Gravity, water, electricity, and money: physical fact and human morality made the electricity grid

The electricity grid is a techno-sociological phenomenon that exists for two reasons, one of them physical and the other human. The physical reason directly relates to the force of gravity, and the effect of gravity on water. Gravity is what makes life on earth such a work-intensive enterprise. All physical work, including the simple act of moving around on our planet’s surface, involves overcoming gravity. Nowhere is this more obvious or important than in the case of water.

The physical fact of water is that it is heavy and that it requires a huge amount of energy to heat. Those of us who live in modern cities, and that’s now most of us on this planet, tend to forget this vital fact. Water weighs a kilogram per litre liquid, and that kilogram of liquid water requires a thousand calories of energy to increase its temperature by a single degree Celsius.

What does this mean? Take an average four-minute shower. You will use around 80 litres of water. Those 80 litres weigh 80 kilograms. If the water temperature is a fairly typical 45 °C, and the water system starting temperature was say 12 °C, then something used 2.64 million calories to heat it. That heat requirement alone is just a bit less than the energy that a highly active 19 year old expends in a whole day.

As for the energy required to put those 80 kilograms of water through your showerhead, it all depends on where your showerhead is. But even if it is on the main floor of a building, the energy requirement is significant. Try carrying 80 kilograms (176 pounds, or a typical six-foot-tall man) from the sidewalk into the ground floor of your house.

There is no way that any of us could, through our own physical exertion, supply the 80 kilograms of hot water that are required for a typical four-minute shower on the ground floor of a house. You can see even how less feasible this prospect is in the case of, say, a fifteen floor high rise apartment unit.

This is why fifteen floor high rises did not exist until there was an electricity grid—that is, until a technological revolution had shown humans how to harness another of the universe’s fundamental forces, electromagnetism—that provided the energy to move that water. Modern cities simply cannot exist without electricity, and for that sole reason.

Before electricity did the enormously energy-intensive work of moving and heating our water, how did we do that work? Well, we engineered some plumbing through which water flowed by gravity into cities and even into households. But this was confined to areas where humans could take advantage of gravity. In those areas where we could not, and that was most areas, we got other people to do it for us. Specifically, people in socially powerful positions got people who were less powerful to do it for them.

The great social movements of human history were based on the recognition, even on the part of the powerful, that that was simply wrong. The French Revolution, Austrian Enlightenment, abolition of slaver in Great Britain in 1833, abolition of slavery after the American Civil War in 1865, the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in the 1880s, abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1890, and then the great drives to give everybody including women the vote—all of these developments were rooted in the understanding that it is morally wrong to get our fellow humans to do our drudge work for us.

But it was the advent of the electricity grid, which for the first time in human history provided the practical energy to heat water and lift it into our homes, that provided the technological underpinning of the centuries-long drive for human equality. As I have said before, the electric power grid was the greatest social equalizing force in human history.

When the grid spread across the western world in the first half of the Twentieth Century, it did so largely according to the model of the regulated electric utility. Because the revolutionary benefits of electricity were so immediately and unanimously agreed on by everyone, the regulated utility model was widespread. It was, generally, based on giving electric companies monopoly rights in the regulated jurisdictions; in return for monopoly rights, companies were obliged to provide electric power to all citizens in that jurisdiction. Prices were based on rates that were simultaneously affordable for everyone, and that provided financial health and viability for the regulated company.

This was the economic model that brought electricity to my own province, Ontario. This is why when you drive pretty much anywhere in the province, you see electricity poles holding up wires. Ontario is a huge area: you could fit most of western Europe into it. That the whole province was electrified by the mid 1950s is testament to the strength of the regulated electric utility model. Cheap rates brought power to the people—literally—and kept the electric company strong and capable of fulfilling its mandate.

How ironic it is then that today the notion of affordable electricity is turned on its head. We have today in Ontario policies that are designed to make electricity more expensive, ostensibly to discourage its use. How did we ever get this notion that electricity, the greatest social equalizing force in human history, the force the literally freed us from medieval darkness and drudgery, is bad?

It is small reassurance to me that electricity conservation efforts are more talk than anything else. As I mentioned earlier, Germany, allegedly the leader in green electricity, embarrasses itself daily by dumping obscene amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. Green electricity in Germany in reality comes with 540 grams of carbon in every kilowatt-hour. To be fair, Germans don’t generate power with fossil fuels because they like dumping obscene amounts of carbon into our common atmosphere. They do it because they need electricity. They need electricity for the reasons I gave above: water is heavy and requires enormous amounts of energy to heat.

But in their zeal to pretend that they are going green (they are demonstrably not), they have bought into the myth that electricity is bad. And everybody thinks they are doing the right thing.

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Jeff Walther
9 years ago

Please keep on pointing this out. I fear that we will fail to learn from Germany’s mistakes and imitate them.

The city I live in, Austin, TX, is already well filled with the German/Californian cool aid. They never seem to stop and actually measure whether all those expensive wind and solar generators are really reducing CO2 emissions. I understand that Texas overall CO2 emissions are up this year, but I don’t know if that’s normalized for total energy use.

James Greenidge
9 years ago

The damnest pity is the message from great articles as this just doesn’t get OUT to the masses whom seriously need to know! Isn’t there a pro-nuke lottery winner out there who can fund a massive public education campaign??

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Wayne SW
9 years ago

James, part of the reason is that we are a victim of our own success. People don’t think about not having electricity and what it would mean to their lifestyles simply because we have been successful at providing the product whenever it is demanded. Nobody ever gives a thought to the possibility that when they throw the lighswitch the lights might not come on, or that if they do it will be at a cost they cannot afford.

What it takes to realize what electricity means to most people (and I guess this is true of a lot of things in modern life, transportation, abundant and safe food, etc.) is when they have to do without it for an extended period. That very thing happened in my area a little over a year ago when a derecho swept through the region and took down power lines. People were without power in the middle of a heat wave for about a week, some for more than that. People were going nuts, throwing out spoiled food, flooding the emergency rooms with victims of heat stroke, moving out of the area (temporarily) to places where there was electric power. And that was only for a week or so. But as soon as the power was restored, everyone went back to sleep.

Steve’s article promotes a fundamental truth. Without electricity, life would be very hard for most people. As recently as a hundred years ago there were vast rural areas of this country that had no concept of a life without drudgery. In those places, most people died at a relatively young age, disease was rampant, children didn’t go to school but went to work in the fields everyday, and people lived a lifestyle that would be considered abject poverty by today’s standards. That is why I take a dim view of many of the anti-nuclear, anti-energy wackos who seem to feel a 19th century lifestyle is somehow superior and in a strange sense “romantic” in its simplicity. Truth is that is was by and large a life of hardship and want, and most of today’s “romantics” likely would not survive in it for long.

robert budd
9 years ago

Very thought provoking article. People often equate renewable with sustainable, but if you look back you realize we created most of the great deserts with an “organic” agriculture and we cleared vast areas of the planet for “renewable” fuels. We did it with less 1/10 of the population we soon have to accomodate.
The area of Ontario I live in 100 years ago was much more deforestd than now because we were burning wood for salt production,lime kilns, manufacturing and household heating. Fossil fuel replaced much of that and then the big step forward as Steve points out was electricty.
Hydro and to an even larger degree nuclear has saved much of the natural areas we have now. A true victory for the environment. At the same time it surely uplifted the well being of the commons.
I hope it’s not a tragic feature of our time, that we could be driven back to scrounging the landscape for carbon to burn, by misplaced green ideology.

9 years ago

Good comments by all. I think some ads asking the “what if” scenarios could be scripted from some of Steve’s articles. Bruce Power? Are you listening? They are the only ones it seems that are willing to do positive PR.