Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Public Electric Utility Grids


Electrical Mindsets
Roast Beef Sandwiches

Picture yourself comfortably sitting in your favorite easy chair or snuggling into your favorite couch in the intimate setting of your favorite room. As you sit there reading the book that has captured your imagination or you are lying and listening to a particularly poignant piece of music or perhaps resting upon one knee the journal you intently write your most personal thoughts in, the world that exists within the walls of that room is indeed your creative, inventive and intellectual sanctuary.

Beyond that room are of course other rooms. These rooms are the life support facilities that in one manner or another, tend to nurture the whole life you celebrate within your “central room”. While each of these rooms are designed for specific purposes all of them are designed to support the larger purpose of that central room. In the kitchen, you prepare food that nourishes you while living in that central room. In the dining room you enjoy the fruit of your kitchen labors. From that central room you access the space you exercise in as well as the room you bathe in. Off of that central room is of course the bedroom that allows your body and mind to rest. There is as well the office and/or library that allows you to expand the intellectual and creative aspects of your mind. You leave the central room to go into your shop or studio to express your artistic skills. You leave that central room and your house to get to your garden. Beyond the garden and the house is of course the garage and in that garage is of course the vehicle that takes places well beyond the land your house and your central room rest upon. Yet no matter where you go beyond the walls of that central room, you ultimately come back to the good book, good music and the interesting journal you write while sitting in the easy chair of life that enables you to do reflect upon all of who you are as that chair resides in your central room.

As a house is a house and as such it has doorways, many of those doorways enter into your central room. Adjacent to each of those doorways are switches that you can operate and allow you to enter into that central room or enter into rooms adjacent to that central room you use to light your way as you move freely about your house. The placement of these switches is more or less based upon some rather common sense assumptions. One such assumption is that you simply need to see where you are going as you move from room to room. If you have a switch strategically placed so that such movement is made easy, all the better it is for you. If on the other hand you don’t have such a switch, you improvise and in doing so still move from room to room knowing that eventually you will end up back at the central room that is so dear to you.

The reason I am bringing this whole subject of central rooms and light switches to your attention is on one hand quite simple. As a builder and master carpenter who has spent years designing and building homes for others, I know that virtually every house has a central room. I also know that for every person I have ever designed a house for, access to that room was made easier due to the fact that light switches were placed in places that enhance the movement of the individual(s) who I have designed that central room or that entire room for. While one would think that having such a job is quite rewarding and that being wholly immersed in the field of architectural design for as long as I have, I would be happily singing the praises of building central rooms and installing many light switches in the process, unfortunately, this has not been the case. Unfortunately, the real reason behind talking about central rooms and light switches is that in our America today, a great deal of us cannot afford either central rooms or light switches. While this may sound somewhat ridiculous, the lack of affordability is at the heart of what is wrong with our nation today and is of course at the heart of the rationale for writing this essay. So, in hopes of switching some light on this lack of affordable and efficient housing and in doing so shedding some light on the reasons why affordable, energy efficient housing has become such an illusive part of our equally allusive American dream, I’m going to devote this entire essay to the subject of four way switches. More to the point, I am going to devote this entire essay to switching ancient electrical mindsets.

There is one reason and one reason only why we can no longer afford to live in the central rooms of our pleasant American dream. That one reason is our inability as a nation to afford the electricity needed to power the light switches we would like to be able to reach for and turn on each and every time we leave our central rooms. Having said this, I need to present a few generic electrical questions all of which begin with the word why.

Why do we automatically reach for a light switch when leaving our central room and entering into another room?

Why do we hesitate when it comes to turning that light switch on when in fact we have moved through the doorways that lead from that central room literally hundreds if not thousands of times over the course of time we have spent living in our house?

Why is it that when we do pass through a doorway and do use a light switch to facilitate our movement, we immediately turn it off once we are done doing whatever it is we were doing in the first place?

Why on the other hand do we at times choose to leave the light on in one room even though we are doing something else in another?

Why on still another hand, do we choose to not turn any lights on when we move from one room or another in our home and choose instead to stumble around in self afflicted darkness, blindly searching for something that would be much easier found if only we either turned on the light switch or indeed had a light switch to turn on in the first place?

The answer to all of these generic electrical questions does in my view have to do with the fact that we as human beings are on one hand quite familiar with our central rooms and the various rooms attached to those central rooms and within that familiarity we have simply grown accustomed to the behavioral economics we display in our homes as that behavior is associated with the manner in which we consume electricity. As we are ultimately creatures of habit and within the context of our habits, we grow accustomed to the life patterns we form, wanting and needing light is one of those habits whereas realizing we actually have to pay for that light is another. In the midst of the ongoing battle between lightness and darkness is the pleasure we realize from having light and the pain we realize when we fear we no longer will have light. The problem we collectively as Americans are experiencing today is the realization that the utility that has historically provided us with light has become entirely un-utilitarian. To the point where today our public electric utility infrastructure is crumbling is then the same point that so many of us simply cannot afford to pay the utility bill is then the same point we can no longer afford to upgrade our homes with the modern electric technologies that would help us reduce our monthly electric utility bill.

With such a remarkable set of wholly disconnected dynamics coming into play against one another, the very electricity that we obviously need is rapidly becoming something that we simply aren’t going to have if indeed we continue to think in the manner we have come accustomed to thinking. If we don’t collectively change our view of electricity, we cannot collectively prosper from the new technologies that can and must help us not only produce it much more efficiently but manage what we produce in a manner will enable each and every one of us to have strategically located switches that anticipate our truly modern movements in our truly modern homes that hold the truly modern dreams and peace of mind we should expect to realize and enjoy while sitting in truly modern central rooms.

While I am not saying anything that has not already been said and virtually everyone in America is fully aware of the fact that our public electric utility infrastructure is obsolete, I have always found it necessary to view obsolescence for what it actually is – an obsolete thought process benchmarked much more so by complacency than urgency.

Yes, I know I need to have more light switches and I know I need to manage the use of my own electricity more efficiently and I know that I would like to have much more advanced technology monitoring the physical functions of my home but. Oh well, there’s only so much that I can do on my own. While this argument anchors us to a certain national camaraderie and there is a certain amount of truth attached to the notion that one person can only go so far on their own, we have not yet reached a point where urgency of change overshadows complacency. While I am absolutely certain that such urgency is quite near on our national economic horizon, I am not at all certain that those who are actually supposed to be putting the puzzle of our 21st century portrait of electrical generation aren’t just as complacent as those who struggle to pay their monthly electric utility bill.

In my hyper-imaginative mindset, I am able to envision public utility executives across America wringing their hands with an odd mix of anxiety and excitement as I am sure they are fully aware of the varied forms of electrical generation that must ultimately be integrated together if we are to produce an American economy that enables both public affordability and corporate profit of electrical generation. In that same mindset however, I can easily envision these same public utility executives that just like the consumers of the electricity they produce walk from their central rooms in the same darkness as everyone else and as a result trip over the flashlight that sits on an end table next to the doorway that leads to the refrigerator that holds the midnight roast beef sandwich they snack on trying to escape the stress of their job at two am in the morning, six days a week.

As complacency is complacency and virtually no one has been able to figure out the great electrical riddle of our 21st century, when does urgency replace complacency and more to the point, when does stumbling in the dark and hoarding pennies to pay for light bulbs instill in the minds of all Americans neither complacency nor urgency but good old fashioned inventiveness and team work?

I am a United States Navy trained electrician and I am a builder and master carpenter. The technology I have been exposed to and worked with over the past four decades has to say the very least, absolutely fascinated me. What I am capable of doing with a spool of electrical wire, a handful of electrical devices and another handful of technologies linked to those devices is to say the very least, quite extraordinary. I am not stating this fact to simply impress my readers, I’m stating this fact to really impress my readers. The reason I am is that in all of the years that I have been working with electricity, I have also been working within the realm of complacency. If I had a dime for every time my electrical suggestions were met with responses from my client base with words like “that would be nice, but”, I’d be very wealthy.

In no uncertain terms and regardless of either the level of education or income of my client base, complacency has always overruled imagination. As a result of national complacency, what would be nice has virtually always been over ruled by complacency that has been benchmarked by “common sense”. Yes it would be nice if at two in the morning and I could walk to the refrigerator without either holding a flashlight or tripping over it so that I could eat a roast beef sandwich. Uneducated common sense however almost always over rules the larger notion of placing a motion sensing light switch that would automatically come on as I walk from my central room into my kitchen at two am in search of that sandwich. Uneducated common sense tells me that I should not even be awake in two in the morning let alone be eating a roast beef sandwich. Uneducated common sense also dictates that if I were to walk into the offices of my local bank and ask the loan officer for a loan so that I could install a two am roast beef eating light sensor, I would be met by stares of astonishment by the loan officer and other bank executives listening to my request.

The loan officer would go to the loan committee charged with approving my loan, share with that committee my penchant for two am roast beef sandwiches and conclude that while my idea was interesting it was not anchored to anything even remotely related to “common sense”. Thus my loan would be denied, the manufacturers of motion sensor lights would loose business, the manufacturers of energy efficient refrigerators would lose business, makers of roast beef and pumpernickel rye bread would loose business, the makers of horseradish would loose business and of course the bank and the electric utility company would loose business as the light that could be placed into the passageway leading from my central room to my kitchen could be powered by micro solar powered two am, roast beef utility grids managed by public electric utility companies that were financed by loan officers who for one reason or another don’t seem to like roast beef sandwiches at two am.

Complacency is hands down the killer of inventiveness and in our America today and as we are on the brink of economic redundancy benchmarked by overwhelming complacency, through our collective penchant for worshiping the false Gods of uneducated common sense we are in turn bringing about the urgency of panic as opposed to embracing the far more advanced logic of applied new age techno-industrial and socio-economic prosperity.

Electric utility grids are today the answer to that prosperity as they unequivocally imply that as hopelessly bored industrial geniuses who get up at two am to have roast beef sandwich conferences calls with our creative self for no other reason than no one else seems to be listening, we as a nation are more than ready to embrace a far more advanced and organic relationship with the electricity we have invented and once again must come to realize as being essential to our combined economic growth. Just as the hydroelectric dam projects of yesterday enabled a nation to prove to itself that channeling the course of water through a turbine could produce organic electricity, a new and far more dynamic set of organic electrical technologies sits waiting for integration into our common sense electrical psyche.

As our population grows and inhabits (or embraces) more and more the consciousness of sustainable energy sources, electric utility grids are indeed the definition of the problem just as much as they are the definition of the solution. Whereas the use of hydroelectric power moved certain river regions of our country forward economically in the past, this organic form of power did so in conjunction with all other forms of power utilized to generate electricity at the time. While hydroelectric was and remains to be considered as a remarkably organic and of course constantly renewable form of electrical generation, all industries (with the exception of the industry of human labor) that went into the construction of these dams were not the least bit organic. None the less, with the aid of heavy equipment fueled by oil, turbines manufactured in plants powered by coal, this renewable form of energy came on line and in doing so spawned the growth of a collection of industries so diverse that our entire nation thrived both socially and economically for decades.

Now we have the technology to produce electricity from the sun, the wind and of course the hydrodynamic forces of geothermal energy produced from deep within our earth. Yet because of complacency, the electric grids that should be forming to take advantage of these technologies are still more or less held captive in two am roast beef conference calls that we arrive at only after tripping over a flashlight whose batteries are no longer included.

Going back to the dialogue about four way switches that power lights that light our way from our central room to the rooms that support the central theme of living a comfortable life. I’m compelled to place the application of these grids into the context of both the architectural and electrical needs of a single house.

Given the fact that every house in America is actually built on American (earthly) soil, more than likely, geothermal forces exist beneath that house. Given the fact that a good percentage of the architectural footprint of these American homes built on American soil are above ground, more than likely each of these homes are affected by the sun that moves across the sky in our America on a daily basis as well. Given the fact that some days the sun is blocked by clouds that are formed by the geothermal currents that rise from the earth around these houses and in turn produce winds that move the clouds in and out of the geographical regions these houses are built in, wind, solar and geothermal energy are more or less constant.

Given the fact that solar collectors, wind turbines and geothermal heat exchange units are as well somewhat or at the very least have the potential to be constant in this day and age, what would happen if these technologies actually became the norm? What would happen if these technologies were to become just as hydroelectric power ultimately became, fully integrated into our national public electric utility grid?

The not so comical answer to this question would be that when the electric meter reader came by to read our electric meter, he or she would be wearing a most unusual uniform and of course would be required to display an equally unusual form of professional identification as he or she would also be outfitted with an array of technologically sophisticated gadgets. In turn, he or she would more than likely be accompanied by a team of experts who on a monthly or quarterly basis would collectively convene on our property for the singular purpose of interviewing our house to determine its overall technological relationship with the earth, its financial relationship with the town it was built in and the overall strength of the investment portfolio we as homeowners have developed as a result of upgrading both our house and our professional careers with these new technologies.

To put this thought into a not so comical perspective, when was the last time you had a good conversation with your electric meter reader? If you are like most people, the last time you had such a conversation, you tried talking about two am roast beef sandwiches devoured in the darkness of technological dysfunctional kitchen and were met with the same blank stare as the one given to you by the loan officer when you asked them to help you install a roast beef sandwich motion detector switch. But for the sake of this particular essay, let’s assume that the conversations you had with the meter reader turned out to be just as productive as the conversation you had with your loan officer and indeed you were living in a house that was equipped with technologically enhanced, state of the art two am roast beef sandwich motion detectors. Let’s assume also that accompanying your electric meter reader on a monthly or quarterly basis was your loan officer as well as your investment banker. What would happen if this all came to pass?

First of all, your monthly electric utility bill would probably come to reflect the geothermal effects the earth has had on your house in the last thirty days. Next, an assessment of sun days compared to an assessment of non-sun and non-wind days would come into play. Then of course an assessment of actual wind days would be entered into the equation. Adding to all of this information would of course be the amount of electricity consumed by fossil fuel electrical generation plants as well as bio fuel electrical generation plants. In the end and as a homeowner of a state of the art American residential architectural masterpiece financed by your involvement with the larger energy grid that serves your home and the homes of your neighbors, roast beef luncheons at two pm would ultimately replace flashlight tripping two am self inflicted roast beef séances.

In the many years that I have been so proud of the fact that I chose the field of home building as my career, it has been the reward of talking to clients about their dreams either fulfilled or unfulfilled home building dreams that have compelled me to pose the questions I have in this essay.

As I have had the privilege of witnessing both the joys and sorrows of families forced to live within the realm of uneducated common sense and those families have just as my own gone through the socio-industrial transformation every other American has gone through, I think of all of the experts I have met who just as myself have walked blindly at two am in the morning to the kitchen for nourishment. When in my dreams I think of this and I think of the volume of technologically advanced meter readers dressed in unusual uniforms and carrying sophisticated forms of professional identification, all who should be visiting and interviewing the technological performance of my house on a monthly basis, I think of pitching horseshoes in an American economy that allows me the luxury and affordability to do so.

If as the horseshoe flies past an array of solar collectors and wind farms and above geothermal or natural gas pipelines I know that the executives running my nations utility grids or the loan officers assuring that American commerce remains benchmarked by our collective self discipline and combined ingenuity, I am at the end of a horseshoe tournament free to sit in my central room that is fully equipped with the state of the art technologies all of us as Americans have produced, I will be both happy and proud to pay my electric utility bill.

The problem we in America have with our electrically switching mindsets is that complacency is unfortunately still awaiting urgency when in fact real common sense comes from pitching real horseshoes and eating real roast beef sandwiches.

The Blue Collar Industrialist

M. Patrick Dahlke

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