Maria Gutzeit | Electricity: What Success in Change Will Look Like

We’re bombarded with change. Most, but not all, of it is indeed “new and improved,” in that the new thing is better than the old thing. It’s the transition that can be stressful. If we smoothed these transitions, rather than pining for the old or complaining about the new, things might go better for everyone.

One area rife with examples of bumpy transitions is the greening of energy. Take light bulbs. When some incandescent bulbs were phased out by President Bush’s 2007 Energy Independence Act, some folks proudly talked of stockpiling the old bulbs. They are now being replaced by halogens, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs,) and light emitting diodes (LEDs.) 

Some of the CFLs, in particular, didn’t work great in the beginning. They flickered. The light was cold. It took a while for people to realize they contained mercury, which requires special disposal. However, now there’s a plethora of highly efficient, bright lights, in every color tone needed.  

I just replaced my ancient dim attic light with an LED light that lights up the entire space, simply by unscrewing the old bulb and replacing it with a new one. The transition was a bit sticky – I still have a box of questionable CFLs that I keep trying to use up – but the final products like the new LEDs work great.

My daughter was working on climate change in grade school and asked why we and everyone else didn’t drive electric cars. I, in return, asked her if she wanted to give up our vacations in our travel trailer, because you can’t pull those with today’s electric vehicles. I asked her about her friends who pull horse trailers, also not towable by electric vehicles. What about the semi-trucks on the freeway, moving food and supplies? 

Right now, we are in transition. Not all needs have been met by today’s car designs and charging infrastructure. They will, I’m sure, some day. But we need to be patient while this is working out.

Another case is solar panels. Here in California we are blessed with lots of sunshine, and many folks have gotten solar panels. Yet most are also still connected to the grid for “regular” power. 

Why? Cost, primarily. Many can’t afford enough panels for their total power needs, or they are in wooded areas, or apartments or townhomes with limited to no roof space. Also, at night the panels stop producing. Without expensive battery packs — in the tens of thousands of dollars for a whole house – solar energy can’t be stored for overnight or gray days. 

Efforts to put panel farms (or wind farms) in unpopulated areas and transmit via new transmission lines also face opposition. This is another transition that causes frustration on many sides.

Just this weekend, there was a story in the L.A. Times about proposed electrification of homes. The focus was on stoves, which are easy enough to replace at a relatively modest cost. However, what was unsaid was how would this be paid for? How would more expensive things like home heating furnaces (upwards of $1,000) be paid for? 

What about low-income folks and apartment dwellers? What about industry, some of which operates on millions of dollars of ovens, dryers, and furnaces that do not currently have electric-powered alternatives? 

Is there generation capacity to shift all current gas demand to electric? If not, will the public allow expansion of power plants or construction of new ones? Will they allow the additional gas pipelines to and transmission lines from those power plants? 

Energy isn’t magic and doesn’t come from the neat outlet on your wall. It comes from either larger central sources (power plants fueled by fossil fuels, hydroelectric, nuclear, or renewables) or dispersed sources (internal combustion engines in vehicles, fuel going to burners and furnaces, electric or heat from rooftop panels.) The path we take is and will continue to be complex.

Many new proposals face negativity. Why aren’t we moving faster on things that help the environment? Why change something that’s working? Who is paying for this? Can’t they build in someone else’s back yard? 

Frustration at the consumer level, the industry level, and the policy level would be better off replaced with patience, a willingness to listen, and solid, broad-reaching master planning. 

The end goals of sustainable energy are noble. Herky jerky implementation won’t win fans. Satisfying everyone’s needs and resolving legitimate questions along the way will be the ultimate measure of success.

Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among several local Democrats.

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