By Ken Cole On February 3, 2009 · 31 Comments · In Conservation, Energy, Privatization, Public Land Management
Against the so-called ‘need’ for new long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines
Transmission lies Grist Environmental News and Commentary
Carol A. Overland posits the idea that a new electrical grid is “an enabler of dysfunctional energy planning and profit-driven projects that are against the public interest.”
Tagged with: electric grid • renewable energy • transmission lines
Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project. We do not accept unsolicited “guest” authors or advertising.
31 Responses to Transmission lies
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Great title, Ken!
I think we need to think about the 2009 mania for an explosion of remote industrial “renewables” plants and huge new transmission lines through the lens of the Shock Doctrine – as explained by Naomi Klein in a book of the same name. Since it seems to explain so much of what we have seen happen in recent years.
In spring-summer 2008, we had Oil Shock – with gas $4 or $5 a gallon. We are learning now that is because prices were manipulated. Now – what if you were a Big Oil or Big Energy company, and wanted to get the infrastructure in place for shipping Tar Sands energy south or Wyoming gas towards the coast – put everyone in a panic that we MUST have a massive infrastructure system. (Once a corridor is designated multiple energy sources may end up using it).
What, too, if you wanted to promote giant industrial wind and other facilities that you or your big business friends (be they Shell or whoever – Dems, Repubs, foreign entities) were promoting? Oil Shock would be just the thing for that, too.
The comments at the Grist article are interesting, too, including this by “amazingdrx”:
“You forgot the best argument against a huge grid buildup. With a distributed smart grid and conservation, present transmission capacity would be many times what we would need.
You could win your battle against a huge grid buildup with a scale for distributed smart grid and renewable energy/conservation technology. With one exception, a few underground HVDC electrical superhighways, maybe running along a national high speed electric train corridor, should be built as a national renewable energy exchange smart grid.
Those lines wouldn’t create electromagnetic pollution or eyesores. or excessive NIMBY reaction.”
so everyone agrees that conservation is the best, most cost effective first choice in solving our energy problems. so what is your monthly electric use? it seems disingenuous to call for more local generation without demonstrating action on personal conservation. even local, smart grids will require a tremendous amount of resources to implement — the less we need to install the less impact will take place. i’ll start, my household electric use (for 3 people) averages 225 kW over the calendar year. cheers, todd.
and btw, assuming that we are trying to find real, workable solutions here (as opposed to pushing agendas) we should evaluate statements for their factual basis. for example, what data supports the statement that “With a distributed smart grid and conservation, present transmission capacity would be many times what we would need.” All the data I have access to suggests otherwise. Maybe I don’t have the right data.
Todd – The point is: Do we allow ourselves to get locked into the same old Box (cell?) with “renewables” and Xmission lines/corridors everywhere so Shell, Suncor, SolarKing or whoever they are can continue to control and manipulate energy, or do we go down de-centralized, community path?
I think you said on another Post that you worked at a Lab/Think Tank. Who all funds the research, provides and vets the data plugged into models? If it is a federal energy research undertaking, if it is anything like “natural resources” research over the past few years, only certain research that would look at things in a certain way so as to not rock the cattle production or other extraction industry boat really got funded. Even in that context, findings that were too “controversial” never saw the light of day. Like a series of Ecoregional Assessments – for the Wyoming Basin, the Great Basin and Nevada. Buried, or never finalized.
Has anyone asked: What are the Alternatives???
Clearly I am getting frustrated with this issue. Folks at this site are likely to the left of center (at least on the mean) — myself included. As such, we often see our actions in relation to the overall society. In that, we ask the question “what if everyone did what I am doing.” Now hold that thought and consider that we are faced with a problem of increasing GHG concentrations that might result in rocking the very foundation of society (note that I used the word “might” not “likely” or “will”). Yet when confronted with this epic problem, I am hearing a lot of “no” — no nuclear, no transmission, no concentrated renewables — just install solar panels on everyones roof. At the same time, everyone wants a 3000 sq ft house (or two), own as many cars as the huge driveway can fit, and install as many 46″ plasma TV as the walls will hold. It is not just the far right who is doing this. Averaged over society, the hypocrisy is running rampant. We want to individually live in an unsustainable way but we want society to become sustainable.
So your question was “Has anyone ask what are the alternatives?” The answer is “yes.” I think the more relevant question is how do we move forward? And to that I answer “probably with a little bit of everything.” I little more nuclear, more transmission, more concentrated renewables, more distributed generation, more policies to limit peak demand, more demand pricing. Are there going to bad proposal put out there, surely, and those should be stopped. Do we need to change the structure by which energy is generated and controlled, absolutely. Are all concentrated renewables bad, absolutely not. Will we need new transmission, anyone who says no is not living in reality. Ideology is damaging no matter whether it comes from the left or the right.
…… The problem is too big, the time is too short and the consequences are too profound to do anything other than “all of the above.” If we don’t like “all of the above” then each of us should cut our personal consumption of energy to half of the US average, then cut it 10% per year going forward. Using ~1000 kWhr per month (about the US mean) and crusading for new policies is a non-started on my end. To me, it sounds like the rich trying to rationalize their consumption — and alleviate their guilt in the process.
As I said at the start, clearly I am frustrated with this issue ….
I know some of the people who comment on this blog and there is a wide range of income/wealth levels.
Of those I know the aspiration for most consumer goods is not high.
I understand there is a stereotype that environmentalists live in big houses in the countryside and drive SUVs. The activists I know do not. They are more likely to live in trailer and drive a small light truck.
As far as the average American goes, I think a big downsizing is underway.
In part this is because this recession will not be solved quickly. It may not be solved at all.
The prices of not just gasoline but other forms of energy such as electricity are dropping. The cost of new energy production is rising. A simple analysis of supply and demand indicates to me that the money for a lot of new generation plants and transmission lines is not there unless the government subsidizes these.
It may be that energy efficiency and a few new transmission lines to stabilize the grid will be sufficient.
I would predict that emissions of CO2 will drop in 2009, even in the absence of government programs directed to that end.
My data on the life-styles of the left-leaning is not as promising as yours, I guess location is everything.
In the spirit is gauging the life-styles of the posters to this blog, an anonymous posting to energy consumption could be pretty revealing. How much electricity a month, sq ft of household, miles driven per year, mpg, …. I mean, someone is using the 1000 kWhr per month and someone is buying big flat screens since the average size sold not is above 40 inches.
CO2 emissions dropping because no one is working will only be a temporary lull in the exponential trajectory of worldwide emissions growth. I will take a slow down anyway I can get it, but I clearly value long-term structural changes far, far more than short-term blips. This is a century-long problem.
“It is not just the far right who is doing this. Averaged over society, the hypocrisy is running rampant.”
While it may be hypocritical, I think most people’s consumption (liberal or conservative) is a function of an utter lack of awareness of where their energy comes from, which is born in part by highly subsidized energy. I believe that–were we to pay the true cost of energy–people would start paying attention and taking steps to reduce their consumption.
Localized/on-site production in combination with higher prices could provide built-in incentives for conservation–that is, consumers could avoid high costs of energy both by (1) insulating, buying smaller homes, and using less energy and (2) generating some of their own energy. Moving toward on-site energy production (whether it’s wood, wind, or solar) actually empowers people to take responsibility for their energy consumption; in part by taking responsibility for its production. In contrast, cheap, centralized production will only encourage a continuation of the behaviors you deplore (big homes, big cars, long commutes, etc.).
“In the spirit is gauging the life-styles of the posters to this blog, an anonymous posting to energy consumption could be pretty revealing.”
If you insist…
electricity a month: ~ 325 KWH
sq ft of household: 1400 (3 people, 2 cats, and a dog)
miles driven per year: 12,000 (mostly long trips)
mpg: primary 26/31, secondary 18/21
miles to work: 2.7
However, I don’t think any of these things (individually) are a really good indication of your environmental impact. For that you’d want to know if people go out of their way to eat locally-grown foods, how often they eat beef, number of flights they take, how many children they’ve produced, their natural gas consumption, what part of the country they live in, and numerous other behaviors.
Two reports on transmission line issues from a group well respected for this work, just not well known for trumpeting its work. More’s the pity. Tom Darren is the lead person on this issue, contact him at Western Resource Advocate’s website for any other questions you have, and how you can help spread the word.
Thanks for the information, JimT!
WRA has a reputation for being a knowledge-based organization. Here are a couple excerpts from the above referenced document:
Without transmission, we won’t be able to deliver the clean energy projects necessary to combat climate change and build the renewable energy economy.
However, efficiency and local generation won’t be enough to satisfy future demand, let alone provide the capacity that will be needed to retire older coal facilities in order to make a dent in U.S. carbon emissions. Renewable energy at the utility scale will be required, and in the West, the resources that can provide this type of power are often far from population centers. That means significant new transmission capacity will be needed to tap these resources.
(Don’t be content with the excerpt, read the whole document. For this forum, I think the most important section is “getting it right from the start”)
“…won’t be enough to satisfy future demand…”
And therein lies the problem. Satisfying future demand with cheap energy will ONLY FURTHER ESCALATE OUR SOCIETY’S ENERGY USE, requiring more and more resources for energy production.
In economic theory “demand” represents the amount of a good that people are willing to purchase at a given price–as price decreases, consumers buy more. People buy goods based (1) on their perceived utility and (2) their affordability. Energy has high utility and–given the frequency with which we are creating new electronic products–the utility of energy is likely only to increase. Thus, the only way to curb demand is to make energy more costly. The high cost acts as a disincentive for people to use more energy and incentives conservation and on-site energy production.
As an illustration– I lived in California during the rolling blackouts; the predictions were much worse than what actually happened, mostly because when the source of energy dried up (and energy became more expensive) businesses and individuals began to conserve.
Thus, I believe that if our government focuses its policies on large-scale production and distribution of cheap energy, then we will only see energy use continue to rise, requiring more and more resources for energy production.
To clarify a bit: It’s all about how you define the problem. If we define the problem as “[not] enough [energy] to satisfy future demand” then the focus becomes about how to produce and distribute more energy to meet society’s needs.
If you define the problem as “too much demand for energy given the environmental costs of production” then the focus is on how to curb demand [hopefully] through conservation, knowledge, and personal responsibility.
I have to agree with JB. As long as it’s cheap and readily available, people are going to keep using more and more. I have another example. A friend here at work is looking at buying a generator for his home because the town he lives in is subject to frequent power outages. Initially, he said he wanted a big enough generator so that if the power went out, he could fire up the generator and use every electrical appliance in his home. I tried to tell him that was unreasonable, but he went ahead and talked to a generator salesman. The guy said sure, we can get you a model that will generate that kind of power. The only limit is what you want to spend. The next time I spoke with my friend, he was making a list of what appliances he considered essential. Turns out he would rather cut back on the energy he requires than pay 3 to 4 times as much for the luxury of having access to as much as he wants.
This is the same thing that happened over the last couple of years with gas prices. I live just outside Chicago. Three years ago, two out of three vehicles on the road was a full size pickup, full size van, or big SUV, usually with one occupant. After 2 years of high gas prices, it seems to be more like a 50/50 split. If the price gets high enough, most people will find ways to cut consumption.
That makes sense. It is all about continued unbridled growth, rather than sustainability and figuring out how to live within our means. The economic meltdown provides an opportunity to shift gears, and paradigms. Building more massive infrastructure just keeps us in the same old chokehold of producing more, using more, needing more …
By the way: A cool small-scale wind AND solar unit is the last photo in a photo series at this link – it looks like a headless blue striding torso:
There is a lot of talk how green energy is collapsing, but little talk of how dirty energy is ramping up. It isn’t.
When demand is weak due to lack of economic activity, this is just what we would expect.
This is a time when the groundwork could be laid for a new energy path when the economy recovers, assuming it ever will.
Exactly right, now is the time to shift to something better.
Retire the carbon emitting plants as quickly as possible.
Conservation is the key, if you look back into history it wasn’t that long ago that great civilizations functioned without electrical energy. I’m not saying we should do without it, but we shouldn’t take if for granted.
A coworker mentioned to me the other day that she was not worried about the ozone (yes I know a different issue but used to demonstrate a point) layer because she had faith that technology could solve that problem. It can’t, not on that scale, but if you factor in the true cost to the environment of electrical energy, then replacing aging power hungry appliances with modern efficient ones, or better yet doing without some of them, is a good idea, and if somehow tied to an economic stimulus package, becomes much more accessible to the ordinary person.
How to deal with future demand? Eliminate it, as we go forward in time we should be using less energy not more, even if the population continues to climb. How to do this? Through marketing, we need green marketing, not green-washing, but promoting a new way of living. As most of us know happiness is not tied to material wealth, but self-fulfillment. Much can be done in this area, but as long as marketing is tied to profit driven industries we will be stymied. The internet right now is the best hope to counter the true brown media.
If we pose the problem as limiting demand (sounds good to me), then we each need to be prepared to cut our personal energy consumption simply to due to population growth. That cut will average about 30% over the next 40 years. Areas in the US with above average growth (i.e. the entire west) will be required to per capita cuts of nearly 50%.
On top of that, if we are going to move our auto fleet from “on-board” fossil fuel to electric power while not expanding our generation capacity, then we are in draconian cuts on our electric-use lifestyle. Now the standard reply is to outfit the house with solar panel to power the car. Even if the local grid could support these high-intensity, intermittent devices (most can’t), the cost is prohibitive to all but the wealthy. We have 30K for the electric car and 20K for a standard solar PV install — so 50K. Advocating for $50K auto solutions is not a particularly mainstream idea.
How will we accommodate population growth and the move to electric cars while capping the generation? The numbers don’t add up.
“We need to build transmission lines if they want to have an electric car they can plug in during the night,” Lynch said. “The problem is people don’t want transmission lines. They don’t want a transmission line in their backyard and they will fight it.”
Thanks for keeping the dialogue going. You’ve posed a couple of interesting questions. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I will try and at least keep the conversation going.
Regarding future energy needs… First, it appears you’re assuming consistent population growth. I would argue that we will see population growth continue to decline; in fact, our growth would currently be essentially flat in the U.S. if it weren’t for immigration. We could and should take measures to assure population growth declines in the future and the population stabilizes.
I would also point out that 40 years is a long time to figure out how to make a 30% efficiency gain. Again, defining the problem as over-consumption rather than under-production affects how you go about solving it. Julian Simon was right about one thing–human “brain power” is “the ultimate resource.” Wouldn’t you rather put our collective brain power (via science and industry) to the task of increasing energy efficiency rather than simply increasing energy production?
Regarding the West… First, we should ask ourselves if we (as a society) wish to encourage or discourage migration to the western U.S. Given the (1) shortage of water, (2) susceptibility to wild fire, (3) depressed economies and (4) impacts on the environment, I don’t see this as a very good use of resources. Regardless, westerns are often in the best position to take advantage of technologies that increase energy efficiency (e.g. passive solar, small wind, PV/solar, geothermal, earth-sheltered home construction, etc.). Hopefully, these and other applicable technologies will be enough to offset any inordinate increase in the West’s populations.
Regarding electric cars… I don’t think prices will remain high for long. If there’s a huge switch to electric cars I think it’s safe to assume this won’t start in the inter-mountain West. Moreover, it would likely lead to short-term reductions in gas prices, which would probably suit most westerns just fine. Similarly, PV manufacturing costs should come down with mass production. Government subsidies/tax credits are also being used to reduce costs.
Finally, I have advocated (in the recent past) for large-scale solar plants and the replacement of transmission lines, but my thinking has changed dramatically regarding this issue. Mass production and new transmission lines may still be part of the answer (especially the long-term answer), but I would like to see us first attempt to address the problem of over-consumption BEFORE simply increasing production.
JB -I think you are right. A lot of things are going to shake out in the next decade.
What if a third of the people that were commuting every day – worked primarily out of their homes in the near future? I don’t think that is at all unthinkable given the digital changes …
People are increasingly interested in down-sizing everything from cars to housing.
That is what is so disturbing about some of the Stimulus, and efforts to cement in the same old broken models with giant transmission corridors everywhere, and the like. The economic crisis and awareness of global warming give us an opportunity to decrease consumption while increasing quality of life – in many ways.
The thing that is most disappointing is that our elected leaders are not providing a vision of this kind of future. The big corporations – Shell to Idaho Power – are too entrenched.
Entrenched interests, lobbyists, you name it, are behind the current Corridor mania.
Anyone who has done a sound technical analysis of energy consumption in the U.S. comes to do the following conclusions: 1) there is a lot of low hanging fruit in conservation and 2) there is no way that conservation alone can us anywhere close to a solution.
So, please, push on conservation (at the personal, policy and political level — in that order). (That should be only slightly tougher than preventing migration to the western US and figuring out how to allow service-sector workers to tele-commute). Then get back to me with how you will transfer 20% to 40% of the passenger vehicle fleet (with an average usage of ~5 to 10 kW-hr per day per car) onto the electrical grid w/o the addition of new generation (and the transmission to get it where it needs to go). Note that the average use of one electric vehicle would nearly DOUBLE my household use of electricity.
Believe me, I am a big fan of pushing conservation. I am the science advisor to a sustainability group where we worked for five years (yes, five years) to get our city to agree to a (meager) 1.0% per year reduction in electric use through 2020. Assuming a committed effort (I am skeptical), conservation efforts can get us that far (assuming few electric cars come on the grid). http://www.larimercommunity.nocohours.org/fcsg/FCSGComment/tabid/240/Default.aspx .
This is not a serial effort (i.e. it is not a “do this”, then “try that”, then “go there” effort). That is the recipe for disaster.
2) there is no way that conservation alone can us anywhere close to a solution.
Conservation by itself could reduce energy use by 50% easily, and more than that if people get serious about it.
Todd, you have come to the same erroneous conclusion that many liberals in Idaho have come to. Because we couldn’t get it done yesterday, we will not be able to do it tomorrow. It’s just not so. Thanks for trying to get it done, now don’t let your pessimism make you want to stop others from actually doing it.
The Stimulus Bill is looking a lot like a Ticket for Disaster (reading the first 150 pages will get you all you need to know). All kinds of Repub. Red Meat and pure Pork in there. Also billions for Bonneville Power and the Western Power Admin. – for xmission …
Ralph had responded to one of my comments by saying the Healhty Forests type provisions had been cut. THat is NOT The case with the Senate version. The Forest Service would get 405 million for “fuels”, the BLM less.
PLUS there are ALL Kinds of ag “disaster” and other ag-related subsidies.
Even the Central Utah Project boondoggle gets $$$.
The Republicans must just be putting on a show – trying to get even more destruction funded in the Bill …
The sad thing is: Most of the people hardest hit by the economic downturn will not benefit an iota from these pork projects in the West. It is a lot more of the Red States sucking up Blue state $$$.
The Senate version of the Bill is here …
There is a bit about smart grid funding – but the funding for a lot of other things rest dwarfs this.
Doesn’t surprise me, congress is much the same as it was, it may take another election cycle or two to change that. If Obama could put a spell on them and get them to do the right thing would he? He doesn’t strike me as the environmentalist type coming from where unions are strong and labor democrats don’t like environmentalists.
Do not despair, though. If they don’t step up to the plate for the environment, another shoe will drop, one that nobody will ignore.
Doesn’t mean we should sit on our arse’s and wait for more catastrophe. The path is opening before us, let’s not let this opportunity slide by.
“All kinds of Repub. Red Meat and pure Pork in there.”
Would this be the reason the Dems are having such trouble drumming up Repub support for the bill?
“Anyone who has done a sound technical analysis of energy consumption in the U.S. comes to the following conclusions…”
Todd: I disagree that these conclusions are universal. The problem is that most who have done “technical” analyses are using the same flawed logic: They start with the assumption that we are going to consume more energy (per capita) and the ONLY way to address the problem is to focus on production.
You are right that it is hard to get people to conserve. IT IS HARD BECAUSE PEOPLE HAVE NO INCENTIVE. Why conserve when there’s enough energy to go around and that energy is relatively cheap? Energy shortages and price hikes will give people an incentive to conserve, and people, in turn, will put pressure on industry to create products that are more energy efficient (a great example are the new solid-state hard drives, which have no moving parts so are actually faster and more energy efficient).
“Then get back to me with how you will transfer 20% to 40% of the passenger vehicle fleet …onto the electrical grid w/o the addition of new generation…”
Perhaps electric cars are not the best solution? NPR ran a story this morning on how millions of urban commuters want to ride trains/light-rail instead of driving, but few municipalities want to invest in trains. Light rail reached its capacity in Minneapolis less than 1 month after it was finished–at the time they projected this would take 5 years. I wonder if any commuter trains will be built with money from the stimulus package? My money is on the same old, tired thinking: More roads, more cars, more production.
But don’t worry, I’m just shouting into the wind. I’m quite sure you’ll get your grid, transmission lines, and power plants…probably without proper environmental review. God forbid we actually ask Americans to get by with less.
“God forbid we actually ask Americans to get by with less.”
I think some “regrooving” on the part of the public is needed. Most are so conditioned to and accepting of consumerism…
Personally, I resent being classified as a “consumer” and I feel the whole thinking on the “buy everything all the time” mindset needs to be addressed. Capitalism isn’t good for anyone’s health and well-being, just look where it gets us.
the government would do well to start people getting the idea that they are not like the fat catfish below the dam wedged into the rocks with its mouth open just feeding constantly… a mental picture of how I see the whole consumerism thing. People have to invest something other than cash/credit card for their livelihood in order to learn respect for the things they eat and wear and use. Life isn’t just about satisfying our whims.
My thinking goes a little more like this; If you don’t have to put any effort into your own existence, then why are you here? Might help with mindless overpopulation if folks actually grew their own food and had to do more than whip out a piece of plastic or paper to obtain things like food etc.
There is also the barter system which many use for survival in America, it works and it promotes community. That would be a better way for people to recycle and need less. Then “production Ho!” wouldn’t be the clarion call for everyone and capitalism could take a rest, and give us one also. I gave up on it a long time ago.
My concern is that this issue will become entrenched like other environmental issues (say, wilderness area designation) where ideology trumps reasonable solutions. Reading the posts from the last 24 hours confirms my concerns. I share nearly same values as you do on this issue, yet my evidence-based views have been cast aside as “yesterday’s thinking.” I hope you are right and that I am wrong. But be aware that the consequences of you being wrong are likely much higher than the consequences of me being wrong.
Obama says this process is going to be transparent and the public will have a say. This is critical because there is not a lot of detail in these figures or in the bill. As a result, the actual project decisions will come through the administrative process. I think if a project is sucking up a lot of money and the jobs are way down the line, the money will probably get reprogrammed.
It’s very hard not to be cynical after the last 8 years, but I am willing to take the chance that feedback will alter many of these longer term programs.
There will need to be more legislation. I think very soon several states will flat out default. Money will need to be taken from the stimulus bill (by additional legislative action) to prevent not just economic, but social turmoil in these places (California?).
Well its offical Pres Obama came out and said this is the worst economy since the great depression. I guess he missed the carter years when inflaton, unemployment and interests rates where all higher. So glad reagen came into office and raised taxes and spent trillions on more gov programs. Oh wait he CUT taxes and rebuilt our millitary. Maybe Obama should take a page out of that book.
Actually, I see the event quite differently…
It appears, to me, that Obama is taking a unique ~ in our current governmental culture that is ~ approach to this whole thing. I think that he, as a Constitutional attorney, is going to use every tool in the box as the rules allow and do it by the book. The Constitution, after all, is also our toolkit for governing in a free society. It gives guidance to the process of re-emergence after time of crisis that threatens the national democratic structure ~ with step by step instruction.
This is a president who is preparing us for the interaction of the entire nation to deal with it because we all have to participate in the re-emergence of the commons or it will fail for all of us. And he knows it, but he also knows how to read the Constitution in finding the tools we all have to work with. I think he was telling us, yesterday, that participation isn’t a yes or no option anymore, and that includes all governing bodies, and what our tools are and that we have to put them to use. He is also giving us the opportunities to do it.
Transparency is important and think he actually intends to give the public real access because he understands his role as it is described in the Constitution and is intent upon functioning in that mode. How refreshing. He doesn’t seem to require eight years of on the job training. He knows his job and is doing quite well in the first two weeks, in my opinion.