Electrical Transmission In The Dark Ages
President Barack Obama recently announced an initiative to make electrical transmission more efficient. Hallelujah, someone has finally noticed that electrical generation and transmission are stuck in the dark ages.
Some 50 years ago, when I was growing up in Greensboro, our house had two wires that came into it – one for telephone service and one for electricity. Everyone got their telephone service from Southern Bell, and electricity courtesy of Duke Power.
The telephone wire went to a black dial phone in the butler’s pantry, which had a really long cord so you could take it into the kitchen and close the door for privacy. My parents had a phone in their bedroom, and in the basement was a really old wall phone where the receiver weighed a ton. Three dial phones wired into the system. You could call anyone in Greensboro for free, but my grandmother lived in West End, North Carolina, which was long distance so calling her cost a small fortune, and my aunt lived in Chicago, and calling her cost a large fortune.
But the federal government decided that Bell Telephone should not have a monopoly on telephone service, and since then the industry has gone through titanic changes.
Today we don’t need any wires coming into our house for phones because we carry our phones with us wherever we go. My iPhone has more computing power than probably existed in the entire country when I was growing up. But we do have a Time Warner wire coming into the house and have Wi-Fi, so you can watch a movie anywhere in the house that you can take a laptop.
My iPhone that I use for personal and office communication in no way resembles the phone that was in my parents’ house. Not only does it not resemble that old dial phone, it doesn’t behave like it either. The only thing the two have in common is that both are called phones and you can make a telephone call with either one. But all you could do with the old dial telephone is talk with one person at a time. With my iPhone I can talk to I don’t know how many people; I can see the person I’m talking to; I can take photos or videos; I can send and receive text messages and emails; and I can go on the internet and all the information in the world is available to me.
And it’s not just what’s in the house, but what’s outside as well. Information is not longer sent over copper wires but by fiber optic cable. If we still used copper wire for information transformation, the copper wires would be enormous. One copper telephone wire can transmit 24 voice channels. One fiber optic cable can transmit over 32,000 voice channels.
Now lets look at electrical production and transmission. We still have a copper wire coming into our house that feeds into an electrical meter that looks just like the meter we had 50 years ago. From the outside there doesn’t appear to be any difference. On the inside, as noted, we don’t use any of the telephone wires, but the electrical wiring for the house is the same as it was when the house was built over 60 years ago. Many of the electrical outlets are original. The lamps plug in the same way they did 60 years ago. Some of the new plugs have three instead of two prongs, but they work the same, and we have a bunch of adapters so we can put three-prong plugs into two-hole outlets.
Not only that, but when I was a kid most of the electricity was generated by burning fossil fuels. We got some from nuclear power and some from hydroelectric power, but most was from burning coal.
Now we get a smidgen from solar, a smidgen from wind, but most of the electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels with some nuclear and some hydroelectric power.
I spent a good bit of time one day watching workmen repair electrical lines. It is amazing. I didn’t see them use a tool that my grandfather wouldn’t have been comfortable with. Compare that to telecommunications devices. Do you think you could get much work done on an iPhone with a big set of pliers, wire cutters and a screwdriver?
Go on a construction site these days and look around at how much they have changed since my house was built 60 years ago. Now they have laser levels and measuring devices, nail guns instead of hammers, battery powered drills and all kinds of hydraulic lifts. Take my grandfather and put him on a construction site today and he would think he had traveled in time. Take my grandfather and put him with a crew repairing electrical lines and he might ask about what the plastic ladder was made out of, and he would certainly find the smart phones everyone was wearing on their belts fascinating, but as for the tools and the procedures the workmen used, he would be right at home.
So why is it that while other industries have made enormous advances electrical production and delivery is stagnant? The most obvious explanation is that the monopoly that ran the communications industry was broken up, whereas the electrical production and distribution industry has gotten more monopolized.
Duke Energy pretty much refuses to put wires underground. The amount they charge is so high that even the government finds it too expensive.
Imagine for a moment that Greensboro could contract with anyone for its electrical service. So the city is going to spend millions on improving the look of a street, such as Friendly Avenue, and the city decided that it would make everything look better to put the wires underground. Duke Energy says fine, that will cost you an additional $1 million a mile. But Hammer Power puts in a bid for an additional $100,000 a mile. Of course, we don’t know how to do it, but somebody must.
BY John Hammer
January 30, 2014
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