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.”
Even the most jaded among us can find inspiring the stories of our industry's birth and growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Those generations sacrificed greatly to gird the globe with grids, so that generations well into the twenty-first century would enjoy electricity's bounty. They could not have known all that they were doing for us.
Since completing electrification (in developed nations), our industry has lacked a grand societal mission. Don't get me wrong. The triad of objectives — safety, affordability and reliability — is admirable. Though it fails to capture the popular imagination and trigger the public's enthusiasm.
Safety? Electric service has been extraordinarily safe for decades. What would it mean for electricity to become safer? Doesn't seem to be one of society's most pressing questions.
Affordability? The expense of electric service evolved — surprisingly — when much lower gas prices and much higher efficiencies of machines, appliances and devices took hold. For some homes and workplaces, electric bills remain a chief concern. But not for many. What would it mean for electricity to become more affordable? Again, doesn't seem to be one of society's most pressing questions.
Reliability? Here at least is an issue that can engage the public. Ordinary folks are usually unmindful of our industry. That's not true of course when they're blacked out.
Consider that term, blackout. A blackout is when the lights — the most visible of electricity's uses — go out. When our power to turn them back on is turned off.
We're disoriented at first, then disappointed, then distressed. What went wrong? When will we have power again?
We switch to demanding consumers. The industry's investment to increase reliability makes plenty of sense then. Before the blackout, the purpose of such initiatives seemed intangible and suspect.
Alas, consumer engagement is fleeting. As the weeks pass, after a blackout, so too does the urgency among people pass.
It is ironic. When the power of electricity is all around us — which is almost always — the role of electricity in our lives is invisible. When that power is interrupted, only then do we see electricity.
Like when you listen to a favorite ballad. You're lost in the faraway world of the singer and her accompaniment. Then, abruptly, there's a blip, the music's glory gone. What went wrong? You're now all-too-aware of the music-playing device, its role, its limitations, its imperfect reliability.
The safety, affordability, reliability triad is a sober set of goals for a mature industry. We are rightly proud that it is our professional pursuit. But we must acknowledge its modest meaning for most outside our community of utility and commission types.
Which brings me to talk with you about electrification's second story. You see, all that electrification accomplished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was connecting buildings. Ok. That was pretty good. Though it wasn't anything more than that.
Electrification's first story is indeed inspiring. But that story ended over a half century ago. You know what they say. What have you done for me lately?
Our industry connected a hundred and fifty million buildings in this country alone. And around a billion buildings worldwide. Cool. But there are nearly three hundred million automobiles, trucks, buses and other vehicles in this country. And there's around a billion of them in the world. What about them? Virtually all burn fossil fuel to move people and product.
Even though our electric plugs are everywhere. Our plugs are everywhere vehicles start. Our plugs are everywhere vehicles stop. Our plugs are everywhere vehicles pass.
Once, utilities and utility regulators worked together — it was called a compact — to invest in a far-off future in which everyone would be connected. It was no less a challenge than the questions we debate today. In the nineteen-tens, twenties, thirties, forties and fifties, our whole society sacrificed knowing that the benefits would come slowly, unevenly, disproportionately. Society sacrificed nonetheless. Society sacrificed knowing the payback was primarily past the time of those sacrificing.
We are there, again. We face that same choice, again. Do we hold back? Calculating that the benefits of connecting cars would come slowly, unevenly, disproportionately? Considering that the payback would be primarily past our time?
Or do we again embrace our mission to electrify? Do we again aggressively grasp at every chance presented to us to connect a customer? In electrification's first story, the customers to be connected were in buildings. Our industry invested to connect each. And the nation was "electrified," in more ways than one. In electrification's second story, the customers to be connected are in vehicles. Shouldn't our industry invest to connect each? If we did, we would electrify again.
As in electrification's first story, some monies shall be spent with uncertain results, and some monies shall be lost. It's inevitable when a great industry takes on a great mission.
Some say charging stations everywhere should await the moment when electric cars are everywhere. This is like saying, in nineteen-fifteen for example, that hooking up neighborhoods to grids should await the moment when people have installed appliances. We can be thankful our forefathers said no, let's not wait.