An Iconoclast’s Manifesto

The time has come to shatter some windows, rock some boats, break come crockery, upturn some of the money changers’ tables. It’s time for iconoclasm. 

These impulses come to mind after reading an essay by Phil Carson in the online newsletter Intelligent Utility. Carson, long an advocate of greater government support for infrastructure, including the electric grid, makes this heretical suggestion: “Let me suggest that we bury the term smart grid, which is inherently part of the hype cycle we’re struggling to escape, while turning to the more prosaic terms grid modernization and infrastructure investment.”

Right on! It’s been my position for many years—going back to when the Electric Power Research Institute first started talking about the “smart grid” without being able to define it—that what America needs more than a smart grid is a strong grid. As we delve ever deeper into the cybersecurity dungeons it becomes inescapable that a robust grid should be the priority. Too often, it seems to me as I try to understand the intricacies of the smart grid, that the smarts most advocates are talking about weaken the grid by making it vulnerable to cyber attack. So putting golden eggs into the smart grid basket could turn out to be really dumb.

Beyond that, selling the supposed advantages of the smart grid has proven difficult. Average customers tend to view the promises of smart meters and time-of-day pricing and the ability to control your refrigerator and toaster with your smartphone as reeking of snake oil. For good reasons. The real payoff always seems to end up in the utility’s pocket, so there has been a lot of customer pushback to smart grid projects. And that shows up in politics, as politicians are uncomfortable imposing discomfort on their voters when the benefits are either not yet in view or entirely illusory.

Beefing up the grid—along with beefing up other critical infrastructure such as bridges, roads, phones and the like—is an easier sell to policy makers and those who dispense increasingly scarce public funds.

Here’s another term I want to abandon: ratepayers. This term, ubiquitous in our business, is frankly both insulting and revealing. It implies that the folks who buy and use the product—the electricity that comes out of power plants and travels down the wires to the TV and toaster—are passive lumpenproletariat. It is implicitly condescending. We set the rates. They take the watts and pay the greenbacks and that’s it.

But they are more than that. These people—virtually everybody in the United States and Canada—are customers. They are smart—and a heck of a lot smarter than any meters or thermostats anybody is talking about installing in their buildings. They are often a lot smarter than the people who make and deliver those electrons and who set the prices. And they are smarter than the cubicle rats and bureaucrats who try to tell them what to do and how to behave. Let’s call a customer a customer.

A third formulation I want to consign to the ash heap of history, and then I’ll end this rant. It’s climate change. This weasel phrase is a classic euphemism, which my Webster’s (11th Edition) defines as “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.” Climate change was concocted by the electricity industry to hide the real issue—global warming—but, like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, it turned on its creator. Environmentalists adopted the term because it becomes something of a universal political solvent. Since the climate always changes, and has always changed, anything one doesn’t like about the weather becomes undeniably “climate change.”

Thus we get the unproven and possibly bogus claim that “extreme weather” is a result of a warming climate caused by human-driven emissions of carbon dioxide and other inoffensive gases. As Roger Pielke Jr., Judy Curry, and others have been pointing out for years, there is no evidence that we have been experiencing “extreme weather” anywhere on the globe. It’s also not entirely clear that the globe is warming, although the empirical evidence for that is more convincing.

The chief problem with climate change is that it misleads. Here’s what I mean. In January, the U.S. media was agog at a report from the federal government that 2012 was one of the warmest on record in the U.S. Sure proof of global warming, right? Not quite. North America is not the globe. A more recent paper by NASA climate campaigner Jim Hansen notes that global temperatures really haven’t moved in the past decade: “The 5-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade, which we interpret as a combination of natural variability and a slowdown in the growth rate of the net climate forcing.”

Climate change is useful for those who want to change our behavior for all kinds of it reasons. It becomes impossible to disprove. If the climate is always changing, how does one tease out the man-made component? To those who want to change the way we use energy, it really doesn’t matter. Too much snow last week? “Climate change.” Drought? “Climate change.” Floods? “Climate change.” Next thing we know, activists will claim that earthquakes are a result of “climate change.”

So there they are—words and phrases that mislead rather than clarify—smart grid, ratepayer, climate change. Begone.

—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor

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