Elner Shimfissle and Old Tom: In Praise of Electricity

In Fannie Flagg’s charming and sweet novel Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, there is a description of Elner Shimfissle, an admirer of Thomas Edison who "even had a picture of Thomas Edison she had cut out of a magazine on the wall in her kitchen and had been very upset that there was not a national holiday for Thomas Edison. ‘Why, he lit the entire world,’ she said. ‘Just think, without old Tom Edison, we would all be sitting in the dark, no lights, no radio, no electric garage door openers. I think, after the Lord, of course, I’d rank the Wizard of Menlo Park number two, that’s how highly I think about old Tom.’"

Despite a slight whiff of condescension in the passage (but not in the full context of the work), Flagg and Aunt Elner are on to something serious here. Where would we be without electricity? It’s nearly impossible to imagine modern life in this country without electricity, and it’s difficult to live in a world that lacks adequate electricity. If you have ever visited the more poverty-stricken areas of the globe—much of Africa and a substantial portion of rural India, for example—you know how difficult life can be without electricity.

According to 2008 statistics from the International Energy Agency (IEA), nearly 1.5 billion people worldwide are without access to electricity. For sub-Saharan Africa, the urban electrification rate is 28.5% (for Africa as a whole it is only 40%). For rural sub-Saharan Africa, the rate is 12% (and only 23% for all of rural Africa). The statistics are also dismal for South Asia: a 60% urban electrification rate and 48% for rural South Asia. The IEA commented, "Since the issue of energy poverty was first analyzed in the World Energy Outlook 2002, the number of people without access to electricity has decreased by an estimated 188 million, despite the growth in world population of more than 500 million." We are losing this race, as a commentary in the last issue of MANAGING POWER demonstrated.

Among the benefits of electricity, let’s start at the beginning, with Edison’s greatest contribution: lighting. Electric lights have transformed the world, as Aunt Elner recognized. Abraham Lincoln scribbled out his brief school lessons on a tablet in front of a fire. Some 50 years later, children were reading their lessons and doing homework in a world transformed by bright, clear, ubiquitous light. As the late communications guru Marshall McLuhan (he died 30 years ago, on Dec. 31, 1980) elucidated, electric light was more than a modern convenience. It was transformative. Society after electric lights was not the same society as before the light bulb, just murkier.

The same is true of other fruits of electricity, without which you would not be reading this blather, nor would I have written it. Electricity begat the telegraph, the radio, the television. Each transformed the world in radical fashion. Vinton Cerf (or was it Al Gore?) would not have developed the Internet with its well-known revolutionary consequences, without electric power. To steal from Kurt Vonnegut: and so it goes.

These thoughts about electricity come to me from time to time, often when I read about or hear from people who should know better but who say that we fortunate folks in developed countries use too much electricity. Bunk. We don’t use enough of the stuff, and what we use we could use more efficiently. But our society—and, most dearly, the world—needs more electricity, not less.

My thoughts also turn to the social power and beauty of electric power when I think about those billions of people who have no electricity, or don’t have enough. That’s when I get excited about the prospects for small-scale, distributed, renewable energy-generating technologies. Trying to graft these low-density technologies to the robust (although not robust enough to suit me) North American or European grid makes very little sense, causes great difficulties and diseconomies, and leads us away from what we should be doing to use more electricity better.

But where there is no electric grid, and central generating plants with their enormous up-front capital costs are out of reach, small, incremental generation and microgrids make a lot of sense to me. Large-scale solar, or wind, or hydro is way too expensive for peasants in Africa and Asia. But a little bit of solar, wind, and hydro at a village level can become affordable and transformative. These technologies offer the ability to jump over the conventional distribution system that dominates in the Americas and Europe and much of Asia, much as the cell phone has made the land-line telephone obsolete in large parts of the world.

Elner Shimfissle was right to venerate Thomas Edison, not for what he was (a crotchety coot who was a brilliant inventor) but for what he did and the promise of what he did. He brought light to the world.

—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor.

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