An open letter to environmental activists regarding utilities

Speaking Sustainably

An open letter to environmental activists regarding utilities

First, let me start by thanking you for your efforts. I (like everyone else I know) want clean air and water, not only for me but also for my kids and grandkids. I grew up on the south side of Chicago in the 1970s and can vividly remember polluted water and dirty air. The progress you have helped forge is incredible.

And I am in agreement with you that the current status quo for the creation and delivery of electricity here in the U.S. is far from optimal. The system was designed more than 100 years ago and remains, by and large, unchanged. While incremental improvements have been made to clean up emissions, there is much more to be done. If our population continues to grow (along with our ever-increasing demand for electronics), and if we want to put more electric vehicles on the road, we need to consider some alternatives.

But let’s try to be constructive. Maybe it has never occurred to you, but some of you sound pretty negative. Have you considered the challenges utilities face? Electric utilities have an aging infrastructure and no easy solutions. They also have a multitude of masters to serve: customers, regulators, investors/members and you. They are also dealing with ever-growing demand, weather events, public safety/security threats, etc.

Maybe you can step away for a moment from some of what you find wrong with utilities, and appreciate some of the things they are doing to address these issues. Some are switching from coal to much cleaner-burning natural gas. But this still creates CO2 emissions, and while new techniques have increased natural gas supplies, these have an environmental impact, as well. Many utilities are incorporating renewables such as wind and solar in their generation. But new renewable generation infrastructure is expensive and renewable energy output is limited. A total switchover from coal and natural gas to solar and wind is not financially feasible at this point.

On the less visible technology side, the electric industry continues to explore superconducting transformers and high-temperature superconductors, and smart metering, which should improve the efficiency of electricity transmission and distribution. And many U.S. utilities have implemented programs to incentivize energy-efficient improvements, while also educating customers about energy conservation, even though most customers are not particularly interested in participating. 

The greatest challenge is that all of these improvements and programs cost money, and the population at large (and many nonprofits, like your own) fight rate increases. I may have missed it, but I’m pretty sure that none of you have proposed a solution that is completely environmentally friendly and still provides all the energy we need — in a cost-effective manner. While you often want to shut down a coal-fired or nuclear power plant, you rarely propose a way to compensate for the lost electricity, and I’ve never seen an environmental group advocating for a rate increase.

So maybe it is time to start a dialogue with utilities. Begin by identifying a common goal and asking, “How can we help?” As an example, maybe you can work with utilities to advocate among local public utility commissions for rate plans that support the use of green power or for time-of-use billing.

You may not get everything you want, but you may get enough so that everyone wins.

Image by Vaclav Volrab via Shutterstock

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