Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A new Massachusetts Senator and energy policy changes

The fate of coal fired power plants is one of those questions that continues to have answers hidden in the fog of their political future. And the election tonight of a Republican Senator from Massachusetts raises some interesting questions about that future. Not the least of these will be the fate of cap and trade legislation, which was already in some trouble in the Senate. And one wonders if it will have any impact in the ongoing debate about the Cape Wind project. This project, to raise a wind farm in the area off the coast of Massachusetts that the late Senator Kennedy and his family apparently sailed in, has been stalled for some nine years since it was first conceived. The process recently ran into another bump with the National Park Service agreeing that the area is eligible for listing as a historic site.
The 560-square-mile area is the first swath of ocean to be determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. That decision Monday, based on the sound’s cultural and spiritual significance for two Wampanoag tribes, means the 130-turbine Cape Wind project and all future activities in the Sound that require a federal permit will now have to consult with the Native Americans and try to minimize the impact of projects on the protected area. That consultation will be required even if the sound is never actually formally listed on the register.
The Secretary of the Interior has now met with the Indian tribes, and the proponents of the plan and has promised that there will be a decision before the end of April. The eligibility ruling is apparently somewhat unusual, and has additional consequences relating to fishing and the use of ferries that go well beyond the wind farm issue, and no doubt tonight’s result may also have some impact. But we should find out before the end of April what that might be.

Not all political futures are as quickly resolved. One of those that has been dragging on is the one I started with, that of cap and trade, and Foreign Policy in a major review of the accomplishments of the Obama Administration in the energy field have not been overly kind in their review. And while the election may move cap and trade even further from a Senate vote, the article goes into considerable more depth in considering some of the other perceived failures of the past year.
Here is the back story of how the Obama administration dramatically raised and then dashed America's -- and the world's -- hopes that 2009 would be a pivotal year for remaking our collective energy future.
It has a much more realistic view of the consequences of actions to date, and while it considers that Secretary Chu is a voice of reason in the debate on the energy future, considers that he is a lone voice, and a largely unsuccessful one against the “partisans of the past.”
Virtually every other key policy role was filled by environmental regulators -- former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Carol Browner as climate czar, former Browner aide Lisa Jackson as EPA administrator, and Nancy Sutley as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
The authors feel that the emphasis on energy conservation – a major plank in the immediate future – is part of “magical thinking” of the future where desired outcomes will occur almost at the cost of merely wishing them so.
In this view, energy efficiency pays for itself, solar and wind power are already nearly cost competitive with fossil fuels, and both can quickly and cheaply reduce emissions. This Pollyanna view of fossil fuel alternatives and efficiency, which makes going green seem cheap and easy -- little more than the cost of "a postage stamp a day" -- has provided the justification for green-policy advocacy that has overwhelmingly focused on pollution regulations and carbon pricing while ignoring serious investment in energy research and development.
Some of the roadblocks to the anticipated “magical change” in the energy supply of the country are already evident. The resistance to a wind farm in Massachusetts from the Democratic Establishment there; the blocking of sites in the Mohave Desert that would contain solar and wind farms by Senator Feinstein - to give examples on both coasts – illustrate some of the problems that the reality of renewable energy provision must get through in order to continue to increase the percentage power that it provides to the nation. (And it is still not nearly as much as the public perception of its impact has been, I suspect).

Unfortunately that is not the sum of the national woes. For in reading the Foreign Policy piece, what struck me was the lack of understanding on the part of the authors of the potential future problems of overall energy supply.

The grip of the “greens” on short-term energy policy will likely make it increasingly difficult to build new coal-fired power stations. Secretary Chu, driven in part I suspect by his own view of Climate Change, is focusing on finding long-term solutions to the provision of electric power, with the benefit that dealing funds to that aim helps his constituency in the National Labs. But in the process neither side pays much attention to the possibility of nearer term problems of energy supply.

But there are some warning signs (apart from the ones that I write about in most posts relating to the coming difficulty in producing enough oil to meet global demand – which Goldman Sachs now expects to happen next year). And these concerns are illustrated by example. For in the United Kingdom the power companies are requesting that some of the coal-fired and nuclear power stations be kept around after the European Union regulations require that they be closed.
"Given that the issue we are trying to grapple with is climate change, there is a question mark over keeping one or two of these oil or coal fired plants mothballed to secure supplies for a few days per year when we get these conditions," Golby (chief executive for E.ON UK) said.

"It might be a small economic and carbon premium worth paying for security of supply and getting us through this transition to a low-carbon energy system. It's something we have talked to the government about."

Golby's view is privately supported by many UK power station operators who fear a looming energy gap in a few years when old coal and nuclear plants have been closed but new reactors, clean coal plants and wind farms have not been built.

So the new Senator enters an arena where the debates, actions, and inactions of the next year or so may have a very significant impact on whether or not there is sufficient power in this country after 2015. Let us hope that he understands that.


  1. From the Foreign Policy article: "We simply do not have low-carbon technologies today that can at large scale replace fossil fuels at a cost that any political economy in the world is willing to impose upon itself."

    Thanks for the link to the FP article. Fascinating.

    But to the quote above -- it is plain wrong. We do have the technology today. Nuclear fission. That the same people who get their panties in a twist over alleged anthropogenic "climate change" also oppose nuclear power simply shows how unscientific & irrational they are.

    The great thing from the viewpoint of the human race is that left-wing granola thinking may dominate the US and EU, but the US & EU are not the world. China, India, Brazil, Russia will each choose its own technological path forward. They can choose to deal with real problems (such as finite fossil fuels) rather than imaginary problems (such as anthropogenic "climate change").

    The human race will move forward -- without us.

  2. I think that the operational word is "cost" and, as you note, there are folks that are willing to pay this, but this is not always recognized.