Rolling power blackouts, a common resort in northeastern US states when extreme weather takes hold, are now steamrolling into an overheated Texas (although not yet as widespread as initially feared). Unfortunately, the outages are largely indiscriminate thanks to an outdated, dumb electrical grid. This puts people and produce at risk.
Tonight we lost power for a few hours and felt the impact immediately. Our 30-year-old air conditioner was already struggling to overcome 111 degree Fahrenheit heat– without it or fans going, our little house quickly turned into a big oven. As I walked around in the dark lighting candles and contemplating my car’s lovely air cooling ability, my mind went back in time…
Options and Opportunities
In 1980, during another record-setting heat wave, I was installing solar water heating systems like there was no tomorrow. They were passive collectors, absorbing solar radiation in order to heat closed-circulating distilled water for a small heat exchanger. In sunny Texas, a house equipped with a two-panel system would see its electric water heater idled around eighty percent of the time. The heat exchanger consumed a fraction of the typical water heater’s power. And even on cloudy days the thing could still chug away.
But when mentioning this to a potential employer during an interview in the early 1980s I was met with sarcastic skepticism. The manager said I was a liar if I claimed solar water heating worked. I showed him the striped scars on my forearms, second-degree burns inflicted by making careless contact with anodized panel edges. He maintained his disbelief, and that concluded the interview.
Small-mindedness like that unfortunately seems to reign supreme here in Texas, where a wealth of resources and mostly-mild climate have lulled the citizenry into thinking they need not conserve. The good times will just roll on forever.
But now it’s power outages that are rolling, as an ancient and uncooperative electric grid strains against day after day of relentless 100+ degree Fahrenheit fury.
Why do we put up with this?
Jimmy Carter was the last US president with a prescient energy policy. He was the reason I once hooked up so many solar water heating systems. Next president Ronald Reagan wasted no time dismantling the much-needed tax incentives, and that industry evaporated almost overnight. It was going to do damage to the hydrocarbon-fueled status quo.
There’s a lot to be said for limiting government scope and powers. In general I’m all for it. But we have a tendency to grant excess only when its claimed to keep us safe, as in military expenditures, and deride any attempt by elected leaders to be proactive on other policy.
If it works, don’t fix it. Right?
But the power grid is broken. It’s fragmented into regional, monolithic monstrosities that can’t work together, much less manage internal needs efficiently. Cascading failures have been a monumental problem. A flexible, intelligent grid could solve that.
I was dismayed when I drove to a local store during our first blackout this summer, and saw street and city park lights blazing away while homes were pitch dark. A smart local grid would have shut non-essentials down first. Prioritize power distribution, so that homes and grocery stores were spared if possible.
Changing the status quo as drastically as is needed in the US requires government intervention. Industry will proceed lemming-like to exhaust its current resources and practices, refusing to change course until it hits a wall. It’s up to our elected officials to craft incentives that facilitate a transition from a declining paradigm to the Next Big Thing– especially when we’re talking national power infrastructure.
So where to?
Looking ahead, I see resources we take for granted today as the competitive edges of tomorrow. And I cringe every time I hear some pundit claim, wrongly, that “greening up” hurts the economy. It’s quite the opposite, actually. The country that manages to significantly reduce its energy consumption will have a strong economic advantage over others… especially those importing hydrocarbons. Devices, machines and appliances with a clear energy efficiency advantage over competing products will win in their market spaces.
We can’t afford NOT to reduce energy consumption and manage what we use smartly. As individuals we can’t do much about national policy other than voting and speaking up, but we can easily act locally. I’ve already replaced many incandescent light bulbs with compact flourescents, and the new LED lighting technology looks even better. One of my next big purchases will be a solar attic fan, which I expect to really help remove some of the load off of the overburdened air conditioner. Reflective insulation underneath the roof decking should also contribute. I’m also gardening with low-maintenance Texas native plants in order to conserve another endangered resource, fresh water.
Presiding over change
While he was still a candidate, I was leery about Barack Obama’s ability to lead our country, yet I at least hoped to see him show strong leadership with regards to energy. But other than some right-sounding rhetoric I’m unimpressed and disappointed. He needs to do more. Crafting a comprehensive energy policy would create much-needed jobs and strengthen our future. And let’s see geothermal and tidal power addressed as much as wind and solar… so far they’ve been largely ignored.
Can’t Obama show at least as much intelligent initiative now as Jimmy Carter did in the 1970s? Surely his successor would not be stupid enough to dismantle the results afterward. There’s far too much at stake.