electricity a mystery
brian carroll <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sat, 9 Jun 2001 12:25:48 -0800
Title: electricity a mystery
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.
picture: Consumers don't know what goes on at an electric power tower,
such as this one in Contra Costa County.
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
"I get the answer, 'It's not a real
problem. They just say it's a problem.' "
Who are they? he asks in these
"They don't really
2001 Los Angeles Times