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Fuller a Pioneer of Solar Energy

fuller holding a small geodesic dome and a woman standing beside him smiling

R. Buckminster Fuller stands inside his own Geodesic dome home in Carbondale, Illinois, in 1971. (AP)

Paul F. deLespinasse By Monday, 06 February 2023 10:30 AM EST Current | Bio | Archive

Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was a creative thinker who came up with amazingly innovative ideas. Although he didn't invent the geodesic dome, he recognized its potential, invented the word with which we refer to it today, and popularized it.

His "dome" got Fuller a lot of attention. However I would argue that another of his ideas — for which he has received little attention and credit — was far more important. This idea, which he proposed in the 1930s, was to connect the entire planet into a single electrical grid. Such a grid could help save us from a runaway climate.

When Fuller first proposed this worldwide grid, electricity could not be transmitted very far. A worldwide grid was totally out of the question. Even so, Fuller saw its potential benefits.

As Fuller no doubt expected, electrical engineering has made great leaps forward. High voltage direct current (HVDC) can now be transmitted economically thousands of miles.

In the 1930s, Fuller wasn't thinking about solar energy. Technology to generate electricity directly from sunlight only began developing in the 1950s. At first it was far too expensive except for artificial satellites, where there were few alternatives.

Instead, Fuller wanted to minimize the cost of electricity generated by the methods then in use. Local demand for electricity goes up and down every day.

If expensive extra generators are needed during peak demand hours, most of the day they will not be producing any electricity. But the full cost of the capital needed to build them must be incorporated in the price charged electricity customers.

A worldwide grid, Fuller noted, would minimize the need for generators only working a few hours a day. Instead, electricity for local peak demand hours could just be imported from areas where current demand was low.

With solar energy, Fuller's worldwide grid will have a huge additional advantage. It will eliminate the need for batteries or other storage technology to handle the fact that sunlight is not always locally available, the "intermittency" problem always harped on by critics of green energy.

The sun is always shining somewhere, so a worldwide grid would allow electricity generated where sunshine is available to be moved to areas where it isn't. It would cancel out the large seasonal variations in energy since winter solar lows in the northern hemisphere will be balanced by highs in the southern hemisphere, and vice versa.

Technology built for one reason sometimes facilitates developments that no one predicted. For example, the telephone network was built well before personal computers were developed. But originally, most of us connected our computers for email and the internet through modems that used the already existing telephone network to communicate with each other.

If a worldwide grid had already been built when the need to move to green energy became apparent, it would have allowed a faster transition.

Alas, it hadn't already been built. But it is true that the worldwide grid, envisioned by the far-seeing Buckminster Fuller to serve one good purpose, turns out to have potential far beyond what even Fuller anticipated.

By the 1960s, though, Fuller did understand the applicability of his worldwide grid to solar energy, which he made perfectly clear on a number of occasions.

But most of us never heard his ideas about this. In 1972 I wrongly thought that I had produced an original idea — a worldwide grid to allow total greening of electricity production!

Although I read a lot about technology, until about three years ago I never ran into the fact that Fuller had beaten me to it by several dozen years. It is easier to have an original idea when you are not well informed!

One purpose of my columns about the worldwide grid is to bring Fuller's idea to the wider audience it deserves, which could strengthen the political support needed to speed up converting the whole world to solar energy.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.

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When Fuller first proposed this worldwide grid, electricity could not be transmitted very far. A worldwide grid was totally out of the question. Even so, Fuller saw its potential benefits.
solar energy, worldwide power grid
Monday, 06 February 2023 10:30 AM
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