Electricity as tool of social change?

Readers suggest it, and object to it

Phil Carson | Jul 26, 2012


Utilities' pitches to their customers around energy efficiency measures and what's driving them made the front page of The New York Times this week and I wrote about that coverage in "Energy Efficiency and the Pitch to Consumers." 

The Times' coverage was headlined, "Save Energy, Win a Prize," and it examined how utilities were motivating customers to engage in cutting overall use and cutting back on peak use. I thought it important to examine what is being conveyed in this area by mainstream media. 

The Times' article reported that games, prizes and data analytics were being employed to get results on EE. One technique we've all heard of, with mixed reactions, is the practice of placing a residential customer's use in the context of the use of neighbors with similar demographic profiles. What was not mentioned (so I mentioned it) was the notion that environmental values could drive collective action, since the rewards for saving energy in dollar terms per household were relatively small.  

We received some thoughtful remarks from readers. 

One correspondent, Milton Scritsmier of Boulder, Colo., was concerned that notions of norms would be mandatory, as in the case of comparing like households' energy use and placing each customer's usage in that context. 

"The idea that there is only one way to live your life and that if you don't meet the norms you should be `shamed' is a dangerous one," Scritsmier wrote. "It's literally puritanical.

"For example, you talk about comparing someone's energy use to their neighbors'," Scritsmier continued. "I hope you don't mean actually identifying each household's energy use by name to their neighbors. But even if you don't, each household has different needs. For example, retirees and people working out of their homes are more likely to be at home the whole day and thus run their A/C more in the summer. Is this somehow wrong? Yet comparing their power use to a neighborhood that is at work most of the day falsely gives the impression that these people don't care about the environment.

"Most people have different temperature thresholds," he added. "It's not a linear response. A change from 74 degrees to 76 degrees may mean nothing to one person, but be very uncomfortable to someone else."

(When I responded in the forum that such programs would be voluntary and opt-in, he responded that Boulder has attempted to set binding guidelines for thermostat settings. I was stunned into silence, possibly the first time ever.) 

John Cooper, co-founder of NextWatt, wrote a very interesting post, stating four assumptions and then suggesting how they might change over time. His last comments really could have been his first: 

"For me it boils down to why we are here: to optimize our own situation or to act collectively to optimize society's prospects. Right now, our utility model is set up to favor the individual over the community. Until we begin to shift that perspective, we will face a more limited set of options."

I'll cite two of Cooper's assumptions and his own notion of how they might change. 

Assumption: "Using massive amounts of water to make energy is a rational use of a precious resource."

How that might change: "We have to have fossil fuel energy (and, thus, massive water consumption for energy) to meet our needs for a long way into the future, so there is little we can do about that. However, we could shift our focus to those needs and look to substitutes to find new paths. Adding the opportunity cost of water to reflect the true cost of fossil fuel energy would steadily drive adoption of technology-based energy like rooftop solar, based on alternative assumptions."

(I have to digress to express disagreement here: In the West, we sometimes choose not to exploit marginal fossil fuel resources because the amount of water needed would seriously impact the sustainability of communities, ecosystems and the more lucrative, local economic activity that, say, hunting/fishing and outdoor recreation will bring over time. Sometimes we're not that smart.)

Assumption: "Electricity is a commodity that should cost as little as possible."

How that might change: "Electricity became a commodity over time, but it started out as a luxury good in Edison's original vision of lighting districts for businesses. Paradoxically, electricity now drives most of the essentials of our lives, but we resist paying any more for it than we have to. If sold as a value added service, electricity would command a much higher price, and more revenue would open the door to a plethora of new options. I pay over $200/month for cell phones for my family of four, but less than $150/month for electricity. If I ask myself which I would drop first, the answer is obvious. We should think of new energy service models delivered by any number of market participants in any number of ways to provide more value and secure our electricity provisioning system."

Once again, I pontificate while our readers keep their feet on the ground and, in some cases, their heads in the clouds. I value the discussion. See you here again next week!

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily 



Related Topics


Behavioral Change & DSM

Hooray for Phil Carson for setting forth some common sense notions from readers.  Milton Scritsmier nailed it - attempting to use "peer" pressure to cause/coerce behavioral change among energy users is doomed to either indifference or outright rejection by consumers.  True, some consumers would prefer more information about their energy use while others simply don't care about it -- they have full lives and energy use is not high on their list of priorities.  What seems clear to me from over 30 years in the energy industry is that none of them have any remote interest in meddling in their individiual decision making by self-appointed, self-annointed social planners.

Fossil power not the only water user in the electricity market

Fossil power does use water for its condensers and makeup for boilers.  Nuclear also uses water for condensers and some makeup as well.  Geothermal uses water for condensers and makeup.  Concentrated solar thermal systems use water for condensers and makeup.

But, let's look at what happens to the water.  Water used in once through condensers is returned to the source or to another outfall.  It may be hotter and there may be a little evaporation due to the ambient relative humidity conditions--but what evaporates eventually comes back as rain.  Plants using cooling towers get most of the cooling effect by evaporating water.  The water comes back to Earth as precipitation.  There is some cooling tower blowdown, which returns to the water cycle. 

Let's look at boilers for a minute.  While boilers may convert a lot of water to steam, that steam is condensed in the condensers and returned to the boiler for continuation of the cycle.  Depending on the type of boiler there will be some blowdown to control the concentration of chemicals that would precipitate out but that blowdown is kept small for economic reasons.  But basically, the blowdown returns to the Earth.

All these various technologies take in massive quantities of water but they return it to the hydrological cycle.  One thing that is a bit of a problem is that during climate warming cycles, whether natural or manmade, the atmosphere can hold more water at higher temperatures than at lower temperatures.  A one degree change does not make much difference in the amount of water one pound of air may hold but there are a lot of pounds of air in the atmosphere.  One has to consider that if we make extensive use of wind and solar as energy sources and back them up with simple cycle gas turbines, the amount of heat per MWh (and additional CO2) may be worse than running a combined cycle gas turbine plant or an advanced coal plant with their much higher efficiencies.

There are air-cooled condensers that can be applied to power plants, but they decrease the overall efficiency of the plants to which they are applied--especially in hotter regions of the world.  Then, of course, they are putting that much more heat into the environment in the form of hot air which effects the relative humidity of the air and increases the amount of evaporation from open bodies of water.

Surely though, wind power uses no water.  Well, not quite true.  Wind turbines have foundations that incorporate a massive 120 to 130 tons of concrete per MW of capacity.  What is one of the ingredients needed to make concrete?  Water some of which gets locked up in the chemical reaction that hardens concrete.  They also use relatively huge quantities of steel and other construction materials which must be mined, refined, and processed into shapes--operations which use water although a lot of that water does get back into the hydrologic cycle.

Solar PV manufacture also uses water, much of which ends up mixed in with some truly bad chemicals.