by David Sweet

The phenomenon of globalization is easier to observe than its root causes and effects are to understand. In the evolution of technology we can also readily observe key milestones, but it is decidedly more complex to connect incremental advances in technology with their global impact. It is the classic example of seeing the many trees in our path but completely missing the forest.

The story of the technology we use to generate power and its impact on our planet has unfolded before our eyes, but is rarely told. In a fascinating examination of this topic, Vaclav Smil brings us Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines. Smil examines the forest and the trees and awakens us to the impact that these technologies have had in shaping our world today.

While the power generation industry can be segmented between those seeking to advance turbine technologies and those in the reciprocating engine business, Smil points out the profound influence of both technologies: ‘How has it come about that we can fly from virtually any place that has an airport with a runway long enough… to any other similarly equipped place anywhere on the planet, often within just 16 and mostly within 24 hours?’

It was the confluence of these technologies that enabled the waves of migration that reshaped the world in the 20th century. These new engines also facilitated the development of global trade in key commodities such as food, which in turn had an impact on diet and health as: ‘this rising demand for food was best satisfied by specialized producers who had a comparative advantage thanks to mild climate or low labour costs.’

Smil also recognizes the role of decentralized energy and its ‘contributions to the process of economic and social globalization.’ He posits that ‘not all of this new [electricity] demand can be met by large stations… that transmit electricity from a central location by high-voltage lines… By far the most economical choice for generating electricity far from any existing transmission lines… is to install appropriately rated diesel powered generators.’

In recent years, globalization has been hotly debated, analyzed, maligned and adored. You can now eat the same food at the same restaurant on virtually every continent. You can connect with people with the click of a mouse from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world. Whether the world is flat, round, or oval, there is no dismissing the fact that we are a more connected planet as the internet has become the common thread binding the world and the digital divide can begin to close in even the most remote locales.

Decentralized energy has powered the digital world to bring developing economies into the global economy. However, in the rush to embrace digital technology, we have shoved aside this bedrock of globalization. It is the way in which we have powered our industries, homes, electrical grids, planes, trains, automobiles and ships that has brought goods and people from one corner of the earth to another and facilitated the sharing of ideas and cultures across the planet.

Smil reminds us of the significance of these machines that have performed ‘virtually all the work of modern globalization with scant recognition’ and that, because of their many advantages, these engines are here to stay. As Smil incredibly points out, by 2005 over ‘95% of all US freight now moves thanks to Diesel’s engines.’

As I write this comment some 30,000 feet in the air on a 14-hour plane ride, we take for granted the ability to make a journey that would have been impossible but for only the bravest or most foolhardy not that long ago. While many politicians seek new ways to punish and shame us for relying on these engines, they fail to see the complex evolutionary tale that allows us to efficiently power our world.

David Sweet Executive Director, WADE dsweet@localpower.org

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