The potential impact and importance of R. Buckminster Fuller's vision of a Global
by Russell D. Hoffman
(3) Technological feasibility reached in the 1960's
places are not so far away from each other
(5) Political and other stumbling
(6) Financial "leeches" could destroy the plan
Global Energy Grid would be robust
(8) All problems are solvable
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
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
(19) Global participation required
(20) The grandest structure
in the Universe
(21) Bucky Fuller: A man full of good ideas
(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
(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
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
(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.
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
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.
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
(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
www.geni.org 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.
URL for this document is:
Copyright (c) 2000 by Russell D. Hoffman