Kennedy Asks IT to Be Prime Mover in Building Green Power Grid

Environmentalist identifies wind, solar and geothermal exchange as three renewable resources with the potential to monetize the power system in the United States in a different manner, wresting control away from "big carbon" industrial companies.

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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told members of the Green Grid Technical Forum in a keynote address Feb. 4 that he believes the IT sector should be the prime mover in the establishment of a new power grid able to transport renewable power resources over long distances.

Kennedy (pictured) identified wind, solar and geothermal exchange as three of those renewable resources with the potential to monetize the power system in the United States in a completely different manner, wresting control away from "big carbon" industrial companies with profits-and not the environment-as their top priority.

"We need a new power grid in the U.S., so that a farmer in windy North Dakota can get his electrons to market," Kennedy said. "North Dakota is the windiest place on the continent at sea level.

"Virtually every farmer in that state wants to put wind turbines on their property. This would reverse the decline in the economy in this and other areas and help people hold onto their farms. Family farms help democratize our country."

'Power Grid Under-built, Antiquated from the Start'

The U.S. power grid is antiquated and was under-built from the start, Kennedy said.

"It's tired, it's overburdened, and it's incapable of doing long-haul transmission of electrons. There's tons of capital waiting to rush into this new gold and land rush-giant companies like GE and Siemens are available to finance the building of thousands of wind farms all over the state," Kennedy said.

Kennedy, who serves as senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, is a partner and senior adviser of Vantage Point Venture Partners, one of the largest renewable-resource venture funds in the nation.

"The wind farmer in North Dakota can't get his electrons to Chicago, to St. Louis or to New York because they fuse in the lines after they go a few hundred miles," Kennedy said.

What the United States needs to do is establish a national program-like President Dwight D. Eisenhower's national highway system to upgrade the transportation infrastructure in the 1950s-to overhaul the power grid and modernize it, in order to make it capable carrying the electrical power and IT of the future.

Industry Groups Should Lead the Initiative

Industry consortiums like the Green Grid, with all of its thought leadership, can help lead the initiative to get the construction of this new grid under way, Kennedy said.

"It [the new grid] needs to be smart-it doesn't have to be overly smart, but just a little smart," Kennedy said. "By that I mean it should be able to intelligently store and deploy solar energy at night, wind energy during the doldrums, and balance the flow of energy at all times. We already have this incredible balance of energy [availability] in this country, with lots of wind energy in the evening and-that's right-solar energy during the daytime."

Kennedy said he envisions a give-and-take power grid, in which users are also sellers of energy, if they choose to be.

"We need to build a grid that can go both directions-from power sources into people's homes, and from our homes back out to the grid," Kennedy said. "If we have excess power from our solar panels or geothermal exchange, we should be able to resell it on the grid. We need the intelligence in the system to be able to control power flow at peak times and to conserve energy when there is more than is needed at a particular time."

Free Market Can Be the Solution

Free-market capitalism is the solution for virtually all the world's environmental problems, Kennedy said.

"The free market is a tool for us to use, and it benefits the community as a whole, but right now the rules that govern the grid system are irrational and are destructive to our community," Kennedy said.

"For example, the way most utilities make money is by selling energy. The more coal and gas they sell, the more money they make. Even if a utility company CEO is green in his heart, his customers are still his shareholders. Every morning he has to wake up and decide where his loyalty is: to our country and the environment, or to his shareholders."

Kennedy pointed out that in 1979 the United States built a national data-exchange grid called ARPANET. By 1980, there were fewer than 500 networks in the entire nation. Nonetheless, this eventually morphed into the Internet.

"Now look at what we have today," he said. "The Internet is a low-cost resource with economies of scale built right into it. The cost of bits and bytes has plummeted to almost zero. The more people who use it, the more valuable it becomes. That's exactly what's going to happen with electrons, as soon as we establish a national grid for electricity in this country."

Telecommunications Act Opened the Markets

He also reminded the Green Grid audience of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, that opened the markets to competition by removing unnecessary regulatory barriers to entry.

"We built a unified national telecommunications grid when we told all the Baby Bells that they could no longer restrict access to the [telephone] lines," Kennedy said. "So everybody could participate. That spawned a telecommunications revolution. All these gadgets that we carry are the offspring of that revolution.

"Look what's happened to the cost of telecommunication. Vonage is on TV every 20 minutes offering unlimited overseas and local calls for $24 [per month]. Until a few months ago, a single overseas call could cost you $24," Kennedy said.

The future is essentially free telecommunications-and near-free energy, Kennedy said.

"If we can convert the $3 trillion per year of taxpayers' money that is used to subsidize 'big carbon' coal and oil producers and channel it into other things, like better health care and a new power grid, then we will realize great economies of scale and improve the environment at the same time," Kennedy said.

"You're all very smart people here in the room. You can go out and help lead this initiative."

Image: Chris Preimesberger, eWEEK

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...