Former Vice President and cleantech VC Al Gore has a new catch phrase that combines two of his favorite interests — energy and the Internet. At the Wall Street Journal Eco:nomics conference in Santa Barbara, Calif. Thursday afternoon he said a couple times (in a couple different ways) that a new electric superhighway will do for energy what the Internet did for information: basically, use the network to revolutionize it.
The comparison between the two industries has been kicked around as long as the energy industry has been talking about the smart grid, smart meters and building-out power transmission infrastructure. But it’s even more timely today. This afternoon Senator Harry Reid unveiled a proposal to invest in building out an electrical transmission network that can connect clean power, like solar and wind, generated in remote areas to the greater smart grid.
Reid’s proposal for building power lines to connect clean power to the larger grid — what he called an electric superhighway — is expected to be added into the upcoming energy bill. At the Wall Street Journal conference Gore said he hopes to see the upcoming energy bill, and Reid’s electric superhighway portion, debated in Congress in the next few months. The renewable energy industry is happy about Reid’s plan — The American Wind Energy Association said in an emailed statement that it looks forward to working with Reid to form a consensus over: “interconnection-wide planning, interconnection-wide cost allocation, and consolidated permitting.”
At the conference Gore took the information/energy networks comparison a step farther. He noted that the Internet started out with large stations serving as centralized connection points, and said that the energy network will slowly move from centralized generation to distributed generation. As the Internet was built out “the computing power was shifted to the periphery — the same thing will happen to renewable energy.”
But boosting distributed clean power generation will take a long time, Gore said, and we don’t have time to wait. That’s because renewable power is just too expensive right now. Other panelists, like PG&E’s CEO Peter Darbee, pointed out throughout the day that rooftop solar panels are just far more expensive than centralized solar power plants. It was cheap computing and Moore’s law that delivered the shift to distributed computing at the edge of the network from a more centralized system. But given there’s just not the equivalent force pushing down the cost of renewables, who knows how long will it take clean power to follow suit.
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