Micropower to the Rescue!

Micropower to the Rescue!

Before September 11, a national energy strategy rooted in efficiency, conservation, and use of renewable sources made economic and environmental sense. But on that ill-fated date such a strategy became imperative. We must put behind us the days of America's prodigious energy waste, and conserve fuel for national security needs and to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We must also conserve fuel to avoid blackouts and other supply failures. What we saw in California last winter was bad enough. With the nation on a war footing, power blackouts could be crippling economically and distract our nation's leaders from the urgent tasks at hand. The experience in California this summer, thankfully, proves how easily and effectively conservation works. And it delivers results right away.

The best way to secure our power supply may well be to get it off the national grid as much as possible. Accelerated deployment of available micropower technologies can do this. Micropower technologies include fuel cells, photovoltaics, microgenerators, small wind turbines, and modular biomass systems. These technologies are the equivalent in scale to the wireless cell phones and portable laptops that replaced traditional grid-connected phones and huge mainframe computers. They permit "distributed generation," meaning that power is generated at locations at or near where it is used. This is in contrast to large-scale, centralized power stations, which are often hundreds of miles away from the ultimate consumers. Distributed generation makes energy facilities less vulnerable to terrorist attack because they are so spread out. For example, a business can operate on energy provided by a fuel cell located in the basement of its building.

In addition to shoring up the home front, micropower technologies may also help us combat the desperate conditions abroad that provide the breeding grounds for fanaticism. As Jessica Stern, author of The Ultimate Terrorists, observes: "Force is not nearly enough. We need to drain the swamps where these young men thrive. We need to devote a much higher priority to health, education, and economic development or new Osamas will continue to arise."

Although economic development will be hard to achieve and will take time, micro power technologies offer us options now to vastly increase economic opportunity for the world's poor. These are "green" ways to develop economies. For example, two billion people in the world have no access to electricity. Providing them electricity for lighting, clean water, refrigeration, health care, radio and television may be one of the best ways "to drain the swamps." A microgenerator the size of a refrigerator can generate 25 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power a village in the developing world.

The United States leads the world in exporting solar electric, small wind, fuel cells, and modular biomass systems to the developing world. Such exports of energy generation have become a $5 billion per year market, so this environmentally benign strategy is also economically productive. Microcredit financing has been tried and it works, and that means the poor can obtain affordable mini-loans to purchase on-site energy generators.

In short, conservation, efficiency, and micropower technologies will help us at home while helping to better the lives of people in despair, safeguard our planet, and advance the cause of peace.

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Byron Kennard is executive director of the Washington, DC-based Center for Small Business and the Environment.