Problems for a Contemporary Joseph

I am writing this blog one day before Passover. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the blog will be posted on Tuesday, April 15, the day of the 2nd Seder. Using Joseph as my timely hero is still permissible. Unlike the previous blog (April 8, 2014), which focused on an uncertain past, this blog will focus instead on an uncertain future. As it was written, Joseph’s achievement was predicting (based on interpreting God’s enlightenment in the form of Pharaoh’s dreams) the upcoming variability of food supply and rearranging the system accordingly: storing food in the good years to be distributed in the bad years.

If such an enlightening force were to show up today, what would be his/her job description? It would have to include preparing an infrastructure to adapt the world for a changing climate. The climate is changing at a human pace that has, and likely will continue to result in rising temperatures, sea level rise, and a rising variability of droughts and floods. This has/will also contribute to water stress, and therefore agricultural stress – mainly in the poorest parts of the world. Therefore, the job would also require alleviation of this water stress through energy-intensive desalination. In order to mitigate human-driven climate change, we need to go through energy transition; replacing predictable energy sources with highly variable ones.

The job description would also necessarily include drastic changes in the ownership distribution of the infrastructure, the regulatory structure and the price that each of us pays for energy and water. It would not take long for a contemporary Joseph to conclude that the best way forward would be to scrap the entire system and start from scratch to tailor the system to the uncertainties of the future. This would probably not work, however, because those with vested interests in the status quo will always fight with all their might to prevent such a thing from happening – in this case, by denying the uncertainties of the future. If we retain our democratic systems, the present fight in the USA over Obamacare will look like child’s play.

As usual, I will try to move from inflammatory generalities to some details. The necessary steps need to be taken – not in the ill-defined future, but now. The changes to the infrastructure of moving energy and water are already in motion. The fact is that the infrastructure is not suited to such changes, and they are already having their impacts.

Two weeks ago, when I discussed President Obama’s visit to California to offer a bit of help and sympathy in dealing with the recent drought, I included his quote:

Obama joked about the lengthy and incendiary history of water politics in California, saying, ‘I’m not going to wade into this. I want to get out alive on Valentine’s Day.’

He could have said the same thing about the history of water and energy policies throughout the entire country. Since the impact of climate change is not local but global, I will focus on the present situation in the United States, as well as the challenges that the world is facing as developing countries try to reach the status of developed countries. As we go along, in this blog and in future blogs, we will realize that many of the issues are global and that the job description of contemporary Joseph would have to go well beyond national boundaries to encompass the world.

In terms of the energy infrastructure, I will focus on the electrical grid. My main source of information about the electrical grid is a report that was compiled by MIT scientists. The report was issued toward the end of 2011 and is part of a series of reports that examine the infrastructure changes that need to be implemented as part of a strategy toward more sustainable energy sources. These reports include “The Future of Nuclear Power” (2003), “The Future of Geothermal Energy” (2006), “The Future of Coal” (2007), “Update to the Future of Nuclear Power “(2009), “The Future of Natural Gas” (2011) and “The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle” (2011). I have no doubt that these reports would be a required reading for our contemporary Joseph. The scope of changes that need to be implemented can be best accomplished by understanding the present situation.

The following Appendix of the MIT report (mentioned above), which heavily “borrowed” from the Department of Energy’s publications, explains the history of the electrical grid system in the US, giving us a better perspective on the here-and-now.

Thomas Edison introduced the first electric power system in New York City in 1882. This direct current (dc) system initially served 59 customers in the Wall Street area at a price of about $5 per kilowatt hour (kWh). It operated at 100 volts and mainly supplied electric lights. By the end of the 1880s, many cities had similar small central stations that each served only a few city blocks.

To the extent that the industry was regulated, city governments performed this function. City governments also became major customers for street lighting and trolley services and could extract various concessions in exchange for the right to string wires. Soon, they also became owners. By 1900, municipally owned utilities accounted for about 8% of total U.S. generation. Vigorous debates about the relative merits of government- and investor-owned utilities continued in the U.S. through the 1930s, when federal policies were established that today still favor government-owned and cooperative utilities.

The transformer was first demonstrated at scale in Germany in 1891. This innovation enabled the use of relatively high-voltage transmission capable of carrying alternating current (ac) power overlong distances with relatively low losses. In 1896, George Westinghouse began the hydroelectric development of Niagara Falls, transmitting significant power to Buffalo, New York, more than 20 miles away. This inaugurated the practice of locating generators at some distance from load centers and linking them by high-voltage transmission, then using transformers to lower the voltage delivered to ultimate customers.

Since then, engineering research and the development of new materials have enabled the use of ever-higher voltages. In the U.S., ac lines with voltages of up to 150 kilovolts (kV) were in place by 1910, and the first 245 kV line was commissioned in 1922. The invention of the transformer and high-voltage lines allowed private utilities to expand beyond municipal boundaries and take better advantage of economies of scale. Such expansion compounded problems with municipal regulation and led to state regulation of investor-owned electric utilities, generally with the utilities’ active support. This trend began with the establishment of regulatory commissions in Wisconsin, Georgia, and New York in 1907. By 1914, 30 states had regulatory commissions, and today all states and the District of Columbia have them.

Vertically integrated, investor-owned firms— performing generation, transmission, and distribution as the sole provider within designated service areas—emerged as the dominant model. States enabled these firms to charge prices that allowed them to cover their costs.

… This evolution was politically rather than technologically determined. Because the U.S. political system was highly decentralized until at least the 1930s and most electric utilities operated within a single state, state regulation was the politically natural successor to supervision by municipal governments. In a different political context, in England local utilities were unable to expand for political reasons, and the system remained highly fragmented until a 1926 law mandated the establishment of an integrated nationwide grid. In the U.S., due in part to strong faith in private enterprise over the first three decades of the 20th century, the relative importance of publicly owned utilities declined during this period.

… The federal role in the electric utility industry began in 1906, when legislation authorized the sale of surplus power from federal irrigation projects, giving sales preference to municipalities. Navigable waterways had been under Federal jurisdiction since the early 19th century, and the Federal Water Power Act of 1920 both codified federal powers over navigable waterways and established the Federal Power commission, later the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), to issue hydroelectric power licenses.

… The Federal Power Act of 1935 empowered the Federal Power Commission to regulate the wholesale transmission and sale of electric power. The Rural Electrification Act of1936 established the Rural Electrification.

Our contemporary Joseph will also find that presently (as of 2011) more than 20% of the World (close to 1.5 billion people) lacks access to electricity. Due to the larger prevalence of mobile phones than corresponding electrical grids, these 20% who lack access are fully aware of how life can be improved with access to electricity, and they are trying hard to get it. Joseph will find out that the way they are deciding to get access to electrical power has major impacts on all of us. We badly need Joseph’s wisdom to help with this transition.

It is not surprising that the ways in which the poorest people in the world are currently trying to gain access to electrical power closely resemble the ways in which we got our own access more than 100 years ago. Hopefully, a new Joseph can teach all of us how to learn from the experience. In future blogs I will try to draw some parallels between power and water infrastructure in the developing world with the earlier experiences of the developed world.


**As always, I welcome your feedback to my blog. I check my comments section regularly — please let me know what you think; start a discussion about one of my posts; tell me how you heard about Climate Change Fork. It’s always nice to hear if you like my blog, but I much prefer actual interactions.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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