November 4, 2009
What Really Happens When You Turn On The Light
There are a couple of things that I consider everyday miracles. My list does not include moments such as a child phoning me without asking for my credit card number. I’m thinking here about opening a tap for hot and cold water whenever I want it, and flipping a switch for a flood of light whenever I want it.
Most of us know vaguely where water comes from, but electricity is just there—you know, in the socket. This morning, I went out to the front yard to take a look at my electric meter. The dial spun around lazily, numbers breezed past, and I had not a clue what it all meant. I asked Mark Brownstein, Deputy Director of EDF’s Energy Program, to be my guide through the world of electricity, because he is the sort of person whose eyes brighten when conversation turns to transmission grids. He developed a passion for all things electric as a child, watching Godzilla send sparks flying as he tromped on those spindly towers.
"Electricity is the only industry that has not yet been revolutionized by the information technology that has so utterly transformed the rest of our lives."
“Electricity is the most amazing form of energy we have,” says Brownstein, whose passion for the subject is contagious. “Even our bodies work because of electricity. When you’re talking about electricity, you’re talking about everything. Social science, politics, economics, physics, environmental science. Everything.”
Listening to him, I finally realize why it is imperative to understand what happens when I flick a light switch. Nearly 50% of U.S. electricity comes from coal, the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive, source of energy. Burning coal pollutes the air, contributes to acid rain, wastes huge amounts of water and creates mercury emissions that get into our water and food supplies. Eat tuna sushi for lunch everyday, and watch the toxic methylmercury levels in your bloodstream go up.
Meanwhile electricity demand is steadily rising; the Department of Energy calculates that it will rise by 26% over the next 23 years. The answer to meeting that demand with clean energy supply lies in the ever-renewing abundance of the wind and the sun. That’s the future. There’s only one problem. We are not—yet—ready for it.
The way we generate and deliver electricity has basically not changed in a century. If Thomas Edison came back to life tomorrow, he would recognize today’s electric grid. (In contrast, imagine how stunned Alexander Graham Bell would be by our cell phones.) The system is massive, a marvel of human engineering, with 160,000 miles of lines designed to move electricity from power plants to customers. The grid is so finely tuned that it adjusts to changing conditions and demands instantaneously, in milliseconds. If a tree falls on a line in Florida, it takes a mere two seconds for people in Canada to feel the impact. That’s not always a good thing: The calamitous blackout in the Northeast in August 2003 was triggered by branches touching two wires in Ohio.
Unfortunately, the grid, however fast, is not efficient: up to two-thirds of the fuel burned to produce electricity is lost in the process of generation and delivery. Wasted. And at the other end of those lines, when the power reaches you and me? More wasted energy.
Back to that spinning meter in my front yard—the one that speeds up alarmingly when my clothes are in the dryer. Electricity is the only thing that is simultaneously purchased and consumed. Every time you flick that switch, a power plant has to generate the electrons you’ve asked for and send them to you, often from hundreds of miles away. Because we can’t store electricity, we need to keep lots of extra power plants waiting around, ready to meet any level of demand. Expensive.
We can text or twitter or tweet, day and night, to let each other know where we are, moment by moment. But your local electricity supplier has no idea if your lights are on. In fact, the system operates blindly. If you lose power in your home, you have to notify your company. Electricity is the only industry that has not yet been revolutionized by the information technology that has so utterly transformed the rest of our lives.
That is changing. If it seems miraculous for power to arrive at the flick of a switch, things are going to get even more wondrous with smart grids, a vision for the nimble utility of the future. EDF is a partner in The Pecan Street Project in Austin, Texas, one of the nation’s first comprehensive smart grid experiments. As team leader Miriam Horn puts it, “Smart grids are networked, like the Internet. They will find what you need on the energy web and route it to you along the most efficient pathways. They’ll adjust demand to match clean, renewable supply, not only in your home, but across neighborhoods.”
Smart grids will make us smarter about energy consumption, because they’ll give us lots of detail about what we’re spending on those extra refrigerators, and when during the day it will be cheaper to spin that clothes dryer. Sure, it takes time to build a new power system—but remember, it wasn’t so long ago that we had to buy our phones from one phone company. We can change the world quickly—especially when change makes our lives better.
But will smart grids make us smarter about the real cost of wastefulness? We seem to be finding more ways to do things electrically that used to be done by hand. I have to remind myself that I don’t always need to haul out the vacuum cleaner, and can reach for a broom to sweep the floor. Just stroll down any suburban street in the middle of the night and try to see the starry skies—you’ll be blinded by the blaze of outdoor lights. I doubt they’re on to give the raccoons a better look inside the garbage bins.
In the end, it’s a free country. When you get down to it, these days we have come to believe in a right to be wasteful. Smart grids won’t immediately change that. They’ll just charge a premium for prime-time use. But maybe smart grids can do something more radical.
Information is powerful. Learning more about how we’re spending our resources could throw light on what’s become of our national character. A prominent part of the American temperament, deeply embedded in our cultural DNA, is a propensity to be thrifty, which my dictionary defines as “wise economy in the management of money and other resources.” It may be old-fashioned; it may even, in just one generation, have become a recessive trait. But with the right kind of support, we could once again see how to get a charge out of saving. Now that would be forward thinking.