”

The transition has already begun. General Electric recently teamed up with a group of venture capitalists and offered US$200 million in startup money for the best ideas for transforming the grid. (See http://challenge.ecomagination.com/ideas.) When the contest closed on September 30, 2010, it had attracted more than 3,500 ideas from around the globe and registered almost 74,000 voters.

 
 
 
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Industrial Reboot Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Elizabeth Grossman, Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry (Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2009)
  2. Dickson Despommier, The Vertical Farm: Feeding Ourselves and the World in the 21st Century (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010)
  3. William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, and Lawrence D. Burns, Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century (MIT Press, 2010)
  4. Peter Fox-Penner, Smart Power: Climate Change, the Smart Grid, and the Future of Electric Utilities (Island Press, 2010)
  5. Vinnie Mirchandani, The New Polymath: Profiles in Compound-technology Innovations (Wiley, 2010)
  6. Matthew E. Kahn, Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in a Hotter Future (Basic Books, 2010)
 
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