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What People Want

May 4, 2021

Twenty years ago, as electric cooperatives formed a national cooperative branding initiative that is now Touchstone Energy, extensive surveys and studies were performed to gauge people’s perceptions and values of electric service. I was surprised people assigned so little intrinsic value to a brand of electricity. The surveys indicated the only other product people associated so little value to product brand was common table salt (I always buy Morton’s, but I don’t know why).

Some people place more value in driving a Mercedes than a cheaper car. Ralph Lauren has built a large business empire based upon people assigning more value to clothes with a polo player logo. Any of us would rather eat a good steak than a bad steak, and we would rather watch good movies instead of bad ones. The list goes on, but there are few products people fail to assign value based on the brand or perceived quality.

There are at least two reasons why people don’t recognize the value of electric brands. One, the quality of electric service has improved in the U.S. to the degree that people expect, because of experience, that electricity is always on, and in those rare cases it is not, that it will be back on very soon. The other reason is the invisible delivery of electricity; people have mentally disconnected electricity from the comforts and efficiencies of life that totally depend on electricity.

We all enjoy air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter. We spend time at work on computers managing information, responding to correspondence and writing articles like this. We spend time at home surfing the internet, watching television, reading under lamps, and playing computer games.

We all like hot meals and hot showers. I enjoy sleeping with my CPAP machine. Although almost everything we do in our lives is depends on electricity, there is little thought given to the electricity that makes it all possible.

Reliable and affordable electricity will become even more integral in our lives over the next decade with the transportation fleet’s transition from gasoline-powered internal combustion engines to electric-powered vehicles. The movement to a more electrified society needs to be measured so that reliability and affordability are not sacrificed for other goals.

That transition would feel much more logical and achievable if not for events of the past few years, with the decline of electric reliability in too many areas. California suffered rolling blackouts in August of last year with a strong heatwave across the west. The San Onofre Nuclear Station was closed a few years ago because of public concerns about nuclear safety. The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Station is scheduled to close in 2024 or 2025. Numerous coal and natural gas-fired plants have been closed in accordance with California’s goal of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045. Diablo Canyon currently provides 10% of California’s electricity. It is still not known from what source additional reliable and affordable electricity, even by California standards, will come. Yet, even with the blackouts, California continues a movement towards less reliable and less affordable electricity.  

The February rolling blackouts interrupted electric service to hundreds of thousands of Texas electric consumers for days in freezing temperatures, which caused bursting pipes and hypothermia deaths. That situation raised serious doubt about the reliability of deregulated electric markets that are largely dependent upon renewable energy resources. The winter outages considered alongside the nearly missed summer outages in Texas in two of the past three years cast a long shadow on reliable electric service in Texas for the future.

Finally, the Biden Administration’s obsession with climate change and the inclusion of carbon reduction provisions in every political initiative does not bode well for future electric reliability or cost. Biden’s recently released $2.3 Trillion Infrastructure Plan includes funding for more renewable energy projects, including an off-shore wind project that will power 10 million homes. However, renewable power is intermittent and not dependable. Wind projects only produce electricity when the wind is blowing. The wind blows a lot offshore, but storing power for when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine remains a difficult and expensive challenge.

The rush to a carbon-free electric grid is reckless and dangerous. To de-carbonize the electric sector, while mandating that transportation be all-electric, will result in much less reliable electric service at a much higher price.

People want to be cool when it is hot, warm when it is cold, to use their electronic devices when they need to, and to enjoy television or other entertainment when they want. They don’t want to go days without electricity in freezing weather. People want their lights on and their power bills low. 

I think people would likely choose reliable and affordable electricity over possibly eliminating potential climate change that might occur around the turn of the century, if at all. We may soon find out if I am right.   I hope you have a good month.        

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