In Praise of Electric Power

Spring has arrived at last. The giant snow piles from an absolutely horrendous winter are gone. I can sit on the bench in one of my flower gardens, reading a book, listening to a baseball game, drinking a beer, surrounded by happy plant life. My daffodils and hellebores have bloomed. We will soon have asparagus and morels with lamb chops for supper. Life is good.
One of the major reasons life is good is because I have access to all the electricity I need and want. This column is about how great it is to have reliable electricity. We often take electric power for granted, but times of weather-related stress remind us of the necessity of power.

What sustained us during the harsh, snow-and-storm dominated 2009–2010 winter was that we didn’t lose power. We got over four feet of snow in the span of a week in early February, on top of 20 inches in late December, something entirely unprecedented in Maryland in the past 100 years or so. Then we got torrential rains and winds gusting to 70 miles per hour. Nasty, nasty stuff.

We would have survived without electricity from the grid. We have a large Amish-built wood-burning cook stove in our kitchen that we use for heat and cooking. That would have provided heat and hot food (and did) during the winter, as it does every winter.
We have two gasoline-fueled electric generators. They would have kept some lights on, our freezers working, and our well water flowing and toilets flushing—provided, of course, that we could get down our one-third-mile farm lane to the paved highway to get more gasoline. That was a dicey proposition for much of storm-ridden February. We didn’t need the generators, thank goodness.

We have battery-powered and crank-powered radios, so we could keep up with the news of the day. Cell phones provide communications, as long as they are charged. Phone land lines generally survive when power lines go down.

We have snow shovels, which provide useful exercise while keeping the paths open to the wood shed and the chicken coop, where we get a couple of eggs every day in deep winter from our six hens. We have a smallish (23 horsepower diesel) John Deere four-wheel-drive tractor with a front loader. It was simply overwhelmed by the amount of snow we got. A foot or so, the Deere is just fine. Four feet? Forget about it.

I wasn’t able to get to the YMCA to swim during February. But the shoveling kept me exercising, I’m now in the best shape in a couple of years.
So we would have made it through the tough times, living a largely mid-19th-century life. Nasty, brutish, and, thankfully, short.

But we had power throughout the winter, which dropped more snow on us from December through February than I remember when I lived in Steamboat Springs, Colo., in the 1950s. In this snowfall we had lights, running (hot and cold) water, television (didn’t miss a play or ad at Super Bowl 44), and Internet access. Civilization, baby!
So let’s hear it for electric power. I don’t want to be without it for even an hour. Back in 1994 we suffered a large early November snow storm that hit while the trees were still in leaf. Limbs, distribution lines, and transformers fell widely. We could see the explosions on the horizon. We were out of power for 48 hours and it was hell. Cold hell.

Electricity is one of those services that we too often take for granted, until we don’t have it. Access to reliable electric power distinguishes advanced societies from barely developing nations. Much of the world does not have reliable electricity. Only 40% of the population of India, according to U.S. government figures, has reliable access to power. That prevents most of the nation from breaking out of poverty and flowering into modernity. For many countries, electrification is job one, and job undone.

Modern industrial and service economies depend on power. Try to imagine your life, and the life of our economy, without electricity. Can’t do it, can you?

Now, warmer weather has arrived, and loss of electricity is less harrowing. But power is still important. I don’t have running water without it. I don’t have TV or Internet access. I don’t have air conditioning (more important, in the summer, I don’t have ceiling fans).

As the Edison Electric Institute says, entirely self-serving but totally accurate, “America’s electric companies pay billions of dollars in tax revenue, employ nearly 400,000 workers, provide a variety of public service programs to benefit the local communities they serve, and produce one of our most valuable commodities—electricity.”

So as the electric power industry assembles in Baltimore in mid-May to strut its stuff at our ELECTRIC POWER trade show, let’s give it up for electricity. Whatever the problems and issues in the business, and there are plenty, electricity is a crucial, irreplaceable part of our lives. We would not, and will not, live without it—and we’ll enjoy as much of it as we can use.

—Kennedy Maize is executive editor of MANAGING POWER magazine.

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