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The third industrial revolution

Revolutionary thinker: Jeremy Rifkin (right) with European research commission Janez Potocnik

By Matin Durrani

I can’t say I was hugely inspired by the opening address here in Prague at the Research Connection conference by European Commission science and research commissioner Janez Potocnik.

There was lots of hot air about “synergy leading to new quality”, “capacity building”, “structural and cohesion funds” and “community instruments”. I almost fell asleep.

To be fair to the Slovenian former economist, he admitted that while the conference features some top speakers, he wasn’t sure “it is polite to include myself in this category”. Refreshing honesty from a politician.

Much more interesting was the main plenary address on sustainable energy by Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and advisor to the European Union. He’s also head of a group of 100 industrial bosses committed to “address the triple challenge of global economic recovery, energy security and climate change”.

So clearly a guy with fairly small ambitions.

In a doom-laden first half of his talk, Rifkin warned how too many politicians have completely underestimated how bad climate change will be — his talk was of anything up to 70% of species going extinct, oil supplies peaking within the next decade, and plenty of floods, storms and disaster.

Thankfully Rifkin has a solution — distributed energy.

Just as the computing Grid can carry out massive calculations by farming out chunks of processing to individual computers around the world, so distributed energy would involve individual houses and factories generating electricity using solar panels and wind turbines.

It’s revolutionary stuff — gone would be big, centralized oil-, gas-, or nuclear-powered stations. In would be small scale production, distributed around the world.

Better still, if it works, the idea is that people would sell unused energy to other people connected to the Grid.

It’s what Rifkin calls the “third industrial revolution”.

I was interested that Rifkin reckons the European Union is at the forefront of this idea — he hopes the EU will champion it at this year’s Copenhagen climate-change conference — whereas the US is still more resistant to it.

But as he pointed out at a later press conference, Obama has twigged what he’s on about and once the US sets itself a challenge, it could end up implementing distributed energy much faster than Europe’s fragmented nation states could.

Rifkin’s a polished performer and a man for the soundbite. Potocnik – take note. It might get you noticed.

Right, where’s that solar cell…

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  1. Yan

    Interesting to read this, because I came to exactly same idea in 2004. I called it grassroot energy.

  2. Luke

    As Yan mentioned, this is hardly a new idea but our captialist masters have hardly pushed the idea of individuals creating and making money out of energy production. It is certainly possible that individual houses and appartment complexes could use solar and wind power to be nett produces of electricity and these technologies are becoming increasingly efficient.
    Power to the people!

  3. Rifkin is spot on. The looming crisis of climate change, energy, water and food are far more severe than the current economic crisis. The good news is, we have all the technology we need to create a fully renewable civilisation. The big challenge to deploying this though is our linear brain’s difficulty understanding how soon and big the crisis can be; and, how soon and big renewable energy can be deployed. Rifkin is making a big contribution with his soundbites making clear just what we can achieve, and how. Have a look at our website too for another small step in this direction.

  4. Nick Cook - Technology Analyst

    I would certainly agree that “distributed energy” could be an important part of the energy supply solution, but the sources could be on any scale, from the domestic solar cell to utility scale solar farm in the Sahara Desert or wind farm in the North Sea.
    To make distributed energy supply work it needs joining up with a suitable distribution system, how about a HVDC European grid, this is beginning to sound a bit like DESERTEC to me, Google it.
    The final element needed is storage, here again we can combine distributed storage with utility scale storage. On the utility scale there is pumped hydro, such as Dinorwig 1.7GW for 5 hours, and on the domestic front, when battery electric vehicles (BEVs) become widespread, there’s the possibility of using large numbers of these storing a few KWh each which, incidentally, if the UK changed to BEVs for all land transport, the efficiency improvement would cut our energy budget by about 20% (much better than turning off standby).
    The bottom line is, I believe, that we need a properly integrated combined ‘energy supply’ and ‘energy use’ strategy and I would add at least one other category to commit to “provide the world with adequate supplies of food and water” unless this is bundled in with “global economic recovery”. However ‘recovery’ I would suggest, implies getting back to where we were, a situation which certainly left a large section of humankind wanting.

  5. Mike

    Take all this with a truck load of salt. I’ll give you 10 to 1 odds Rifkin is selling something and using this as a platform to make money for himself and his buddies. 70% of all species going extinct. Right. So not only will he make money by selling to me. It will cost me an arm and a leg to put turbines or whatever on my house so he’ll get governments to mandate it. Oligarchy by another name.

  6. Tim Simpson

    When it comes to starting the revolution at home lets be aware of what energy is used for at home. 20% lighting. Bring in reflected light. Run household lighting at 24 or 48V.D.C off the solarcell/wind turbine batteries. A huge 1/3rd of home power heats water. A very wasteful 24/7. Instant hot water is better and solar heated water for heating and washing is much better. It can be easliy stored. I have seen several loops of plastic hose on a roof making steaming hot water. Very low tech, but the more load we take off the grid the better. Of course improving the grids would be a very good thing also. Metaglas transformers at the house and substituted into the grid as time goes by. Large neighborhood flywheel power storage systems. There are 25 megawatt ones ready to go in. Don’t sell your power to the grid, store it locally with a computer monitored credit/debit system and when the main source goes off line you and your neighborhood still run.
    Conservation is the easy stuff that all power companies have an obligation to do for their futures. LED lamps, better insulated homes, solar or instant hot water all help. All federal and state buildings should have solar and wind installed as soon as possible. Home owners subsidised to do the same if they wish.

  7. I found the blog very interesting, it contains several useful information. The distributed energy on the whole is a very debatable topic, but if nurtured in a proper manner it could be one of the greatest gifts to mankind. Thank you for having such an interesting blog.


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