19 December 2011
Posted by Paul Anater at 6:00 AM
One need look no further than newspaper headlines to see that utility deregulation has been a bust. As public utilities have been allowed to consolidate and behave more like private concerns, their dividends to shareholders may have increased but their rates have have gone up significantly at the same time. Similarly, a near obsession with reducing labor costs has left them with a power grid that's as prone to breakdown as any business that cuts itself off at the knees in order to maximize its quarterly earnings. With increased earnings, utilities are better able to lobby legislatures to advance their agendas. As so-called public utilities buy off legislators they're able to pass along more of their costs to their customers. The utility I deal with, Progress Energy (Soon to be Duke Energy), has managed to convince the Florida Legislature that it's a good idea to have their customers pay for a new nuclear plant before it's even built. My electrical rates will increase by nearly 50% over the next eight years to pay for this new plant. As Fukushima demonstrated so perfectly, is nuclear power capable of living up to its promise?
Clearly, a central supplier of electricity is a losing proposition. But how to get out from under unresponsive and increasingly expensive "public" utilities? This isn't a failure of government as it is a failure for government to behave like a profit-making business.
So what there is to do is to start to take responsibility for electrical power away from the utilities and to make it more local and more personal.
My travels to Europe in the last year have shown me that there are a lot of ways the US can improve on our business as usual. The technologies evident over there during trade shows do point to a way out.
The rage these days in Europe in architecture is to install ventilated facades. These facades are a way to remake a building and insulate it at the same time. But the Sassuolo-based Cotto d'Este takes the idea of a ventilated facade and turns it on its ear.
Cotto d'Este's ventilated facades make electricity.
While solar power and photovoltaic cells can't obviate the need to electrical utilities, it's an enormous leap forward. Since utilities don't feel any pressing need to actually provide the services they're tasked to do, why not set about making our own electricity?
Cotto d'Este has a ceramic product that carries a 25-year warranty and that you can walk on. That's amazing. I live in a part of the world where the sun shines for an average of 360 days per year. I look at my roof and my neighbors roofs and wonder why we're not putting them to use. Between the incredible sunshine we enjoy and the sea breezes we experience ever day, why aren't we harnessing those forms of energy? Why do we rely on a power plant that burns coal, degrades our air and dumps mercury into The Bay?
Why does burning fossil fuels hold the appeal that it does?
How did oil- and coal-based energy generation become the standard for what constitutes a prosperous society? Isn't it time to look for another answer?