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Electricity: The Master Form of the Master Resource

“Great are the powers of electricity,” commented a newspaper story in the late 19th century about the fascinating new energy source. “It makes millionaires. It paints devils’ tails in the air and floats placidly in the waters of the earth. It hides in the air. It creeps into every living thing.” (1)

Electricity is the most utilitarian of energies and the master form of the master resource, as explained below by leading experts and even some critics of energy. Just ask residential users, commercial establishments, or the manufacturing facilities if they want to pay more or less for power.

And so it was distressing to hear Barack Obama in a moment of ‘green’ candor declare that electricity prices would “skyrocket” under a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.  In his exact words and phrasing from November 2008:

You know, when I was asked earlier about the issue of coal, uh, you know — Under my plan of a cap and trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket. Even regardless of what I say about whether coal is good or bad. Because I’m capping greenhouse gases, coal power plants, you know, natural gas, you name it — whatever the plants were, whatever the industry was, uh, they would have to retrofit their operations. That will cost money. They will pass that money on to consumers.

The quotations follow.

Erich Zimmermann

“Next to the increasing importance of hydrocarbons as sources of energy, the rise of electricity is the most characteristic feature of the so-called second industrial revolution.”

- Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 568.

“The electrical industry represents one of the greatest achievements of applied science which man has yet attained. Only the chemical industry among basic industries can be placed on the same level.’’

- Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 597.

“New industries resting squarely on electricity come readily to mind: telephone, telegraph, cable, radio, radar, refrigeration, air-conditioning, electronics, television. There seems no end to the miracles which can be traced to this qualitative improvement of ancient energies and the refinement in their use.”

- Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 596.

“Those who lived through the ‘brownouts’ and ‘blackouts’ of World War II have learned the blessings of electric light, or relearned them if they were taken for granted. Those who enjoy, as a matter of course, an average day of 16 or 18 light or lighted hours can hardly imagine the boredom and frustration of earlier times when sunset meant the end of general activity.”

- Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 596.

“The increase in the hours spend usefully or pleasantly by millions wherever electricity sheds its light is one of the greatest blessings of mankind. If to this are added the endless hours of drudgery which electrically driven labor-saving devices spare housewives, farm families, and other workers, one gains some idea of the scope of this boon which has come to mankind from a force whose real nature remains a mystery.”

- Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 596.

“Electricity resparked the Industrial Revolution, found new worlds to conquer, and accelerated the process of mechanization not only of manufacture and transport, but of agriculture as well. It set in motion a new wave of inventions which reduced and continues to reduce the cost of inanimate energy and thus encourages the further spread of its use.”

- Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 596.

“Mineral energy provides a greater concentration of power than could the most ingenious and efficient use of untold human and animal labor. And mineral energy provides power in a more convenient, compact, mobile, and controllable form. . . . In a single day, the Consolidated Edison System in New York delivers enough electricity to do the work of three million draft horses or ten times as many hard-working men. Last year the Consolidated System turned out about as much energy as the total work output of the entire nation in 1850!”

- Gloria Waldron and J. Frederic Dewhurst, Power, Machines, and Plenty (New York: 1948), p. 11, quoted in Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 65.

Julian Simon

“Not much more than one century ago—after more than 50 centuries of recorded history and hundreds of centuries of unrecorded history—for the first time people had something better than a firelight or oil lamp to break the darkness after dusk. And the absence of electricity continued almost into the second half of the twentieth century for substantial portions of the population of the richest country in the world. Now all of us Americans take Edison’s gift for granted.”

- Julian Simon, “Introduction,” in Simon, ed., The State of Humanity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995), p. 23.

“Boredom . . . is dispelled by electronic entertainment. This is an extraordinary gift to the old and shut-in.”

- Julian Simon, “Introduction,” in Simon, ed., The State of Humanity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995), p. 21.

Vaclav Smil

“A reliable electricity supply has also created the first instantaneously interconnected global civilization.”

- Vaclav Smil, “The Energy Question, Again,” Current History, December 2000, p. 408.

 “In addition to revolutionizing industrial production and services, electricity has helped industrial production and services, electricity has helped implement profound social changes by easing household chores through mass ownership of various appliances and by allowing instant global communication.”

- Vaclav Smil, “The Energy Question, Again,” Current History, December 2000, p. 409.

“On the personal level, electricity has been essential in easing the lives of the traditionally disadvantaged half of the humanity as it did away with tiresome domestic labor and offered the possibility of female emancipation.”

- Vaclav Smil, Energies (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), p. 134.

“The expanding use of electricity has been another key mark of twentieth-century progress. In 1900 less than 2 percent of the world’s fossil-fuel output was converted to electricity; in 2000 the share surpassed 30 percent. Electricity is the preferred form of energy because of its high efficiency, instant and effortless access, perfect and easily adjustable flow, cleanliness, and silence at the point of use.”

- Vaclav Smil, “The Energy Question, Again,” Current History, December 2000, p. 409.

Worldwatch Institute (various authors)

“Businesses affected by extreme weather events commonly cite electricity as the most important ‘lifeline’ service—more crucial than telephones, natural gas, or water. Disrupted power can account for as much as 40 percent of the total insured losses claimed after a disaster.”

- Seth Dunn and Christopher Flavin, “Sizing Up Micropower,” in Lester Brown et al., State of the World 2000 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), p. 150.

“As electricity became an even better bargain, its uses grew apace. Many factories were designed to take advantage of the unique properties of electricity, using it to manufacture chemicals, run motors, and perform dozens of other tasks.”

- Christopher Flavin, “Electricity’s Future: The Shift to Efficiency and Small-Scale Power,” Worldwatch Paper 61, Worldwatch Institute, November 1984, p. 14.

“Electricity can bring sweeping changes to the lives of rural people. It often opens villages to the outside world and gives people the idea that things can change. Surveys show that many people look back on the arrival of electricity as a turning point in their lives. Electric lights are usually the first appliance purchased, a big improvement over gas or kerosene lamps. Electric lighting allows school children to read in the evening and extends the work day into the evening hours. Electric irons are also popular in many communities, as are radios, television sets, and electric fans.”

- Christopher Flavin, “Electricity for a Developing World: New Directions,” Worldwatch Paper 70, Worldwatch Institute, June 1986, p. 36.

“Studies show that in most villages people believe that electricity improves their standard of living more than any other change they have experienced. Women appear to appreciate the benefits of electricity more than men, since they generally spend more time around the home and electricity can help in household chores, while fans and radios make leisure time more pleasant. Many women report that they have more free time after getting electricity. Frequently, electric pumps are used to provide a reliable, clean supply of water from a village well for the first time, which makes life easier and improves health.”

- Christopher Flavin, “Electricity for a Developing World: New Directions,” Worldwatch Paper 70, Worldwatch Institute, June 1986, pp. 36-37.

“Sometimes electricity provides unexpected benefits. In a remote village in China’s Fujian province in which young men have traditionally had a hard time finding wives, the arrival of electricity has attracted more brides.”

- Christopher Flavin, “Electricity for a Developing World: New Directions,” Worldwatch Paper 70, Worldwatch Institute, June 1986, p. 38.

“The real potential of electricity lies not in providing social amenities but in stimulating long-term economic development.”

- Christopher Flavin, “Electricity for a Developing World: New Directions,” Worldwatch Paper 70, Worldwatch Institute, June 1986, p. 41.

 Other

“Electric light, electric motors, electronics and other manifestations of electricity make modern industrial society possible. Electricity systems may be the most spectacularly successful technology of the 20th century. They work so well that those who most rely on them hardly notice them.”

- Walt Patterson, Transforming Electricity (London: Earthscan Publications, 1999), p. 1.

“Electricity, and energy more broadly, can be a driving force behind economic growth because of the role of electricity in almost every sector of the economy. Many of these benefits result from electricity’s convenience in use, ease of transport, safety, and cleanliness.

For example, industry uses electricity to drive motors for industrial processes, to run instruments that monitor, control, and inspect industrial operations, and to power new advanced automatic controls. This results in processes that are more efficient than labor alone while simultaneously increasing the productivity of labor. It is equally important that the commercial sector be provided with electricity, so that it can keep pace with changing computer processing and information technology requirements.

In particular, the financial sector relies heavily on information exchange and storage made possible only by high-quality, reliable electricity. Electricity can play a major role in the agricultural sector as well, through improved irrigation and harvesting practices.”

- Mark Bernstein et al., Developing Countries and Global Climate Change (Washington: Pew Center on Global Climate Change, June 1999), p. 4.

“Bringing electricity to rural areas also creates opportunities for microenterprise. For example, improved lighting can allow for longer working hours or higher productivity in already established household industries, while new small industries requiring electricity, such as machine shops, can be established. . . . Electricity can also benefit households in numerous ways that boost quality of life and household productivity.”

- Mark Bernstein et al., Developing Countries and Global Climate Change (Washington: Pew Center on Global Climate Change, June 1999), p. 4.

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(1) Buffalo Morning News, January 13, 1897, reprinted in Jill Jones, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World (New York: Random House, 2003, front page.

2 comments

1 Ed Reid { 05.26.11 at 8:55 am }

All of the comments above make the following both more ominous and less understandable.

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/03/04/the-empire-strikes-out/

2 Increase electricity’s cost, restrict its supply and increase demand for it… that’ll boost the economy and create American jobs | JunkScience Sidebar { 05.26.11 at 10:02 pm }

[...] Electricity: The Master Master Resource by Robert Bradley Jr. May 26, 2011 [...]

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