Curiosity may have killed the cat, but …

Go ahead and Google this phrase and you will see this idiomatic warning goes all the way back to the 1500s and Shakespeare.  I have heard it all my life as a warning that being curious carries certain obvious risks.  You could be venturing into the unknown with potentially serious consequences.  I think about what we know now about what we can and can’t eat when it comes to mushrooms and other foods, especially seeds, which are poisonous to us.  Yet, these deadly plants are often sources for healing agents when studied carefully by curious people.

Our recent challenges with COVID are just one more illustration of this irony.  A recent article in USA Today reported that way back in 1966, two curious graduate students visiting Yellowstone National Park discovered a new bacteria that thrived in waters above 160 F and named it Thermus aquaticus. The discovery of this hardy bacteria revolutionized the fields of biology and medicine.

“A lot of people thought (the research) was kind of a specialized sort of thing,” said Tom Brock, now an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who started the research project. “Working on organisms in Yellowstone in the summer sounded kind of like a ‘vacation study.'”

What no one could have known then was that inside that bacteria was the key ingredient for the gold-standard diagnostic tests that would be deployed nationwide by the tens of millions nearly 50 year later, on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19, the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR.

Perhaps what I enjoy the most about these curious people is that they are keenly observant of things others just ignore or take for granted.  They seek to better understand … they are not satisfied until they do understand.  We need to encourage this kind of critical thinking in even the mundane so that we are better prepared to solve life’s problems in seemingly unrelated areas.

As we now read the relentless criticisms about what went wrong in Texas, watch for the quest for insights out of curiosity and contrast that with what I expect most will do: assign blame.  We need to be curious about how we can correct this in the future, and perhaps not just with sweeping large answers like eliminating the DC ties that keeps ERCOT separated from the rest of the US.  Don’t we remember when we lost the Northeast grid due to that massive power outage back in 2009?  It can all be traced back to a tree growing too tall in a transmission corridor.  Yes there were other factors as well.  Tree trimming costs money … someone tried to save money.  Gee … perhaps we should fix things like that?

Abandoning Excellence

I entered the energy utility business at about the time Tom Peters wrote his book, In Search of Excellence.  It wasn’t long after Tom Collins came out with his series on business excellence, that I heard countless speakers at industry conferences challenging mediocrity. In 1990, Lexus entered the US car market with the bold tag-line “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection,” distinguishing its brand with their stated commitment to striving to be the best.  As consultants, my wife Susan and I were working with electric and gas utilities who were excited about new ideas and trying new approaches.  You could feel the mood in the offices, conference rooms, and cubicles, and it was intoxicating.  There was a spirit of adventure and exploration.

Well, it seems that’s over.  Nice memories!  This morning’s lead article in the Wall Street Journal was “Mediocrity is Now Mandatory.”  Have we lost our collective minds?  Is this going to continue the legacy of all those before us?  Or is this just the final admission that the phrase “no child left behind” has spilled over and now applies to all of life including business?

Because I didn’t have the college prep classes at my high school, I struggled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for my first four years.  I had a steep learning curve.  The Chemical Engineering curriculum was tough.  I was warned only half of us would graduate.  But, I wanted to graduate and was willing to suck it up, put in the long, tedious hours studying, and did graduate.  I eventually caught up and went on to earn a masters in chemical engineering and a masters in operations research.  So, I became an applied mathematician and spent my career first designing power plants for our Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet, then leading the Hospital Association of New York as Deputy Director setting care standards for doctors and patients in hundreds of major hospitals in New York City, and later serving the energy utility industry.  But, I would not have had those careers if mediocrity was acceptable in any of these places.

The article opens with, “Has an era of American mediocrity begun? In January the College Board announced it would eliminate the essay portion of the SAT, as well as all of the separate SAT subject tests. Their stated purpose was ‘reducing and simplifying demands on students.’ Such a burden.”

I understand that now cursive writing is not being taught and will disappear … yet I think that is wrong …

Now, according to the WSJ, testing to decide who should go to college and who should not might be on its way out too.

Pray for this to just be a passing phase in our political processes!

In any event, you have to admit: you really can’t make this kind of stuff up!

Energy Efficiency is a Net Zero Fundamental

It is interesting to watch all the fuss over green energy sources and the excitement over dreams of a zero carbon electric grid.  It is of course also hopeful that all of these new energy resources are acquired at a low cost compared to alternatives.  But, what I don’t hear is the outcry from the same prognosticators that energy efficiency is critical to this future.  We shouldn’t waste energy now or in the future because doing so consumes resources that would otherwise reduce our carbon footprints along the way.

I remember this same cry in discussions of emergency generators being used for peak shaving.  Energy efficiency and load management reduced the size and fuel cost of those generators.  But, the reality of this hit me when I advised major health care providers and university campus energy designers that energy efficiency should be in the foundation of the right forecast.  They scoffed at energy efficiency because they wanted to build the largest generator they could.

Similarly, I remember talking to a planner with one of the world’s largest energy companies about a nationwide network of call centers he’d been tasked to mapping out. I pointed out that there were ways of reducing the requirement for call centers by using automated digital communications.  He dismissed the idea because his metric of success was the number of call centers and seats … bigger was better.

One last example.  We were working with an electric utility that had an overloaded feeder running through an environmental hotspot meaning upgrading that feeder was going to be not only costly but contentious.  We came up with a peak load management plan and exercised it to prove that the feeder would be adequate for another decade at least.  You could feel the disdain for our plan in the system operations group.  They were in the business of building.

We are living in interesting times.  EE and DR are key fundamentals.  Every time you hear of people talking about new supply side resources, ask them whether they have exhausted the demand side EE and DR potentials.  Watch them squirm.

And they should squirm.  Their attitudes are wrong, and they shouldn’t be surprised at the reaction they get when they seek regulatory or legislative approvals.  Most consumer protection groups, intervenors, and others with a broader view of the landscape know what should be happening.  As Amory Lovins suggested more than 30 years ago, if you can’t keep the bathtub full, put in a plug before turning up the water flow.


Banning Natural Gas Now??

If we had a zero or even a low carbon grid now I could understand banning natural gas.  But, why ban a net contributor to carbon reduction today just because it will eventually perhaps reduce carbon in the future.

You all are aware that several municipalities have banned natural gas in new construction.  Yet, the idea that the local electric grids are lower carbon emitting is a distant hope … very distant.

Here are some statistics that should wake them up:

“The latest outlook from the Energy and Information Administration (EIA) predicts that the share of renewable energy technologies in the electricity generation mix will more than double by 2050. In 2020, renewable energy accounted for 18% of overall electricity generation capacity, meaning it will amount to roughly 36% of the mix by 2050. That figure might have been a cause for celebration were it not for the fact that the same agency estimated a 38% share for renewable energy by 2050 last year.

This means that over 60% of the electricity in the year 2050 will be produced with a carbon footprint that is similar to today …

That is 30 years into the future.  Look back 30 years and see what was predicted for today back then.  One can rightly wonder whether this forecast is even potentially correct.

Why not then wait until we can see a bit more clearly before we bash natural gas today, especially for water heating?

Unless of course all of this is simply for optics … especially given most of those proposing these rules will not be in office when this time comes.