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12 December 1995

The Australian: Renewable Energy

Networks could generate cure for global crisis

By James Compton

A SUSTAINABLE solution to the world's energy crisis should include grid technology or linking generators to networks combined with generating power from renewable resources, according to an international non-government organization.

The vice-president of Brisbane based Global Energy Network International. Dr. Edwards believes that although renewable energy is being assessed as a necessary viable alternative to fossil fuels decision makers are missing the big picture.

Dr. Edwards said there was a fundamental explanation for the lack of an overview when considering the energy needs of a projected world population of eight billion in 2020. "Environmentalists, development organizations and energy producers all have different perspectives — there are not many people looking at it from an integrated quality-of-life angle." he said.

The concept for GENI emerged in 1986 when the president and founder, Mr. Peter Meisen, came across the work of American philosopher and architect of the geodesic dome, R. Buckminster Fuller.

Fuller's book, Critical Path posed the question of how to raise the world's standard of living without disadvantaging anyone and without destroying the planet. His solution was to develop a worldwide electricity network but two years after presenting his concepts to the United Nations in 1969, it was put in the too hard basket.

When Mr. Meisen examined Fuller's thesis, he was struck by its undeniable logic and subsequently has garnered enough support to continue FUller's research. GENI was set up under charter in the US in 1991 and is a United Nations accredited NGO.

Dr. Edwards attended the World ENergy Council Congress in Tokyo in October and the Distribution 2000 conference in Brisbane last month. Mr. Meisen, an engineer, was at the State of the World Forum in San Francisco in October, attended by the likes of former Soviet president Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev and former United States Secretary of State Mr. James Baker.

To achieve GENI's objectives, Mr. Meisen and Dr. Edwards believe the world needs a quantifiable assessment of the economic political and environmental costs of networking renewable energy resources.

"Renewable energy is being assessed but it's very fragmented." Dr. Edwards said. "
The costings are being done but on a microscale. On a global scale, the decision-makers — the international financiers and those in the international energy industry — don't have the energy models to adequately handle the other issues."

According to Dr. Edwards, there are two levels of assessing the energy crisis: generation of energy and networking of the electricity produced. He argues that generating renewable energy from wind, sun, tides, geothermal sources and biomass can only become a viable alternative if the sources are linked efficiently into a network.

"The network gets the electricity from where it can be produced efficiently to where the people want to work and live. You can't have one without the other: networks of generators are important both on a local scale and worldwide, where the interconnected networks form the grid system."

At the Brisbane conference, Dr. Edwards was impressed that distributors realized they had the technology at their fingertips to enable small renewable sources to feed on to and take from the grid.

A big stumbling block in the past has been reliably linking small renewable energy generators to a network. "What we need is a stable grid so we can get power when we want it, not when the wind's blowing, or the sun is shining, or there's enough water in the dams, or when the crops are being harvested." he said. "By networking together multiple generators you then increase reliability."

Networking allows generators to be run at optimum efficiency. When a generator feeds a reliable output, it is not being overtaxed and its output is not being wasted.

"By having a grid system it actually decreases the total amount of electricity-generating capacity you need just to meet your demands," Dr. Edwards said.

Efficient grid technology would allow more small, medium and what Dr. Edwards calls "appropriately sited" large-scale renewable sources of energy to come into play.

Vested interests in the traditional fossil fuel economy are still hindering the implementation of renewable alternatives. Research and development of cleaner, more efficient methods of burning coal, oil and natural gas may be a worthy cause, but it obscures the real problem of developing a sustainable energy system.