During the past couple of weeks, I have engaged in several discussions with Joe Romm, who, among many other activities, maintains the blog Climate Progress: An Insider’s View of Climate Science, Politics and Solutions. If you click on his name and read his Wikipedia entry, you will find that Joseph has a long history of involvement with energy politics and did several years of research with Amory Lovins Rocky Mountain Institute. Anyone who reads Atomic Insights will know how that background endears him to me (read with dripping sarcasm) but just in case you are new to this space, you can do a search on Amory Lovins in that search box right next to the white B on the orange background at the top left corner of the page.
In our latest discussion, I asked Joseph for some examples of obstacles that have prevented energy efficiency programs from actually achieving the success that he and Lovins claim is possible. I have nothing against working to reduce waste, but that effort is not going to overcome our need for continued supplies of reliable, clean, and affordable energy.
Joe pointed me to an article that he wrote for Salon.com titled Why we never need to build another polluting power plant. The article contains many passages that could have been almost directly lifted from any one of a number of Lovins works over the past 30 years and repeats the old saws about how energy efficient California is compared to all of the rest of the states. It also uses some arguments about cost plus rate of return regulation that have been overcome by changes in laws in at least half of the states in the country. Here is the response that I posted on Joe’s blog – I thought it might be interesting to repeat it hear and see if you all can help me sharpen the argument with some additional facts.
Interesting article. With regard to California’s energy efficiency success, there are a few points that you seem to be missing.
1. While CA is a “high tech” state and has many companies designing wonderful inventions, the state has suffered from an exodus of manufacturing. Most of the inventions that Silicon Valley creates are actually produced somewhere else. Much of the measured GNP is in CA while the associated energy intensive part of the operation is not.
2. If energy efficiency alone was such a huge source of cheap energy, why are electric power rates in CA twice as high as in South Carolina, a state that has based its recent economic rise on manufacturing?
3. Businesses like Dow certainly have put a lot of effort and achieved success in designing efficient processes; they have huge economic incentives for doing so. Fuel and raw materials – which are often the same hydrocarbons used in fuels – cost the company about $24 Billion each year. With costs like that, a few percentage points in savings each year can be a huge deal.
Companies that produce steel, aluminum, paper, plastics, etc. have similar incentives and have also worked for years to reduce waste. What makes you certain that you are so much smarter than the engineers working for those companies? I do not understand why sophisticated customers would give the utilities more money than necessary if they could see economical ways to cut energy use. I buy your argument that utilities have an incentive to sell more, but what stops big consumers from seeking those cheap “negawatts” that you and Lovins love so much?
4. Even if we succeed in producing enough energy savings to avoid the need to produce any more electricity in the future than we are producing today, why would we want to keep the same old, polluting infrastructure that we currently have? Each year, we have to extract, transport and burn more than 1 billion tons of coal, more than 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and more than 100 million barrels of oil to produce the electricity that Americans use. The CO2 produced during all that fuel burning represents about half of the CO2 emissions for the entire country.
In contrast, 20% of our electricity comes from about 2000 metric tons of commercial nuclear fuel. Half of that fuel during the past 15 years has actually been serving the dual purpose of destroying former weapons material, something that no efficiency program can ever do. No CO2, SOx, NOx, mercury, fly ash, or trace metals come out when we fission uranium and keep the waste material encased, controlled and inventoried.
5. One more thing – your description of the way that utilities were regulated in the past and rewarded for building with guaranteed rates of return still apply in some places but not all. Texas and Maryland are both rate deregulated states, with generation plants that do not get cost based rates, but both are leading candidates for new nuclear plants with leaders like Constellation, Amarillo Power, and NRG. Why are these non regulated power producers so interested in nuclear power?
Note: I have made a few editorial changes in the above. I wish I could edit the original to make it sound just a bit smoother, but once you hit post on a comment, it is there forever.