The Sustainable Grid ™
by Mark Rose
“No one has ever seen a kilowatt.” *
Yet this invisible force is the most tangible of modern necessities. Commonly known as electricity, we generate megawatts at a power plant and transmit them through a system of switches, poles and wires, somehow shrinking them to kilowatts along the way. Though unseen, they are so potent they will kill anyone who touches them; strangely enough we pay for them in time components, megawatt and kilowatt hours, as a measure of something more omnipresent than any material need. Take for example gasoline, the fuel that propels our cars and empowers us with freedom of movement and enterprise. We see it, smell it, and buy it in very specific transactions at the pump. These gallons take us from point A to point B. We can put them in the tank of a car or carry them in a can. We know their cost the moment we buy them, and our cars estimate how far a gallon will take us. Gauges and bells warn us when we need more. Cell phone service, equally as invisible as the kilowatt, is also sold as a measure of time—the minutes we use—yet it comes to us through small portable hardware that provides instant updates: who we’ve called, how long we’ve talked, and how many minutes remain under our specific plan. We purchase phones in all shapes and colors, choose from a myriad of options, and instantly track our account. These modern necessities neatly fit into the palm of a hand. They connect us. They transport us. Increasingly, they are us.
As with gasoline and cell phones, electricity is a necessity, yet we know much less about it, and take it much more for granted than these other more famous connectors. From Benjamin Franklin’s kite to today’s modern power plants, electricity remains mysterious, seen as a rate on a bill rather than a commodity. We will not live without electricity, though we know little more about its production and delivery than the discomfort we feel when the power is out, or the spiraling monthly cost of it, or the danger of coming into contact with it. In truth, it is only the end result we know—the light that allows us to defy our physical limitations as a diurnal species fully exploring the depths of night and day, at home, at work, whenever and however we play. Without it’s capacity, we have no more courage than the flicker of light from a burning stick. Without its energy, we have no more innovation than our mere hand-to-hand survival instincts.
Most certainly, we owe our creative and genetic capabilities to an even higher power, one that has propelled civilization through centuries of advancement and wonder. Michelangelo chiseled his David organically, Rousseau inspired naturally and Columbus sailed unknown seas by compass and stars. Clearly, humans learned to interact, to love and war, without the force of these magical kilowatts. In American history, the colonies grew, Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, General Washington persevered and a new nation emerged by the light and grit of their times. Yet among them, as in the ages before them, were minds that wanted more, eyes that saw greater potential, hearts that dreamed of burdens eased and life sustained, ambitions that felt the magic of innovation and egos that required the power of experimentation. And so it was that in this wonder we call civilization, Franklin’s kite floated into Edison’s bulb and the world was cast in a light unlike any seen before. Never again would night be dark, or life be limited by the sun.
* I first heard this statement from S. David Freeman, my boss at the Lower Colorado River Authority from 1987-1990.