Can we Count on Commitments?

I remember when we were asked to reduce speed limits to 55 mph because the energy crisis in the late 1970s was the “moral equivalent of war.”  But, I really wonder whether we have lost that sense of national commitment to reduce energy use when I feel going 75-80 in a posted 70 mph speed zone poses the real danger of being mowed down by those trying to get around me at 90 mph and higher speeds!  I do get a sordid sense of gratitude occasionally when I pass them pulled over on the side of the road getting a speeding ticket, but not often enough.

Everyone in the United States seems to say they are concerned about climate change.  But, it seems no one is concerned any longer about the trash we produce, the single use water bottles we throw away, or the appetite we have for things that are unnecessary for daily life.  This is all in stark contrast to the way Germans are responding to their energy crisis.  There is something to consider here.

The recent article in the Wall Street Journal points to the results of a national push to conserve and to do without. Read more here.  Actually, I am not really surprised.  Europeans have always been more tolerant of discomfort and doing without.  We used to be that way.  I still remember my parents talking about the Great Depression and how they conserved.  The joke was that my mother still had food from that period in her freezer.

Some of you will remember that the electric utilities used to make requests during heat waves that customers turn off appliances and set up their thermostats.  Utilities could and actually did count on these as predictable responses.  But, as the frequency of these requests increased, they noticed that customers would not respond to the same extent, and if you pushed these requests to more than two or three days in a row, they virtually disappeared.

This was not lost on the public service commissions nor the utility planners.  Hardware based programs emerged to directly cut water heaters and air conditioners off and some incentives were offered to customers for this inconvenience and/or loss of control.  Over the past few decades, smart thermostats have been added to the portfolio.  But, in most cases, the consumer has the right to opt out.  Yes, they may lose the economic benefit, but the electric system loses the safety net it had counted upon for system reliability.

And that is the rub, now isn’t it.  Our grid reliability hangs in the balance.  We all will suffer if the utility can’t control voltage and frequency.  Their only choice is to cut the power off.  We have watched that happen out West.  What do customers do then?  They buy generators.

Are we thinking clearly with all this as we pursue carbon reduction goals by asking customers to participate in these thermostat programs?  Might it not become terribly important that we educate customers that simply dropping out and buying a generator to eliminate their sense of obligation to a greater good is perhaps ignoring the obvious?


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