Rocky Barker: What changes are you failing to notice?

March 17, 2014 

CORRECTION: This article originally misspelled the name of Ralph Cavanagh.

Think quick: What are the two colors of a yield sign? That was the question futurist Jack Uldrich used to make his point that the world is changing all around us and we often miss the details.

At the Energy Connected conference presented by the Idaho Technology Council last week, I answered yellow and black.

Nope, he said. The sign is red and white.

What?

That's right. Yellow-and-black yield signs were phased out in 1971, more than 40 years ago. I got my driver's license in 1969 and I remember the question on the test.

But I have passed thousands of yield signs since and it never registered that the signs are red and white.

I wasn't alone. Uldrich asked the audience to think of other examples of how the world might have changed without our noticing.

For his audience of energy professionals, he pointed to solar power, which many people have for years said cannot compete with traditional sources of electricity.

But in much of the world, solar already is competitive. Technology will increase its efficiency exponentially in the near future, he said.

What does that mean?

He used his son's recent loss of a tooth, one of 20 baby teeth all children have, as an example. If the tooth fairy offered him one penny for the first tooth and promised to double it for each additional tooth, or offered him $100, which would he take?

His son wanted the $100. Too bad, Uldrich said. Had he held out, the 20th tooth would have brought him $5,242.88, thanks to the power of exponential growth.

Uldrich's point is that technology - computer-processing, data storage, robotics, bandwidth, the sequencing of the human genome, nanotechnology, even smart or wearable devices - tends to double its power, speed or miniaturization annually.

"If you plot out a trend that's growing exponentially," he said, "the curve quickly shoots up."

To his energy audience, the growth of low-cost, affordable and distributed clean energy is the trend that is rocking their world. Utilities - organized on a regulated monopoly model developed nearly a hundred years ago - are struggling with the changes right now.

Companies like Idaho Power have huge transmission and generation infrastructures that could end up saddling customers who don't - or can't - make the shift to producing and managing their own power.

Uldrich's advice: Embrace ambiguity.

"Are today's customers going to be tomorrow's competitors, or both?" asked Uldrich, author of the book "Foresight 20/20."

Ralph Cavanagh, a leading voice for utility restructuring with the Natural Resources Defense Council, cited an example of his own from the Pacific Northwest. Peter Johnson, the former Bonneville Power Administration chief from Boise who died last month, advocated in 1981 paying for energy-efficiency as an electric resource - one way to preserve the region's low-cost power from hydroelectric dams.

Many utility executives then (and some still) don't embrace reducing customer power needs in place of building more generating capacity.

Johnson set the goal for 1985 at 285 megawatts. Since then, the Pacific Northwest has used energy-efficiency to cut electric demand by 5,300 megawatts, Cavanagh said. That leads the nation and preserves the region's advantage for lost-cost power.

Such far-sighted decisions help companies, regions, states and even nations make themselves "futureproof," Uldrich said. In a time when technology is getting better, faster and cheaper, looking ahead and staying flexible is the key.

Uldrich offered the many young entrepreneurs at the conference hope that the energy-efficiency curve is shooting upward too. He urged them to watch for it to curve exponentially.

"We're at the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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