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Distributed energy Cleveland's path ahead

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/24/12 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Clean energy, Transform

A million homes in Cleveland and its suburbs soaking up the power of the sun, connected to an ‘energy Internet’, is our best play for sustainable economic development, Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Third Industrial Revolution, assured hundreds attending the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit last week.

Producing power at home <br />A home in Ohio City built by Ryan McKenzie has solar panels producing electricity and hot water, which provides space heating through tubes under the floors.

Cleveland can best position itself for the next industrial revolution by learning from the first two industrial revolutions, which were based on the convergence of power and information.

“The first two Great Industrial Revolutions had new energy regimes that allowed us to bring people together and extend the sociability of the human race,” he said. “It was about managing energy flow and communications.

The First Industrial Revolution, we went from manual printing presses to steam powered presses which were the Internet of its day. It helped to create a print-literate work force from this steam power.

We could not have managed the First Industrial Revolution without a literate workforce.”

The Second Industrial Revolution was powered by TV and fossil fuels.

“That revolution has died. Not only in Cleveland, but the world is now on the cusp of a Third Industrial Revolution.”

Rifkin’s clients are beyond speculation. He advised German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her move to “convert 1 million homes into mini power plants” with solar panels on rooftops. Power is sold by home owners to the grid at fair prices, thanks to feed-in tariffs, and supported by policy such as European Union mandates to switch to 20% green power by 2020.

This distributed energy is analogous to the Internet, Rifkin explains. Both boast geopolitical and supply side stability, which hold great advantage over ‘elite power’ like tar sands and natural gas (and dictatorial regimes) which rely more on massive military build up than innovation.

“The Internet is organized to be distributed laterally. So, today we have 2.5 billion people who can send their own video and audio. The information revolution is converging in Europe with distributed energy, which is also starting to scale laterally. It’s a perfect fit.”

Some regions in the EU are being supplied by 70% green power due to Germany’s rooftop revolution, he said. It is spurring economic activity – backed by an €8 billion investment from the EU to find better storage technology, from big batteries to capacitors for splitting water into hydrogen power. Fuel cell cars, including charging infrastructure, are slated for a 2014 market launch in the EU.

Distribute generation is more effective at market-scale transformation than trying to repeat the play book of ‘elite’ power.

“None of us are opposed to big wind farms, but you cannot run entire economies on these wind parks,” he said. “Why are we trying to centralize energy production in one point? Buildings are where the energy is being used. It is where we should be harvesting this energy.”

Rifkin recommends that Cleveland Public Power exit the business of selling electrons, and set its sights on managing energy flows. A big energy efficiency program on the residential side, for example, can lead to a surplus of energy savings that can be shared with commercial customers.

“(CPP) should set up partnerships with all residential and business clients to manage their energy flows,” he said. “To the extent you can reduce electricity needs, the commercial clients share in the savings. Shared savings contracts. There’s way more money to be made in sharing saved energy then in selling electrons.”

“Solar panels are going to be as cheap as cell phones and PCs are today. The sun off your roof is free once you have the panels up. This jump starts business. Think about converting every building in Cleveland to power plants in the next 40 years. You’re talking about a lot of jobs.”

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