this weekSome of Its Parts

June 24, 2004

Global Energy Network

World peace through sharing electrons

R. Buckminster Fuller, a brilliant engineer, designer, and philosopher who lived from 1895–1983, is best known as the inventor of the geodesic dome. More recently, a spherical carbon isotope whose molecules resemble the dome was named Buckminsterfullerene, or “Bucky ball” for short. The dome was certainly an important invention, illustrating Fuller’s intensely logical mode of inquiry: How can basic geometric principles be employed to enclose the maximum amount of space with the minimum amount of weight and materials? His solution, a clever arrangement of interlocking triangles, was elegant and beautiful. And yet, it’s unfortunate that many consider this Fuller’s claim to fame. Geodesic domes—once thought to be a trendy and futuristic design for homes and public buildings—are now seen as rather passé, a quaint artifact of outdated aesthetic sensibilities, like tail fins on cars and beehive hairdos. By inference, their inventor is sometimes regarded as a wacky innovator who was perhaps out of touch with reality.

But Fuller’s career involved a great deal more than domes. It is quite true that some of the ideas he investigated were wacky and out of touch with reality—but only because they were based on logic and common sense, which have always been unstylish. Fuller’s work included a great many inventions and architectural innovations, a distortion-free map of the world called the Fuller Projection, dozens of books, and tireless efforts to solve basic human problems such as shelter, transportation, and food distribution. His proposed solutions to many serious problems can be shown mathematically or statistically to be workable, but very few of them have made their way into actual use. Fuller assumed that humans would always choose the most efficient and economical solution to a problem if they were shown logically what it is; he did not, however, count on the reality that hard facts are seldom a motivating factor—especially at the level of national and international politics. Such has been the case with one of Fuller’s most ambitious ideas, that of interconnecting the world’s electrical energy grids.

The World Game
In order to explain what a global energy network means and why it is such a good idea, I should take a step back and describe the World Game. Buckminster Fuller devised the World Game as a thought experiment intended to be carried out by a group of people. Before the game begins, information about all the world’s resources—both physical and metaphysical (by which he meant knowledge and skills)—is entered into a computer, along with data on human survival needs. Teams then work together, using this information to create a simulation of how the resources could be manipulated in such a way as to “make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, and without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” In other words, participants are supposed to find a way for all the world’s people to have food, shelter, safety, and even happiness, with only the resources actually available and with no harm to the environment or other people.

As a learning exercise, the World Game is both effective and entertaining, and has been used countless times over the last several decades by universities, corporations, and informal groups. It teaches principles of economics, management, and even sociology. But what’s most striking about this simulation of the world is the result it consistently produces. Based on the findings of the World Game, Fuller determined that the world’s resources are sufficiently vast that every single person on Earth can live comfortably—with adequate amounts of food, personal space, and leisure. The catch, of course, is that the resources would need to be distributed and managed in a way that is at odds with reality. As long as small numbers of wealthy, powerful people insist on remaining disproportionately wealthy and powerful at everyone else’s expense, the idealized solutions of the World Game will be difficult to achieve.

More Power To You
Be that as it may, one of the specific insights of the World Game involves electricity. Most people would probably say that food, water, medical care, and shelter are far more urgent human needs than electricity. But Fuller believed that the universal availability of affordable electricity was the main thing separating the western world from so-called developing nations. He reasoned that electricity can make the production of food and safe water much easier, and facilitate health care, transportation, and communication. In addition, electricity makes possible a level of economic development that can address these basic issues indirectly.

Even though two billion people currently do not have access to electricity, the world’s power plants have more than enough capacity to supply the entire planet’s needs. The problem, according to Fuller, is that they’re just not used efficiently. A given generator will produce a relatively constant amount of electricity, whether that power is used or not. If demand dips, the extra power goes to waste—and the power company loses potential profits. This effect is especially apparent at different times of the day—when it’s daytime in one area and electrical demand is high, it’s night somewhere else and demand is low. The solution to this imbalance is well known and has been used successfully for decades: interconnecting power grids from different areas. Thanks to technology that allows electricity to be transmitted over distances as far as 4,300 miles (7,000km), electricity can be shared across time zones or even seasons. So all across North America and Europe, local and regional suppliers have made arrangements with each other to balance the load. This results in more consistent availability of power, lower and more uniform costs, and a reduction in the number of generating plants needed. (It has also famously resulted in some widespread blackouts, but these could have been prevented with updated equipment and better monitoring procedures.)

Getting Their Wires Crossed
Unfortunately, the parts of the world that would benefit most from sharing electricity can’t do so. If rural northern Africa, say, could share power with western Europe, electricity would become more pervasive in Africa and less expensive on both continents. Taken to its logical conclusion, a completely interconnected global electrical grid would improve the quality of life for nearly everyone, while providing essential development infrastructure (and an additional source of revenue) for the places that need it most. It would also benefit the environment, reduce hunger, and foster international cooperation and goodwill. That may sound idealistic, and it is. But the barriers to such a system are not technological, merely political and ideological.

In order for any two nations to agree to interconnect their power grids, they need the political will to invest money in the infrastructure, which can be hard to come by when limited budgets are strained to meet needs that seem more pressing. But it also requires a degree of mutual trust. If one nation relies on another’s electricity—even if only a portion of the time—they need to feel comfortable that it won’t suddenly disappear due to hostilities or political disagreements. In addition, nations whose governments tightly control utilities would effectively lose some of that control. Even a significant cost savings is a weak motivator when political power is at risk.

GENI and the Magic Lamp

Even so, numerous people are working earnestly to make the vision of a universal energy grid a reality. Global Energy Network Institute, or GENI, is a nonprofit organization based in San Diego. Their mission is to educate the public about the idea of a global energy grid and work with governments, utilities, and international organizations to encourage its adoption. The work is slow, unglamorous, and often thankless. But the lesson of the World Game—that science and common sense can ultimately make the world a better place—is hard to ignore. Even if the global energy network became a reality, that would be only a small step toward winning the game, but it’s an important one. In a time when it’s fashionable to talk about a wired world as being one where everyone has a cell phone or internet access, it’s worth remembering that the electrons that power those gadgets all need to come from somewhere. —Joe Kissell

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Among Buckminster Fuller’s most famous books are the slim Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969) and his masterpiece, Critical Path (1981), published just two years before he died. Although many of Fuller’s books are out of print, you can see a fairly complete list (including many available used) on Amazon.com.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Buckminster Fuller can be found at the Buckminster Fuller Institute Web site. The World Game is organized and promoted by osEarth, inc. under the name “Global Simulation Workshop.”