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The future of electricity: Going beyond the light switch

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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For the past year or so, I’ve been working on a documentary project with Detroit Public Television called "Beyond the Light Switch." It’s taken me from the ARPA-e conference in Washington, D.C., to the frack fields of North Texas. I’ve interviewed folks ranging from the McCulloughs, a wheat and wind farming family, to U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Welinghoff. And I’ve visited facilities such as the world’s first coal plant to combine carbon dioxide capture with underground storage and a 19th-century home in New Jersey newly outfitted with solar panels (courtesy of my friend and colleague George Musser).

The project’s goal is to illuminate some of what really happens when you flip on the light switch as well as the complex energy choices facing the U.S. After all, we need to update the world’s largest machine—the electricity grid—for the 21st century while answering the challenges posed by climate change, economic competitiveness and securing our energy future. It’s important and a good story, I hope. If it is, you can thank the talented production team of Ed Moore, Bill Kubota, Paul Dzendzel, Genevieve Savage and Jordan Wingrove as well as all the folks at DPTV. If it isn’t, blame me.

Judge for yourself if you happen to be in the Detroit area, where the first episode airs tonight on Channel 56 at 9 PM EST followed by the second hour on Nov. 23 at 9 PM EST. And stay tuned for updates on when the show airs on your local PBS station, as well as web extra videos and other related content on the Scientific American website and


The U.S. stands at an energy crossroads; it’s up to us to decide the right way forward.

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  1. 1. doug l 5:25 pm 11/16/2010

    How is anyone supposed to take seriously an article about our energy future and not even mention nuclear? I mean, really.

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  2. 2. tharriss 8:27 pm 11/16/2010

    How is anyone supposed to take your comment about nuclear seriously if you use that omission to disregard everything else?

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  3. 3. JamesDavis 7:07 am 11/17/2010

    If you tamp carbon underground, it is going to leech back up and mingle with the water table. It is already doing it everywhere they are storing carbon underground.

    And Nuclear Reactors are not a source of clean energy, no more than coal and natural gas is clean energy. You cannot take baby steps toward clean energy by living in the fossil age and only fools encourage to do so.

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  4. 4. dbiello 9:23 am 11/17/2010

    Oh don’t worry doug l, nuclear is in the show. After all, it’s 20 percent of the current electricity supply… and 70 percent of CO2-lite generation.

    And JamesDavis, don’t you like San Pellegrino? ;)

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  5. 5. electric38 11:41 am 11/18/2010

    This cheaper power source could ultimately cost jobs! Sure, we could compete with China by using robotics in our factories, but, what about the humans who will be displaced?

    Solar plant powers factory

    These can be mass produced cheaply.

    New battery plant these can be made swappable to extend the range of EV’s and to trickle charge at home or anywhere there is a carport.

    Solar charging of EV’s

    This recent decision allows for the utility company buyback rate of solar to be at it’s lowest cost.

    FIT decision FERC

    All of the above mean cleaner air and water -extra income (power bill) for each resident that uses rooftop solar will be put back into the economy.

    Electric car under $10,000

    Link to this
  6. 6. jbabb 6:19 pm 04/28/2011

    Your recent PBS documentary was suprisingly shallow. You left out a few items:

    1. Smart meters are BAD for consumers. Very simply, the consumer is now charged the spot market rate instead of the flat rate for electricity. This means that in a place like Houston, you have two choices, turn off your air conditioner in the July, 100 degree,90% humidity heat, or pay double the old rate.
    2. Lights are an important source of savings for companies where there are lots of light bulbs. Changing to CFL in the home will result in negligible savings. A few numbers to exhibit: If you convert to CFL on six fixtures of 60w each, you would save 30w per fixture, or 180w per hour. Maybe you would save 1Kw per day (fifteen cents, max). On the other hand if you invest in better insulation, a solar powered attic fan, or a more efficient HVAC system your savings would be on the order of $30 per day. When evaluating energy savings you need to use the Pareto principle – a few things make the most difference. In home energy usage, those few things are heating/cooling, refrigerator, hot water.
    3 Batteries are not the only way to store solar and wind. There are a number of systems involving gases, water, and fuel cells. You missed those.
    4. It’s all about trade offs, but to analyze them correctly you have to be able to count past 10 without removing your shoes.

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