Up the Creek Without a Paddle


It is funny how some phrases seem timeless and require no explanation.  I am not sure anyone can claim the origins of this one, but we all know what it means.  Recently, Dick Niess, my partner who helped us found Apogee, sent me a note indicating that the original place has officially been identified as the picture here indicates.  It is real.  It is in Pennsylvania and this is not a Photoshop ploy.

The engineer in me wants to correct the clarity of the desperation here and remind everyone that it is better to be up the creek than it would be to be down the creek.  This reminds me of the two ways to look at any situation:  is the glass half-full, or half empty?

The engineer in me wants to say, “You appear to have twice as much glass as you really need.”

Maybe the operative word here has more to do with the paddle.  That reminds me of the famous international competition between the American and the Japanese rowing teams.  The Japanese team had eight people rowing and one person steering.  The American team had two people rowing and seven people steering.  Needless to say, the Japanese team won.

So, the American team reorganized.  They fired one of the two people rowing and added a steering supervisor to manage the one person rowing.



Symmetry – A Beautiful Thing in Nature and in Energy Policy


It is interesting how much we admire symmetry … unless you just happen to be in love with Picasso’s form of art.

Symmetry comes from Greek word symmetria, which implies “agreement in dimensions, due proportion, arrangement.”  In everyday language, it means a sense of harmonious proportion and beautiful balance.  If you are a Photoshop user, you can really make this point by slightly distorting a human face to prove how much we dislike imbalance from side to side in any form of facial feature.

This last week we saw illustrations of just how flawed our energy policy discussions are as we observed blackout conditions in the West alongside political correctness about closing down a nuclear plant in the region.  We see incentives to promote solar without due regard for cost recovery and long-term planning to reflect the real costs and the sustainability of short-term decisions.  We see advocates for wind without due regard for the costs to keep the grid stable with its vagaries.

It seems we dislike the natural symmetries of running an electrical power system.  We somehow think a beautiful thing will emerge as we forget or disregard the differences between capacity, energy, and the true operational costs of keeping the lights on in our control strategies.  These are the elements of symmetry … and they are beautiful when kept in proper balance.

I guess asymmetric decisions seem perfectly OK when you simply have no idea how the electrical supply system really works.

Acting this way in my engineering profession is considered incompetence and can result in criminal charges.  Yet in today’s PC energy policy world, it seems to be perfectly acceptable.  There is a natural balance between energy and capacity.  There are natural dependencies in the control of power flows that also require symmetrical balance.  Ignoring those because they are complex to explain does not make them go away.

They will show up and present a very ugly picture … perhaps all too soon.

Robotic Umpires and Scorekeeping

tennisballPerhaps you have all noticed how prevalent electronic measurements have become in tennis for what used to be dominated by human judgement.  Anyone who has watched recent tennis matches has to have been impressed with the precision of the “in vs. out” calls on serves including video simulations of the ball motion.  And, of course, every serve is now measured for speed which is posted for all to see.

Lots of “analytics” have now emerged as well.  A player can study how their opponent hits and review return percentages on almost any shot.  And, what was once subjective perhaps can now be described by a more instructive set of numbers.  The scoreboard is the final arbiter, but now the leading indicators are known with precision that historically was impossible.

Today’s WSJ had an article on how robotic umpires are likely to replace the existing umpires calling balls and strikes.  Today’s technology can certainly do that.  I have to admit I am also amazed at the ability for computers to compute the yards to go in football games and paint the lines on the screen.  That makes my brain hurt when I think of all the computing going on.  Think of how instructive that is as you watch.

Yet, here we are in the energy industry and we still think the scoreboard is interesting.  We also seem to believe that customers will do something as a result of us graphing it and comparing them to their neighbors.

When will our industry be ready to move beyond our scoreboard in the energy game?  Why is it we think customers want to watch the scoreboard?  Do we really think we can be relevant to customers by just showing them that?  A pretty graph isn’t going to cut it.

Apogee has three pilots going this summer that will probably change all that using inexpensive temperature monitors in homes that show homeowners how their house is operating.  Stay tuned.  This is going to get very interesting.

La La Land


This recent article title for a Public Utilities Fortnightly editorial reminded me of where we are in our relationships to energy consumers.  A lot has changed about how we think about the business and how consumers think about their energy choices.

Read the Public Utilities article here.

You will no doubt get caught up in the numbers because they are certainly interesting, and probably happily wear out your muscles patting the industry on the back for its impressive improvements in the energy efficiency of devices in the home, but you will then miss the big message here.

At one time, it was considered a luxury to have these things.  That has moved to more of an expectation that you SHOULD have these things.  You can still get along without AC in Los Angeles but you won’t in all likelihood.  You can, and we did, go without AC here in Atlanta when Susan and I were first married.  We used a whole house fan and it was OK.

But, expectations change and comfort and convenience trumps the other cards in the deck.  Today, you can’t build a house in Georgia without AC and expect to get a mortgage.

We really need to rethink the regulatory premises for affordable energy going forward given all the changes in technology.  Maybe we aren’t really thinking this through.


Weaponized Dialogue


If you look up the definition of dialogue in common language, you find it is a conversation between two or more people with the intent of exchanging ideas or opinions on a particular issue.  The intent is supposedly to reach amicable agreement, settlement, and possibly some “middle ground.”

The term weaponized is generally associated with germ or chemical warfare where the basic idea is that something that will kill or at least immobilize the enemy is concentrated so much that it can be delivered as a lethal strike in combat.

Now, some of you must be thinking, “Why did Joel come up with this combination of words now?”

Well, it all started about two weeks ago when I brought out a toaster that was given to us as a gift for buying appliances during our house renovation.  Let’s just say that it is an industrial strength, heavy, solid stainless steel monster.  Our son Stephen came into the room as I was using it for the first time and declared it “a weaponized toaster that could probably put the toast into low orbit when done.”

Obviously, he was trying to be cute in his usual Big Bang Theory style smarty-pants way.  I just can’t figure out where he gets that.  But, that stuck with me all day and became central to how I started to think about our communication style today.  Our language styles have moved from just being helpful (making tasty toast) to winning wars in our own minds … and leaving a lot of dead bodies in our paths.

Think about the news cycle for a moment and watch it with this idea in mind.  Is there an exchange of ideas with the intent to reach amicable agreement?  Or, is it a take no prisoners exchange.  Did Megan Kelly really want an explanation from Donald Trump about his thoughts or was she lobbing a grenade to improve her image and value?  Did President Obama hope to gain anything when he called Russian President Putin a thug?

It seems we are making increasingly bad choices about the way we conduct ourselves.  We can label this polarization and call it out as a bad thing, or we can look deep within ourselves and look a bit more critically about how we add fuel to this unhealthy fire.

We need to stop the arms race.  We have to cool our jets and seek not just middle ground, but potentially higher ground in our dialogue.  There is a better way.  Seems we have based our calendar on the person who made this the central idea of his life 2000 years ago.

Doesn’t anyone remember the “Golden Rule?”  Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you.  Yep, your right, that same guy said it … over and over again.