We lost power for 19 hours in last weekend’s storm. Early Monday morning when I went outside I could hear the hum of generators in every direction on my rural Maine road. I was a little envious. The inconvenience of lugging water stored to flush the toilet, stoking the wood stove for heat, and storing food on the just-cold-enough porch was such that I wanted a stand-by generator. Once I got over that envy I began to think about the wonder of electricity in modern life and the challenges it presents us. I offer four thoughts about electricity in our lives.
- Use of electricity is one important indicator of human development and industrialization. As Vaclav Smil says in his magnum opus Energy in Nature and Society, “Only electricity offers instant, effortless, consumer access; the ability to fill every consuming niche and be converted into motion, heat, light, and chemical potential; serving as the sole energizer of electronically transmitted information with unmatchable control, precision, and speed; silent and clean conversion; extremely reliable individualized delivery; and easily accommodating growing or changing uses.” And power outages always remind me of how much we take these many benefits for granted. In just a couple of generations our lives have become so much easier in the Western world because of this abundant and relatively cheap means of moving energy into our homes.
- This recognition then reminds me that we are fortunate in our society. Many households in the world have electricity available for only a few hours a day and the World Bank estimates that 1.3 billion people, nearly 20% of the globe’s population, have no access to electricity. Those families have much more cause for envy than I do when I hear my neighbors’ generators running. They have no flush toilets, no refrigerated food, no fans in the summer, no furnace in the winter, no indoor lighting at night. The inconvenience of 19 hours without power pales next to this. I should be more grateful.
- I do not have the data to prove this, but there seem to be two trends here of note. It seems like over the past several years we have had more power outages in Eastern Maine. In turn, many more people have portable generators or permanent stand-by generators to deal with the outages. There are three big problems with this. Gasoline or diesel generators are an inefficient way to generate electricity. They create more air quality problems per unit of power produced than centralized power generation. And they may also be inefficient in a larger sense. If all the time, money, and technology that go into individual household generators were spent to make the power systems in our communities more robust, maybe we would have fewer outages. Generators are just one more indicator of the growing individualism of our culture at the expense of the common good.
- Finally, it is important to remember that electricity is means of moving energy around, it is not a fundamental source of energy. So every kilowatt hour of power coming into our homes had to be generated somewhere. Some primary energy source – oil, coal, natural gas, moving water, wind, sunlight – had to be harnessed and converted into electricity. Every one of these sources and their utilization impacts the environment, each in its own peculiar way. There is no such thing as “clean power,” only power with different impacts. This is the fallacy of much of modern environmentalism, seen, for example, in the silliness of calling electric cars zero emission vehicles. There may be zero emissions from the car itself, but the process of generating and transmitting the electricity to run those cars surely created emissions into the air and other environmental costs. So every time I flip the switch at home, I’ll try to remember what goes into getting that wonderful electricity to us. It does not just cost us money, it costs the environment we live in.
It was a time of celebration Monday afternoon about 1:00 when the power came back on. Toilets were flushed, dishes washed, water jugs filled, candles put away. The celebration should be tempered by gratitude, appreciation, and understanding of this miracle that powers our lives. So, on further thought, I’ll do without that generator.