Practical Holiday Energy Efficiency Tips

December is a busy, stressful time of year, so using both time and energy efficiently makes sense and can save cents.

However, good efficiency intentions can sometimes lead us astray, as demonstrated by the following tweet, posted on December 4 by @EnergySaver, an account belonging to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Although this government Twitter feed includes many useful tips, there are at least three problems with this particular tweet (which may have been written by someone who doesn’t bake):

  • First, the writer assumes that a convection oven is smaller than a regular oven. In fact, many conventional size ovens include a convection mode.
  • Second, if you do use a smaller convection oven—the type you might have in a dormitory room or grad student apartment because it’s all that will fit—you’ll need to buy and use smaller cookie sheets, which means you’ll be running the oven for at least twice as long as if you’d used a regular-size oven. There go your energy savings! (The tweet recommends using a convection oven when baking “a few cookies,” but the four shown—all that will fit in the tiny oven—are fewer than the definition of “a few” in most homes and certainly too few to share in a cookie exchange!)
  • Finally, the notion that one should use a separate, smaller convection oven for cookie baking—or any other oven needs—ignores the cost of purchasing, and the inefficiency of storing, an additional appliance.

According to, the average electric oven using an average wattage (2,400 watts) for an hour at typical heat (300 to 425 degrees Fahrenheit) uses 2.4 kW, which amounts to 24¢ if your rate is 10¢/kWh. Compared with the cost of your ingredients, that’s not much. If you’re compulsive about saving energy, ask yourself if you’re committed at any cost. Figure out how many of those 24¢ you’d save by using a convection oven, and then calculate how many hours over how many years you’d have to use the oven to recover its capital cost, which can run from under $100 for a smaller, countertop model to well over $2,000 for a commercial one.

Impractical Advice

Many years ago, I heard a similarly impractical piece of advice. A so-called efficiency expert told an audience that they could save a lot of energy by not preheating their ovens; just put your food in the oven while it heats up, he advised. “NO-O-O!” I wanted to yell out. Though this person may have had some energy background, he clearly had zero cooking skills.

Cooking is chemistry. Especially with baking, you must add just the right amount of key ingredients and process them—fold, beat, heat, or apply pressure—in just the right way. Put a soufflé in an unheated oven and you’ll never get that light, impressively towering final result. The eggs will eventually cook, but you won’t have made a soufflé. Put butter-rich Christmas cookies in an un-preheated oven, and they will spread into an unappetizing, amoeboid mess.

Energy industry insiders often complain that the public doesn’t understand energy, but one reason average consumers may dismiss what they hear from utilities and other experts is that the proffered advice sometimes ignores daily realities.

Sensible Energy Efficiency for Bakers

So, what to do if you’re a typical man or woman trying to juggle work and family responsibilities while “making spirits bright” during the festive season? There are more sensible approaches to baking in an energy efficient way than those suggested by the two “experts” I just cited.

First, do the best with what you have—because who wants to shop for a utilitarian appliance when you’d rather be shopping for gifts? Then, the next time you replace an oven, look at efficiency ratings (maybe by then the government’s Energy Star program will have gotten around to including ovens). You’ll have space and style requirements to consider as well, but when you’ve narrowed your list of models, remember to factor in efficiency.

Also consider models that include a convection bake option. I’ve had two ovens with this capability, and they can cut cooking times for some dishes. Before you commit to a convection-only appliance, consider the pros and cons.

Try to find an oven with at least three racks, rather than just two. Especially if you use the convection mode, you can improve efficiency by baking more sheets of cookies in the same amount of time—which also minimizes the cook’s time in the kitchen. Trust me, this is one of the best time-saving as well as energy-saving decisions you can make.

When it comes to actual baking, you can use your appliance most efficiently, in whatever mode, if you:

  • Preheat your oven so that it’s at the required temperature just before you’re ready to put your food in.
  • Bake multiple recipes at once or in succession. Plan ahead to bake two or more dishes for a meal at the same time or multiple recipes of any kind while your oven is hot.
  • If you are baking two or more foods at different temperatures, try to start with the one that requires the highest heat. That way, you’ll save time and energy getting the temperature to the next setting, because you’ll always lose a bit of heat when you open the door to remove your food.

Holiday Energy Efficiency Beyond the Kitchen

When it comes right down to it, saving a penny or two by using a convection rather than a regular oven isn’t the most sensible way to be energy efficient during the holiday season. Bigger gains can be realized by replacing any remaining traditional, filament-based decorative lights with LED strands. Costs have fallen in recent years, so price should no longer be an excuse.

You can also put your exterior or interior decorative lights on a timer. That will optimize the hours your lights are on while saving you the hassle of remembering to turn them on at dusk and off before bed. The timer can also be handy indoors any time of year to enhance the safety of your property, as it can turn lights on and off at appointed times, making it appear that you are home when you’re not. (Yes, I know this uses energy “needlessly,” but sometimes it pays to consider security as well as efficiency.)

Finally, remember to optimize the efficiency of any biomass-burning stoves or fireplaces. It’s true that a fireplace isn’t the most efficient way to heat your home, but most of us who are lucky to live where wood fireplaces haven’t been outlawed use them infrequently. Besides, a wood fire is usually less about heating and more about establishing a warm mood for holiday entertaining. It’s one of the stress-relieving joys of the season.

To avoid sending heated interior air up the flue when you don’t have a fire, make sure your damper fits tightly. If you live, as I do, in a windy area, high winds can sometimes blow the flue open, so check it at least weekly.

As with your dryer vent, cleaning your wood stove or fireplace flue is not only an important safety measure; it also can improve efficient airflow. And, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, “Even one-tenth of an inch of soot can drop the heat transfer efficiency of the metal by 50%” in a wood stove.

Need extra incentive to call out the chimney sweep? Remember that Santa will appreciate the clean flue, too!

Gail Reitenbach, PhD produces Right Hand Reports (—exclusive, independent reports on events of key value to those in and involved with the fast-changing power and electric utility industry—and provides consulting services through Right Hand Communications LLC. She is the former editor of POWER.

Renewables, Microgrids, and the Locational Constraints of Powering Alaska

Five Finger Islands Light, Frederick Sound, Alaska. Photo by Gail Reitenbach

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to travel by water in Southeast Alaska—that southernmost strip of the state’s rainforest- and glacier-covered territory that looks on a map as if it should be part of Canada—you quickly gain an appreciation for modern navigational tools. Especially to a land-lubber, the maze of islands, inlets, and passages can be disorienting—especially when clouds obscure some or all physical landmarks.

But even for experienced mariners with modern electronics aboard craft of all sizes, lighthouses continue to play an important safety role in the state that still earns its motto as the “last frontier.” The Five Finger Islands Light is one such beacon. Sitting about 40 miles from the closest human habitation, the fishing town of Petersburg, Alaska, it marks a set of rocky islets at the northern end of Frederick Sound, which is famous for humpback whale sightings.

As notes, “These five islands, some of which are only visible at low tide, resemble a set of bony fingers reaching up from the icy waters to snare inattentive mariners. Situated along the Inside Passage, this cluster of natural navigational hazards was recognized early on as a prime site for a lighthouse.”

The first building on the site was erected in 1929 and is credited as being Alaska’s first lighthouse. It was destroyed by fire in 1933 and was replaced two years later by the current Art Deco structure. The rebuilt lighthouse was last staffed on August 14, 1984, when it was automated. The facility found new life when it was handed over to the Juneau Lighthouse Association in 2004 for use as a marine research site. However, the Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team in Sitka, Alaska, continues to maintain the light, according to the U.S. Coast Guard blog.

Five Finger Islands Light is also available for short-term rental through Airbnb—provided you can get there by boat, float plane, or helicopter. The property description warns that the location is remote, rugged, and that “This is an active research station with scientists and volunteers working on the lighthouse. People will need to bring their own groceries and sense of adventure.” They may also have to ride out the interruption of creature comforts: “Sometimes power goes out, sometimes water shuts off.”

Speaking of power, the currently automated facility is powered by solar panels and batteries—a nanogrid, if you will. The Coast Guard blog notes that a “team is airlifted to the island quarterly to check the solar panels, batteries, lamp changers, emergency lights and daylight controls. The team occasionally spends the night at the remote lighthouse while the batteries are charging.”

Solar panels and batteries power Five Finger Islands Light in Frederick Sound, Alaska. Photo by Gail Reitenbach

Fuel, Finances, and Power

Alaska has become something of a poster child for the value and potential of microgrids. With small population centers separated by great land distances or isolated by water, the sorts of transmission projects taken for granted in the Lower 48 are difficult and expensive under the best of circumstances. But whereas the latest microgrid projects often include a renewable generation component—typically solar photovoltaic (PV)—diesel is still a mainstay for the 49th state’s microgrids.

Although I did spot a couple of small solar photovoltaic installations during my week’s travels along the Inside Passage, I saw them, here on Colt Island, through the rain. Photo by Gail Reitenbach

Though Alaska is rich in fossil fuel resources, access to refined products is scarce, making the use of natural gas, oil, and diesel for power generation a pricey proposition, especially compared to economics in the Lower 48. In the Tlingit village of Kake (population 576 in the 2010 census), for example, we were told by former district court magistrate Mike Jackson (now a totem carver and peacemaker, among other activities) that residents pay 68¢ per kilowatt-hour.  Diesel currently supplies those kilowatt-hours. There is potential to develop hydropower near Kake, but the financing is complicated thanks to hydro’s exclusion from some definitions of renewable power.

Alaskan Microgrids and the Constraints of Location

Alaskans have a history of ingenuity and working with what nature provides. Along the state’s Inside Passage, nature provides a lot of water—in all its forms. Yet, even there, water power isn’t always the obvious choice. Whereas an existing dam near Kake makes supplying at least some of the community’s electricity with hydropower a tantalizing prospect, on the small, isolated rock that supports the Five Finger Islands Light, hydropower is far less feasible than solar plus storage.

The choice and combination of renewable technologies and other microgrid components may be more important in remote locations like Alaska’s small communities and outposts than anywhere else in the U.S. Where clean and affordable power is the goal, definitions and policy-making should provide locational flexibility.

—Gail Reitenbach, PhD (@GailReit) is the former editor of POWER and current editor and publisher at Right Hand Communications LLC (@righthandcom), where she is closing out a sabbatical before jumping back into the world of power and electricity issues.

Electric Utilities Need to Make Bigger Bets

What happens when an industry born and bred for speedy risk-taking does business with an industry known for slow, cautious behavior? Eventually, the speedster will likely bypass the slowpoke to race ahead with a faster-moving partner. Increasingly, electric utilities with large customers, especially big-name technology and internet companies, are being bypassed. Even traditional large manufacturing enterprises like Toyota are looking for alternative energy partners. That’s just one reason utilities and other power generators need to be making bigger bets to future-proof their business.

Customers Are Making Bigger Bets

Despite the recent battles over net metering for (mostly residential) customers with rooftop solar generation, a bigger renewables revolution is being led by large customers who are demanding higher percentages of carbon-neutral energy. Many large customers, especially campuses and energy-intensive industrial operations, have historically supplied their own power, but today’s large energy users have a different physical footprint and desire a different carbon footprint.

Especially where global technology firms are concerned, operations and server facilities are geographically dispersed. Generating clean, reliable, affordable onsite power in a wide variety of locations is challenging, while power from local utilities is unlikely to be as clean and affordable (at least over the long term) as desired by the likes of Alphabet, Amazon, and Apple—to name just the As. So they are turning to third-party suppliers or getting into the renewable power generation business themselves.

Most recently, Microsoft sought regulatory approval to essentially divorce its hometown utility provider, Puget Sound Energy, in order to buy power on the wholesale market so it can fulfill corporate carbon-neutral commitments.

And Apple recently announced that three more of its suppliers will be buying only renewable power. Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president for sustainability and government affairs, told Bloomberg that Apple itself currently gets 96% of its energy from renewables. What’s more, Apple is just one example of a major global tech giant developing its own renewable power projects and selling (or preparing to sell) generation in excess of its own needs to the market.

Others contract with third-party developers to build new capacity to back long-term renewable power purchase agreements. Pattern Energy even put a customer’s name on one such project recently, the Amazon Wind Farm Fowler Ridge project built for Amazon Web Services.

Such moves by large energy users have helped spur growth in the renewables sector and have resulted in the addition of large (what would traditionally have been called “utility-scale”) solar and wind power facilities.

It’s difficult to envision a scenario under which the building corporate demand for carbon-neutral power slows or flattens, especially when Salesforce just announced it reached its goal of global net zero carbon emissions—33 years early.

Whether to participate in providing that cleaner power, or to respond to the consequences of customer defection (plus other market challenges), utilities will need to be making some bigger bets in the near future.

The Value of Big Bets

I began thinking about what constitutes a big bet for utilities and other power generators after reading The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. I met the author, Julie Benezet, at an event earlier this month, where we shared an interesting conversation. Before we parted ways, she gave me a copy of her book, which I started reading on the flight home.

As a former Amazon leader, Benezet knows all about charting a course where there is none. For three years in the ecommerce giant’s early days, she was its first global real estate executive. As she describes her circumstances at Amazon in the late 1990s, substitute “power” for “real estate” and see if it sounds familiar: “From my perch of figuring out how to deliver large chunks of real estate and other essential infrastructure to Amazon workers worldwide, I had to operate in the middle of the company’s thrash through a sea of forever-changing information. To justify long-term investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate, we had to develop credible underlying business-growth strategies without the benefit of existing business plans or even the mechanisms to develop them.”

Electric utilities value stability and predictability more than just about any industry out there. Instead, over the past decade, they have faced an accelerating set of unpredictable changes, from fuel price reversals that moved gas ahead of coal, to technology breakthroughs that are empowering customers to challenge utility business models, and now see-saw federal environmental policies.

As Benezet observes, “Twenty years after Amazon opened its cyber doors, business everywhere has evolved to a state where chaos is the norm, and confronting it is both creative and essential.”

Even though it’s one of the least “cyber” businesses, the power generation and distribution business is being forced by the renewable energy requirements of cyber leaders like Amazon, its internet technology peers, and others to confront the chaos of constant change and “not knowing.” That’s in addition to the unknowns of new technologies, chaotic federal regulatory maneuvers, and fuel price unpredictability.

Benezet says that before she worked at Amazon, she equated leadership with strategy, but when conventional strategy doesn’t exist for a new scenario, a leadership “mindset” is necessary. One of her four core components for navigating business through unknowns is to take “bigger bets.”

Before you write off big bets as dangerous for a business providing an essential service like electricity, consider that Benezet defines a bigger bet as “a new strategic idea that lifts the organization into the future by making it better. It can touch any facet of business, such as strategic positioning in the market, a new approach to execution, corporate culture, or a structure that facilitates smarter work. It does not have to be radical or huge. It does have to be better than what is directly in front of you to leverage the possibilities of the emerging future and compel others to act.”

The emerging future facing the power industry—where renewables compete economically with fossil fuels, where energy storage and digital technologies enable a more dynamic grid, and where customers have non-utility options for power—certainly argues for making a bet on something other than “what is directly in front of you.”

And that’s just what some leaders are doing.

Take Kentucky, in the heart of coal country. Jim Gardner, a former Kentucky Public Service Commission member, recently told NPR, “The future is renewables and the large corporations that want renewables.” Two years ago, a local Facebook employee told Gardner that large corporations were deciding where to locate based on the availability of renewable power. “He made it seem like there was literally a list with a lot of states with big X’s marked in,” Gardner told NPR, “so that Facebook and others were not looking because [some states] were not going to be open to renewables.” Kentucky subsequently made arrangements to “cut a special deal” to offer renewable power if large customers want it, but offering it economically could be challenging.

The Kentucky example is instructive for a couple of reasons. With their global footprint and purchasing power, companies like Facebook and Amazon have altered the balance of power with utilities. Furthermore, “cheap power”—until recently synonymous with coal-fired power—is no longer the most important attribute of this commodity.

The Changing Nature of Power Sector Bets

The challenge large customer defection poses to utilities sits alongside the familiar ones of fuel price volatility and environmental policy uncertainties. To address those latter unknowns, utilities have traditionally employed various hedging bets, like tweaking the balance of their generating portfolio or, more recently, acquiring natural gas assets.

But until recently, the biggest bet a U.S. utility could make was deciding to build a new nuclear plant. Proof: federal loan guarantees, without which no utility will now consider building new units. With construction delays, cost overruns, and a supplier bankruptcy filing dogging the two most recent nuclear development sites, that bet is looking bigger and riskier every day.

Size and complexity are part of the problem for large conventional nuclear projects. Smaller modular reactors that promise improved safety could be the answer, but they present a different type of bet: a bet on unproven technology.

More recently, pre-combustion and post-combustion carbon capture technology at coal-fired power plants has been the new big bet. In anticipation of federal greenhouse gas regulations and global climate agreements, utilities in the U.S. and Canada have brought online projects designed to have their cake (avoid the release of greenhouse gases) and eat it too (continue to burn coal). To date, these carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) bets have paid off unpredictably.

Duke’s Edwardsport integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant and Southern Company’s Kemper County IGCC project both suffered time and cost overuns, followed by significant operational challenges. The companies have noted that IGCC, which enables pre-combustion capture of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, is still considered relatively new technology Nevertheless, given the growing pains for lower-carbon coal generation, it’s likely a bet others will shy away from—at least in North America.

Bet Big: Go Small

The power industry and media have long given priority to large projects. When I was managing editor and then editor of POWER, we fell into that pattern. After all, a huge project is more complex to execute—and makes for better photos—than a dozen smaller ones.

But what if the best bigger bet for utilities is actually going smaller? From nuclear to solar to natural gas–fueled facilities, smaller installations, closer to new load or transmission and distribution pinch points, could be faster to site and commission as well as more cost-effective—at least across the U.S., where demand for electricity is flat or falling.

Economies of scale can provide long-term advantage when making big bets on nuclear or CCS projects. But you don’t need to go big to see a big impact when deploying today’s latest technologies, like drones, digital diagnostic systems, and containerized energy storage.

When it comes to bets on new technology or new business models, smaller entities are among the leaders. From smart grid technology to community power to microgrids, municipal and co-operative utilities have proven that small can be savvy. True, the capital expenditures for these new options are lower than for nuclear and CCS, but the size of a bet is relative to the size of the organization. (That’s not to suggest large entities are ignoring the latest approaches. Earlier this month, Bryan Hanson, president and chief nuclear officer for Exelon Generation, explained that his company realized, “We needed to think bigger” to stay competitive. Exelon’s solution was to deploy a range of new digital technologies and create a culture of innovation.)

As the recent example of a solar-plus-batteries microgrid developed by the Sterling Municipal Light Department in Massachusetts demonstrates, relatively small new bets can pay off in both the short and long run. The small muni, which worked with Sandia National Laboratories to design the project, used the concept of stacking benefits to ensure its viability. The 2-MW/3.9-MWh microgrid can provide up to 12 hours of electricity to emergency services in the case of a grid outage. That’s the “energy surety” part of the plan.

In the meantime, the installation is expected to save customers big bucks. According to a forthcoming paper from Sandia, as reported by Renewable Energy World (REW), “the biggest energy cost savings potential from the batteries comes from reducing Sterling’s electricity demand during a single annual peak demand hour for the New England region.” The utility will also use the microgrid to avoid peak transmission charges and for price arbitrage, drawing on battery power when prices are highest.

REW reports that the $2.7 million battery system has a payback of about two years thanks to grant funding from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Electricity. Even without those grants, the payback is under seven years. Given that the batteries have a 10-year performance warranty “and are expected to continue to function significantly longer than that,” the Sterling microgrid looks like a surer bet than recent nuclear and CCS bets placed by bigger players.

How might something like a microgrid future-proof any utility from customer defection and other unknowns? Not by itself of course, but as part of a larger strategy to provide energy security to a community or region, it could position a provider as both essential and adaptable.

Next Utility Bets?

What’s the next big bet for utilities and power generators? On the infrastructure side, it’s likely to be more widespread leveraging of digital technologies from end to end of the enterprise—from the connected plant to customer care. The biggest risk with the bet in this domain concerns cybersecurity. The good news is that there’s job growth in cybersecurity.

Another place to watch for the next big bets are in the regulatory and business model realm. Battles over customer rooftop solar installations and net metering were just the beginning for shakeups there.

—Gail Reitenbach, PhD (follow her on Twitter @GailReit) is a communicator, creator, and hiker who lives in Santa Fe, N.M. She is the former editor of POWER and the current editor and publisher at Right Hand Communications LLC (, where she is preparing to make her next big bet.

There’s No Age Limit for Innovation

Odds are you’re reading this post on a device powered by lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Those batteries were largely invented by Dr. John Goodenough, currently a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. Goodenough, like others in the field of energy storage, realized that Li-ion batteries were an enormous improvement over previous battery technologies like lead-acid, but he also realized they weren’t, ahem, good enough. So, like any scientific researcher worth the title, he kept working to make them nonflammable, cheaper, and longer-lasting.

At the end of February, UT Austin announced that a team led by Goodenough had developed the long-hoped-for breakthrough for battery storage: “the first all-solid-state battery cells that could lead to safer, faster-charging, longer-lasting rechargeable batteries for handheld mobile devices, electric cars and stationary energy storage.”

Other academic and corporate research teams, including some that have received grant money from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects-Energy (ARPA-E) program, are also working on solid-state batteries, and I’m not certifying that the UT team is actually the first to develop a solid-state battery cell. Nevertheless, two observations are worth making about this announcement, aside from the technology achievement.

To Create Something Different, You May Need to Include Someone Different

One is that the individual credited as the key collaborator on Professor Goodenough’s breakthrough is a senior research fellow in the engineering school, Dr. Maria Helena Braga. It may be chance that the researcher to share public honors for the development of this new achievement is a woman (she’s listed as the lead author on the academic article about the work in Energy & Environmental Science), but it’s one more data point validating the frequent finding that teams including persons of diverse backgrounds tend to be more successful than more homogeneous teams. (For an example from the past that’s recently been publicized in popular culture via the movie Hidden Figures, consider the invaluable contribution of female African-American “computers” to NASA’s manned space missions.)

Dr. Maria Helena Braga. Source: University of Texas at Austin


The UT Austin researchers’ new approach offers multiple advantages for the growing (I was going to say “exploding”) battery industry. Not only does the team’s replacement of liquid electrolytes with glass electrolytes remove the potential for explosions and fires in battery-powered devices, but it also enables a collection of other coveted characteristics for next-generation batteries: increased cycling/longer life, faster charging, lower cost, lower operating temperature, and the use of environmentally friendly materials. (Braga is quoted as saying, “The glass electrolytes allow for the substitution of low-cost sodium for lithium. Sodium is extracted from seawater that is widely available.”) Those last two traits alone—a greatly expanded temperature range and low-cost, “clean” materials—are game-changers.

The second observation is that Dr. Goodenough isn’t your typical lead researcher on a project like this. You see, he’s 94. At an age when most of his contemporaries are pushing up daisies, this professor, who holds a PhD in physics, has just been recognized for his contribution to what is poised to be the breakthrough energy storage material development for perhaps the next decade.

Dr. John Goodenough. Source: University of Texas at Austin

Those Over 30 Need Not Apply

The timing of this announcement struck me because the very same day as UT Austin posted the news of Dr. Goodenough and Dr. Braga’s achievement—February 28—Dr. Saul Griffith, cofounder and CEO of Otherlab, was speaking at the annual ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. Griffith is an enthusiastic speaker and passionate energy nerd, but the way he closed his remarks at the summit took me aback because of its implied ageism.

After a fast-paced presentation that ranged from a history of government reports on clean energy, to energy usage and waste data, to the energy startups with which he has been affiliated, Griffith concluded by saying (I’m paraphrasing), “If you’re under 30, send us an application. If you’re over 30, help fund these projects and researchers.”

My opinion of Griffith immediately plummeted—and not just because I’m over 30. It may be that he was just preaching to the choir, aware that his audience included a high percentage of under-30 students. That’s fine if that was the case, but I suspect Griffith may be hobbling his chances of success by putting only—or predominantly—young folks in his start-up baskets. (Though Griffith has been involved with multiple intriguing ideas, he seems more interested in the ideas than in their commercial deployment. The project for which he is most well-known, especially in the energy space—Makani Power’s high-altitude wind harvesting kite—does not yet appear to have been commercially deployed. After gaining a $4 million ARPA-E grant for the project, Griffith sold Makani Power, founded in 2006, to Google in 2013.)

I’m not suggesting that all nonagenarians are capable of contributing to landmark scientific or engineering discoveries. Clearly, Dr. Goodenough is one of those exceptional individuals who maintain a passion for their field of interest long after what corporate America and the Social Security Administration consider to be retirement age. Furthermore, there are plenty of twenty-somethings who will never, at any age, possess the technical or creative abilities to contribute transformative ideas in any field.

What I am suggesting is that we all exercise caution before automatically disqualifying an individual simply for demographic reasons. In that spirit, I won’t hold it against the under-30 crowd that someone old enough to be their great grandfather beat them to this innovation prize. But seriously, who knows how long it would have taken for this battery tech breakthrough had Dr. Goodenough been forced to retire and leave his office in any of the past four decades? (He did leave Oxford University just before that institution’s retirement policy would have forced him out.)

As for Goodenough, he’ll have the last laugh. Turns out he’s been fighting ageism since he started his graduate studies at the University of Chicago, when a professor told him, “I don’t understand you veterans. . . . Don’t you know that anyone who has ever done anything significant in physics had already done it by the time he was your age; and you want to begin?” Ha!

Gail Reitenbach, PhD (follow her on Twitter @GailReit) is a communicator, creator, and hiker who lives in Santa Fe, N.M. She is the former editor of POWER and the current editor and publisher at Right Hand Communications LLC (

From POWER to Purpose

The following post first appeared on LinkedIn in January 2017 with the title “From POWER to Purpose: Making the Most of a Career Transition.”

I titled my January editorial for POWER—the penultimate one I’d write for the magazine—“The Power Industry’s Moving Pieces in 2017.” Like the power industry, the publishing business is also rearranging its pieces these days, and so I am moving on from a job I held for fourteen years. But before I dive into a new full-time role, I’m taking a short sabbatical to ensure that my next career commitment is as rewarding as the one I made with POWER.

Clearing My Desk

The first thing I did on my first post-POWER employment day was to clear my home office desk, from which I had worked for nearly my entire tenure with the brand. POWER memorabilia didn’t hit the trash—I’m proud of what I did while leading the most respected brand serving the global power generation industry—but it did move to a storage box.

The clean desk was necessary to help me take a clearer look backward and forward.

Here’s my list of the three best things about being POWER’s managing editor, and then editor:

  • I stretched professionally and intellectually. I learned things about the power industry that I would never have learned as a writer or editor for any other media brand.
  • I got to interact with a wide variety of men and women around the world who, in one way or another, are involved in helping to provide electricity—an essential service that developed nations take for granted.
  • I was able to hire and mentor a small but effective team of diverse editors who also happen to be interesting human beings.

And the three best things about no longer leading POWER:

  • I get a break from unrelenting, overlapping deadlines. I actually love deadlines and have always been a multi-tasker—something I attribute in part to having been an organist (using both hands and feet while paying attention to the overall performance and myriad details rewires the brain—see the video link in this NPR story). But deadlines can create a false sense of security. The regularly timed adrenaline rush of closing a print or digital issue and being able to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor can become a sort of narcotic. Even though I continually learned new things about the power and publishing industries, I never had time to reflect on whether this was what I wanted to do the rest of my career.
  • At least while I’m scoping out the next career trail, I’ll get a chance to forge closer ties to my local community, something that has been challenging as a full-time-plus, home-office-based employee.
  • I have the opportunity to reimagine my future. Though I’ve always been a communicator of some sort—as a professor, communications consultant, writer, editor, and publisher—the focus of my work has ranged widely, from education to energy. I’m grateful that my experiences have enabled me to be a flexible learner, contributor, and leader.

About That Sabbatical

When I was in graduate school earning a PhD, I was preparing for a career as an English professor, a career I hoped might evolve into one in academic administration. That career path has historically included a sabbatical every seven years or so, during which tenured professors take a semester or two off while collecting a percentage of their regular salary. The idea is to recharge and renew one’s professional interests and expertise. The best professors resume their responsibilities with new passion and enhanced effectiveness.

The sabbatical is not intended to be pure vacation. To secure a sabbatical, one needs to submit a plan. That plan often involves travel to one or more special research sites that wouldn’t normally be accessible. The extended, largely unstructured free time enables the academic to conduct and publish original research or to develop a new expertise or course, thereby enhancing the reputations of the individual and the institution.

I had a successful, if short, career as an English professor (that field, too, was undergoing substantial restructuring just as I entered it). I value that experience, but my career since then has been more interesting than I could have imagined.

I have just one regret: I don’t get sabbaticals.

To be clear, the promise of sabbaticals was not why I entered the world of higher education. And I realize that few other careers offer sabbaticals. But I believe it’s a benefit that should be available in many more fields. I’m not alone. See this article from Forbes, for example.

So, I’m granting myself a sabbatical at this transition point, even though it will be shorter than a conventional one.

During my sabbatical, I will be networking with current and new contacts to discern the best career trail to take next. When I do, I’ll commit to it with the same passion and persistence I brought to POWER.

I titled this post “From POWER to Purpose” because my career with POWER was a (lucky) accident. I didn’t apply for the job. My boss at the time walked into my office one day while I was working as an editor for another Platts (now S&P Global Platts) brand and asked if I’d like to be managing editor of POWER. I knew it was a good opportunity, so I said yes. From my first job with the company that became part of Platts, through my tenure as editor of POWER, I had five corporate employers, even though I never left a position. Now it’s time to play a more purposeful role in choosing my next trail.

During my self-authorized sabbatical I’ll also be working on a writing project of my own. It has nothing to do with power, energy, or publishing. That’s exciting, because I’ll get to stretch in a new way for awhile. Don’t get me wrong—I’ll always be engaged with the energy industry, but taking a partial break will help me decide exactly how I want to be involved in the future.

I’m fortunate to live in the West, where I can feed my hunger for nature, hiking, and new mountain vistas. Hikers know that they may take many promising trails in a lifetime, and may return repeatedly to favorite routes, but they can only walk one trail at a time. If they’re lucky, they enjoy a few side paths along the way.

I’ll see you on the trail!

—Gail Reitenbach (follow her on Twitter @GailReit) is a communicator, creator, and hiker who lives in Santa Fe, N.M. She is the former editor of POWER.