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Is Sustainability Talk a Distraction from What Really Matters?

Most talk of "energy efficiency" and “sustainability” is insidious or naïve, or even misdirected. We all should switch off the lights when we leave a room, use efficient, gas-fired tankless water heaters (even when they are uneconomical), and work in LEED certified buildings. Intelligent thermostats — Nest, for instance — may regulate our air-conditioning to assure comfort while generating savings, and shaving “peak” load on the electricity grid. Using LED lamps and star rated appliances is admirable too. These solutions and behaviors, while praiseworthy, are beside the point; we should rather favor “supply action” before demand response.

While environmentally conscious behavior is essential for the planet’s health, a better battle toward the same objective is to diminish emissions at the source — power plants and petroleum-based transport. Between them they account for over 60 percent of GHG emissions, while residences and office buildings account for about 11 percent, according to the EPA (see Figure 1, right). 

Emissions as Smoking

Consider smoking as an analogy. Yes, smoking causes cancer and people should be encouraged to give up the habit. Taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products, and smoking bans in enclosed spaces, do discourage buying and use at the retail level. Research money to cure tobacco addiction is fine too. But would it not be better to focus on cigarette factories and diminish supply of the tobacco plant?

The Drug Enforcement Administration chases drug lords across foreign lands and seas, disrupts their supply chains, and destroys fields growing poppy. What could be the fossil-fuelled energy equivalent?

Imagine if carbon dioxide were visible like black smoke — plumes come out of households, and the messages on TVs and roadside displays say: “The Environmentalist General has determined that such emissions are dangerous to the planet and your health.” Fair enough, but just outside the city, some giant power plant emits huge amounts of smoke, from multiple chimneys, continuously. If we cut the smoke from the chimneys and create clean electricity, the little smoke plumes from individual homes may diminish, and matter little.

When the electricity value chain is regarded as a whole, nipping emissions in the bud makes a lot of sense.

Is there a tacit understanding among certain stakeholders to focus on green buildings, appliances, and people’s habits in order to divert attention from the emissions sources? 

Sustainability? Oh, Please!

Just as “efficiency” efforts are misdirected, so also is the talk of "sustainability."

The word likely originated with Gro Harlem Brundtland’s report, Our Common Future, where the term “sustainable development” was first introduced. That makes sense — we wish for development, but with inter-generational equity. As trustees of the bounty of the earth, we wish to leave behind a habitable planet with resources for future inhabitants.

Former Vice President Al Gore and his colleague David Blood coined Sustainable Capitalism; this advances the dialogue because it recommends a means toward sustainable development. 

But much is lost in leaping from the adjective “sustainable” to the noun “sustainability.” The latter neither states the challenge to be addressed with practical clarity nor proposes any means toward it. In fact, combine “sustainability” with “climate change” or “global warming,” and we enter the realm of sappy kitsch and futile meetings among international bureaucrats. Actionability is largely lost.

Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) mandating a certain amount of renewable energy in the overall generation mix, in given timeframes, is an interim step. When centrally generated, say from concentrated solar, RPS does not dislodge the existing paradigm — it shores up the present grid topology.

Only distributed generation, starting with rooftop solar and progressing to microgrids, dislodges the present paradigm. What is needed is full-blown competition for electricity, with numerous service providers to choose from and a variety of solutions. Technologies allow this; a new generation of entrepreneurs has to define new business models.

Utility and oil industry executives are likely delighted at all the noise from sustainability, efficiency, and climate change. It means little will change while everyone feels virtuous. The focus overwhelmingly should instead be on clean, distributed power generation, and progressively diminishing amounts of traditional, grid-delivered, coal-generated electricity.

Restructuring Electricity Business 

From a business perspective, this means industry structure has to change. The entire edifice of centralized generation with gigantic transmission and distribution, and the regulated monopoly structure, is obsolete. How do we go from today to the future?

In the case of telecom, it began with improbable entrepreneurs betting against impossible odds. William McGowan, a founder of MCI, had a prominent role in breaking up the AT&T monopoly. This quote from Entrepreneur describes it succinctly: "To implement its long-distance service, MCI's networks needed to be connected to local telephone networks, which were owned by subsidiaries of AT&T. When AT&T refused to allow any interconnections except at exorbitant prices, MCI filed a lawsuit against the company in 1974, charging that it was violating antitrust laws by restricting access to its local telephone network [emphasis added]."

Microgrid operators likely have similar rights to the local electricity networks, through colocation at the sub-station. When and who will claim them?

Further, during the trial, MCI had presented numerous AT&T documents that revealed a long-standing policy to destroy any long-distance competition. This prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to file its own lawsuit against AT&T. To avoid a trial, AT&T negotiated a settlement in 1984, agreeing to divest its local "Baby Bell" companies and give up control of the local telephone networks [emphasis added].” And thus began competition in the telephone industry.

The history of electricity is no less dramatic, except for the present interregnum of about 50 some years. This relative calm in the electricity business parallels what happened in telecommunications, which was also once regarded as utilities, though few now would. With solar developments, such as distributed generation, electric utilities are at an inflection point, ripe for a new generation of McGowans.

In charting a new industry trajectory, all talk of sustainability, and dare one say it, climate change, is a distraction. Not because it is unimportant but because the lesson has been learned — the climate change message has been absorbed. The focus now ought to be on the core of sustainability, which is energy in general, and first, electricity.

Lead image: Power plant via Shutterstock

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