New thinking on energy
Summer, 2003

SNOWMASS, Colo. - In 1982, Amory Lovins co-authored "Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security." The book, which had originated as a study for the Pentagon, warned that America's reliance on a highly centralized energy system was both risky from a security standpoint and economically foolish.

If anyone has a right to say he told us so, it's Lovins, widely recognized as one of the world's true experts on energy issues. But even in the wake of last week's horrendous blackout in the northeastern United States and several Canadian provinces, he says he'd rather focus on what we can do to prevent a recurrence.

The first step, he said Tuesday at the Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org), the think tank he heads just down the road from Aspen, is to recognize some essential facts. Our power system is a mess by design, not by accident, and we follow foolish rules in deciding how to generate and distribute electricity.  We need to save energy where we can, he said, through serious conservation and alternatives. But when we do generate and distribute power, we should do it the way we built the Internet - a massively distributed operation where generation is close to the customers. We'll have a safer, cheaper and more reliable system.

"I'm dismayed at the pervasiveness of comments that the answer is more transmission lines," he said. "That's like applying leeches to a patient with a high fever. It misunderstands what's going on."

Our massively centralized system is an outgrowth of the era when power plants were more reliable than the electrical grid of transmission lines, he said. In the last several decades, generators have become much more reliable than the grid.

Building more major transmission wires after regional blackouts in 1965 and 1977 "made local failures less likely, but increased the likelihood of catastrophic failure over large areas," he said. "It spread the potential for a cascading collapse" like the one that occurred last week.

Investigators are still trying to pin down the specific triggers for last week's failure. The details of the failure aren't that important, he said, "because the architecture is stupid."

Energy policy in the United States - not significantly worse than in most places, he said - tends to miss the point of what's more efficient and safe. A number of policy changes, including radical decentralization of the system, would save us money, serve our needs more reliably and make us more secure.

What can we do? Plenty, he said, citing some of the ideas in "Small is Profitable" (www.smallisprofitable.org), a 2002 book he co-authored, and other proposals he's made over the years.

It's likely, Lovins said, that last week's failure could have been averted entirely if the electric utilities had been able to shed some of their demand when the system started looking shaky. If they'd been able to briefly turn off certain kinds of devices such as water heaters and air conditioners in businesses and households, the grid might not have gone into an unrecoverable overload across so many states.

That kind of thing would have helped California in a different situation, he said. The state would have been able to fight back against the energy gougers who withheld supplies in order to extract higher prices during the electricity crisis several years ago.

Avoiding the need to generate power in the first place has always been high on Lovins' list of fixes. His institute, where winter temperatures dive below minus 40 degrees, is a marvel of efficiency. The only heating is an occasional lighting of a wood stove, for example.

Unfortunately, based on the latest statements from key members of the Bush administration and Congress, it doesn't sound as though people in power are paying attention to sane ideas like Lovins'. Again, that's nothing new in a government - especially the current one - that has long tilted toward nuclear, coal and gas as favored generating sources and against conservation and other commonsense measures that would save citizens money but hit the pocketbooks of the energy industry.

"There are not many people in either party who seem to have been paying attention to the vulnerability of the centralized system and the advantages of a decentralized system," Lovins said.

What can average people do? To help society in general, "inform yourself and demand political accountability from those who support today's system," he said. "If you want to help yourself, use electricity efficiently and make your own."



Dan Gillmor is a columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.