Fridge or freezer left in a ditch. Malcolm Campbell (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Guest essay by Eric Worrall
h/t Steve Case; According to Boston Review, we have to surrender our obsession with continuous electricity supply to save the world from climate change.
To Save the Climate, Give Up the Demand for Constant Electricity
Waiting to ensure uninterrupted power for everyone as we transition away from fossil fuels will cost too much time—and too many lives.
DAVID MCDERMOTT HUGHES
Many decades ago electricity became the new oxygen, and the vast majority of Americans today believe they need it every moment of every waking or sleeping hour. The United States has built a vast infrastructure for generating, transmitting, and consuming it—all almost entirely based on planet-destroying fossil fuels and nuclear power.
For those seriously concerned about climate change, the inverse—the demand for electrical continuity—may be the real problem. Today’s most ambitious plans to abandon fossil fuels—which are certainly not supported by the natural gas industry—allow ten, twenty, or thirty years to wire the whole country with solar and wind power, running all day, every day, for everyone, everywhere. The plans differ in speed, but all agree on the last point: except for six agonizing hours per year, electrons must flow 24/7/365. To make that steadiness possible, solar plants will have to store some electricity during the daytime feast to last through the nocturnal famine. “As economies shift to variable renewables,” environmental activist Paul Hawken writes in his aggressive climate proposal Drawdown (2017), “management of the power grid with energy storage systems is critical.”
Zimbabwe and Puerto Rico thus provide models for what we might call pause-full electricity. Admittedly, neither Zimbabweans nor Puerto Ricans chose to accept this rationing. And in Zimbabwe, official incompetence has reduced electricity to a nearly unbearable degree. Still, Zimbabwe’s past and Puerto Rico’s potential indicate just and feasible ways of living amid intermittency. With a pause, life goes on. By abiding that interlude—by shedding their load—people can preserve life near and far. If my town’s blackout will lessen, say, the force of Puerto Rico’s next hurricane, then, please, shed us half a day per week.
What applies in the pandemic also applies—and also with desperate urgency—in the climate crisis. We can live with some intermittency and rationing—at least until batteries and other forms of energy storage are up and running everywhere. Hospitals certainly need 100 percent reliable equipment—perhaps some “continuous” businesses and cell towers too. And, in cities, elevators, streetlights, and subways must run reliably. One could imagine battery-assisted, semi-smart micro-grids connecting such infrastructure as well as home medical devices. But we don’t need the entire residential third of U.S. electricity consumption to run off lithium or to operate seamlessly.
Read more: http://bostonreview.net/science-nature/david-mcdermott-hughes-save-climate-give-demand-constant-electricity
The same arguments could be applied to switching off household access to the electricity grid completely. Historically people didn’t have any electricity, they developed plenty of ways to preserve food which don’t rely on electricity, like pickling, canning or drying. People who need refrigeration to preserve life saving medications like insulin could pick up their supply a few times per week from a central depot.
But there is a noticeable lack of people who actually choose to live this way.