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P2P Power Generation

August 19, 2003

Jeremy Rifkin, writing in today's Guardian, proposes what I think is a fascinating solution to the recent power outaages in the US (and, indeed, Iraq): a fully-distributed power-generation system.

There is an important lesson here to be learned from the development of the decentralised worldwide web. The Pentagon created the precursor to the internet in the late 1960s. The Department of Defense (DOD) was concerned about power blackouts and the potential vulnerability to attack or other forms of disruption of centrally controlled communication operations. They were looking for a new kind of decentralised communications medium, in which all parties could produce information and send it to one another in a way that would continue to function even if part of the system was disrupted or destroyed.

Rifkin draws an analogy with the distributed nature of the internet. However, his proposed power-distibution network bears a closer resmblance to peer-to-peer file-sharing networks of the Kazaa/Gnutella/Soulseek ilk or the Grid. Everyone is both a producer and a consumer of energy which is distributed as needed. It's a great progressive idea, like an electricity credit union. The distibuted nature of the energy network would make it very resistant to the kind of major outage recently experienced by a large chunk of America.

Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are analogous to personal computers. That is, the fuel cell allows its user to produce, disseminate and use energy. Convertors are attached to either the gas line or the electricity line coming into the home, office or factory. In the case of natural gas, a catalytic convertor strips out the hydrogen from the natural gas, via a steam-reforming process, and stores it for later use in a fuel cell. Alternatively, an electrolyser can be attached to the electricity line and electricity can be used to separate hydrogen from water. This way, end users can store energy, in the form of hydrogen, and use it to generate electricity in fuel cells if and when a power surge or blackout occurs. Hydrogen fuel cells will initially be used as back-up generators.


Over the course of the next three decades, millions of people will purchase their own power plants. Fuel cells inside cars, homes, factories and offices will be capable of producing electricity for their own use during emergencies, while sending the surplus back to the power grid to share with others. To connect all those fuel cells - mini-power plants - will require a reconfiguration of every nation's power grid.

The trouble is, I think this excellent idea will face enormous resistance from the entrenched vested interests of the power companies of the world. Surely, like the major record labels it's not in their interests to lose control of the means of distribution. I just can't see them shutting down their power stranglehold and allowing everyone else to generate their own power at cost. However, they could potentially make money hiring or maybe servicing fuel cells. I expect there's even a place for them "bootstrapping" the energy needed to get the network up and running or to make up any shortfalls that occurr. That's the sort of thing the state should be providing, of course, but fat chance of that happening since it's currently the political vogue to hand over your essential services to rapacious, under-investing, infrstructure-slashing private concerns.

The coming together of millions of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell mini-power plants and systems intelligence changes the energy equation for ever. For the first time, the potential exists to replace a traditional top-down with a new bottom-up approach to energy - a democratisation of energy, in which everyone can be his or her own vendor and consumer.

That's the rub: the top down people have been in the driving seat for a good long while now, and they like it too much to get out. I think that what we'll see is yet another example of potentially democratising effects of new technology being resisted by entrenched reactionary forces protecting an outmoded status quo, like national firewalls and lawsuits against music lovers. If that makes me a cynic and a pessimist, then so be it. I'd rather be a surprised pessimist than a disappointed optimist.

Still, fantastic idea if you can get it implemented, Mr. Rifkin!

Posted by Jonah at August 19, 2003 10:58 AM


Why fuel cells? Why not solar or wind (depending on local conditions)? (Mind you, both of those probably still have too high a cost of entry, and too low a rate of repayment, to really take off.)

I agree that there's a strong question of interest. However, like the Internet and local currencies (see this spool entry) I wonder if there's a chance that small local networks can grow up which then become connected?

Posted by: paul mison at August 19, 2003 1:33 PM

I think Rifkin chose fuel cells for two reasons:

a) As well as a high cost of entry, Solar and wind power still rely on environmental factors which means small networks would suffer shortages across the board on a still or cloudy day, whereas you can use catalyitic conversion or electrolysis to store hydrogen for the lean times.

b) Jeremy Rifkin is the author of "The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the World Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth" (Polity Press: 2002).

Interesting you should mention the local or complimentary currencies: I was thinking of how this network might be like the "time dollar" currency operating in some deprived areas of America, or the "fureai kippu" (caring relationship tickets) described by Bernard Lietaer in the article linked from your spool entry here: .

Posted by: Jonah at August 19, 2003 3:01 PM

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