Framing the energy revolution like the computer generation
Gates had an arguably turbulent career, due to his aggressive or monopolistic business tactics as the lead in the industry, but one that has been inconceivably successful and world-changing. Among the many legendary attributes the Economist article points out is Gates’ determination and eventual responsibility for personalizing computers in the form of desktops. Gates made the technology accessible to individuals, homes, and businesses rather than keeping giant computers centralized.
The article argues the ways in which Gates’ ways of doing business are ex post facto. It’s the end of era. But it should also be considered the opening of an opportunity for distributed energy generation.
Two academics — Richard F. Hirsch (professor) and Benjamin K. Sovacool (student) — who study the history of electricity generation and utility evolution in the U.S. often apply the theoretical framework of historian Thomas P. Hughes. Hirsch and Sovacool write, “Hughes posits that the generation, transmission and distribution of power takes place within a technological system.” The system is driven not only by technological and scientific factors, but also by institutional, political, economic, and attitudinal factors, which Hughes labels as momentum.
Based on Hughes’ set-up, Hirsch and Sovacool argue [PDF] that in sync with the modern-day technological system, momentum is changing such that it causes utilities to turn to distributed, or on-site and small-scale, generation. The reasons are many, from the effects of deregulation to the heightened environmental concerns surrounding coal-fired electricity (distributed generation is much more friendly to renewable energy sources).
Speaking with much less background and experience, Hirsch and Sovacool’s argument intrigues me. So far, distributed generation has not been launched on a large-scale, though there are many arguments about how that could benefit utilities (if they owned and operated the units). But it does seem that the technology trend of the twenty-first century is personalization — desktops, laptops, iPods, cell phones, GPS systems installed in individuals’ vehicles. Plus, distributed generation has so much to offer in terms of energy security and reliability, renewable energy generation, and the potential to change the face of how urban settings use rooftops to electrify cities, reducing the need for large coal plants and transmission/distribution lines.
So I ask myself, what does distributed generation need to take off — like desktops, like iPhones, like the electrification explosion in the U.S. in the 20th century? Perhaps the answer is a Bill Gates — a smart guy and strategic businessman, willing to take risks, and ready to make loads of money by personalizing energy generation. With that hope, Gates’ business and technological legend is no distant memory.