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The Power of Less Power

Green: Money and Sustainability Working Together Part 4 of 10: Electricity

tl;dr: Americans use more power than ever at the highest prices and we don't really care.

So far, in every post of this series, we have covered a topic that passes three tests that make it worthy of discussion:

  1. It must be ubiquitous, or so ingrained in our daily lives that we take it for granted.

  2. It must demonstrate huge levels of inefficency and waste.

  3. Conservation of said resource must provide substantial financial benefit.

This week is no exception because we are going to discuss electricity in America. In this country, we have over 10,000 power plants, over 642,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, and 6.3 million miles of distribution lines. That might seem like a lot, but the bad news is that most of it is old and stretched to its capacity. It is estimated that 70% of the transmission lines and transformers are at least 25 years old, and the average age of our power plants is 30 years old. Like many other aspects of our infrastructure, we just kind of stopped anticipating future expenses and growth because aircraft carriers and stealth bombers aren't exactly cheap and we've been pretty good at consitently needing them. That meant federal funds weren't directed toward infrastructure, and on the local government basis, those SWAT trucks and football stadiums were too irresistable as well. Let's put it this way, that dilapidated house that has seen better days? Once upon a time, it was a brand new home, gleaming and tidy. Our electrical grid is that formerly wonderful home, but because of neglect, it's now run down. However, since the system still kind of works, it might seem that improving it is a waste of money.

All of this information about the resilience of our power grid is in a remarkable report (GAO-21-346) created by the GAO at the request of Congress in 2021. Guess what the GAO found out? It's not resilient at all. In fact, like I stated above, it's in really bad shape. They then proceeded to lay out how it's about to get a lot worse. Many of the factors in the report are attributed to climate change, but the reality is that renewable energy integration is a huge problem as well. That's right, smaller scale solar, wind, geothermal, and other renewable energy projects are very difficult to integrate into a grid that was designed largely for fossil fuel sources. We'll get into that in another post, but for now, let's concentrate on the reality that things are about to get much worse when it comes to American electricity use.

Excerpt from GAO-21-346, March 2021

Whether you want to believe it or not, the earth is getting warmer. This week in Durham NC, we hit 84° IN FEBRUARY. Yes, it was a record high by about five degrees. The chances are very low we will have any snowfall this winter, which kind of bums my wife and I out, as seasons are not only critically important for many ecosystems, but also because as transplanted northerners, snow is nice in small doses. Provided below, you will see several ways in which rising temperatures impact our electrical grid. All of these factors will drive high prices even higher, make weak grids even weaker, and make repairs similar to the scene of Lucy at the chocolate factory.

Some people might be thinking that most of those problems don't impact them because they live in an area that isn't affected by these issues. That's a cute thought, but unfortunately there is not one place on earth that isn't impacted, but just in case you think that's hyperbole, I'm including a map of the risk factors by region below this paragraph. Also, if you think I'm wrong, please let me know if your electricity rates go down this year. I'll happily eat crow if you can send me proof of this, but all indicators state that just climate change alone will drive your electricity prices higher. We may be transitioning to renewable sources at a record pace, but our electrical grid can't accomodate these changes and adaptation drives prices higher. These costs get passed down to you, the consumer, because utility companies sure aren't going to take the hit to their bottom line willingly. Since you kind of need electricity, what are you going to do, use less of it? Of course not, that would be entirely un-American of you to even think that! Hell, Jimmy Carter got booted out of office for even suggesting that during the energy crisis of the late 70s, and we use more energy now than we did then.

How much spending are we talking about? Well, last year in the US, over $644 billion was spent on electricity. $239 billion of that was spent by US households (residential). Since I referenced the late 70's and Pres. Carter, you can see that we have more than doubled our residential electricity consumption in the US since then. Sure, we have more people in the US, but American households consume way more electricity now as well. There are so many more electrical devices in our homes (do you remember having an air fryer back in the day?), and while having one of it might have worked back then, now we need one in every room. I remember growing up with one computer in our household. Today, my wife and I have in our home 4 computers that we use on a daily basis and 3 more that see sporadic use. Those 4 computers also use 10 monitors, and we have 2 more monitors waiting in reserve for when we need those as well. Yes, a large portion of our work is from home, but you can see my point that more and more components in our home require electricity to use. We didn't jump from one computer to 4 over night, it was a gradual escalation, but it could also explain why our electricity bill is regularly well over $200 a month. And that figure is with us trying to conserve electricity!

I don't need to continue to dwell on just how much electricity Americans consume. If I did, odds are pretty good you would just get annoyed and stop reading because people don't like to be reminded that their habits are harmful. Let's pivot to how intricate and extensive our electrical grid truly is. I threw out a number earlier in this post that I am confident you read but didn't truly process. We have over 6.3 million miles of distribution lines. That number is almost inconceivable. It contributes to why, on average, the cost of maintaining our grid works out to be about $173 per capita per year. This might seem high, but all indicators project rising costs for the forseeable future.

The obvious solution is to not stress the grid, right? At Greenheart Partners, we've been shouting this from the roof top and creating programs that would help households do precisely that. Unfortunately, if you see the projected future electricity generation path, we're going to consume more electricity, not less of it. This increased level of power will be at the same high price or even higher, which makes increased demand very strange. It doesn't normally work this way. If you use gasoline as an example, when gas costs go up enough, people tend to drive less. This is not happening with electricity, which confuses me, because it should.

Using less power if we don't need it is not a progressive concept. It is simple common sense, or at least it used to be. Sadly, there are countless examples of common sense solutions being rejected on a governmental and individual household basis because people think it's silly. Both city hall and your home could save money if heating and cooling were managed more efficiently. Both city hall and your home could use less electricity by converting to lower watt LED bulbs for lighting. Both city hall and your home could reduce electricity consumption by purchasing Energy Star appliances. Yet, both city hall and far too many homes refuse to do any of these things. Just federal appliance standards are estimated to have saved $940 billion from 1987-2020 alone. All these initiatives can add up to some significant savings if they are implemented.

What is the resistance to using less electricity? Do we enjoy brownouts on a record number of days? Do we want to pay more for electricity during peak hours? These might seem like sarcastic questions, but given our behavior, is there validity in asking them? I would say so, because the harsh reality is that apathy is expensive. Maybe now you are seeing in a different light just how expensive it really is.

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