Friends and the Consumption and Generation of Electricity

My perception is that present discussion and advocacy among Friends concerning generating electricity has not matured into a robust discernment process. I hope to demystify some aspects of this topic, so that Friends who believe they lack the technical expertise to participate in this discussion will see they have a critically important role to play. For me, the discernment process consists of two elements: 1) fact-gathering, and 2) ethical discernment related to the gathered facts—something at which most Friends excel. Many Friends have commented that they stand aside from this issue because they lack a ready comprehension of electrical generation technology, or are confused by the many conflicting opinions and positions on the subject adopted by others.

Anyone who has ridden a bicycle equipped with a wheel-mounted electrical generator and headlight is already familiar with the essential facts underpinning the generation of our electrical supply. Virtually all of the electricity we rely on daily is the product of a rotating mechanical assembly (like the bicycle wheel) turning magnets in a housing (a generator). This action produces electricity that is conveyed over wires to illuminate the headlight (the "load"). That is really all there is to it.

Nonrenewable as well as most renewable means of generating electricity use exactly the same principle on a larger scale. The rotating bicycle wheel is replaced by a rotating mechanism similar in design to a large fan blade. This is called a turbine. In the case of hydroelectric installations the turbine is turned by moving water. Wind turbines, as the name suggests, are turned by moving air. In the case of fossil-fueled and nuclear power stations, the turbines are turned by high-pressure steam. At this level of description, the only difference between fossil and nuclear generation of electricity is the source of the heat that produces the steam.

With the bicycle generator, the light illuminates only when the wheel is turning, and the same situation applies to large generation facilities. Whether they are powered by water, wind, fossil fuels, or nuclear reactors, if the turbines do not turn, no power is produced. For the sake of simplicity I have intentionally omitted mention of solar and other technologies such as biomass, geothermal, etc.—not because they are not important, but because the preceding describes the basics underlying over 90 percent of electrical power generated and consumed.

In my experience, many Friends want to become engaged in this discussion, correctly perceiving it as a key element of global warming, but feel overwhelmed or confused by conflicting opinions and information regarding electricity production. I suggest that we recast the discussion and ground it in real-life personal examples. We can commence our own personal investigation of the available information relevant to our own circumstances, and create our own local case study. Thus we can gain valuable understanding of our personal electrical generating situation, and more importantly, we gain methods and knowledge of how to work with this information.

The Latin root of the verb "to discern" means "to sift." Our objective is to critically examine our existing beliefs, to take all that we know or believe and thoroughly sift out what is true from what is not. In addition to establishing agreed-upon facts, we must address the ethical issues that arise from and pertain to those facts. Oddly, these issues seem to be absent from much present discussion on the topic. The addition of this essential aspect is necessary if our process is to be complete.

I believe discernment on this issue should be a series of sequential exercises. We need to be in agreement with regard to how much electricity is actually required, if we are to be able to later agree on the best ways in which this electricity should be provided. The first step involves getting in touch with our local electricity providers and gathering basic information on the amount of electricity typically consumed in our local jurisdiction (state or regional level), and how this electricity is generated. Most utilities have informative websites giving this information, although it may take some digging. Do not hesitate to ask for assistance. Also, do not be intimidated by acronyms, technical terms, or large volumes of information. A lot of it makes for fascinating and informative reading!

Discernment process step one is the assessment of the actual present generation capabilities and, where possible, the forecast consumption requirements for electricity of your local utility.

Completion of this step will provide facts and information. How do these facts relate to our own day-to-day behavior regarding electricity consumption? What have we learned about policies and programs offered by our suppliers that might influence our use of power?

Discernment process step two is the consideration of the ethics that attend reductions in electrical consumption through conservation measures and other load reduction methods.

Much of the discussion of this topic among Friends concerns the perceived need, or lack of perceived need, for existing or additional nonrenewable means of generating power. It revolves around perceptions of the degree to which conservation measures and conscientious choices may reduce consumption of electrical power. We need to examine the basis of these perceptions and ensure that we agree on how much conservation measures can achieve reduction in consumption—and under what terms. Our determination of load reduction through conservation needs to be realistic and quantifiable. We need to be clear that the means employed to achieve conservation do not inadvertently create harm.

In Ontario, residential electrical meters are now being replaced with "time of use" meters. These new meters automatically apply premium rates to most electricity consumed during peak demand hours. The lowest rates are charged between 10 PM and 7 AM. This change was promoted to the consumers as a means to help them conserve electricity by shifting high demand appliance use (including electric stoves and water heaters) to low-demand periods. A modicum of electrical power (750 kW per summer month to be exact) is allowed at the lower rate at any time to provide some rate relief to those on fixed incomes.

This measure notwithstanding, it is clear that the less fortunate among society (disabled, low-income, and fixed-income individuals, like pensioners) are put to a distinct disadvantage. Those able to pay the increased cost of following their normal daytime routines will continue to do so. Those struggling with rising living costs, however, may need to forego choices significant to their well-being. Elderly individuals, for example, have little choice about when their residences become dangerously overheated and will need peak summertime air conditioning. Note that the application of the "conservation" measure in this case is involuntary. It is, in effect, a thinly disguised form of rationing applied preferentially against those least able to accommodate the consequences. Is this ethical?

This is one example of the kinds of questions we need to reflect upon when we work towards a realistic, quantified determination of electrical demand. The question, broadly stated, is this: what kinds of social behavior regarding electrical consumption are acceptable? Additional considerations include: are all forms and quantities of electrical consumption acceptable, or should some regulatory limitations apply so there is adequate supply for everyone? Should citizens have a right to purchase a certain amount of electricity at a low rate? Should manufacturers be required to indicate the amount of electricity consumed in the fabrication of their products so we can better assess the consequences to our "electrical footprint" when considering the purchase of disposable or unnecessary material goods? Should we insist on additional electrical generation, even if by less desirable means, so there is enough for everyone at all times?

We now know approximately how much power our local jurisdiction needs to meet present and future demand. We also know which technologies our supplier is using to provide that power. Now we need to do the following:

Discernment process step three is the assessment of the ability of respective electrical providers to satisfy the present and forecast requirements developed through steps one and two.

One thing will become immediately apparent when we review the existing and planned electrical power generation capability in more than one geographical locale: there is no single electrical generation technology or solution that is equally available to meet the needs of each and every location. Saint John’s, the capital city of the province of Newfoundland, Canada, for example, holds the unenviable record for the most days of fog: 121 days in a typical year. Clearly, this is not a locale that is going to derive a lot of electricity from solar panels, compared to New Mexico or Arizona. Nor do the probabilities of tidal power supplying a lot of electricity to Idaho or Utah look particularly good! Our choices of electrical generation technologies will vary by location. In order to understand what we should advocate for, we need to have some understanding of the viability and availability of the respective generation options at the local level. It may become apparent that some of our preferred methods of electrical power generation are either not available or not in sufficient degree to meet local area needs. We will be obliged to entertain second choices. How do we know which technologies are the least harmful of the remaining available options?

Discernment process step four is the realistic evaluation of the benefits and harms of each available technology for generating electricity and a ranking of the available technologies from "most favorable" to "least favorable."

There are no forms of electrical generation that are without any environmental impact, and there are some that are extremely harmful to the environment. A matrix with the attributes of each technology—both positive and negative—would allow a simple ranking of these technologies.

This last step, however, presents the greatest challenge; our ranking of technologies must, as far as we are capable, be both ethically and empirically sound and carried out with absolute objectivity and thoroughness. Failure of Friends to do so will leave us unable to discern a clear path forward capable of bearing close scrutiny. This evaluation and ranking of technologies can be a group exercise, and it could yield an extremely useful written guide, something that Friends could unite around as the basis of informed, well discerned advocacy with implications far beyond the local meeting and the local jurisdiction. The process could be formalized under the oversight of yearly meetings or, by extension, co-coordinated by a committee of Friends World Committee for Consultation. Given the urgency now attending issues related to climate change, I believe discernment on the issues surrounding electrical generation and consumption requires this degree of diligence.

Gordon Thompson

Gordon Thompson attends Yonge Street Meeting in Newmarket, Ont. He is the manager for business development for a company that manufactures equipment that switches and controls electricity. He is also the current chair of Canadian Friends Historical Association.