British Broadcasting Corporation
July 18, 1995
Colin Bell interviewing Peter Meisen in San Diego, Fred Pierce, and Graham Steen
Colin: Let’s see how just one of Buckminster Fuller’s many predictions is faring, not that we would all one day have geodesic greenhouses, but that the whole world would, one day, be linked to a single, mighty electricity grid. We here in Scotland are of course linked to England, and have been arguing recently about an interconnector to Ireland, and via England are already linked to France. But, could we one day get rid of our overgenerating capacity to Africa? And if we did, would that mean power for them at the cost of more pollution for us, plus yet more hideous pylons striding across the world’s beauty spots?
Let’s see — in San Diego now, is Peter Meisen, president of Global Energy Network International; in London, Fred Pierce with the New Scientist; and in Edinboro, Graham Steen, editor of Safe Energy Journal.
Peter, was Bucky right?
Peter: I actually have been working on this for the last 10 years and the more research we have been doing into this area of interconnecting continents as well as country to country, the more viable this issue becomes. The possibility and expansion of Long Distance Transmission has expanded many, many times since it was first proposed 25 years ago. At that time the distances were only several hundred kilometers. We can now actually move power feasibly up to 6000 kilometers with efficiency and minimal load losses which allows us to actually link these continents and tap some of the remote renewables of the world and deliver them to the load centers such as in western Europe or North America.
Colin: The distances you just quoted sound to me as if you think you could quite reasonably take power from say Toronto and you could perhaps get it to Mexico City. You couldn’t necessarily yet get it to Tokyo or could you?
Peter: Well, you’d look at it on a regional basis. You’re not actually spanning oceans and that’s real important. It’s good to look at Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Map when you talk about this because you see that there are many land corridors that allow us to do this, certainly between North and South America, across the isthmus of
Central America, all of Asia clearly is a land corridor. Then you have fairly simple underwater connections, just as you have between England and France. The Gibraltar Straits allow you to interconnect into Africa. That particular underwater tie is now being studied heavily, as well as around the Middle East into Africa and Eastern Europe. All of these possibilities are now on the game boards with many of the large engineering organizations and energy companies of the world.
Colin: Well, Fred, I’m not surprised that Peter’s rather upbeat about all of this — after all he’s spent 10 years on it. But are you, Fred, that upbeat?
Fred: I’m a little agnostic I guess. I spend a lot of my time writing about environmental issues and I know environmentalists are frightened of big, global projects, megaprojects if you like. Large energy schemes they are frightened by. Some of the big, new hydroelectric schemes being planned around the world, for instance the Three Gorges Dam in China, which could fuel large parts of China. I don’t really want to see more of these.
On the other hand, there are economies of scale to be had from large projects. You can save pollution in one place by generating all your electricity somewhere else, by using the really big rivers of the world to generate hydroelectricity. One of the oddities is that the big rivers of the world are largely in the under populated places. They’re in northern Canada, they’re in Siberia, the Arctic rivers there. They’re in the remote rain forests. So, there’s great potential to use rivers such as those to generate electricity if you can transport it long distances. Hydroelectricity is a relatively environmentally-friendly way of generating electricity, much better than burning coal and oil, for instance. So I think we have had to look at these possibilities. Perhaps the idea of using hot rocks, geothermal energy, to provide power for large parts of the planet. Tidal power as well., In Britain we have the Severn estuary which has great tidal power potential and there are many others around the world. Perhaps solar power too. If we can put together big, international links, to pass electricity around the world, then we can use some of these resources, some of these environmentally-friendly, renewable resources, and use them to provide power for large parts of the planet.
Colin: Hmm, yes, perhaps we can, but one of the things you said there immediately struck a chord—we’ve had consistently, in Britain, a government which has done its best to cripple experiments in tidal power because of its commitment to the nuke industry.
Fred: Well, that’s right, but times move on. I don’t see any great commitment to the nuclear industry now. I think most people believe that with the privatization of the nuclear industry, there is very little chance of more nuclear power plants being built. If we are going to have any more nuclear power in Britain, it’s probably going to be imported from France on the cross-Channel link.
Colin: Yes, they’ve already got such set up.
Graham, what do you think of the economic arguments?. I don’t much like the notion there, which is obviously realistic, that bits of the world could be specially sequestered as where pollution happens and the rest of the world doesn’t have it but it just has the power.
Graham: Well, I think there’s a moral question here. Should the western countries be exploiting remote regions in less developed countries to meet their ever-growing energy demands? I think talk of a global electricity grid puts a kind of false view on what’s actually happening. I think more and more neighboring countries will trade in electricity. But really, you ought to be looking at generating, as close to where you want the electricity as possible. And certainly, from a Scottish perspective, we have an abundance of renewable energy. we certainly don’t need to be looking to import from anywhere.
Colin: We could actually export, couldn’t we? For the moment we have a capacity. We do already export to England and we are about to export to Ireland.
Graham: Yes, we’re talking about neighboring countries—I think that does make sense but I just think the term Global Energy Grid makes you think of large grandiose schemes of the type Fred was mentioning, and overlook the fact that within any area there are renewable forms of energy which can be used.
Peter: Very true there, Graham, and what I wanted to do is not just look at only those sites which may be tremendous distances away, but in many cases, if you look at the population centers of the world, and they’re usually around the sea or the waterways, that in many cases you don’t find enough local, renewable to actually take care of that population center.
Where I am in San Diego, and along the west coast of the United States, clearly there’s enormous renewable in the solar, when we actually have more solar on our deserts, actually generating solar capacity, than anywhere else on the planet, and right now that’s only 400 megawatts. It’s not enough to take care of the needs of the millions of people in California. Similarly, in the UK, right now 80% , approximately of your generation, and I’m not sure exactly of the percentage, is non-renewable. It’s clear that it goes back and forth across the channel, but in North America and in western Europe, even though our interconnections are there, we are the biggest polluters on the planet and we have not, for many reasons, and primarily economic, these renewable resources other than hydro have not become economic on the bottom line yet. We are coming closer to having a wind system, a variable-speed wind generator, that actually comes down to about 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour and the photovoltaics are still about three times too expensive. So, we’re moving in the right direction so we can have much more local renewable generation, but unfortunately it’s just not in the industry’s interests yet to fund that because it’s more expensive than the alternative.
Colin: Peter, is your plan, as you originally stated it, one which would, I’m afraid, fall foul of the cruel comment that you want to export your pollution and import power?
Peter: I think that’s probably an inaccurate way of looking at it, because you have to really go back to the source the proposal comes from. Bucky was really the Leonardo da Vinci of our time. He had just turned, would have turned, 100 last week and his ideas are now really becoming in vogue because he was many years ahead of his time in many things. This particular one came from the World Game. The purpose statement of the World Game is "How do you make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest period of time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological damage, or disadvantage to anyone." The number one solution that came out of that was linking the electrical systems so that you could even out these peaks and valleys between time zones, east and west, obviously a 24 hour planet has a different peak between that day and night diurnal variation, as well as seasonal variations north and south, between winter and summer. Ideally you want to keep your most efficient and cost effective generation running 24 hours a day and if you can then start to phase out your peak generation because it more polluting and more expensive, because you can tie in to a neighbor or a neighbor’s neighbor which happens to be cheaper, it’s not only good on the bottom line, you can start to phase out some of the more polluting peaking generation that we have in this system.
Colin: Fred, what is the position about that—the shifting power over very long distances. Do you in fact incur large losses?
Fred: They’re getting less. The technology is improving all the time as Peter said earlier. It’s now cost-effective to transmit electricity for something like 6000 kilometers. That’s quite a considerable way across Europe, for instance. The new technology coming in, or which we expect to come in, in the next few years, super conducting materials and so on, is going to reduce the losses in transmission systems and make it more economic to make those links. The losses along the way will be much less. The questions will become much more about where it is cheapest and hopefully, where it is most environmentally beneficial to generate the power that we need. We mustn’t get away from the fact that a rather good way of reducing the environmental impact of energy generation is to use less energy. I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that we withdraw or reduce our efforts to do that—that’s obviously crucial. But, given that we’re using the energy, it does seem to be sensible to look for ways of reducing the environmental impact. Certainly, in some parts of the world, maybe in large parts of the world, there is potential for looking at remote sources of power and using those cleanly and efficiently.
Colin: Graham, I worry whenever this sort of argument Fred was just touching on arises. There is a very natural, I think, and sympathetic instinct for the people in the undeveloped part of the world, the third world, say, "Well, listen—you had it good for a very long time. Why should you now impose on us your new, green standards? Why should you say ‘Let’s reduce power consumption.’ You’ve been pigging the world’s power for generations and we now, in Africa, or Asia, or Latin America, want to catch up with your standard of living."
Graham: Well, yes, I think that’s a perfectly valid point. It also gets into another area, which is if you’re dependent, as we have been, on oil from other countries which are, perhaps, politically unstable, if you’re talking about tapping resources from other areas, you do cause these geopolitical problems about security of supply, of sort of effectively being held to ransom by another country. You could end up with your equivalent of the Gulf War, of fighting over an energy resource. I think that would be a worrying development. I think that comes back to my argument that it makes much more sense for countries to generate locally where that is appropriate.
Peter: Still very true, but do look at the existing . . . just in the last few years what’s happened, Graham, in Europe and in the middle East which is just phenomenal breakthroughs in this area. Clearly, no one country will ever, in my point of view, be totally dependent on another for its energy supply. The political situation of any country wouldn’t allow that. Right after the Berlin wall went down in ‘89, two months later, East and West Germany are connecting their electrical grids because it makes good economic sense on the bottom line for them to do that. The 40-year gulf of politics in the middle East, that existed between Jordan and Israel, as soon as the Washington Declaration was signed, the two things they said they were going to do immediately were to make their telephone lines and their electrical grids . . . I mean, it was easy, technically, but impossible for 40 years. Now they’re not going to be trading 100% of their power back and forth, initially it only 2%, its 5%, its their back-up emergency, its their reserve capacity, until that trust develops a little bit further. I promise you its good economics and its bad business, if you will, once you start having that trading relationship, to shoot your customer, your supplier, or to actually shut that system down because then you lose an opportunity to make money on the daily basis selling excess capacity as well as buying cheaper power from your neighbor. So, every time these things get developed, you start seeing percentages more over the years start to be traded between these countries.
Colin: Peter, I don’t want to be the specter at your feast. First of all, in the middle East, they can’t agree about water, which is a more pressing problem, in many cases, than power. When you cite the falling of the Berlin Wall, yes, that seems to me to fit my original scenario. If I was a pampered West German, I’d thing "Whoopee—let the filthy, incompetent, carbon-emitting power industry of the Aussies go on providing us with power." And equally, it seems to me, that you with the political point . . . all right, the good people of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, massive power, consumers, it might be very handy to get it coming in over the Bering Strait, possibly all the way from Chernobyl, for all I know. But it does leave you vulnerable if somebody just turns the switch, doesn’t it?
Peter: Well, one thing that no utility will ever do is be so vulnerable as you just suggested. There’s always back-up put into any transmission system—its the redundancy, basically. They build parallel systems and this was all as a result of the black-out of New York City a couple of decades ago. They basically plan on these outages, whether they be forced outages, or whether Earth First! comes in and decides to take out a pylon, they would not let the system go cascading by the loss on one particular line, because of an outage due to a lightning strike. So, clearly they’ve built in these parallel systems so they are not vulnerable to that situation.
Colin: Fred, you may have thought as I did, when Peter was talking about the great Con-Ed disaster in New York, well one of the immediate effects was that the birth rate went up very sharply nine months later, so I suppose we could argue that the more power there is in the world, the easier it is to handle population explosion.
Fred: Well, maybe you’re right. I think the fundamental point, though, is that interconnections of all sorts, whether you’re talking about water, or electricity, or almost anything else, I think they’re a power for peace in the land. They may occasionally cause conflicts, but really, once countries become really interconnected in fundamental ways, for their basic resources, they are not going to go to war again. I think power connections are a force for peace.
Peter: Absolutely. I would like to jump in there if I could—one of our strong supporters, Governor Walter Hickel, who’s now the ex-governor of Alaska, but the current Secretary-General of the Northern Forum (this is a group of 21 northern governor-statesmen of the northern latitudes countries), actually did a presentation called "Why War—Why Not Big Projects?" in the United Nations and gave this personally to the Secretary-General last year, and he says this is definitely a force for peace in the world, that the more you link these neighbors economically, both on a fundamental resource and in a business way that’s good for both, again, the less likely you’re going to go to war.
Colin: Oh, really? I see. Well, I have my reservations about that, thinking of certain oil pipelines which cross landlocked countries, neighbors’ territory, and the power it gives them to influence things.
But, Graham, we have other aspects. ??Who was it?? that said that hydroelectric is, perhaps, not environmentally friendly. Well, it is if you assume that hydroelectric can be achieved without flooding otherwise fertile valleys, without actually investing an enormous amount of energy in building the hydro. Wind power may be environmentally friendly but it makes bits of Shetland and Orkney look rather ugly.
Graham: Well, there are problems with visual intrusion, but that’s a problem, if you perceive it as a problem, for the lifetime of that wind turbine, or that wind farm. Then they’re dismantled. It’s not like when you put a power station it remains sitting there for 135 years or more, with no one actually able to go near it to dismantle it. I think, generally, renewable energy is much less polluting than fossil fuels or nuclear power. It still obviously needs to be done in an appropriate way. Generally speaking, I think small-scale hydro schemes will be less environmentally damaging than large ones. Fred already mentioned the Three Gorges project in China which is a massive scheme requiring millions of people to be moved from their land. I think this comes back to once you talk in these global terms, you do devise these large projects which might look good set somewhere in a capital city and you’re planning tremendous energy requirements. But, if you look at it from a local perspective, I think these kinds of projects aren’t the way to go.
Colin: Well, that’s an argument for Schumacher rather than Fuller, isn’t it? Small, local, renewable—locally consumed projects., ones that don’t run the risk that having built Aswan, the fertility of Nile delta is badly affected.
Graham: Yes, I think the small-scale idea should be tried first, certainly. I wouldn’t totally rule out large-scale projects as long as a proper environmental assessment of the impact is carried out and that it’s seen as the least damaging option available.
Colin: Well, thank you all very much indeed.