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Rochester unplugged

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Let me be Systems Analyst for a day.

            As I see things, the health-care, financial system, and energy systems are like Tinker Toys. Stick the pieces together and hope they stay stuck. Controlled chaos masquerades as policy. It's so crazy, it just might work.

            Then comes the wake-up.

            We're seeing this now with electricity. The August 14 blackout exposed the great cobwebs of wires and towers strung over the landscape as old-fashioned and vulnerable. The "system" whipped around and bit us in the behind.

And "behinder" is what we're getting. As the industrialized world progresses, the US slips further and further behind the energy curve, technologically and politically.

            After the blackout, the usual "voices of reason" advise restringing the cobwebs. Build more powerlines, says one wing of the establishment. Build better powerlines, says another wing. Build more big plants and powerlines, says a third.

            Voices of sanity can be heard through the chatter, thankfully. One of the most dependable belongs to Harvey Wasserman, the Ohio-based writer-activist who cut his teeth opposing New Hampshire's potentially disastrous Seabrook nuclear plant, then sharpened his skills in movements to prevent the dumping of "low-level" nuclear waste.

            Wasserman recently noted the country has suffered four major blackouts since 1965, not including the greed-generated crashes in California. (He didn't include smaller-scale outages like ours in 1991. And no one can quantify the risks sabotage.) "That the grid will crash again and again and yet again is absolutely certain," he wrote. "The grid should not exist."

            We need a "green deconstruction" of asystematic systems, Wasserman said. The key is generating electricity where it's used. That means using technologies like geothermal energy; "methane digestion" on-site, basement electric generators using biomass fuels like soy oil (produced and burned with no net atmospheric carbon dioxide gain), and above all state-of-the-art solar cells.

            Things like this are going on around us, almost unnoticed. I talked to Bill LaBine of the Avon-based Renewable Energy Works, who specializes in solar installations and powers his own family's home with one. What did you think about the Blackout? I asked him. "What Blackout?" he said. Some neighbors were without electricity for a few hours, he said. "My family came home, popped a movie in the VCR, and left the lights running." Okay, rub it in.

            The Blackout started around 4 p.m. in full light, but what happened after sunset? Nothing much, said LaBine. He said his solar photovoltaics feed into an array of lead-acid batteries that keep the power flowing. The home is connected to the grid --- such connections allow pumping power into the grid, as well as drawing from it --- and LaBine admits to losing Niagara Mohawk power when a tree fell in his front yard. Even an absolutely decentralized system can break down. But when it does, it takes out a single home or neighborhood, not a quarter-continent.

Skeptics like to say solar is inadequate for modern energy needs. Sure, they say, it's good for the odd middle-class home, but not for the power-hungry city dweller or large building. They imply that you've got to live in the Sunbelt, too.

            Then along comes something like the soon-to-be-solar-powered Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, a city not known for Tahitian levels of daylight.

            Last November, San Francisco city government announced plans to install a solar-electric system on the Center's roof, along with conservation upgrades throughout the massive building. The set-up will meet its needs with solar equipment from ShellSolar and Sanyo; Bay Area building trades unions will provide the skilled labor. The project will be the first of many: San Francisco wants to win a nationwide competition for business investment and jobs.

            You'd think that would resonate with the former Lion of the West, now looking more like a lambchop on Energy East's brunch table. A crash alternative energy program here would do more for the local economy than a hundred fields of dreams. Economies that modernize and decentralize their energy systems are the ones most likely to succeed. Take Germany, which is phasing out nuclear power and shooting for 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2020. Denmark is a world leader, too. India is a contender.

            But standing in the American safe-energy path is another "grid": perverse national policies that tie us in knots.

            Look at infrastructure funding. The Bush administration wants big bucks to reconstruct Iraq's electric systems in Iraq. Yes, after more than a decade of sanctions and war against Iraq, the US owes that country billions. But the US is wealthy enough to fight a peaceful energy "war" of modernization on two fronts.

            Another payback: the obsolescence of actual "energy wars" and a realignment of domestic politics.

This reminds me of some local history.

            Twenty years ago, Rochesterians thronged to the Safe Energy Alliance and the Genesee Valley Peoples Power Coalition. I cut my own political teeth with both groups. The activists included Bob Slaughter, husband of the Congresswoman, and community leaders in the making like Fran Weisberg, today head of Lifespan.

            The Peoples Power Coalition had a comprehensive demand: that Rochester Gas and Electric be bought out and converted to a publicly owned system like Fairport's. The idea was not just about saving money, though the Fairport experience shows what gains are possible. It was about redefining electricity as a public service and installing representative democratic control over a basic human need.

            The conversion would have made the system more reliable by taking pressure off the grid. How? The Ginna nuclear plant could have been shut down, its output replaced by serious conservation programs and decentralized renewables. Think neighborhood windmills, industrial co-generators, and solar arrays.

            The corporate line back then was that the "IOU" (regulated investor-owned utility) was the greatest thing since the electric bread knife. The suits sang the same tune at every public hearing. IOUs have served the region well for decades, they said. Ginna is indispensable. Why fix what ain't broke?

            Today the lyrics are different. Let the markets work their magic, say the suits. Consistency is boring, they say, or said until August 14. The nukes? Watch for them soon on eBay.

            The corporate and warrior castes are great at keeping people in the dark. They talk of building more power plants, more high-tension lines, and a new American empire. It's a matched set. Send it back unopened.

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