Letters From the West

Ask yourself what’s changed in your world that you just missed

Jack Uldrich, author of "Jumping the Curve."

Jack Uldrich, author of “Jumping the Curve.”

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.

I answered yellow and black at the Energy Connected conference presented by the Idaho Technology Council Tuesday. Nope, he said, 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 drivers license in 1969 and I remember the question on the test. Later it was just about the triangular shape.

But I have passed thousands of yield signs since and never noticed it was red and white. I wasn’t alone.

Uldrich asked the audience to think about how might the world have changed and we didn’t notice. For the energy crowd he pointed to solar power, which many have said for years could not compete with traditional sources.

Altenergy completed a 24.5 kilowatt solar photovoltaic power system for the Flicks Theatre in downtown Boise. The system will provide 25% of the total power used by the theater and will pay for itself in seven years.(Altenergy photo)

Altenergy completed a 24.5 kilowatt solar photovoltaic power system for the Flicks Theatre in downtown Boise. The system will provide 25% of the total power used by the theater and will pay for itself in seven years.(Altenergy photo)

But already in much of the world solar is competitive now and he said technology will increase its efficiency exponentially in the near future. What does that mean?

He used his son’s recent loss of a tooth, one of 20 baby teeth all children have. He asked him if the tooth fairy offered him one penny for the first tooth and promised to double it or offered him $100 which would he take?

His son said he’d take the $100. Too bad, Uldrich said. Had he held out the 20th tooth would have brought him $5242.88, on the power of exponential growth.

His point is that trends like computer processing power, data storage, robotics, bandwidth, the sequencing of the human genome, nanotechnology, smart devices and wearable technologies are all doubling annually.

“If you plot out trend that’s growing exponentially the curve quickly shoots up,” he said.

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 these changes right now.

Companies like Idaho Power have a huge transmission and generation infrastructure that could be saddled on the backs of customers who don’t, or can’t make the shift to producing and managing their own power needs.

Uldrich’s advice: Embrace ambiguity.

“Are today’s customers going to be tomorrow’s competitors or both?” said Uldrich, author of the book “Foresight 20/20”

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

There were many utility executives then and there are still some who don’t embrace the idea that you cut customers bills by reducing the power they need rather than build more generation. Johnson set the goal for 1985 at 285 megawatts.

Today the Pacific Northwest has cut electric demand with energy efficiency by 5,300 megawatts, Cavanagh said, leading the nation and keeping the region’s advantage for lost cost power.

These kind of farsighted decisions help companies, regions, states and even nations the path to make themselves “futureproof,” Uldrich said.

With the combining of all of the other emerging technologies, Uldrich offered the many young entrepreneurs attending the conference hope that the energy efficiency curve is shooting upward too. He urged them to jump the curve.

“We’re at the tip of the iceberg,” he said.


Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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