Cold Hard Truth, No. 3

April 13:

This week’s columns have opened with George Jones’ lines from his 1999 album:

I’ve come to set the record straight
I’ve come to shine the light on you
Let me introduce myself
I’m the cold hard truth.

The columns then presented a principal problem for today’s utilities and regulators.

Once, electricity was their exclusive province. The public’s limited understanding of electricity’s truths wasn’t problematic.

That all changed in the seventies. Third parties increasingly demanded and have been granted a role in plotting electricity’s path.

This accelerated in the nineties, with deregulation. And accelerated again more recently, propelled by the push for a low-carbon future.

The public’s limited understanding of electricity’s truths is now problematic. Notions that defy basic scientific and economic constraints too often catch on.

It’s a central challenge for utilities and regulators. Who shall lay out those constraints, clearly, credibly? And what are the coldest hardest truths that a much more involved public must grasp?

Tuesday’s column named one such cold and hard truth. Electricity is instantaneous, with important implications.

Wednesday’s column named another. The storage of electricity for later use has limitations, with important implications too.

Here’s cold and hard truth number three:

Our country’s electricity, how much juice we make and how much we use, is ginormous.

So, the scale of changes really matters.

Just one example. Nuclear has been in the news these days. One nuke makes around nine million megawatt-hours a year.

If it shuts down, or if a new one isn’t built, that’s another four and a half million tons of climate change gas into the atmosphere. Every year. (Assuming the power is instead made by the cleanest natural gas power plants.)

And three hundred and sixty million tons over the nuke’s operating life. Not good.

Another example. Wind and solar power need a whole lot of real estate to make a meaningful amount of electricity. And prime real estate, real windy in the case of wind power, and real sunny in the case of solar power.

That lone wind turbine the town erected at the beach, and those twenty solar panels your neighbor erected on his roof, is making a negligible amount of electricity, in the grand scheme of things. All the home solar roofs in America, combined, made around ten and a half million megawatt-hours in 2016. That’s a bit more juice than that one nuke.

Electricity is ginormous and so the scale of changes really matters. It’s just one of electricity’s cold hard truths. Can you think of another?

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Steve Mitnick, Editor-in-Chief, Public Utilities Fortnightly
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