Dying Is Easy; Electricity Is Hard


Electricity is one of those things that is easy to take for granted. All you have to do is flick a switch and somehow, from somewhere, the juice turns on and does just what you want it to do. Most of us rarely think about all the things that need to happen for this to be so.

But with the simultaneous rises in energy prices and climate-change concern, there has been a lot of news lately about how electricity is generated and transmitted, and there surely will be much more in the coming years. In The Times alone, you can read recent articles about Exelon’s failed (so far) takeover of NRG; Al Gore‘s energy prescriptions, which include a salient point about beefing up our electrical grid; and an article by Matt Wald about how the existing grid may be weakened as more solar and wind power are generated.

Judging from your responses to our “Advice for Obama” plea, a lot of you are also very interested/concerned about our electric future (and a significant fraction of you really, really want to see Amory Lovins installed as energy secretary).

Another reason that we typically don’t think much about electricity production is that its negative externalities — especially the carbon waste generated by all that coal burning that generates nearly half of all U.S. power — are so far-removed from the point of our consumption that it is easy to not think about them. As we once wrote in a column about the possible U.S. renaissance of nuclear power, far more coal miners die in China each year (about 4,700 last year) than have died in history from nuclear power. Even in the U.S., an average of 33 coal miners die each year. We’ve also written about ongoing underground coal fires.

All of these macro issues are daunting and fascinating. But a great article in Sunday’s Times by Ken Belson shows how daunting — and fascinating — the micro issues can be too. Belson tags along with a pair of maintenance workers from Con Ed, which supplies electricity to New York City and environs, as they inspect the high-rise towers and transmission lines to make sure they are ready for winter weather. You should read the entire article, but here is my favorite part:

Like Con Ed’s half-dozen other inspection teams, the two men inspect about 30 towers a day. First, they use binoculars to survey the joints of the steel towers and the health of the equipment at the top. The ceramic, circular insulators, for instance, can be damaged by lightning — or by frustrated hunters, who have been known to shoot at them when deer are scarce.

They search the base of the tower for cracks and graffiti, a telltale sign of potential damage elsewhere. Sometimes, intruders dump washing machines, cars, and barrels of toxic chemicals around the towers. Thieves try to remove grounding wires in hopes of selling the copper in them.

Nests are another potential hazard. Hawks, vultures, and raptors carry food to their perches that can end up damaging equipment. Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures can also short-circuit feeders when they leap off cables and discharge streams of excrement that, at up to 12 feet long, can simultaneously touch a live wire and a grounded structure. Nests without eggs in them are removed.

Then there are the trees — hundreds of thousands of them. Con Edison uses light detection and ranging technology, or Lidar, to keep track of every tree, cable, tower, and other structure on its property. To create a map accurate to within two feet, helicopters equipped with devices that shoot 50,000 laser pulses a second survey the pathways. The heights of the objects below are determined by how fast the laser beams bounce back.

It is hard to read this article and not have at least a bit more appreciation for the magic that occurs every time you flip the switch on your bedside lamp.


Or maybe we'll all be able to get off the grid in the next decade or two...


@14 - I'd be interested to see your arguments to why Mr. Lovins would not make a good secretary of energy instead of one liners w/out evidence.

After you gather your evidence, balance yourself out with his Ted lecture and/or read "Winning the Oil End Game"

Paul K

@Steve R, please go back to telling us that smoking is actually good for you, and it is all the MSM that is trying to convince us that it causes cancer.

As Travis has rightly noted, the vast majority of Climatologists are pretty clear that they believe global warming is 'man made' and real. What John Coleman believes is not credible - he is a weather presenter and not a research Meterologist or Climatologist.

Assuming man cannot affect the climate is pretty foolhardy. CO2 in the atmosphere can easily be connected to many changes, just as many chemicals affect the atmosphere. The Earth's balanced systems are capable of putting up with a certain amount of disturbances, but we have well exceeded what it can deal with.


#13 Steve R.

In regards to your link about: NOT “Every Climatologist on the planet” is a lemming..

The "expert" John Colmen is absolutely classic. First of all he is on the biggest joke of a network, San Diego's KUSI (think anchorman). And he is the weatherman in San Diego, (think mostly sunny 70 degrees everyday... my dog could do that)

Beyond that, this guy is a riot, a complete goof ball. Here is a youtube I found of him: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxP6xTmSzCI

Best quote: "Just an update, the storms continue to move across the country and there seems to be no end to the constantly changing weather. "

Just classic. The best part about this guy is he claims to have founded the weather channel and it was stolen from him... Anywho, I love this guy, but by no means would I ever site him as an expert on anything...


I was at a steel mill in NJ a couple months ago and in the pulpit they have a traffic light. The operators told me when the light turns yellow, they 15 min to finish their heat. After 15 minutes the light turns red and they lose power to the arcs.

They get 1 million dollars a month to have that system in place.

John Mashey

@7 Wilj

What you say about incentives is true in much of the US, but not everywhere. In particular, the CA PUC incents utility efficiency, which is part of why CA has stayed ~flat in KWh/capita over the last 30 years, while the US average has climbed about 50%.

Google: peter darbee efficiency united nations

to see comments by CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric.

The US is in a race to increase efficiency and replace fossil fuels (~80% of energy supply) with sustainable supplies before the downturn in fossil fuel production sends the economy back to the early 1800s.

Google: ayres aspo or ayres warr

Ayres writes convincingly that GDP depends strongly on efficiency*energy, and if energy goes down, efficiency better go up, fast.

Fossil fuels are a one-time inheritance of (energy)capital, not continuing (energy) income. Peak Oil happens in the next decade, and Peak Gas within several decades. Don't count on Athabasca or shale oil to help much. Coal is more complicated.

Hence, a much bigger fraction of energy capital needs to get invested in assets that produce energy income, before that capital is spent, because then it's too late, i.e., the same thing that happens to corporations that fail to invest when they have the money.

Some policies (drill soon, burn it up quick)simply guarantee that Americans in 2100 will be rather poor. Oil and gas are so useful that we'll burn all we canget, but the question is:

"Do we break the energy piggy bank and leave almost nothing for anyone's great-grandchildren?"



#23 Thanks for clearing up something that has long puzzled me over burying cables!

For individual home owners, surely wind must give enough for domestic use? (does the US have the European model of 'sell the surplus back to the electricity company/).

One interesting local power plant idea running in the UK is generating from food waste - garbage collectors and supermarkets generating power from food waste. This is aided by the targets and tax penalties on sending such stuff to landfill.


Yet another climate change debate turns into "ONLY PSYCHOPATHS BELIEVE THE OTHER SIDE! LOOK!"


Amory Lovins?

You must be joking. That's like putting Ralph Nader in charge of GM. Jane Fonda as head of the NRC. Or the VFW. Or the American Legion. Or all three at once.

If that's what passes for competency in the upcoming administration, folks better go buy their generators now.

#7 Wilj ... the proof is in what people expect when they flip the switch; most people expect the lights to go on, 24/7. Given the complexity, I think the system runs pretty well. Most of the transmission problems are caused by industry outsiders fighting to stop upgrades or new lines. (Suppliers don't sell anything when transmission lines don't transmit! They have a huge incentive to invest.) Most generation problems are caused by environmental obstructionists who think that they can get the kind of world they want by forcing a reduction in supply (preventing enough new plants from being built and coming on line). People forget that before our society switched to oil and coal-fired electricity ... we got light from whale oil lamps and beeswax candles, heat from wood. Try doing that at today's scale. Maybe that's where all those new jobs will come from ... the return of the professional woodcutter.



@Steve R

Meteorologist is not Climatologist. The founder of the weather channel who works as a meteorologist now is no authority on climate change just because he talks about the weather every day.

And citing a anti-climate change blog to prove the absence of climate change is like citing a libertarian rag on why the current market failure is not a consequence of a free market but a consequence of too much regulation.

And the sun has never had much to do with climate change because it's burned pretty evenly for oh, the past billion years? Anyway.

John Plunkett

For me, a non technical "right brainer", the magic of electricity is that it has made it possible to be totally flexible in our use of energy. That is you can tap in to potential energy, use it for as long as you need it, turn it off, and have nothing to put away, clean up, or even think about until you need to use it again. I'm glad I don't have to fire up a steam boiler every time I want the garage door opened, or closed, the vacuum turned on, or the refrigerator to work.

The absolute beauty is that the electric power folks, public and investor owned, have done such a good job for so long that we all take it for granted.

Steve R

#12 Wintermute

It only took me 5 seconds to find that NOT "Every Climatologist on the planet" is a lemming


Maybe you should study the evidence instead of bowing to the MSM


"The only believers are politicians, environmental lemmings and Hollyweird."

And every climatologist on the planet. You know, the people who've spend decades studying the issue. I'm inclined to give them the deciding vote, personally.

Rob Adams

Though presumably uranium miners will start dying at about the same rate. The amount of ore that needs to be processed is actually not much less for nuclear vs. coal power.

Nuclear is still the way to go though.


Perhaps the only thing I agree with Al Gore on is the need for a robust powergrid for the US. What we have is FAR too flimsy for an industrialized, information-economy state in the 21st century. The blackout of 2003 is evidence that it's far too delicate.

Unfortunately I have my doubts as to whether or not the US will ever beef up the powergrid or production capacity. No matter what is proposed there is always someone somewhere who will fight it to the death.

Build wind-farms, and environmentalists and PETA will complain that the turbines kill birds.

Build solar arrays and someone will complain about the toxicity of plants that produce the photoelectric panels.

Build wave-generation plants and someone will complain that coastlines are damaged.

Build nuclear plants (God forbid!) and you're accused of wishing a nuclear apocalypse on the country.

Let's face it, not even Barack "the Second Coming" Obama -- with the sanctified Al Gore's help -- will be able to do anything about this, unless Americans grow up, get over their NIMBYism and stop reflexively blocking anything and everything that comes along.


Steve R

to Stephen Dubner

Why do so many Freakonomics articles include a comment about CLIMATE CHANGE (formerly known as Global Warming). It is a hoax!!! To believe that humans can influence, on a planetary basis, the temperature and climate of the third rock from the sun is quite presumptious, and has been proven false many times. The only believers are politicians, environmental lemmings and Hollyweird.

Please post a Freak article about how the economy would collapse under additional carbon fees, and how insignificant humans are in influencing global climate.

I am all for developing alternate energy sources, and for not polluting locally since it does impact water and vegetation.

However, man's ability to "control" climate, is absurd. Old Sol is in charge, and is the only influential factor in climate issues.

Steve, the engineer.

Joe Smith

"I’m curious why electricity is so “magical”"

Because electricity is the most versatile form of energy we have and makes possible and powers all or almost all of our modern conveniences. To see electricity's versatility consider the fact that we can build electric engines small enough to run a ladies' analogue wristwatch and large enough to move a large ship. We can use electricity to warm a cup of coffee or to run a steel furnace.



The electric power folks have done such a good job?! What?! Let's think about that for a second. They make more money by selling more electricity. There's no incentive for them to invest in efficiency or the grid/infrastructure. The coal lobby is huge but largely hidden from consumers - what do we care as long as the lights go on? I'm not so sure they're doing such a good job.

Traditional coal/thermal generation facilities were built close to load centers to minimize transmission distances. Our existing "national grid" is a VERY LOOSE AND FRAGILE collection of these nodes. One example of the loose nature of this system was the 2003 blackout in the northeast. A "simple problem" that snowballed out of control due to the condition of the grid.

Renewables such as solar and wind require a modern grid. In order to reach the American Wind Energy Assoc.'s goal of 20% energy from wind this implies almost $60 billion in transmission/grid investment.

Oh, and the regulated, unregulated, semi-regulated nature of our patchwork collection of electricity markets across the country doesn't help either. What was good in 1908 is no longer good in 2008. There's a lot to do before I'll say they've done a "good job".



"Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures can also short-circuit feeders when they leap off cables and discharge streams of excrement that, at up to 12 feet long, can simultaneously touch a live wire and a grounded structure."

THAT's the 'magical' part of that article... I'll die happy after I see a 12-foot long stream of excrement coming out of a turkey vulture

John Mashey

The grid is especially important for windpower.

Mark Z.Jacobsonis a Professor at Stanford,and one of his interesting papers is:


It showed that once you get enough geographically-dispersed windfarms, you can treat 33-47% of their *peak* power as reliable *baseload* power, which is a fairly important result. Of course, that requires upgraded long-distance transmission,and they've been studying ways to optimize that as well.

Sis, NYC