7: EDISON’S REVENGE

 

 

Meeting Peter Vadasz is one of the best things I’ve ever done. The ex-mayor of Güssing, a picturesque town of 4,000 souls in southeast Austria, knows what it takes to live a full, happy and meaningful life. Joy, enthusiasm and gratitude radiate from him so freely that after a few moments in his company you feel happy to be alive and ready to take on the world. His company is like a lightning rod of optimism. As we talk, everyone who passes by raises a hand or shouts ‘hello’. He waves back, exchanging a few words, asking after people’s children or how a local business is doing. It’s obvious he’s respected and well liked. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, Peter recalls a time when plenty of people around here treated him with contempt.

Even the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was impressed. Visiting in 2012, he concluded, ‘The whole world should become Güssing.’ That wasn’t just hyperbole: Schwarzenegger (in his role as governor of California, not a time-shifting robot from the future), along with many others, believes Güssing may have found a model of sustainable prosperity that redefines who pulls the strings in the economy. It’s not a bad endorsement for a place that two decades earlier was on its knees. Schwarzenegger is perhaps the most famous of the (up to 20,000) visitors who arrive every year from every corner of the globe to, as Peter puts it, ‘convince themselves that what they have read or heard is actually true’.

(Picture: Gage Skidmore)

 

On arriving in the States in 1881 Samuel Insull (left) initially worked Edison’s personal assistant but it was his leadership of Chicago Edison that led to him becoming known as ‘the Henry Ford of the modern electricity industry’. He bought up his rivals, turning them into local substations filled with a new and powerful breed of AC transformer designed by Nicola Tesla (right). Able to withstand the high voltages necessary for citywide power transmission, Tesla’s transformers allowed Insull to install huge generators at a few central locations and supply the whole of Chicago at reduced cost. The now renamed Commonwealth Edison became known ‘as one of the most progressive, and lowest cost, utilities in the world’ and electricity companies across the country began to copy its model, with the result that ‘electrical output from utility companies exploded’.

A few minutes later we’ve arrived at our first stop, a power plant I’ve specifically requested to see. It caused something of a stir when it opened, and its subsequent history is a telling lesson in what happens when new technologies challenge vested interests. The story of the plant may well turn out to be a condensed and prescient trailer of what will happen to the world energy market in the years to come. That it’s still in operation, I learn later, is no mean feat – and testament to the resolve of Peter Vadasz and his partner in crime, the man who, when I mention his name, Joachim refers to as ‘The Master’. The plant is the world’s first (are you ready?) Fast Internally Circulating Fluidised Bed Thermal Gasification plant. (There’s a reason engineers don’t go into marketing.) It may not be catchy, but it could catch on.