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Basic needs, electrified: What we expect from electricity

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Letter #14 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?

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.

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)

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