Saturday, August 21, 2010

When the Lights go Out:


A couple of weeks ago, the Washington area had what I hope is a wake-up call on the importance of a reliable supply of electricity in our lives today.

As was widely reported, a severe thunderstorm left a widespread power outage in its wake, and the ensuing recovery was slow. I myself was without electricity for about 50 hours--and some of the aftermath of the outage lingered several weeks longer, which is why I haven't written about this sooner. In any event, it reminded me of how totally dependent we are on electricity today, as if I needed such a reminder.

Of course, I hasten to say that this particular outage was not a problem of insufficient or intermittent supply, so some might say that it is not relevant to compare this situation to what might happen if some of our reliable baseload power sources are replaced by intermittent ones. Nevertheless, I think it is relevant to the degree that I could see how rapidly life deteriorated without electricity.

It may take a day or two for food in the refrigerator and freezer to spoil, but modern communications, from the humble telephone to the computer, all require electricity, so those were gone immediately. And the backup cellphone is only good until it needs to be recharged. Thank goodness I had a neighbor who needed a backup generator--for their tropical fish! (Hence the illustration for this posting.)

Others might say that human beings once lived comfortably without electricity, so we should be able to endure occasional outages. Or, that billions of people in the world still live without electricity, or with inadequate and unreliable electricity. True, but shouldn't our expectations be higher--for everyone?

The truth is that in the United States, just about everything in our lives is now dependent on electricity. Even the gas stove has an electric starter. Of course, you can still use a backup, but the assumption clearly is that we will have electricity 24/7. Or else, why has everything electronic that we own been designed with a clock that needs to be reset every time the power flickers?!

Of course, even with a generally reliable energy supply, we are still subject to the whims of nature, as the recent thunderstorm so spectacularly demonstrated. But that was (where I live, at least) once in over 30 years. This storm more than convinced me that I would not want this to happen--even for a couple of hours--every time the wind stopped blowing or every time we had a couple of days of heavy cloud cover.

Don't get me wrong. I am not against renewables. I think they have a place. My point is that every energy source has pluses and minuses. The intermittent nature of renewables is, in my view, a very big minus for those sources. So far, all the solutions I have seen will probably increase the cost of renewables to unacceptable levels, and will probably undercut the environmental benefits when you consider the environmental footprint of the backup sources. Baseload sources, including nuclear power, also have both pluses and minuses. However, on the scale of availability and reliability, there is no contest.

I may be spoiled by the fact that I've enjoyed the benefits of electricity, but I don't think it's wrong to want those benefits. After all, over time, hasn't technology, from the invention of the wheel onwards, lifted all of us from a world where most human beings lived short and brutal lives?

I just hope all the Washingtonians who were without power for days this summer remember this when it is time to make decisions that involve future electricity supplies.


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