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Leapfrogging the Grid
Jamais Cascio, 12 May 04

Wow, am I sorry I didn't hear about this event until after it was over.

The World Technology Network -- a think tank/global innovator network/consulting group -- organized the World Energy Technologies Summit in Paris, this last February. The topic? "Should We Leapfrog the Grid? Distributed Generation in the Developing World." Focusing on the feasibility of using distributed power generation -- primarily from renewable or "cleaner" energy sources -- as a way of bringing inexpensive electricity to the developing world, the conference brought together energy entrepreneurs, government officials, and energy analysts from around the world.

The website for the conference has the agenda and information about the speakers, as well as all of their Powerpoint presentations -- downloadable, not as HTML conversions. Since some of the presentations are many megabytes in size (the largest being over 150MB), you'll need either broadband or patience to get them all. That said, the amount of information in these presentations is pretty staggering. From data about developments in gas turbine and fuel cell technologies to power distribution in Sri Lanka to the chemistry of biofuels, the 20 or so presentations are an energy geek's dream. While a handful of the presentations are clearly advertising for the presenter's company, nearly all have interesting information about the current state of distributed power, and where it could go.

The conference site also links to a PDF of an editorial in Nature which summarizes nicely the importance of distributed power, especially in the developing world:

World energy needs will double by 2050 and we urgently need sources that don’t produce carbon dioxide or other pollutants. Decentralized generation puts technological choices in consumers’ hands. The technology is available to bring small, local energy sources, or ‘micropower’, better into the electricity equation, from gas turbines, hydro and wind power and sugar-cane biomass to nanoscale solar cells embedded in the bricks and slates of houses.

For countries like the United States that already have grids, decentralized generation will ease gridlock, radically improve energy efficiency, cut carbon emissions and provide better resilience to failures and terrorist attacks on vulnerable networks.

But for the 2 billion people without electricity, micropower could let them leapfrog the grid. Just as countries that had never seen an expensive copper telephone network jumped straight to mobile phones, so decentralized generation technologies offer the chance for them to leapfrog the grid and prosper.

There's a ton of useful information in these presentations, locked up in the ungainly Powerpoint format. If you can stand the download time, have a way of viewing Powerpoint files, and want to learn more about distributed power, these files are definitely worth exploring.

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