Magazine article The World and I

America's Power Needs - Electrical Consumers Demand an Adequate Supply, Reasonable Price, and Minimal Government Role in Meeting Their Energy Requirements

Magazine article The World and I

America's Power Needs - Electrical Consumers Demand an Adequate Supply, Reasonable Price, and Minimal Government Role in Meeting Their Energy Requirements

Article excerpt

Thomas Edison, inventor, scientist, and businessman, completed the Pearl Street power station in New York City in 1881. This event sparked the creation of an entire new industry. Over the 12 decades since, the U.S. power sector has been one of the world's most amazing engineering feats.

Americans use electricity in every aspect of their lives. It has been recognized as one of the most profound technological developments of the twentieth century. Our economy, society, and civilization as we know them today would be impossible without adequate, reliable electricity.

Most Americans have little understanding of how electricity is produced and consumed. We want to flick a switch and have readily available the comfort, convenience, and service that are provided by electricity. Our ignorance is not limited to the power industry. Most consumers rarely think about what is required to bring fresh food to their dining-room tables. Nor do they consider the complex integrated systems that allow them to climb into an automobile and drive to work. In fact, hardly anyone inquires about how the entertainment industry functions, whether it be a sports team or the movies. All these complicated industries present their products to consumers in packaged, convenient, and customer-friendly manners.

Time to think about power

Our attitude about electricity is similar. Push the button, and it's there. What could be easier? For several generations of Americans, it has been that simple. Until now.

Californians were shocked this past winter to discover that something they had taken for granted for so long could almost instantaneously disappear. Rolling blackouts have become commonplace in the Golden State, forcing homeowners, small businesses, and major industries to learn to live with frequent power disruptions.

Americans have been accustomed to reliable supplies of electricity. An occasional snowstorm, hurricane, or traffic accident may knock out service in isolated areas for short periods, but electrical power is available to consumers an average of 99.99 percent of the time.

This means that a typical residence loses power for less than one hour per year total--whether all at once or periodically. It used to be that few customers would have noticed, but those days are gone. Now people always notice power failures.

In the twenty-first century, a power interruption of 10 seconds' duration (99.99 percent reliability) is noted immediately because our many digital appliances cannot tolerate it. Experts indicate that the power quality demanded by consumers is now referred to as "six-nines" (99.9999 percent). Some predict that the economy will soon demand "eight-nines"; that is, power available 99.999999 percent of the time. This seemingly impossible task, limiting power loss to only a few seconds a year, is a challenge to engineers and technicians.

How could our society come to require such an abundant power supply? The answer lies in how our digital economy is using electricity power. U.S. consumption of electricity is almost evenly split, with about one- third of the total going to each of three sectors: residential, commercial, and industrial. Unlike our other energy supplies, very little electricity is either imported or exported.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects annual growth in energy demand to average 1.9 percent for residences, 2 percent for commerce, and 1.4 percent for industry. Interestingly, actual growth in demand for the past 10 years has been significantly higher than EIA forecasts, so it is quite plausible that current forecasts are equally low.

Electricity consumption varies enormously by region and climate. Regional economics and other factors greatly influence the local price of electricity, and price has a direct impact on consumption trends. People everywhere use electricity for lighting, refrigeration, air- conditioning, and operating appliances that range from microwave ovens to televisions to computer equipment. …

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