The “pop a pill” approach to energy use.

January 21st, 2007

S. C. Gwynne has a good article in the January 2007 Texas Monthly about the crazy plan now underway to build a slew of new coal-fired power plants across Texas. (The article is available online, but only to subscribers.) This is part of a larger trend across the country: as of now, Gwynne says, “[o]ne hundred fifty-four coal-fired power plants are currently on drawing boards in the United States.”

As usual for Gwynne, the article is clearly written and clear-eyed politically. In reading it, though, I was struck by some of the built-in assumptions — reasonable ones, for a political reporter of Gwynne’s savvy — that have become the status quo in our energy conversations. For example:

“Due to the decline of nuclear power, the rising cost of natural gas, the failure of government to promote energy conservation, and the state’s status as the most deregulated energy market in the country, Texas faces a severely limited set of choices when it comes to energy. And with a looming shortage of electricity, we have to make a decision.”

More on these in a minute. After describing the prohibitive problems of nuclear power (no good way to dispose of radioactive waste) and natural gas (gigantic price increases lately), Gwynne touches on the prevailing logic of deregulated power, in which power companies compete for consumers’ business, ergo have a large incentive to deliver power at the lowest price. Then he writes this:

“Add a White House that is coal friendly, the technology to cut emissions (but not carbon dioxide) by 90 percent, a nuclear industry still paralyzed by its inability to dispose of its waste, the impracticality of wind and solar in handling bulk demand for power, and a virtual moratorium on new plant construction for the past ten years, and you have the sort of economic and regulatory perfect storm that produces 154 new coal plants.”

Do read the whole article, because Gwynne does an excellent job of tying all of this together, and of showing how the situation we’re in may ultimately demand governmental regulation that will run counter to the governmental deregulation that helped create this situation in the first place.

But now let’s get back to those assumptions or baseline conditions that Gwynne remarked. Nuclear power and natural gas aren’t my big concern here — energy conservation and alternative energy are. We’ll take these in reverse order.

  • “the impracticality of wind and solar” These technologies are impractical right this minute if we’re looking toward them as immediate fixes for an inexorable rise in energy consumption by the Texas populace. My friends from TxSES or the Texas office of Public Citizen would be quick to point out that producers of hydrocarbons have long been supported by large subsidies that favor their industries. (An effort to cut some of these subsidies has just drawn lots of attention for the Democrats in Congress.) As potentially limitless sources of energy, wind and solar deserve subsidy, too. Indeed, as they’ve gotten more support over recent years, a combination of subsidy and market forces have made renewable sources like these much more popular and cost-effective. We should head further in this direction — and doing so is more important than building umpteen new coal-fired plants. But it’s not going to be as simple as popping a pill.
  • “the failure of government to promote energy conservation” I’m sure that Governor Perry or John Wilder (the CEO of TXU, whom Gwynne discusses at length in his article) would dismiss the argument I just made by saying that wind and solar are all well and good (TXU does own a lot of wind generation), but we need this power now, or as close to now as the years-long process of building power plants will allow. But if you were looking for one single way to change the equation of energy use in the state in the shortest possible time, nothing comes close to conservation. The U.S. found this out in the summer of 2001, when California’s energy crisis led many Californians, of all political and social stripes, to take big, straightforward steps to conserve energy. Conservation is cheap and its effects are more or less immediate — but it doesn’t fit the mindset that we should be able to pop a pill, keep using electricity as we always have, and go on without a care in the world.

The analogy of popping a pill springs to mind because of the prevalence of this mindset in our society. High blood pressure? Pill. High cholesterol? Pill. Impotence? Pill. Please understand me, I know very well that there are folks with severe problems along these lines who do need the best medications available. Good — they should have them. But many people who end up relying on these medications never do much to change the underlying lifestyle that brought on the problems in the first place. They may take Lipitor to control cholesterol, for example, but never amend their diets, or work to remove some of the stressors in their lives that contribute to high cholesterol.

I’m not one to say that we need to go back to the bootstrap, rough-and-ready days of the homesteaders, or of our ancestors who traveled in rickety boats — whether from England, the Gold Coast, Vietnam, or wherever — to get here. I enjoy my standard of living, but I also acknowledge the fact that North Americans overconsume resources to get that standard of living. Rather than wishing for a lower standard of living, I want us to enjoy our comforts while using resources more intelligently, as many of the most economically advanced nations of Europe now do.

Later on I’ll have more to say about pursuing these “best practices” of resource use, and I’ll supply some figures to reinforce what I’m saying. For now, I’ll just say that many of the repellent “side effects” of building coal plants could be avoided if we pursued simpler, well-understood, more frugal, and cleaner alternatives offered by serious efforts at energy conservation.

In terms of electricity use, we need not starve ourselves. But it is time to pare down our energy use. Surely American know-how can move us in that direction without any radical degradation of our comforts. But it won’t be as simple as popping a pill — it will take actual work.

2 Responses to “The “pop a pill” approach to energy use.”

  1. Common Sense » Blog Archive » More on TXU’s plans for coal-fired plants in Texas. Says:

    […] A couple of weeks ago I posted this in connection with S. C. Gwynne’s Texas Monthly article on TXU’s plan to build a slew of coal-fired power plants across the state. The battle over these plants is heating up in the Texas Lege, as you’ll see from this fine post on the (relatively) new Texas Observer blog. […]

  2. Common Sense » Blog Archive » Energy conservation as an example of the “soft option”. Says:

    […] Let’s think supple and subtle instead. As I’ve said before, we shouldn’t pursue the “pop a pill” approach on energy. The pill of coal-fired plants is bad for our physical health because of pollution, bad for the climate because of huge carbon output, bad for our fisc because the plants will cost us a ton, and bad for our way of handling our business as a polity — because it requires us to pursue the dumb “hard” option instead of the wise “soft” option. I say we do it the wise way this time. […]

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