Lateral Power, Distributed Generation, and the Third Industrial Revolution

Frequent commenter Glenn Doty points out that statistically, violence reduces oil production, and believes that the reason behind the invasion of Iraq was not about the access to oil per se, but for CONTROL of PROFIT from the oil. He writes:

That distinction is important, because if you shift the primary fuel dependence to require access to lithium, the motivation to control the profit from lithium will become just as strong as the current motivation to control the profit from oil… That means if we elect another warmonger, we might just find a reason to invade Chile for control of their salt flats… or something similar.

I agree that centralized control of a single commodity (say, oil) breeds autocracy and oppression. This, of course, is Thomas L. Friedman’s concept: “Fill ‘er up with dictators.” It’s also what James Woolsey (four presidential appointments, including director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) told me when I spoke with him in preparation for my first book.

If you look at the 22 countries that count on two-thirds or more of their national income from oil, it’s fair to say all 22 of those countries are autocratic kingdoms or dictatorships. There are about 120 democracies in the world, I mean not perfect, but with regular elections — and another 20 countries like Bahrain that are reasonably well and decently governed, even though not democratically so. And then you’ve got 40 really bad guys. And I’m pretty sure that the 22 are virtually all from the list of 40 bad guys — or “Not Free,” in Freedom House’s terms.

This is why I’m taken with Jeremy Rikfin’s ideas as he expresses them in his most recent book, “The Third Industrial Revolution.” In essense, he believes that we’re moving to a chapter of human history, driven by information and communication technology as well as the need for new sources of clean energy, in which our old, centralized, hierarchical ways of generating and distributing energy will be replaced with what he calls “lateral power.” Just as the Internet made it possible for billions of people to be publishers of information, the Third Industrial Revolution will contemplate distributed generation in the extreme, where millions of small entities will be generating energy and selling it back and forth to one another.

I believe we’ll come up with something similar in the EV battery space.  The first thing you notice about the AABC (Advanced Auto Battery Chemistry) conferences is that there are almost as many different battery chemistries under discussion as there are Ph.D.-level speakers promoting them.

I see a future that is much less rooted into a single resource.




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5 comments on “Lateral Power, Distributed Generation, and the Third Industrial Revolution
  1. Glenn Doty says:


    First, I question the causality in James Woosley’s assertion. The U.S. was, for most of the 20th century, the world’s largest producer of oil. Currently, the U.S. is 3rd, with Russia, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil all accompanying the U.S. within the top 10 oil producers.

    Surely, if oil begets dictatorships, this wouldn’t work. What instead – I believe – is a more appropriate causality would be that dictatorships beget centralized economies. In some cases the dictatorships have economies that are based solely on agricultural products, while in some cases the dictatorships are based solely on blood diamonds… But dictatorships usually suppress individual creativity and industry that would allow for a diverse economy.

    As for the second point, about distributed power. I’m very supportive of solar, both distributed and “farms”. I’m also extremely supportive of large wind farms (small wind currently makes no economic sense), and geothermal energy, and biomass co-firing. But EV’s consume that energy, they don’t produce it… forcing us to once again rely on more coal for electricity… so EV’s essentially serve to undo the good that these alternative energy generation systems do.

    Finally, the last point about battery chemistries: There is a diversity of chemistry now because it is an immature technology. Eventually, an optimal chemistry will be found, which I don’t believe will be lithium based. When the optimal chemistry is developed, then the obsolete chemistries will die off, and the companies producing those batteries will die off… and there will no longer be a diversity of chemistries.

    • Craig Shields says:

      Good stuff. Woolsey’s point isn’t that oil producers are autocratic, but that countries whose revenues are derived almost exclusively from oil (or any other single “rent”) tend to be autocratic.

    • Craig Shields says:

      Btw, Glenn, I hope you’re impressed at how amiably I handle criticism! I’m reminded of British playwright Christopher Hampton who said, “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.” I try not to react that way. :)

      • Glenn Doty says:


        I certainly respect you, else I wouldn’t devote as much time to discussing areas in which we disagree. I wouldn’t – for instance – waste my time trying to tell Mitt Romney why attacking Iran would be a bad idea.

        I greatly respect your tireless advocacy for alternative energy, as I feel the gain for America in terms of both energy security and environmental responsibility (or more cynically the return on investment by way of decreased accommodation costs from environmental consequences), should encourage us to strongly support alternative energy solutions.

        However, we do disagree with one another on EV’s, and since I respect you and your ability to give voice to these needs I feel even more stridently that you need to hear and consider an opposing viewpoint on EV’s. I believe you are willing to listen.

        The advocacy of environmental groups is only as strong as its weakest argument, as the opposition elements will take any problem with the line of reasoning and use it to discount everything. Note that a few e-mails calling denialists “stupid” along with one man’s higher-than-average carbon footprint were enough to derail support for climate change legislation.

        Problems with our support or advocacy matter, and they matter in a big way. EV’s have a lot of weaknesses: they are economically foolish, they pollute more than oil, and lithium-ion batteries are likely a dead-end technology as better chemistries emerge and render them obsolete. Supporting massive investment in EV’s makes us vulnerable to ridicule and dismissal… and people will use the support of EV’s to try to eliminate support for all alternatives (they are already doing so, and Tesla Motors hasn’t even gone bankrupt yet).

        I think it’s important to have a more nuanced advocacy for alternatives – one where hydrogen cars are openly called ridiculous among the same people that support solar and geothermal for the American Southwest; and we admit that EV’s are at least 20 years too early and are currently doing more damage than good while we champion greater wind build-out across the American Midwest and Northwest.

        Because I respect you, and because I fear un-nuanced advocacy for alternatives… I continue to try to convince you to ratchet down the rhetoric for EV’s. I would do the same if you were promoting algae oil, fusion power, compressed air energy storage, or other over-hyped and highly non-viable alternative technologies.

  2. Per says:

    I find this debate interesting, however it seems that my country is the exception that nobody has heard of.

    Norway implemented parliamentarism in 1884, and has been a perfect democracy since then, even after we struck oil in the 1960’s. Most of the oil-related money has been put into a sovereign wealth fund, or “the state’s international pension fund” as our government calls it. The rest is put into the national budget every year (~ 5%), with social benefits for the population as the result. The King gets his annual salary and doesn’t have much to say about politics in practice (eroded by the Parliament). I’ve actually lost track of how many times Norway has beaten Canada on the United Nations list of best places to live (first place). US of A on the other hand, never made it to the top ten. Go figure.

    Norway – the kingdom that’s neither autocratic nor oppressive! (even if the socialists – historically – have been too powerful and very fond of regulations; they are now beeing squeezed out of the Parliament as people start to realize that the tax levels are too high!)

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