The Future of Electricity
The color of energy
The outlook for reaching energy and environmental goals is not bleak, but bright
An old joke tells about a car salesman talking to a potential buyer of one of the first Model T Fords.
The salesman eagerly answers “Yes” to each question: Is it easy to learn to drive? Can you deliver the car next month? Will my friends admire my choice?
Then the customer, thinking of the beautifully detailed, handcrafted, horse-drawn carriages and buggies on the town square, asks, “What color can I have?”
The salesman doesn’t skip a beat: “You can have any color you want—as long as it’s black.”
In today’s world, as concerns over greenhouse gas emissions and energy supplies dominate the news, we’re in the opposite situation. Instead of a cheerful salesman, we’re surrounded by a doom-and-gloom crowd with a “no” answer to every question.
Can we take better care of the environment? No, they say, it’s complicated and expensive.
Can we solve our energy problems? No, they say, it will take too much time and too much money and might not even work.
Can we keep on doing the things we enjoy and have a vibrant economy? No, they say, you’d better start giving up your modern conveniences—and forget about improving your standard of living.
And to the question, “What kind of future can I expect?” their answer is, “Anything you can imagine, as long as it’s bleak.”
I don’t believe that.
And neither should you.
If you’ve been reading these columns during the past year, you already know there are many encouraging developments.
In order to write these energy columns, I sort through the headlines and take the extra step to find out what’s happening behind the scenes. I talk to engineering wizards and economics experts, inventors and dreamers, people working in all sectors of the electric utility industry and other energy fields.
A lengthy study and report prepared by the Electric Power Research Institute is a great example. This nonprofit organization of more than 800 scientists and engineers took a long look at how technology could help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
ROAD MAP FOR THE FUTURE
When the survey was completed, EPRI released a document in 2007 called (get ready for a truly boring title) The Power to Reduce CO2 Emissions: The Full Portfolio, a Discussion Paper. It’s 45 pages of eye-straining details. But the report’s front cover tells it all, simply and directly, with an eye-catching image. Nicknamed “the PRISM report” as a result of this splendid design, EPRI’s assessment spells out options for a colorful energy future.
Steve Specker, EPRI president and CEO, says, “This analysis indicates that over the coming decades it is potentially feasible for the U.S. electric sector to first slow down the projected increase in CO2 emissions, stop the increase, and then decrease the emissions while meeting an ever-increasing demand for reliable and affordable electricity.”
In plain English, people who work in the energy business have a very positive outlook. These energy experts believe that:
• Yes, we can take better care of the environment.
• Yes, we can solve our energy problems—and we’re already working on a whole array of approaches and techniques.
• Yes, we can continue to use our computers and refrigerators, hairdryers and coffeepots, and grow our economies.
Electric utility industry insiders see an energy future that is most definitely bright.
They have a positive outlook because they’re accustomed to working with new technology. In their busy careers, they’ve seen ideas move from daydreams to an accepted part of daily life. They work with change all the time, and like finding new ways to do things.
Today, we have seven areas in which technology can help us first slow down greenhouse gas emissions, then stabilize them, and, eventually, reduce them by significant amounts. We can use technology to:
1. Increase efficiency in our homes, buildings, and industry.
2. Develop better ways to use more renewable energy resources for large-scale power generation.
3. Add more small-scale, widely dispersed power sources such as wind, solar, and waste-to-energy facilities to our mix of power generating options.
4. Improve overall efficiency at existing and new conventional, fossil fuel-based generating plants.
5. Add “carbon capture and storage” techniques to coal-based generation plants.
6. Reduce petroleum product use through the development of alternative transportation fuels and systems, including “plug-in” electric vehicles.
7. Maintain our current fleet of nuclear-powered generating plants, then add more capacity.
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
How we move forward in each of these areas depends on a lot of things. During the past year, this column has investigated each of these seven technology options, and reported the latest developments to you. In almost every case, there are three big issues that must be solved.
First, the technology isn’t quite ready to enter the mainstream of daily life. For example, many new ways to meter electricity are only in the development and test stages. They will, eventually, provide customers with real-time information about the cost of electricity, and help people see exactly when they should reduce their energy use—and save money, too. Although these metering innovations are still experimental, some forms are being tested in real-life situations already. As people try these new devices, they’ll be revised and improved, with each batch offering more “people-friendly” features.
Second, no one’s quite sure what these new bits and pieces of technology will cost. For example, in the newest wind technology, the first devices are prototypes, very nearly handcrafted—and that makes these one- or 10-of-a-kind items very expensive. But when they prove their usefulness, and orders come in by the hundreds or by the thousands, manufacturers can make a whole lot of them at once and thereby achieve “economies of scale.” That could make the new items much more affordable in a very short time.
YOU'RE IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT
Third, a lot of people tend to resist change in their daily lives and in their attitudes. In many cases, the “but we’ve always done it this way” attitude is actually embedded in our laws. Laws may prevent the installation of certain kinds of electricity generating plants. For example, Kentucky state law presently forbids the construction of nuclear power plants within our borders. Other laws intended to protect property owners’ rights may delay determining the path for the right-of-ways for new transmission lines. Or the best practice procedures for the height of wind turbines above the ground or nearby roofs may conflict with public safety or insurance regulations.
You may think the only control you have over electricity is when you reach out to flip the light switch. But the strength of your fingertips is not your only tool. You really have many more opportunities to influence events.
When you drive a car or ride a bicycle, your hands and feet are doing the physical work—but your mind is guiding all that effort. You look out for danger—the bumps in the road—you consider the other people on the road, and you make plenty of judgments to arrive safely at your destination.
As we struggle within our local communities and within our state and nation to find workable solutions to today’s energy problems, you can make a difference.
You can put your brainpower to work on what the future of electricity—and all forms of energy—will look like.
Pay attention to what’s going on. Reading this column—and all the other helpful articles in this magazine every month—is a good way to learn about the latest energy developments and proposals. Check out Web sites and other news media for more information.
Ask good questions when you don’t understand something. Something with a bland or confusing name might be really exciting—or really unworkable. It’s up to you to do a bit of digging to discover the short- and long-term effects of the latest schemes being offered. Be bold and ask pointed questions about proposals being put forth by your local officials, by political figures in Frankfort, and the folks who represent us in Washington.
And don’t forget that you can lead by example. Talk about your energy concerns with your neighbors, with your business associates, with the teachers at your local school, anybody and everybody. Maybe you can come up with an activity—something as small as an “energy awareness day” at your office or as big as a monthly county-wide recycling project—that will inspire other folks to get involved.
We all want safe, reliable, affordable energy—and we’re going to have to be creative and cooperate with each other to achieve that bright and colorful future.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: THE YEAR OF THE PRISM
An initial PRISM overview appeared in the FUTURE OF ELECTRICITY column "What the Experts Expect on Energy and the Environment," November 2007.
Here are Web site links for the columns that dealt with the PRISM.