Astronaut Eyes Changes in Electrification: Coffee break with Jay Apt, Carnegie Mellon University

Jay Apt
Published On
Oct 15, 2021

The second wave of electrification is well underway, and a new era of opportunities in service and maintenance is coming with it. Electrification in the United States did not end when the lights were turned on in the last farmhouse down some remote country road. It has never stopped.

Indeed, it is now surging in a second wave that in this century will touch every aspect of the way we live, work and move about.

Motion pictures serve as a great analogy for understanding the progress of this new wave of electrification. Nothing in a movie really moves but, a long string of still pictures passes through a projector fast enough to trick the human eye into perceiving movement on the screen.

As the second wave of electrification sweeps over the 21st century, its movement may seem less apparent than its predecessor in the 20th century. But if we string together all the still pictures it’s creating and find a way to project them, we will see the larger movement that is inexorably underway.

To help us understand more about this wave of electrification, we visited with Jay Apt, professor and co-director of the Electricity Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

From its beginnings in the 1800s, the first wave of electrification ran well into the 20th century. Like other types of historical eras, it had no definitive start or end date. In the same fashion, the second wave is demonstrably underway. Would you agree?

Yes. We’re seeing energy policy changes—and, even more dramatically, physical changes—in the realm of electricity that are more consequential now than at any other time in my lifetime. And these unprecedented changes will continue, for example, with ever larger solar power and battery storage installations.

You pointed out how automation plays an increasingly important role in this new wave of electrification.

Automation will continue to grow in importance in controlling commercial and residential electrical systems here and abroad. Of course, we’re talking about maintaining this new level of control through smartphones.

What are the implications in this for electric utility companies?

Simply stated, they will be less and less their customers’ primary point of contact in situations like power outages. Instead, customers’ home security automation systems are becoming the sources of the first alert when there are service interruptions.

It sounds like customers are more knowledgeable about ensuring power reliability to their homes and businesses.

They are. This includes their ability to monitor whether their standby generators are always ready for service. Too many homeowners and small businesses have been disappointed to learn the hard way that their generators won’t start because they have a dead battery.

Once again, we see increasing opportunities for service-oriented electrical contractors as the country—indeed the world—sees a new wave of electrification.

You bet. I am on my second electric vehicle. Last time I checked, 8% of all light-duty vehicles in California were electric. Of course, that’s far short of the 60% of all vehicles in Norway. And they all need chargers!

Watch for big innovations in sectors that are large consumers of power, like data centers. Watch for facilities everywhere that are a “natural” to convert to DC power. In some areas where internal combustion engines are huge culprits in creating air pollution—like ports for ocean-going vessels on both the East Coast and the West Coast—watch for the introduction of electric-powered cranes and forklifts.

Among the leading candidates for conversion are the “tugs” at airport gates used to push back passenger planes.

Every one of the examples I just cited abounds with opportunities for service-oriented electrical contractors.

Being a former NASA astronaut with multiple missions that added up to well over a month of orbiting in space, you bring special credentials to your role as co-director of the Electricity Industry Center at a world-class university.

Simply put, when I get into discussions about solar cells and fuel cells, I am the only one in the room with the experience of having totally owed his life to their unfailing operation.

About the Author

Andrew P. McCoy and Fred Sargent

SARGENT is an electrical industry consultant focusing on service expertise. He can be reached at fred@sargent.com. MCCOY is the Preston and Catharine White Fellow and department head of the Department of Building Construction in the Myers-Lawson...

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