The United States turned a historical corner, energy-wise in 2016, we learned this past week. But it hardly flipped a switch in the American consciousness.
Electric Light & Power online—my employer—reported that American consumers spent less than 4 percent of their annual household budget on energy last year, according to government statistics. This was the lowest share ever recorded since records were kept. The story is found here.
In October I attended the CLEAResult Energy Forum in Austin, Texas, ironically the week before the OU-Texas game. Sooner born, Sooner bred, I sang “Boomer Sooner” out loud to my mother in law while walking the TU campus that week. Take that, Longhorns.
But I digress. On point I remember one of the speakers at the forum, Eversource Energy’s efficiency expert Tilak Subramanian, showing how much Austin Energy and Cambridge Energy charged for energy delivery. It was about 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour. The only difference is that Austin Energy is doing that now and Cambridge was 93 years ago. Those are not inflation-adjusted numbers, either.
“Today you’re encouraged to use less energy; then you were encouraged to use more,” Subramanian noted. “You can’t accomplish this without a whole lot of innovation. How do you keep prices so low for 93 years?”
What other business can say this? Utilities and others in the generation, transmission & distribution sectors should be hailed as conquering heroes for such a feat. Yet customers still gripe about bills, blissfully unaware of the huge innovations, which has made this efficiency possible.
And, make no mistake, efficiency will rule the day for the foreseeable future. Generation capacity and demand are waning, while up and down the lines are countless smart meters, sensors, regulators and other devices. These technological marvels are analyzing, fixing and anticipating nearly every function on the grid, all to avoid outages, keep the lines humming and give the customers exactly what he or she wants. Nothing less.
Your utility is shifting from simply a power provider to a technology services firm. Research and development is pouring into data analytics, conservation voltage reduction and all manner of demand response and energy efficiency aims.
I know old-school energy folks who think renewables are a waste of money and just another example of government leaders picking winners and losers. Sometimes that’s true, but then there’s this historical parallel. Fifty years ago, the U.S. poured billions into the space program. We put men on the moon, and landed probes on Mars. We’ve been to the ends of the solar system and reaped all kind of product inventions because of the race to space.
Why can’t the race to renewables be the same thing. Some of that work will benefit solar and wind projects, but the things our scientists learn will also work to keep the U.S. way ahead in energy technology, perhaps for decades to come.
And we’re hardly paying a thing for it.