Ecological Correctness Heightens California Power Woes
* California's Political Climate Makes It Virtually Impossible To Build New Power Plants
January 12, 2001
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BridgeNews FORUM: One of a series of differing viewpoints on energy issues, January 5, 2001.
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--"Where's global warming when you need it?" That's the question I asked myself while trying to thaw water pipes frozen by the coldest weather Virginia has suffered in at least a decade.
It's not a facetious question. We get global warming headlines with every summer heat wave. The theory, however, says global warming will make its largest impacts during northern winter nights.
So winters should become milder, right? Instead, the wind chill in Chicago dropped to 40 below two weeks ago.
Paradoxically, the only global warming impact I've seen so far is in balmy southern California. That state has a power crisis because Californians' belief in global warming makes it politically incorrect to build new power plants.
Concurrently, more residents are building bigger and bigger houses and office buildings, and filling them with more and more computers, printers and scanners that require air conditioning.
That's the fundamental reason electricity on the California Power Exchange recently hit a record price of $821 per megawatt-hour. (Coal and nuclear plants routinely deliver power for $30 per megawatt hour.)
Because no one can build plants in response to high power prices, two of the state's biggest power companies say they have lost $9 billion under price caps agreed for California's transition into deregulated electricity prices.
The California power crisis is being spun as a failure of deregulation, but California Gov. Gray Davis says his state urgently needs more power plants. "It's going to be (at least) two years before we can have enough additional supply to balance out demand. When we have that, deregulation may work."
To date, the global warming theory has blocked any political consensus on new power plants, of any type, anywhere in California.
Californians aren't even willing to offer investment incentives so they could import electricity from new power plants in nearby Arizona and Nevada, which do not share California's population density or unique smog problems.
California could build new natural gas fired plants, but that would require building new gas pipeline capacity.
Since natural gas is now everybody's favorite fuel, it would also depend on our continuing to explore aggressively for more natural gas perhaps including Alaska's Tongas National Forest, which California activists oppose.
For a more solid energy base, California could also could import coal by sea from Australia and use it in clean-burning power plants. The activists say that would add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Even burning more coal in Arizona to meet California's needs is regarded as a political no-no in the Golden State. Californians prefer to pretend they can provide their future power from "renewables" (solar, wind, geothermal).
But because of high costs and quirky supplies, renewables generate only 1 percent of America's power. There is no technical breakthrough on the horizon to make them more effective in the foreseeable future. California has mountains.
Electricity from dams contributes no greenhouse gases and the "greens" preach that global warming is the planet's biggest ecological problem. But the environmentalists are urgently opposed to dams.
They're even trying to tear out Arizona's Glen Canyon Dam, a major component of California's power supply. Given California's inherent smog problems, the long-term solution may be the new fourth-generation nuclear power plants.
They don't use water as a coolant and thus would be far cheaper and safer than plants like Three Mile Island, the Pennsylvania nuclear plant that suffered an accident in 1979. Again, California's activists are ardently opposed.
However, don't despair completely. The presidency of George W. Bush will give America another four years to evaluate whether we're getting human-induced global warming. Al Gore would almost certainly have used the government machinery to help justify the ultra-high fuel prices demanded by the Kyoto protocol that he personally negotiated.
Most of the planet's recent slight warming occurred before 1940, before technology started emitting much greenhouse gas. Satellites and high-altitude balloons show no warming in the past 20 years when greenhouse emissions have been high. Our official thermometers are in urban heat islands surrounded by more and more concrete.
As to California's power shortage, one cynical energy analyst says, "We should let the market work, and see which power generation systems can bribe their way into the state."
Soon the state must either start granting higher rates to California power companies or start rationing electricity. In Norway, a similar power policy impasse caused the government to create a secret electricity rationing committee.
When news of the committee leaked out early in 2000, the Norwegian government was forced to resign. One way or another, Californians will soon start developing a political consensus to generate more electricity.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.