Too cheap to meter
| Splitting more than hairs|
“”It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter; will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history; will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age. This is the forecast of an age of peace.
| —Lewis L. Strauss|
Speech to the National Association of Science Writers
New York City, September 16th, 1954
Too cheap to meter is a phrase often brought up by the anti-nuclear movement. It is used to imply that early proponents of nuclear power promised that it would lead to a utopian future, but never delivered on these promises. The problem is that this phrase was a general futurist statement and never explicitly referred to nuclear power.
The phrase was coined by Lewis L. Strauss, the chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, in a speech given to the National Association of Science Writers in 1954. This was 3 years before the first American nuclear power plant began operations. The speech included themes of improving the fate of future generations through the advancement of science, and the key phrase referred to the general possibility of electric power becoming so cheap that it will be billed at a fixed rate (e.g. similar to how many Internet connections are billed now), because power meters will become uneconomical.
Even at the time of Strauss's speech, nuclear power proponents did not think it would be too cheap to meter. In fact, they considered it would be more expensive than coal for at least 10 years. Strauss did not refer explicitly to nuclear power in his speech, although it is unclear whether this is because nuclear power was still a secret, or he thought other future advances in power generation would be needed, or for some other reason.
More recently the phrase is occasionally used by advocates of renewable energy such as solar and wind power. This does not reflect mainstream opinion, especially as advances like smart meters make it cheaper to meter and bill customers.
Occasionally the wholesale price of electricity falls to zero or negative values for short periods. This occurs in short-term situations (certain times of day, holidays, etc) where electricity production exceeds the combination of demand and storage capacity, but the electricity must go somewhere (you can't just dump it in a hole or put it in a shed). Power generation can't always be turned off with the flick of a switch, and start-up or shut-down can be expensive, while combined heat-power plants must keep running to provide heating and hot water. The price rises again once wind falls, demand increases, or power stations can be taken offline. This reflects inflexibility in power generation, and because consumer prices are based on long-term average costs rather than spot prices, it does not mean free electricity for most people.
- “Too Cheap to Meter”: A History of the Phrase, United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission blog
- Sun and wind could finally make electricity ‘too cheap to meter’, The Conversation, Jan 6, 2015
- The causes and effects of negative power prices, Clean Energy Wire, 8 Jan 2018