Monday, January 20, 1997 North County Times
Oceanside Man Out to Power Planet
By Bruce Lieberman
SAN DIEGO On a large world map in Peter Meisen's San Diego office, lines representing electrical power connections crisscross the United States and Europe.
Africa is mostly barren, with no power lines. The Dark Continent, a name given to Africa before the late 19th century when few Europeans knew anything about it, is literally shrouded in darkness today.
Meisen, whose office houses the nonprofit research group Global Energy Network International, wants to change all that.
An Oceanside native and engineer by training, Meisen founded GENI in 1986 to advance the idea of linking the world's electrical power networks fueled by renewable energy resources, such as the sun, wind and water.
The idea was first popularized more than 20 years ago by Dr. R. Buckminster Fuller, the late inventor, philosopher and author perhaps remembered most for his geodesic dome.
When asked why he devoted his career to Fuller's vision, Meisen speaks with a sense of urgency baked by startling statistics that illustrate where the globe is headed.
"In my book at least, this is the most compelling global strategy for sustainable development and world peace," Meisen said.
More than 2 billion people in developing countries live without electricity or clean drinking water, said Meisen, citing the 1996 Report from the World Resources Institute. Women and children in many developing countries walk several miles every day to obtain water and firewood basic tools for survival.
With access to electricity, these people can pump water from the ground, illuminate a health clinic and refrigerate food and medicine.
Linking the world's electricity networks can increase the standard of living for everyone, cut fossil-fuel demand and clean up the environment, reduce world hunger, slow deforestation, open new markets and enhance world trade, and promote international cooperation and world peace, Meisen said. And, as the standard of living rises in developing countries, the explosion in world population can be lessened, he said.
By linking the world's continents with a global electrical power grid, electrical utilities could buy and sell power to level the peaks and valleys of energy demand that occur across the globe as the Earth turns, Meisen explained.
Fuller's idea is much more technologically possible than when he first introduced it. Thirty years ago, electrical power could only be efficiently transmitted 600 kilometers, or about 375 miles. Today, the distance has increased to 7,000 kilometers for direct current and 4,000 kilometers for alternating current far enough to link the northern and southern hemispheres, Meisen said.
Political changes in the world including the end of the Cold War and peace efforts in the Middle East also have made Fuller's idea more possible, Meisen said.
To promote it, Meisen has traveled the world to speak to world leaders at energy conferences, United Nations meetings and other gatherings of heads of state and commerce. Meisen has bent the ears of Vice President Al Gore, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former Secretary of State James Baker, among others.
"We're looking for champions and influence beyond me," Meisen said of the enormous task GENI faces. "You're asking for a buy-in from all 191 world leaders."
It appears that some of them are beginning to listen, if not to Meisen and GENI, then to Fuller's idea of linking the world's electrical resources.
Linking East and West
Two months after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, East and West Germany began to link their electrical power grids, and all of Europe is expected to be interconnected within the next decade, Meisen said.
Early last year in a Washington Post article, Israeli government officials spoke of a "full peace" with Syria that would include "communication and transportation links, joint water projects and even integration of the two countries' electricity grids" where he had sent his packets.
In July 1994, he sent packets that proposed electrical power linkages between the two Asian nations to officials in Washington, D.C., North Korea, South Korea and at the United Nations.
Support from vice president
A month later, Gore wrote a letter to Meisen supporting his efforts. Two days after that, an Associated Press and Reuters article discussed South Korea's willingness to supply North Korea surplus electric power if North Korea agreed to inspections of its nuclear program. At the time, North Korea refused.
Overcoming political divisions is probably GENI's greatest challenge, Meisen said. But without international cooperation, humanity faces a dire future. After earning a degree in applied mechanics and engineering sciences from the University of California, San Diego in 1976, Meisen co-founded SHARE, North America's largest private food distribution program.
In 1985, Meisen left SHARE. While on vacation he read Fuller's book, "Critical Path," in which the author outlines some of his most famous ideas for long-term sustainable development.
"I thought, 'holy smokes, how come I haven't heard of this before?'" Meisen said.
Less than a year later, Meisen founded GENI and launched his crusade.
The Carlsbad Rotary Club is scheduled to host Meisen at the club's dinner on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Raintree Restaurant in Carlsbad, off Poinsettia Lane west of Interstate 5.