Electrons are invisible, and that’s a problem

When South Eastern Australia was in severe drought at the beginning of the century, a whole array of efforts went into addressing the water shortage. Councils introduced, and then increased, water restrictions. Government handed out low-flow showerheads and shower timers, mandated water tanks in new homes, and built desalination and water recycling plants. The media were reporting dam levels on the nightly news. And people responded: willingly, en mass, and (it seems) permanently. Residential water consumption reduced by about half in many areas, and remains at much lower levels years later.

Now Australia is in an energy drought, but the public response is almost entirely different. Arguments about costs, blame, and poor planning are widespread, but systematic and co-ordinated action seems to be missing. Why? Perhaps because electrons are invisible. Electricity consumption is harder for people to manage because it is not visible.

During the drought, everyone could see it wasn’t raining, everyone could see the landscape turning brown, and everyone could see if their neighbour was cheating on restrictions (because their lawn was still green). But for electricity, no one really sees their own energy consumption habits, let alone anyone else’s. The one thing we can see is lights, so we make a big deal about being careful to turn them off. But they use so little energy they are almost completely irrelevant. It’s not our lights that are the problem. It’s our air conditioners, pool pumps, dryers and dishwashers. And really, it’s not that we have them or use them, it’s that we turn them on all at once.

Energy is expensive because poles and wires need to be repeatedly upgraded and expanded to carry the rising peaks of power that are used for a few hours a day, and the massive peaks of power that are used for a few days a year. Unless we start managing our peak demand, prices will continue to rise. And until we can find a way to make energy consumption and peak demand more visible, we can’t really expect people to respond effectively to this problem.