Tantalus, Unicorns, Zombies
Steve Mitnick is Editor-in-Chief of Public Utilities Fortnightly and author of the book “Lines Down: How We Pay, Use, Value Grid Electricity Amid the Storm.”
NARUC masses our troops of utility regulation each winter, alongside ninth street. Across k street to the north sits the historic building that housed the District’s utility commission for decades.
They trade stories, of battles joined, since the last winter, of comrades felled, of sweet victories too. Most of all, of how our flag still hangs high, as we stand, as we must fight sometimes, for the public interest.
So much said, so much learned at these NARUC winter meetings. There’s no way to do it justice in a column of words. Instead, let’s listen in on one conversation.
Michael Webber talks so fast, onstage as the first morning’s keynoter, that the wisdom rushes past like a rapids. And that’s his subject, water that is, and water’s roiling of energy’s flows, and vice versa.
Webber talks so fast that when Virginia Corporation Commission Chair Judy Jagdmann joins him onstage, along with New Jersey Board of Public Utilities Commissioner Mary-Anna Holden, Jagdmann makes us laugh about her far slower southern pace. She questions Webber, and we see Jagdmann says ten words in the time Webber says twenty.
Webber is the professor and poet of the water-energy nexus. Here are a few streams of his fascinating consciousness:
“We have plenty of water. But it tends to be in the wrong form, in the wrong place, in the wrong time of the year. Most of it is salty. It’s in the wrong form. Most of it’s in the wrong place, far away, far below ground, on top of a mountain, that kind of thing.
In some places, it’s only available in short bursts during the year, like in India, during the monsoon season. They get a lot of water in one month, but no water for the next eleven months.
We use energy to bring that water to the right form, at the right place, at the right time, at the touch of a lever, which is really amazing. Energy is what we use for that…
It captures the torture that water is just out of reach or needs treatment. Here’s a classic rhyme. You hear this from Samuel Taylor Coleridge. ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any a drop to drink.’ This is so overused as a cliché. But it’s from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ which is a collection of poems and verses that gave us the idea of the albatross around our neck.
So, it sort-of captures this idea that we are surrounded by water, yet it is just out of our reach. The mythical Greek figure Tantalus was punished with eternal thirst and placed in a pond whose water would recede out of reach as he bent down to take a drink. And that gave us the word ‘tantalize.’ The word tantalize literally means ‘water just out of reach,’ which to me is incredible. So, our language captures this.
You might be familiar with the unicorns. The unicorn myth, the tapestries of the unicorn, the beautiful creature that we just can’t ever quite find. The power of the unicorn was in its horn, that the horn could rid a stream of poison. People don’t realize that what is magical about the unicorn is it cleans water. That’s something to keep in mind.
Well today, we use energy for that. We use energy to overcome the power that we’ve got to get the water that is surrounding us to be in the right form. Or to do the magic of the unicorn’s horn…
The thing is, this is a big opportunity to get more efficient, where our heaters are using less hot water and save a lot of energy. We use more energy for our water in our homes than for our lights. That’s how much energy we use for water heating.
So, it’s flipped now. We use more water for our lights than we do for shower heads and faucets. We use more energy for our shower heads and faucets than for our lights. Like, this is bizarre, right? It’s kind of a flipped concept. But that’s the nexus of energy and water.
As a consequence of this interconnection there are strains… An energy constraint becomes a water constraint, or a water constraint becomes an energy constraint…
The opening chapter, the opening scene of this book is behind Three Gorges Dam. Because if Three Gorges Dam would’ve flooded that reservoir, it displaced one point three million people, flooded the city called the City of Ghosts. That is real. That actually happened.
That city was built eighteen hundred years ago. That is true. That city is a shrine to the undead, or the dead. That is true.
In this book, that a kid went swimming down to steal stuff from the City of Ghosts and got bitten by a zombie, that part might or not be true. We don’t know. That’s unclear. But you can have a world-changing power plant and the energy-water nexus comes back to bite you – literally – in the foot.”
Two mornings later our troops of utility regulation decamped. There is much work to be done, in fifty capitols, in myriad meetings, in the public interest.