A letter to Greta Thunberg:

Basic needs, electrified:

What we expect from electricity

by Katie Singer

Dear Greta,

Once energy became abundantly available, the way we humans think about our daily lives changed radically. Electric appliances freed us from heating our homes, building fires to cook, sewing and washing clothes. For more than a century, we in the developed world have considered electricity a basic necessity—just like food, water and shelter. We build our society with the expectation that electricity will be available 24/7 to power smelters, factories, refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines, televisions, mobile phones, tablets and Internet access.

Because of new technologies like 5G networks and electric vehicles [1] and increased videoconferencing for school, work and telemedicine, governments and utilities are planning new power plants to meet increased electricity demands.[2]

I figure I need to clarify my assumptions and expectations around electricity.

Surely everyone wants it delivered safely, affordably, and reliably (without interruption).

Ecologists want electricity delivered with minimal impact to ecosystems and minimal greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Shareholders (seeking pensions and funds for their children’s education) want utilities to make profits.

Alas, these players have conflicting interests. Before policymakers finalize budgets, shouldn’t every electricity user learn:

  1. How do utilities deliver electricity safely and reliably? What are utilities’ biggest challenges? How do utilities make profits?
  2. What percentage of an electric bill is dedicated to maintaining infrastructure? What are electricity’s main sources of fuel? What are the ecological consequences of each fuel source?
  3. Does most energy go to manufacturing, households, businesses or transportation?
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An electric utility’s responsibilities  

First things first: improperly delivered electricity can cause death, fire and electrocution. It can damage equipment and cause power outages.

To deliver electricity safely and reliably, a utility maintains:

voltage control. Like engineers who monitor water’s steady pressure to prevent damage to pipes while delivering clean water to customers and returning dirty water to sewage treatment, electrical engineers monitor voltage control—pressure—while providing electricity.

reliability. Any wire or transformer that carries electric current can heat up, causing loss of power. Warm weather and wildfires can heat equipment. Wind can knock trees into powerlines. Utilities monitor weather and keep power lines, transformers and meters well maintained to deliver power reliably and prevent fire.

efficiency. You know how stopping and starting a bicycle or a car takes more energy than smooth riding? Electricity works the same way. For efficiency, a utility must balance high-demand daytime “loads” with less-demanding night-time and weekend loads. Reducing loss of heat (and power) from power lines and transformers also increases efficiency.

frequency control. In alternating current electricity, frequency indicates the balance between power generation, capacity and demand. Elevated frequency (caused by power input exceeding customers’ power consumption) can damage electronics and appliances. Low frequency (caused by insufficient reserves of power) can lead to power outages. (Power reserves come either from coal, natural gas, nuclear power, geothermal, solar, wind or biomass.)

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Here’s another obligation: unless a home is completely off grid (i.e. has a solar PV system and sufficient batteries to store power for nights and cloudy days), the utility must maintain infrastructure to it so that residents can receive electricity whenever they flick a switch.

About two thirds of an electric bill goes to maintaining infrastructure and electricians who can restore power in an emergency. About one third pays for electricity. [3]

Where does most energy go?

Electricity is one form of energy. Most energy goes to manufacturing—to extracting, smelting and refining raw materials, manufacturing chemicals, assembling parts, transporting materials internationally between factories; to assembling, packaging and shipping products. In 2018 (before COVID), 32.61% of the U.S.’s total energy use went to industry; transportation consumed 28.30%; residences consumed 21.64%, and commercial enterprises used 18.61%. [4]

That same year, the U.S. consumed 4300 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Most of this electricity went to residential, then commercial, then industrial use. A minimal amount went to transportation—since most transportation is powered by oil, not electricity. [5]

For fuel, U.S. electric utilities depend on natural gas (usually from fracking), coal, nuclear power, hydro power (dams), solar, wind and/or geothermal power. [6] Solar and wind systems (which provide intermittent power) depend on battery storage. They do not require a turbine/generator. The other fuels use a turbine generator that converts the fuel into electrical energy.

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How does a utility make a profit?

Utilities profit primarily by buying new equipment (“smart” meters, power lines, transformers), charging ratepayers interest on this investment and paying less taxes as the equipment depreciates over time. The higher the investment risk, the higher the rate of return. The rate of return decreases each year. Once the rate of return reaches zero, the utility operates and maintains the equipment with no profit.

When investors own a utility, profits may take priority over ecological and climate impacts and even safety. When a utility is publicly owned, it may be easier to choose infrastructure that reduces CO2 emissions. [7] For any municipality to purchase its own utility requires federal financial aid.

Read the rest of the letter here https://www.deargreta.com/letter-14/

https://ehtrust.org/letter-14-a-letter-to-greta-thunberg-basic-needs-electrified-what-we-expect-from-electricity/ Source: Environmental Health Trust