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Energy Internet needed in a world that is hot, flat and crowded

An Energy Internet is one component of Thomas Friedman’s vision to change the way America thinks about – and uses – energy.

Just as the Internet revolutionized communication and commerce, an Energy Internet could transform how we use electricity and enable the integration of renewable energy sources on a large scale.

Thomas Friedman makes this case in his 2008 book, ‘Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America.’ An Energy Internet is one component of his vision to change the way America thinks about — and uses — energy.

He argues that the forces of global warming, global flattening — how technology has leveled the economic playing field — and global population growth are all coverging to create “the most important dynamic shaping the world we live in today.” Friedman says we are now in the “Energy-Climate Era.”

We need to revamp our energy industry and habits, he says, largely because of climate change and national security concerns. The climate is warming and changing some things now, and there’s no guarantee its effects will be incremental and linear in the coming decades. Climate tipping points could lead to catastrophic disruption. We need to realize that and rein in carbon emissions as fast as possible.

Friedman also argues that since we’re trying to change the climate system — a really huge system, we need to take systemic approach. We can’t only just make our cars or coal-burning power plants a bit more efficient. We need overhaul the energy system over the coming decades. This will help us limit the impacts of climate change and reduce our reliance on oil from petrodictators.

We need a green revolution, Friedman says, not a green fad.

The energy challenges also provide an opportunity for America to lead the world in developing a clean, green energy system and to remain among the top economic powers.

At one point, Friedman describes what it would be like to live with the Energy Internet in the year 20 E.C.E. — Energy-Climate Era. For starters, every home would have a Smart Black Box, similar to your cable TV box or digital video recorder. This Smart Black Box would be like a personal energy dashboard; it would control the interoperability of all of your energy, communications and entertainment devices.

The Smart Box could turn all of your electronic appliances and devices on or off — or turn part of them on and off, in order to regulate your energy use. This would also save you money and prevent blackouts. For example, when energy use on a regional grid is high, your Smart Box could turn off the heating element in your dryer or water heater, or turn off your air conditioning or heat — maybe just for a few minutes — until the load on the grid eases. Because electricity prices are higher when demand is higher, you save money by not using as much electricity at those high prices. (Right now, however, utilities charge a flat rate for power, so you don’t have an option to buy more electricity when it is less expensive. That would change.)

In addition, you could control your Smart Box from your cell phone or the Internet, just like the folks in those DirecTV commercials can set their DVRs to record a TV show just by using their cell phone or a computer at work. So, for example, if you were on vacation you could turn off — or turn down — your home’s electricity use, and set it to ramp up when you get home. Or if you’re delayed by a day, tell it to stay powered down until you get home. You don’t need the water heater going if you’re gone for a week, after all.

The Smart Box could also monitor electricity costs and run some of your appliances, like the dishwasher, overnight when costs hit a low-enough level. Plug-in hybrid cars could sell energy back to the grid when necessary; in fact, cars would no longer be called cars — they’d be “Rolling Energy Storage Units.” Most or all of our transportation would run on electricity. Schools could have solar panels on their roofs and sell energy to the grid; the utility could even rent solar panels to you to help it manage supply.

A national system like this could result in much less electricity use, saving us all money. By flattening out the peaks and valleys in electricity demand, it would also allow utilities to bring more renewable energy sources on board, like wind and solar. Also, if utilities can control the peaks in demand, they won’t have to have extra power plants on standby for the few days each summer that air conditioning demand spikes. That saves the utility money and helps the climate.

Sound like a fantasy? Well part of this kind of Energy Internet has been tested in the Pacific Northwest in 2007 and performed well. The smart grid appliance controllers already exist.

Friedman argues that the U.S. needs several things to spur development of the Energy Internet. First, a mandate for utilities to get a sizable amount — say 20 percent — of their power from renewable sources; second, incentives to have utlities help customers use less energy; third, research and development has to increase in the power generation sector. R&D by electric utilities in U.S. in 2007 was 0.15 percent of revenues; in most competitve industries, it is 8-10 percent. We need to invest in the science to to the research and develop a new energy system.

The goal is to eventually power the nation with abundant, clean, reliable and cheap electrons. This could take 30-50 years. In the meantime, just through energy efficiency efforts — for our buildings and appliances — we can soak up all the energy demand for the next two decades (with no extra carbon emissions).

It’s all possible, but we need to support the science and technology research to make it happen.

If you’re concerned — or curious — about global warming, global flattening and global population growth and how they are creating the Energy-Climate Era, then read this book. You’ll learn how we can make the green energy revolution happen.

(Book cover graphic courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)

Dan Kulpinski