Knowledge that can power our future

When you put some of the world’s leading experts on energy technologies into the same conference room, you’re likely to hear some unexpected and promising revelations about how we can power our future. This month’s Electric Power Research Institute did not disappoint. Although funded primarily by utilities, the Institute works at events like this year’s “Innovations for Future Generations” session in San Francisco to convene a much broader spectrum of participants: leaders and experts from the electricity sector, academia, and governmental and non-governmental groups (even environmental advocates like me).

I should acknowledge at the outset, however, that I had slight misgivings when the British electricity regulator chosen to lead off the packed agenda opened with the joke about the tourist who asks an Irish farmer about the best route to Dublin.

The farmer’s response: “You wouldn’t start from here.”

Fortunately, the recent two-day session appears to indicate that we’ve already made a good start – and we can build upon the experiences of utilities both within our borders and outside them to ensure we continue on that path. For example:

  • In the United States, electricity costs about two-thirds as much as gasoline and motor oil as a fraction of personal disposable income (2.3% versus 3.5%, with the average household’s electricity bill totaling only about three dollars per day). This is very good news for consumers.
  • There is a sustained downward trend in the amount of electricity required to produce a dollar of goods and services in the U.S. economy, on average. This is even better news for consumers.
  • The pioneering Texas’s Biggest Energy Savers program, which is modeled on the Biggest Losers TV campaign against obesity, is already achieving an average of 26% savings in electricity use for the top ten percent of participants, with the winners saving more than 40%. Initiated only last year, the campaign rewards consumers who make the most of their smart meter data to reduce energy usage and potentially lower their electric bills.
  • Ninety percent of U.S. electricity outages are associated with failures of local distribution systems, as opposed to big power plants or transmission lines, and 30% of outages involve an unintended  sudden meeting of trees and wires. Everybody’s favorite “solution,” putting wires underground, costs six to ten times more per mile and creates its own reliability issues because problems that develop beneath the surface are generally more difficult to diagnose and take longer to fix. Experts believe it would be better to make overhead wires more resilient and find ways to mobilize utility resources more effectively when the lines go down.
  • The ordeals associated with extended electricity outages – such as those recently endured throughout most of India and across the eastern U.S. where this summer nearly 1.8 million people remained without power for days, and in the October 2011 storm that dumped 30 inches of wet snow on New England -- should ensure stronger public support for investment to enhance the reliability of distribution systems, particularly IF utilities do a better job of making their case.
  • The nationwide surge in natural gas production from shale (often called “fracking”) means the U.S. is much less exposed to the risk of price spikes when hurricanes shut down production in the Gulf of Mexico (an area that accounts for only about 11% of our natural gas supplies today, down from more than a quarter fifteen years ago). The utilities believe that’s a legitimate part of the fracking debate; if we can do it right under strict environmental safeguards, we’ll reduce the frequency and magnitude of weather-related price spikes in utility bills.
  • France, widely touted as the global capital of nuclear energy, actually has less than two-thirds of the nuclear generating capacity of the United States, and a regulatory system that is in important respects more aggressive than ours (for example, every French reactor must be relicensed every ten years). Globally, nuclear power’s market share averages about half the U.S. total of 20%. Those who want the U.S. to promote nuclear power aggressively typically overlook the extent to which we already do just that.
  • Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is making fundamental changes in its system of electricity deregulation. In the 1990s, the UK was widely admired for its efforts to reward those who could sell electricity for less, but later concerns arose that more incentives were needed for innovation generally and energy efficiency progress in particular. The recent remedies put more emphasis on using energy efficiency and other innovative and promising technologies to reduce long-term electricity bills, as opposed to focusing exclusively on short-term electricity rates without addressing the consumer’s total bill.

They say knowledge is power and, as you can see, the knowledge shared at this month’s Electric Power Research Institute could literally power the future.