What Did "They" Mean?The request for this post comes from what you might initially think is an unexpected source--my husband, who is in telecommunications. Over the years, he has heard me mention the "too cheap to meter" phrase, and in the odd ways of the world, he now now finds it applies in his field better than it seems to apply in mine.
He thought I had written on the subject and wanted to reference my blog. When we both discovered that my only mention of "too cheap to meter" had been in a posting in August 2009 [!], in which I merely mentioned the phrase. I parenthetically said that the interpretations now made of that phrase are wrong, but "that is a story for another time." Well, almost 3 years later, I guess it is finally another time! So I write the following account for my husband, and we will cross-link to each other's blogs.
The topic of "too cheap to meter" has come up so often during my career that I maintain a small file of clippings I've collected over the years pertaining to the origins and intended meaning of the phrase. Perhaps the most telling indication of the persistence of the issue is that it is the one file I can always find easily! There is absolutely nothing else in my office that I can put my hands on so quickly.
Of course, today, the information in the articles I so carefully tore from old issues of Nuclear News, or saved from newsletters, or carefully photocopied from library journals, is easily duplicated by a Web search. For the convenience of readers, I will provide web-based references, but for my own purposes, I will continue to save the 25- and 30-year-old clippings that provide the background for some of the more recent material on the Web.
So, where did the phrase "too cheap to meter" come from and what was the intended meaning? Most accounts date the first expression of this thought to Lewis L. Strauss, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, in a September 16, 1954 speech to the National Association of Science Writers in New York. The statement was part of a somewhat glowing vision of the future that Strauss envisioned:
Transmutation of the elements, unlimited power, ability to investigate the working of living cells by tracer atoms, the secret of photosynthesis about to be uncovered--these and a host of other results all in 15 short years. It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter; will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history; will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age. This is the forecast for an age of peace.
I can only observe that we've only made the smallest increments of progress in the areas outlined by Strauss, and is some cases, no progress at all, so it is perhaps a big disingenuous of the critics of nuclear power to single out that part of the statement as evidence of the "failure" of nuclear power. As others have pointed out, this is clearly a grand, utopian vision. It is possible that Strauss was not thinking of any particular technology, just as he was not considering exactly how we would eradicate all disease.
Furthermore, this is the statement of one individual, and was never endorsed by the AEC as a whole, any other government body, or the industry. It is true that a statement by the head of an organization often is assumed to be an official statement, but that is not necessarily the case. Today, when Commissioners of the NRC speak, they routinely point out that they are expressing their own views. Perhaps in those more innocent times, Strauss did not think it was necessary to do so. Yet, the criticisms leveled at the industry for failing to achieve electricity too cheap to meter are usually that "they" made this promise and failed to deliver.
Even more important, most people knowledgeable of the circumstances at that time thought that Strauss was actually referring to fusion power, and not fission power at all. Here, of course, things get murky, as the statement itself is ambiguous. Perhaps that is deliberately so. A number of accounts suggest that he was actually referring to the prospects for fusion. At that time, there was a secret effort called Project Sherwood that was attempting to develop practical fusion power plants.
Obviously, because of its classified nature, Strauss could not mention it explicitly. The groundbreaking for Shippingport had occurred only 10 days before his speech, so many people naturally made the assumption that Strauss must have been referring to nuclear fission. Yet a number of people who were familiar with the circumstances, including Strauss' son, Lewis H. Strauss and Kenneth D. Nichols, who served as AEC General Manager under Strauss, all are convinced that Strauss had nuclear fusion in mind when he made that statement.
It is harder to fathom his prediction of 15 years, but the extremely optimistic time period to me reinforces the impression that Strauss was mixing, perhaps intentionally, nearer and longer term visions of the future. Certainly, the expression "our children" is often used metaphorically to mean future generations, and not literally one's own immediate offspring.
Yet another interpretation of the statement is that "too cheap to meter" should be interpreted as drawing a distinction between the fixed and recurring costs of energy generation. Whereas fossil-fired plants have large and recurring fuel costs, nuclear power has a large up-front cost, but very small fuel costs. Thus, conceivably, one could charge customers a fixed fee and not meter the actual usage at all.
My guess is that this is not what Strauss had in mind. Furthermore, the operating costs of today's nuclear plants include much more than the cost of fuel, and I don't think any utility today would propose an unmetered approach to finance electricity production.
However, this is just about what has happened in the telecommunications field as discussed today in our sister blog, SpectrumTalk. It was not so many years ago that long-distance telephone calls were very expensive. And difficult to make. I recall that on our first trip to Europe, when I was waiting for a word from a potential employer about whether they wanted to hire me, I had to seek out a Post Office in Switzerland to place a call to the U.S. (They did offer me the job.) Today, we can all reach most of the world from any telephone, and most of us have access to services that allow us to contact people in many countries without a per-minute charge--i.e., too cheap to meter!
What is interesting about this comparison is that another utility, the telecommunications area, has evolved to a "too cheap to meter" situation. This does not necessarily mean that the same scenario is as likely for electricity supply, but it does show that it is not impossible to transition from a situation where a service has high cost per unit of use to a situation where the cost per unit of use is truly negligible.
From today's perspective, the prospects in the electricity arena seem more tenuous. Although the fuel costs for reactors are low--and fuel costs for solar or wind power are technically zero--electricity production probably inherently has more O&M costs than do telecommunications services. Furthermore, in today's environment, where public policy encourages people to use energy efficiently, unmetered service would tend to have the opposite effect, so it is unlikely that we will see "free" electricity any time soon.
And yet, in 1954, no one in the telecommunications industry would even have predicted the low cost of telecommunications today, so as my favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said, "It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future."