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.