electricity a mystery

From brian carroll <human@electronetwork.org>
Date Sat, 9 Jun 2001 12:25:48 -0800

Title: electricity a mystery
Thursday, December 28, 2000
Electricity a Mystery to Many Consumers

 Most Americans take power for granted but know little about it. That may be why they have difficulty conserving.
By DAVID FERRELL, Times Staff Writer

[inset picture: Consumers don't know what goes on at an electric power tower, such as this one in Contra Costa County.
MICHAEL MACOR / The San Francisco Chronicle ]

     Those who tell us to cut back on our use of electrical power have a problem: the inscrutable nature of the product itself.
     No commodity is more mysterious than electricity. Fleeting, invisible, it is bought and sold--and shipped in and out of state--over grids that few ever see or understand.
     Most people who turn on their televisions and Christmas lights do not even know where their household current was produced. They know little of the spiking and dipping of power through the grid or the private generators that have reaped windfall profits during California's worsening energy crisis.
     For those reasons and more, the message that we are suddenly running out of electricity--and urgently need to conserve--is destined to be a hard sell, despite Gov. Gray Davis' promise this week to make it one of his top priorities in the new year.
     "This is a serious problem, but we will manage it if everyone does their part," Davis said during an interview on PBS on Tuesday, deploring the failures of statewide deregulation and urging private generators to curtail their 800% to 900% markups on the cost of power. "We need more conservation than we've had before, and we need to accelerate additional supply."
     Those pleas have echoed through the state for months with little effect on consumer habits. Some experts say part of the difficulty is that electrical power is so taken for granted. The average person has only a single experience with the vast network that suffuses California with up to 55,000 megawatts at a time: Flip a switch and the lights go on.
     Consumers cannot assess the extent of an energy shortfall the way they might gauge a drought or blight on wheat or corn.
     "They don't see reservoirs going down. They don't see fields of crops dying in the hot sun," said Bill Vitek, a professor and expert on environmental ethics at Clarkson University in New York. "Electricity . . . is just there."
     Cynicism about whether the present crisis is real contributes to this reluctance. So do factors more deeply rooted in the collective psyche.
     Some scholars, including USC's Philip J. Ethington, a professor of social history, say that prosperous, self-centered, recklessly optimistic Americans of today are far less inclined to forgo personal indulgences for the public good than earlier generations weaned on national crises.
     "I think there's been a pretty marked decline in public-spiritedness since the '70s," Ethington said, citing the Watergate scandal as a milestone in the growth of cynicism.

     Recalling Oil Crisis of '70s
     The two eras are not easily compared. The gasoline crisis of the 1970s, caused by an Arab oil embargo, created a sharper sense of crisis in which conservation seemed both a necessity and an act of national defense. Empty gas pumps forced hardship--and higher fuel costs--on nearly every member of the work force. You could wait hours in line and not get a chance to fill up. There was a national sense of outrage. The OPEC oil cartel seemed to hold America hostage; the only effective way to strike back was to cut down on consumption.
     There was a feeling--as expressed on freeway billboards--that the Earth's finite supplies of fossil fuel were just about gone.
     To some, looking back, those shrill warnings proved unnecessarily dire, given the eventual disappearance of the gas lines and the return of big cars. That we would "cry wolf" about fossil fuels, coupled with rising cynicism about government in general, has created a common feeling now that such crises are manipulated by big interests working behind the scenes.
     Today there is no galvanizing villain, like the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries, to inspire conservation; there are just vague culprits, or perceived culprits, who only cause consumers to feel resentful about cutting back.
     "Huge, huge profits are being made because of this supposed shortage," said one critic, Mindy Spatt of the Utility Reform Network, a statewide consumer advocacy group based in San Francisco. She attributes the present crisis not to growth or limited electrical capacity, but to brazen market manipulation by private firms that bought up power plants when deregulation in California forced public utilities to divest.
     "Anyone who owns a power plant is making money," she said.
     Suspicion of corporate interests is accompanied by a similar distrust of our neighbors, said Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard University professor who has spent the last decade examining the decline of what he calls Americans' "connectedness" to each other.
     "If I think everybody else in my neighborhood is going to keep on using electricity, I feel I'm a fool to cut back on mine," he said. "I'm going to keep my air-conditioner on."
     Putnam's research is based largely on 490,000 survey interviews dating back 25 years, which became a central part of his new book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community."
     Although the findings do not prove that Americans now are less willing to make sacrifices for the common good, there is strong evidence that people today are more isolated and, therefore, more selfish than in the 1970s and earlier, Putnam said. His evidence: lower rates of participation in community groups, fewer family dinners, less socializing at bars, fewer blood donations, fewer picnics--and fewer organized bowling leagues.
     Putnam blames, in order, television, urban sprawl, two-career families and the fact that most people today have nothing like the shared experience of those who lived through World War II, when everyone--not just men in uniform--pulled together and made personal sacrifices for the war effort.
     The media messages of that era were very different from today's bombardment of SUV and computer ads, an onslaught that assures us that "what makes America great is a conspicuous display of consumption," as scholar Vitek put it. "We're not going to let a little energy crisis stop us here."
     Holmes Rolston III, a philosophy professor at Colorado State University, knows what he would say if he were criticized for leaving his Christmas lights on.
     "I'd say, 'Look at all these computer screens on campus.' That's what they tell us to do . . . leave the computers on," he said. "I never have liked it. They go into standby mode, but they still use a lot of electricity."
     His own television and satellite system are drawing current all the time, ready to respond to his remote control. "Even when they're off, they're not really off. You can go up and feel the electronic stuff and it's warm."
     Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman for the California Independent System Operator, which runs most of the state's vast electrical grid, said the demands of the technological age have put us more at the mercy of generating limits and market forces. The problem is evident from the dens of suburbia to the corporate hubs of Silicon Valley.
     "We're shoving all kinds of electronic devices in our homes, but we haven't added any supply to our system," he said. "We didn't have [Internet] server farms 10 years ago. Who could have foreseen . . . even five years ago the amount of server farms we'd have, sucking up more energy than you can shake a stick at?"
     Despite that added drain, the energy grid has held up well until this year, a fact that some cite as evidence that we learned from the trials of the '70s. New building regulations, appliance energy-use standards and a heightened consumer awareness of needing to save have made an enormous impact that is often overlooked, said Susanne Garfield, a spokeswoman for the state Energy Commission.
     Forecasters once thought California would require, by century's end, a massive system capable of providing 85,000 megawatts. Instead, we have managed to get by with a 55,000-megawatt system, even though the state population has nearly doubled, Garfield said.
     "We've avoided having to build 32 large-size power plants," she said.

     Needing a Common Goal
     A lot of people are willing to conserve if they see an important need for it, said Betsy Reifsnider, executive director of the Sacramento-based environmental organization Friends of the River. A case in point was the public willingness to reduce water consumption as a way to save Mono Lake, she said.
     Water use in Los Angeles dropped 25% after the campaign to make people aware that the lake was dying, she said. Installing devices such as low-flush toilets enabled many consumers to save--and reduce water bills--without hardship.
     Others adjusted their automatic sprinklers, took shorter showers or spent less time washing the car.
     Electrical use is no different. Saving is often painless with a few simple measures that also reduce monthly bills. Reifsnider says her home has double-pane windows, a new washer and dryer, and a gas water heater. "We made sure we cleaned off the coils on the refrigerator," she said.
     One difficulty for many people is that they cannot see, in any detail, the demands they place on the system. There is no way to weigh trade-offs--turning on the Christmas lights versus turning off the computer. No one can analyze the consequences of the new big-screen and surround-sound system.
     Reifsnider finds an example of this effect when she compares water use in Los Angeles and Sacramento: Los Angeles has water meters, and Sacramento does not. Rates in Sacramento are based on property size. As a consequence, Reifsnider says, per-capita water use is twice as high in the state capital--a whopping 280 gallons per person per day.
     Electric meters, which are everywhere, convey little with a spinning dial that no one bothers to watch or could decipher. Some utility officials hope residential users will one day have time-of-use meters that would charge, say, 50 cents a kilowatt hour during the busy afternoon--and only 3 cents an hour at 10 p.m.
     Terry Winter, president of the Independent System Operator, favors such devices. In the meantime, he has spent much of the recent weeks asking people about their Christmas lights and their failure to conserve--and shuddering at their responses.
     "I get the answer, 'It's not a real problem. They just say it's a problem.' "
     Who are they? he asks in these conversations.
     "They don't really know."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
 [fair use, bc.2001]