Electricity in the modern age is taken for granted. Yet our technological society is incredibly dependent on it. Everything we do requires electricity to control, communicate or actually perform tasks.
Even in the combustion engine, the starting motor is required to start the engine and the ignition system is required to generate high voltage discharges to ignite the fuel. Engine timing is monitored by an inductive switch and fed to an engine management computer. An alternator is used to generate electricity to keep the battery charged. Because over time the cost of electronics continues to drop and more functions are being taken over by systems based on electricity. That’s before we get into the entertainment, location and navigation, powered seats, windows, and other features.
In the communications environment cell phones, cellular transmission systems, computers are all operate using electricity. It’s less apparent in phones and computers, but they all have to be plugged in sooner or later. The portable computing and network interface are made possible by battery power, stored electricity.
The efficiency of moving electrons around is pretty amazing. Since an electron has almost no mass, electrons captured in the atoms of a copper wire respond at a fraction of the speed of light. This makes it easy to get stuff done. And fast.
And cheap. The cost of using electricity depends on where you live, but it varies from $.11 to $.23 per kilowatt hour. Think about how much work you can get done with a Kilowatt Hour. A horsepower is 746 Watts. So you could power a 1/3 horsepower fan for about 3 hours with 1 kilowatt hour of energy. It’s amazing.
Transportation using electricity is incredibly efficient. Electric cars are reported to run at about 3 to 4 cents per mile in energy cost. With fewer moving parts, there is less to maintain. Pure electric cars are range limited and battery storage is still very expensive. Hybrid vehicles are showing promise for near term application, even heavy haulers are experimenting and finding that dramatic enhancements are possible.
The industry of making and delivering electricity is complex. The issues surrounding the production of energy in this country are either highly politicized and misunderstood, or ignored to the point of the potential for disaster. We need to start an open dialog and start making important choices about how energy production and supply is going to look in 50 years. And we need to start that dialog now.