Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Decline, Balkanization and Rebirth

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Decline, Balkanization and Rebirth

Article excerpt

Industry and government leadership needs to foster new advances in electric technologies and reinvent the mechanism of research and development.

Jobs, national security, and the environment are all affected by the quality and reliability of the electricity infrastructure. While electricity represents less than 5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, the entire economy depends on affordable, reliable and secure electricity.

A century ago, rapid innovation in electric technologies was a major driver of the economy. New firms invented and improved on the electric motor, the light bulb, electrified transportation, and the generation and delivery of electricity. Today, those companies and their suppliers all appear to be mature, even stodgy, in comparison with the dot-com companies and the rapidly growing digital economy.

Yet substantial room remains for innovation in electricity and electro-technologies. The future offers a path to sustainable development through increasingly efficient generation and use of electricity, a path that will lead to continuing reductions in polluting emissions and in consumption of resources, even as prosperity increases. (See "Lighting the Path to Sustainability" in this issue of FORUM.) Such a future will be realized, however, only if today's trend of decreasing investment in research and development is reversed.

A Wired, Wired World

The firms of the digital economy are all inventing new uses for electricity. As the world moves rapidly towards connecting over a billion people through the Internet, electric technologies again sit at the center, or perhaps more appropriately serve as the foundation, of this revolution. A century ago, electricity was the innovation; today it is the enabler of innovation.

Electrification is not a historic event, rather it is an ongoing process, and today that process is being driven by computational speed and bandwidth, not motors and light bulbs. Underlying the dot-com revolution is electricity.

During the past 60 years, the electric power industry consisted of franchised, regional monopolies with a social contract to aid in the economic development of each monopoly's region. Today, that social contract goes beyond local economic development to encompass global prosperity, and it includes the mandate to preserve and protect the environment and create a sustainable future for humanity. [1]

Is there opportunity for further innovation in electricity-based technologies? When generators today can convert into electricity nearly 60 percent of the energy in fuel--nearly twice as efficiently as the average plant currently in use--can things improve further? New power plants combining combustion turbines with high-temperature fuel cells may take energy conversion efficiencies to 75 percent. Yes, there is room for improvement. These improvements may well lower the costs of electricity and further reduce dependence of the economy on fossil fuels.

On the consumers' side, even more room for improvements in efficiency exists as computer processor technology and power electronics allow more precise and controlled use of electricity. This marriage of brains and brawn increases efficiency and reduces wasted energy at the point of use.

Many of today's innovative new electric technologies are a legacy of the enormous investment in research and development by government, electric utilities, and the manufacturers of electric and electronic goods since the mid-1970s. Then, the world was declared to be running out of fossil fuels. Perhaps the most notable example is the massive investments made to convert coal into a cleaner burning, gaseous fuel--coal gasification. Other examples of technology investment during this period include the efforts to develop renewable sources of energy such as biomass, wind, solar photovoltaics, and many diverse innovations in energy efficiency at the point of use. …

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