The potential impact and importance of R. Buckminster Fuller's vision of a Global Energy Grid
by Russell D. Hoffman
Spring, 2000

(1) Abstract
(2) Historic perspective
(3) Technological feasibility reached in the 1960's
(4) Most places are not so far away from each other
(5) Political and other stumbling blocks
(6) Financial "leeches" could destroy the plan
(7) The Global Energy Grid would be robust
(8) All problems are solvable
(9) The Global Energy Grid encourages renewables
(10) Our other choices are not really choices at all
(11) The true costs of today's solutions are hidden
(12) The Grid is an environmentally friendly solution
(13) Power provides numerous benefits to people
(14) Fewer wars possible, too
(15) The Global Energy Grid benefits everyone
(16) No drastic changes required
(17) The future is even brighter: Energy as currency
(18) A similar system exists:  The Internet
(19) Global participation required
(20) The grandest structure in the Universe
(21) Bucky Fuller:  A man full of good ideas
(22) Authorship notes
(1) Abstract:

In the 1930s R. Buckminster Fuller (American thinker and non-specialist, 1895 - 1983) realized that if we interconnected the world through an electrical energy grid, we could allow renewable resources in distant locations to supply the energy needs of population centers around the world.

(2) Historic perspective:

When Bucky originally conceived his idea, energy could be transmitted only about 350 miles, roughly the distance from Boston to Washington, D. C..  At further distances the financial losses caused by the electrical resistance in the wires became too substantial.

The electrical energy transmission industry traditionally considers 15% or 20% loss to be the limit of cost-effective transmission.  That was about 350 miles when Bucky thought of the idea for the grid -- making it totally unfeasible at the time.

(3) Technological feasibility reached in the 1960's:

Then, around 1960, Bucky saw that energy could be transmitted cost-effectively (according to industry standards) about 1500 miles, making the idea technologically workable.  From then on, the only things holding back Bucky's idea for a Global Energy Grid have been complacency (unwillingness to change from the way we currently do things) and ignorance about the idea (most people still have never heard of it).

When the 1500 mile transmission capability was reached, Bucky began to design the grid itself, that would actually carry the loads, looking at where the population centers are, and where the renewable energy resources are, and what would be needed to connect the two.  He also looked into energy-producing equipment that right now produces wasted energy during part of each day, or is shut down, due to the daily cyclic fluctuations of energy needs in a city or geographic area.  He wanted to see where that lost energy could be delivered -- where to make the connections so the lost energy could be given to a far away city which was at that time using more energy than their average daily load, during business hours, for instance.  For there are not many good ways to store energy.  Use it before you lose it.  (Pumping water to a high height, then letting it drop through a turbine generator, is still one of the most common energy-storage methods used by humans, but even with very good pumps to raise the water and turbines to turn it back into electricity, it's not very efficient.)

(4) Most places are not so far away from each other:

As a visual aid to thinking about humanity's energy needs, Buckminster Fuller studied his Dymaxion Map, in both the folded and unfolded form.  In its standard unfolded form, the map shows the world to be a "one-world island in a one-world ocean", and shows how closely connected we all are.  The majority of us live in a relatively small area of the available surface of the Earth, on land, north of the equator, but not too far north, mostly in great masses of millions, tens of millions, and even hundreds of millions of people.  We are not generally living where some of the best renewable energy resources naturally are.  Thus, the need for the Global Energy Grid.

(5) Political and other stumbling blocks:

One of the biggest stumbling blocks Bucky came across was, of course, politics, especially the politics surrounding national boundaries.

For example the Straights of Gibraltar have a very strong current, strong enough to supply millions of people with cheap electricity even if only a small portion of this energy were tapped by large undersea low-revolutions-per-minute turbine equipment, still allowing easy access for animals that might want to go in and out of the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean (relatively few creatures actually do this in practice, other than humans in ships and submarines).  But assuming you can get Spain and Morocco to agree on a plan to harness some of nature's lost energy at that junction point, once you've got the cheap renewable electricity, you might have to cross ten or twelve -- or more -- international borders to spread it out amongst all those who could use it.

Should the majority of the energy go North, through Spain, to replace the dangerous nuclear options now used in France and most of the rest of Europe, to provide for their ever-growing needs, which they are well-equipped to pay for?  Or should it go South, through Morocco, to where more than half the population does not yet own a single light bulb?  Which way would you send it, if you wanted to please your investors?  Which way would you send it, if you wanted to help the greatest number of humans, and alleviate their suffering?

(6) Financial "leeches" could destroy the plan:

If each country the energy passes through insists on a significant payment for the simple act of transferring the energy from one point to another, you've got a serious problem.  Such charges can quickly become an unfair "usury".  Bucky envisioned energy costing the same price per kilowatt for everyone everywhere, and being very cheap at that.

(7) The Global Energy Grid would be robust:

There are other problems.  Some countries are at war with each other or internally.   What happens when a war causes damage to the grid, hurting an uninvolved country, or a whole region?  Who is financially responsible?  But the world faces such questions regularly anyway -- it is not a good reason not to build for the future.  Ideally, the grid will have many transmission paths, and many entry and exit-points, and it will be virtually impossible to "cut the grid", just as, nowadays, it is nearly impossible to completely cut off phone service or the Internet, because there are many paths which can take the place of the ones that have been cut.

(8) All problems are solvable:

There are solutions to all of the specific problems, including funding questions and everything else.  The Global Energy Grid is something that can be done today, with today's technologies.

Indeed, the Global Energy Grid is happening, and it will continue to happen, because it's a very good idea.  But it is happening very slowly, and most of the development of the grid so far has been limited to areas within a country's borders, or in First-World areas such as Europe or North America.  And progress even there has been, in a word, haphazard.

(9) The Global Energy Grid encourages renewables:

A completed Global Energy Grid will encourage using renewable energy resources, such as hydroelectric, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, tide, wave, and other non-polluting and natural, regenerative or inexhaustible, power solutions.  When these resources can easily reach any market anywhere, their substantially better price/performance ratio will allow them to completely replace the deadly four which we now depend on nearly exclusively.

(10) Our other choices are not really choices at all:

Of the four energy sources the world now relies on almost exclusively, three are used mainly to produce electricity.  Those three are Nuclear (by far the most dangerous), Coal (nuclear's "whipping boy" and nearly as deadly as nuclear in some ways), and Natural Gas.  Oil is used for energy used in transportation, but cheap electricity would mean we could replace gasoline-powered vehicles with electric vehicles.  If we don't switch to electric-powered vehicles, soon we will have extracted most of the oil out of the ground and burned it, and the oil that's left will be too expensive for most people to continue to simply burn in low-miles-per-gallon, low-tech behemoths such as today's S.U.V.'s.  At that point we will have no choice but to use electric vehicles or stay home.

The Global Energy Grid is a much better solution.

(11) The true costs of today's solutions are hidden:

In today's supposedly "free and open global marketplace", only some of the true costs of various energy options for society are properly analyzed, and many other hidden costs to society of various options are ignored completely.  Both Natural Gas and Oil are unnaturally cheap, since they are not manufactured, nor grown, nor dug out of dangerous mines, but rather, they are merely tapped, removed from nature's underground storage compartments and distributed (at a substantial profit to those doing the distributing, which they call "production").  Many "hidden" costs are ignored.

The "hidden" costs to the environment and to human health of the nuclear waste problem are completely ignored on most corporate balance sheets.  The spills, leaks, drips, releases, unplanned "incidents" -- and not to mention the intentional distributions of nuclear waste into the environment -- go unnoticed on the corporate balance sheets, but our bodies are fully aware, as they cause cancers, leukemias, and birth defects all around the world.

The burning of Coal, Natural Gas and Oil are all important contributors to Global Warming.  As I write this (Spring, 2000), the road into the upper part of Yosemite is opening to visitors after its annual winter closure on the earliest date ever recorded.  Nearly everywhere there is another sign.

(Along with an average warming trend, Global Warming produces an increased variation in global weather generally, and new weather patterns.  So some places that used to be warmer become cooler, the opposite of the general trend.  People who live in those places have been known to write endless documents explaining that Global Warming clearly isn't happening, as far as they can see.  And as far as they can see, it isn't.)

The waste products from the use of coal and oil create very significant environmental pollution problems.  And if an LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) tanker ever explodes near a big city (or worse, near a nuclear power plant, or worse yet, near both), Natural Gas's "inherent problem" will reveal itself more fully, something it has not (yet) ever done.

(12) The Grid is an environmentally friendly solution:

Right now, power transmission is cost-effective (according to industry standards), in high voltages (100,000 volts, for instance) for up to about 4,000 miles.  DC (Direct Current) power transmission does not have the potential "EMF" (Electro-Magnetic Frequency) problems associated with AC (Alternating Current) power transmission.  4,000 miles is enough to allow wind farms in sparsely-populated Mongolia, for instance, to supply enough energy for nearly half the population of China.  Hydroelectric dams in the frigid Siberian mountains of the Former Soviet Union can supply -- today -- cheap energy to the entire West Coast of America.  All this could be done today, if the will is there -- that's all that's missing.

Small-scale and off-the-grid energy solutions are by no means prevented or even inhibited by this plan.  Besides normal market pressures, the only negative effect for small-scale solutions is that, by using 100% renewables to supply the Global Energy Grid with electricity, living on the grid is no longer morally repugnant and unacceptable to people who care about the environment.  Also, small-scale producers of renewable energy will be better able to sell their electricity to a global grid than to a local distribution system.

(13) Power provides numerous benefits to people:

Researchers have studied trends in populations for a long time, and numerous studies have shown that when any given population gets a steady supply of cheap energy (usually in the easily-transferrable form of electricity), numerous good things start to happen.

With cheap energy from renewable resources, the standard of living goes up.  When the standard of living goes up, the birth rate invariably goes down.  The literacy rate goes up.  The health, longevity, and useful work years of the population all go up.  Indeed, these are some of the primary indications of an increased standard of living.

Buckminster Fuller recognized that getting cheap, clean electricity to the people was the #1 goal of the "design science revolution" he perceived as essential if the human species is to survive.  Environmentally friendly, reasonable technological solutions to the problems which plague billions and billions of us are not only possible, they are essential for survival of the entire human race.  But the work must be DONE, not just thought about or talked about.  There is vital work to be done.  Otherwise, most of us will die earlier than we have to, live poorer than we have to, and waste the precious resources future generations will need to survive.

(14) Fewer wars possible, too:

Many wars are over the availability of poorly-used and limited resources.  The inclination towards war goes down with the availability of cheap energy, because many wars are, fundamentally, caused by the desperate needs of starving populations, and a lack of basic human necessities.  Studies have found, for instance, that the #1 energy requirement of population centers, and of people generally, is for the purpose of raising water.  Cheap energy (and efficient pumps) is what is needed.

When trade occurs across borders (either because of the electricity grid itself, or because of the greater wealth that it provides, or for some other reason), people are less likely to go to war with each other -- perhaps simply because a substantial drop-off in business inevitably occurs if you kill your trading partner, or if you upset merchants' access to trade routes, or even if you just make the international money markets "nervous"!  In short, war is usually bad for business.

(15) The Global Energy Grid benefits everyone:

Perhaps the best part of the Global Energy Grid idea is that it can stop the daily, insidious damage to the environment which occurs among the two billion people who have never had electricity at all.  Right now, they are burning their old-growth forests for heat, over-farming their cropland for food, and giving birth to way too many babies in the hope one or two offspring will survive and be able to take care of them in their old age, which occurs in their 30's or 40's, or 50's if they are lucky.

Good things will happen when the world supplies itself with cheap, renewable energy, things that won't happen if we choose any other option.  Certainly not if we continue to choose from the "solutions" which we are now choosing, "solutions" which destroy the planet insidiously even when they work correctly, and destroy it much more blatantly when they fail in their more obvious and catastrophic ways, such as Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez, and 1,000,000 other lesser accidents.

(16) No drastic changes required:

It is interesting, and perhaps useful, to note that the use of awful, non-renewable energy sources is not actually precluded by the building of the Global Energy Grid, meaning that great and sudden changes, if the people are foolish enough not to demand them, need not precede the building of the grid.  They can be done concurrently.

(17) The future is even brighter: Energy as currency:

In a few more years, when energy transmission lines will be able to cost-effectively transmit renewable (i.e., virtually free) energy half-way around the world, there will be no need for price differentials anywhere, and then energy can be used as the fundamental currency of the human race, as it should be (if money is needed at all).  And a kilowatt hour should be a very small unit of currency, indeed.

(18) A similar system exists:  The Internet:

The Internet is, one could say, a low-voltage, information-carrying version of the electrical power grid Bucky envisioned.  And from it we see how quickly the world can embrace a wonderful idea which causes a fundamental "design science revolution", as Bucky used to say.  And we can also see how a globally-connected grid can change the world and improve each of our lives.

(19) Global participation required:

Bucky's wonderful, ecologically sound idea is workable, and with the proper vision by the people, the politicians who are led by them will get it done, and done right.  But without global participation, the short-thinking, uncaring, unreactive, insecure, world energy "leaders" will not seek the Grand Solution to Global Problems, because they don't need it.  We do.  Instead they will pollute our planet and use up its resources, and they will drag the rest of us down, making deadly, wrong, senseless decisions for society.

The choice is ours.

(20) The grandest structure in the Universe:

The Global Energy Grid would eventually become the largest structure made by humans anywhere in the Universe -- and the most useful.

And it will remain the largest human-made structure in the Universe for a long long time -- perhaps forever.  That is, until we find an even bigger planet than Earth.  One which can be reached in the span of human existence (even over many generations).  One which can then be terraformed to make it hospitable (if necessary, and it probably will be), and which can then be fully populated (as we are doing to this planet, and ain't it fun?).  And one which -- since we will have learned from our mistakes here -- can then have built upon it an even larger Energy Grid, if needed, depending on where the people end up, and where that planet's renewable energy resources turn out to be.  This is probably many millennia from now, if ever.

Until then, the Global Energy Grid will remain the largest structure made by humans in the Universe, and the sooner we start making it, the better.  On Earth, we have a pretty good idea about what to do, and lack only the willpower to do it.  But if we don't build it here, humanity will probably not survive long enough to have the chance to build it anywhere else.  The failure to build it will remain a glaring monument to our self-destructive tendencies as a species.

(21) Bucky Fuller:  A man full of good ideas:

The Global Energy Grid was R. Buckminster Fuller's most important idea for helping humanity, but it is just one of his thousands of ideas for a better world.  I am proud to be associated with Global Energy Network Institute, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit corporation which promotes Bucky's Global Energy Grid idea around the world.

(22) Authorship notes:

Russell D. Hoffman is a volunteer with the Global Energy Network Institute
San Diego, California, USA.  G.E.N.I. is a U.S. Tax Exempt 501 (c) 3 Corporation committed to improving the quality of life for everyone without damage to the planet.  Please visit for more information.

This document represents the views of the author exclusively, and not necessarily those of the Global Energy Network Institute, the late R. Buckminster Fuller, or anyone else.  Comments welcome.  Mr. Hoffman's email address is:

This document may be freely copied and transmitted or quoted from, when proper authorship is maintained.  Please email copies or URLs of any republications to the author.

The source URL for this document is:

Copyright (c) 2000 by Russell D. Hoffman