Thirty Years of "Baby Steps"


by Michael Powers

April 2016 - I just finished teaching a four-week class called “The Journey from Drama to Empowerment” at Vision, a Center for Spiritual Living. This essay is dedicated to the people who came to that class, along with David Emerald and Donna Zajonc, on whose program The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic) the class was based.

The heart of the TED* program is learning how to shift from being a Victim (where life happens to you) to being a Creator (so life happens through you): find your Vision, leverage the Passion it brings in order to take small, incremental Baby Steps toward your Vision; then REPEAT.

The important thing is to keep taking those Baby Steps, to keep moving forward. I say this as I look back on 30 years of taking Baby Steps and frankly, I am amazed by where they have led.

Critical PathIn the Spring of 1986, while living in the Tampa Bay area, I “accidentally” came across the book Critical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller and it changed my life. Early in the book, he talks about the inevitable emergence of a “global energy grid” – an internet of energy – that would connect renewable energy resources around the world just as the global communications network had done for telecommunications and computers. He said this new "supergrid" would change the world -- from one based on scarcity to one of abundance.

gridThis was still five years before the “world wide web” was open to the public, of course, but it still made so much sense to me, I wondered who, if anyone, was working on this global energy grid project and, since I was between jobs, if they needed any help.

I phoned SIU-Carbondale, where Fuller had been working and spoke to one of his protégés named Bill Perk, who in turn put me in touch with Peter Meisen; Peter had just started a non-profit group called Global Energy Network Institute (GENI), in San Diego. This was before email was commonplace, so for quite some time, Peter and I communicated through phone and "snail mail."

                  "The Global Energy Grid: Critical Path to a World That Works for Everyone"

Mainly, I was searching for developments that were favorable to the Global Energy Grid (via news clippings) but also for ways that it could be implemented locally. I was only 33 years old but I was working in the newspaper business at that time, so I had access to lots of news clippings.

One of my other heroes, John Naisbitt (author of Megatrends) had just completed a consulting project on Tampa Bay economic development which was co-sponsored by the electric utility, Florida Power and Eckerd College. With this as a starting point, I wrote a proposal for a new energy-based, community development project called “Energize America” and started contacting people all over town to generate interest. Nothing came of that but as a side-effect, I learned a lot about the electric utility business and how it had remained virtually unchanged for 100 years.

Jack CritchfieldWhen I spoke to Florida Power, its new CEO, Dr. Jack Critchfield, told me that the electric utility industry didn’t really understand what business it was in; i.e., where its main value was -- from the customer's perspective. He had just left United Telephone to run Florida Power so his thinking was still fresh. “We think we’re in the energy-making business,” he said. “But really, electric utilities are in the energy-moving business.” I never forgot this.

A few years later, in 1990, I took to heart the old adage that if you want to change the world, you need to start with yourself. A second marriage was ending badly and I finally accepted the fact that I was the cause. With my life in shambles, I surrendered to a 12-step program and my life began to improve. Fortunately, the program has taught me many valuable lessons about humility and generosity and it continues to inform my spiritual life today.

Also in 1990, I wrote an essay called “Electric Utilities: A Changing Industry, An Instrument of Change,” based on the research I’d been able to do up to then. I assumed that at some point, I would find the “Achilles heel” that made the global energy grid unworkable and then I’d finally put this "hobby" aside -- but I hadn't found it yet.

Winnipeg conferenceSo, I continued my correspondence with GENI and Peter Meisen and in July 1991, GENI organized a three-day international conference in Winnipeg to promote and discuss the Global Energy Grid with industry and academic leaders. Attended by over three dozen high-level professionals, the Executive Summary was widely distributed through the United Nations and professional groups like IEEE and it convinced me this effort was still worthwhile.

In 1994, I felt that I had lived in Florida long enough and was thinking about a return to the Midwest. My native St. Louis seemed too small but Chicago seemed immense. My brother Tim suggested that I think about San Diego and how I could support the work of GENI there. I told him I didn’t know anything about San Diego, that I’d never actually been there. “They sell tickets for it at the airport,” he said. I took my first trip to San Diego in October '94 and met Peter Miesen in person for the first time, eight years after our first long-distance phone call. By January 1995, I was living there.

centennialIt turned out to be a good time to be in San Diego. In July 1995, Peter Meisen and GENI were organizing the Buckminster Fuller Centennial event in San Diego, a weekend of activities that took place at UCSD, San Diego State and Balboa Park. I was able to pitch in and help out on the various work crews and I got to play Bucky’s “World Game” for the first time, supported by Medard Gabel and his technical crew. It was inspiring and life-changing.

In 1998, a lot of interesting things took place and the pace picked up. For one, the local catalog supply company where I worked was acquired by Home Depot corporation. For another, I was asked through a friend to work on an interesting freelance project: a local government contractor, SAIC Corp., was bidding on a contract to manage solar panelthe National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and needed some freelance writers with an energy background to help put the proposal together. Thanks to this project, I was able to put into the proposal a sidebar story on “Facilitating the Global Market for Renewable Energy” in order to support the “world wide web” of renewable energy that was coming in the 21st Century.

While working on the SAIC project, I also came face-to-face with solar energy for the first time. When I asked when it would be more readily available, I was told that solar was still not a “mainstream” technology. When I asked how we would know when it was “mainstream,” the friend (who knew about my new corporate employer) replied, “When we can walk into Home Depot and buy it, solar will be mainstream.” I decided to see if I could help make that happen and get solar panels into some Home Depot stores.

Also in 1998, I attended a week-long spiritual retreat in Portland that culminated in writing a vision statement and sacred covenant. retreatMy focus was to be “creating abundance through the wisdom of love” and I decided to give this effort the name “Loaves and Fishes,” after the gospel story. Later that year, American Express offered me a business charge account and although I did not have my own company yet, I accepted their offer in the name of “Loaves and Fishes” (which is still on my American Express gold card today).

I also created a website called "TerraWatts" and started uploading all of the GENI and other documentation I had found up to that point, along with a daily news page on renewable energy issues (now a Twitter feed).

After two and a half years of friendship, I also proposed to the woman of my dreams -- and she accepted! We moved into our new dream house (on Wednesday) and got married in that house (the following Sunday), the week before Christmas. Without her constant support, a big part of this story would be missing. And so the Baby Steps continued.

By the summer of 2000, the energy market manipulations of Enron Corp. had roiled the California utility business and driven many small businesses into bankruptcy. Home Depot SolarThe high cost of electricity and a new statewide solar incentive program was making solar more affordable so I started contacting people inside Home Depot in Atlanta. In December, Bob Nardelli left GE where he had been working with fuel cells and other “distributed” energy technologies and became the new CEO of Home Depot. In February 2001, I got a call from corporate to put a proposal together on pilot-testing solar energy installation through the San Diego stores and on Aug. 6 of that year, the first AstroPower solar kiosks went up in three local stores – one month before 9/11.

As troubled as anyone by the events of 9/11, I wrote an essay on using the global energy grid concept as a strategy to fight terrorism, by creating a “world that works for everyone.”

It was a disruptive time, but we were able to generate enough solar installation business in the rest of that year that the program was expanded to all 20 San Diego stores in 2002 and to Orange County and Los Angeles stores in 2003. (Home Depot’s in-store solar program now covers over a dozen states and hundreds of stores and is operated by SolarCity.)

In 2005, two of my solar co-workers and I learned that our employer planned to close down the operation so we asked Home Depot to let us take it over and they said yes. This is how my company Stellar Solar was born and within a year, we were responsible for customer leads from all 20 Home Depot stores in San Diego county. 

WEF badgeIn March 2007, Peter Meisen asked me to speak on behalf of GENI at a Stanford University conference on International Economic Development. By this time, climate change was becoming an imperative so the talk centered on deploying the global energy grid as a strategy to fight climate change. As a result of that presentation, I was invited to speak at the energy working group meeting of the World Economic Forum in London in May of 2007, so important new  international connections were made.

In the meantime, GENI continued to attend high-level meetings like the World Energy Congress, meetings of IEEE-Power Engineering Society and Rotary International Peace Symposium and was able to garner a host of endorsements from important world leaders.

In 2012, Stellar Solar completed a solar energy installation for the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Diego and I was asked to do a presentation on “Solar Energy as a Spiritual Practice.” This provided an opportunity to re-frame the global energy grid as a global vision that could be implemented locally by any individual who was using solar energy – and that this was in fact a spiritual practice as a baby step toward “building a world that works for everyone.”

power of tedIn 2015, I came across a book called The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic) by David Emerald and I began to understand that the greatest barrier to having a “world that works for everyone” is the false belief that we simply don’t deserve it. This false belief is what keeps us locked inside the “Dreaded Drama Triangle” as the book’s author put it. The antidote, he said, was to shift to Creator mode and focus on what we want to see (instead of what we don't want to see).

This sounded so much like what Bucky Fuller had said in Critical Path so many years ago: “The things to do are: the things that need doing: that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done. Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done — that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you…”

Impressed by The Power of TED* program, I decided to take their “deep dive” training December 2015 and become a TED* practitioner. I’ve been able to lead several successful workshops and classes on TED* principles since then.

Which brings us to this past week. On Wednesday, March 30th, China’s largest utility company held an international conference in Beijing to announce a new initiative called the “Global Energy Interconnection” project or GEI. Its goal is to develop a worldwide energy network or “internet of energy” that will connect wind, solar and geothermal energy resources around the planet so more energy will be available to everyone.

In the words of State Grid chairman, Liu Zhenya:

"The global grid enables everyone to benefit from clean energy and smart services that are abundant but cheap, and to enjoy more comfortable life, more prosperous economy, more livable environment and more harmonious society. 

We sincerely expect a reached consensus and strengthened cooperation based on the principled of mutual trust and benefit, common development, to pragmatically carry forward innovative development of the global grid."

The highlight of the conference, which was attended by a host of energy and academic leaders, was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding by representatives from Japan, Russia, China and Korea to begin with the deployment of an Asian Super Grid that would connect the countries of Southeast Asia.

As I write this, it has been only two days since this all took place but over a dozen major news stories about the global energy grid have already appeared in specialized publications, along with mainstream media such as the Wall Street Journal and NBC News.

shadesWe will see where things go from here but as for me, it feels like a 30-year journey “from Drama to Empowerment” has clearly opened up onto an entirely new vista.As it says in the song, “The future’s so bright, we gotta wear shades.”

Michael Powers
April 1, 2016
www.terrawatts.com

 


Update: February 23, 2017

What a difference a year makes! Since this essay was first posted, some major new developments have taken place:

1) State Grid Corp. chairman Liu Zhenya retired from that post to become chairman of Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO) and spent much of 2016 meeting with various industry groups and organizations around the world, gaining the support of the United Nations, corporate grid builders Siemens and ABB, the World Business Sustainable Development Council and the International Hydropower Association. Other meetings held by chairman Liu are listed here.

2) GEIDCO named Dr. Steven Chu as its vice-chairman along with other key personnel. Dr. Chu served as served as the 12th United States Secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2013 and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997.

3) GEIDCO launched a new website which also published its overall strategic vision through 2050. The website also lists major endorsements from various industry experts and organizations.

4) In October 2016, Bloomberg Philanthropies entered into a new strategic partnership with GEIDCO, announced by chairman Mike Bloomberg. The environment team lead for Bloomberg.org is Antha Williams.

5) In association with the International Electrotechnical Commission's (IEC) Market Strategy Board, GEIDCO published a major new White Paper on the Global Energy Interconnection initiative, with support from the International Energy Agency and State Grid Corp. The white paper can be downloaded free here.

6) GEIDCO also announced its 2017 events and meeting schedule which can be downloaded here. Meetings include the 2017 International Conference on Global Energy Interconnection (April 20-12 in Beijing, China), a GEI European Seminar (June 21 in Paris), a GEI High Level Forum on GEI's 2nd Anniversary (Sept. 26 in Beijing) and the GEI African Seminar (Dec. 5-6 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia).

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