Crises Real and Imagined

It's more than a little embarassing to be in the middle of an "energy crisis" and to be so comfortable. California has had a month of Stage 3 alerts, but the power hasn't gone off during that time, and life has proceeded more or less in the usual manner.

I've changed my behavior, turning off unused lights a little more regularly and shutting down my PC at work every night (except once a week when I run a backup). That's not much, but it feels like more than that, just because it's on my mind a lot. When an apparently more urgent request came in recently, just after 4pm on a workday, I shut down my computer, tied up a few loose ends in the waning daylight coming through the skylights, and went home early.

I've noticed others are doing even less than I am, though. Most of my coworkers apparently can't be bothered to turn off their PCs over a three-day weekend, let alone overnight. One reported a talk show bit about "that other refrigerator, the one out in the garage keeping cans of soda cool," and admitted that he had one of those, and wasn't about to turn it off. (It's not just pop in there, he said...) Two cars and a refrigerator in every garage?!

I talked to the super about a simple insulating cover for the spa at our apartments, and he ran down a list of reasons why it wasn't simple: the material breaks down, gets in the filters, people won't put it back on, it's too big for a rigid one... and so the steam rises all through the winter, during which it might get used half a dozen times, tops.

How much power would it save if Californians all turned off their hot tubs? But of course, they don't want to do that. They don't want to turn the lights off in the big cities, as I couldn't help but notice when I was up in San Francisco Wednesday night. The Bay Bridge's festooning incandescents are still cheering things up, the big office buildings downtown are "on," and generally it doesn't look like a city in crisis. And of course we don't want to shut down Disneyland.

If the state's willing to keep buying people power, why should they change their habits? If the state's willing to buy power to light up the Bay Bridge suspension cables, why should I complain?

I'm not complaining, actually, just observing: it's not a crisis yet. You want an energy crisis? How about Siberia, where the government, bureaucracy and utility systems have all imploded and temperatures are minus double digits. BIG double digits. On a good day, apartments are above freezing, but not all of the days are good. Ice on the inside of the walls. I don't suppose the water in the pipes is faring any better. They have all the free refrigeration they need, but not so many hot tubs and spas.

Seeing this reported on TV, it made it easier to understand why this neighborhood is a little crowded. Actually, I wondered why it isn't more crowded, why anyone would stay in Siberia, when they could come to California? Help is Wanted, and being homeless in the Bay Area seems more attractive to me than a freezing apartment in Siberia. I know, it's not easy to emigrate.

Nor is it easy to change the habits of daily life, and to see what has become comfortably invisible. We don't stop to think how wonderful it is to have hot and cold running water, flush toilets, color TVs, VCRs, radios, internet connections once we get used to all that. They're just there and we pay a fairly insignificant bill for them every so often. The "insignificance" of the bills may be changing, but not so quickly that changes in behavior are striking.

Imagine what conservation could do if we treated energy - hydroelectric power, natural gas, gasoline - as a precious asset and habitually avoided wasting it. Lights wouldn't be left on all night, up and down every street and alley and porch. (Where they're needed for protection, they'd be motion-activated.) Computers would know when to turn themselves OFF, and do it, and when they came back on, it would be with an efficiently and accurately saved state. (They would not whine at us that they were not properly shut down.) Hot things would be insulated, and turned off if unused for more than a few hours, or days, certainly. Homes would be built to absorb energy from the winter sun, and to reject it from the summer heat. We'd share resources to save on manufacture, distribution and maintenance. We'd use mass transit and bicycles more. We'd combine errands and avoid wasting trips. We'd build more liveable cities.

The last time we had an energy crisis, back in the mid-1970s, it looked like all these things were just around the corner, too.

Let me go way out on a limb and predict that it won't happen this time, either. We'll all get cozy until the system crashes, then fixing it will be the very highest priority until it's patched up, then we'll all get cozy until the system crashes, etc. But we won't sacrifice the comforts we know and love, unless someone forcefully takes them away from us.

Beyond the one week, one month or couple-of-years planning horizons that occupy most of our attention, there looms another energy crisis: the planetary one known as Global Warming. The jury is out (and may never return) on how profound an effect our actions are having on the warming of the planet. (That the planet is warming seems to be a well-established fact at this point.) How will we deal with this larger crisis?

The response to the electricity "shortage" in California may be instructive. It looks like the plan is to control prices through whatever means possible (more 1970s déjà vu), while enough natural gas fired generating plants can be built to create excess supply (which will make it more profitable to not run some of them, which will lead to shortage, etc.). The cycle of excess, crash, forced response to the crash leading to excess, and so on.

Who's going to form the equivalent bureaucracy to California's Independent System Operator to pull the levers routing damage around the planet? It's hard to imagine that happening, when forecasting the weather for a week or two is more than we can manage. We'll no doubt have system status viewable on the web, but control is another matter. Even if we were powerful enough, it's unlikely we'll be smart enough to do the right thing any time soon. There's too much that can go wrong, in ways that we haven't discovered yet.


Current news coverage of the California crisis, from
The L.A. Times
The Sacramento Bee
"Deregulation" through adding three bureacracies (SacBee graphic). (The Power Exchange was shut down last month.)
The San Jose Mercury News

Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

Monday, 19-Feb-2001 14:35:57 MST