Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Obama's chief energy regulator tells us to prepare to freeze in the dark

In the NY Times:

Energy Regulatory Chief Says New Coal, Nuclear Plants May Be Unnecessary

No new nuclear or coal plants may ever be needed in the United States, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said today.

"We may not need any, ever," Jon Wellinghoff told reporters at a U.S. Energy Association forum.
He's very blithe.
Wellinghoff said renewables like wind, solar and biomass will provide enough energy to meet baseload capacity and future energy demands. Nuclear and coal plants are too expensive, he added.

"I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism," he said. "Baseload capacity really used to only mean in an economic dispatch, which you dispatch first, what would be the cheapest thing to do. Well, ultimately wind's going to be the cheapest thing to do, so you'll dispatch that first."

He added, "People talk about, 'Oh, we need baseload.' It's like people saying we need more computing power, we need mainframes. We don't need mainframes, we have distributed computing."

The technology for renewable energies has come far enough to allow his vision to move forward, he said. For instance, there are systems now available for concentrated solar plants that can provide 15 hours of storage.

"What you have to do, is you have to be able to shape it," he added. "And if you can shape wind and you can effectively get capacity available for you for all your loads.

"So if you can shape your renewables, you don't need fossil fuel or nuclear plants to run all the time. And, in fact, most plants running all the time in your system are an impediment because they're very inflexible. You can't ramp up and ramp down a nuclear plant. And if you have instead the ability to ramp up and ramp down loads in ways that can shape the entire system, then the old concept of baseload becomes an anachronism."
How modern the thinking! How very cutting-edge. How very senseless.

Wellinghoff has never worked for an energy company. He is a lawyer who has spent most of his life as a regulator and/or "consumer advocate," i.e., one who afflicts energy companies.

In the sidebar of this 2001 interview, he lists two favorite books. The first: Ecological Democracy by Roy Morrison. This one has no Amazon reviews, but here's an approving review. An excerpt:
As industrial civilization spins into crisis, neo-fascist demagogues (Buchanan, Zhirinovsky, for example) offer a return to hierarchical order as the way out. Such alternatives must, of course, be resisted. The third path is ecological democracy, arising "from popular ferment, aspiration for a better life, intolerance of the abuse of power, and collective and personal determination to build a just and enduring community." Only community-based, democratically managed associations have the potential to reconcile human needs for both community and freedom, and to erode the power of industrialism.
That part about the "popular ferment" sounds a lot like the French Revolution, and we all know how well that went.

The second book is Steady-State Economics by Herman Daly. This has one Amazon review, a 5-star that's pure gush, but contains the line, "We live in a finite world with few renewable resouces." You can read what appears to be Chapter 5 at a website with the charming URL of dieoff dot org. Here's something that's more of a précis than a review, at the Negative Population Growth site. Excerpt:
Our first task, Daly persuasively argues, is to stop growth. Only after we have stabilized the economy at or near its present size should we determine, and move to, an optimum scale. For one thing, since our survival depends on stopping growth, it is imperative that we do so as soon as possible. Besides, settling such issues as the optimal levels of population and per capita resource use will be difficult, as it will entail searching public debate over such fundamental questions as the present generation's obligations to posterity and reproductive freedom. Achieving consensus on them will be time-consuming. Meanwhile the economy would still be growing and further damaging the ecosystem. Also, making the economy smaller can't be done without halting growth first.
In order to accomplish the goal of negative population growth and a smaller economy, three "institutional arrangements" will be needed:
(1) Maximum and minimum limits on personal income, and a ceiling on personal wealth. If growing inequality in income and wealth is not reversed, Daly argues, private property and markets will become morally dubious. This will make extending the market to include birth licenses and depletion quotas politically difficult. Moreover, curbing these inequalities would make for more modest, and environmentally supportable, consumption. Daly is committed to social justice as well as sustainability, and income and wealth limits obviously serve that goal.24

Since Daly made this proposal, income and wealth inequalities have exploded. Many large incomes were acquired by gaming the system, e.g., corporation executives paying themselves opulently. This threatens to delegitimize our economic system. What's more, such rapacity sets the wrong kind of example in a limited world.

(2) Transferable birth licenses. Obviously, population growth is a major force driving resource depletion and waste generation. Stabilizing population is therefore crucial. Daly's suggestion, first propounded by economist Kenneth Boulding in 1964, is to issue each person, or perhaps each woman, a quantity of reproduction licenses equal to the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman. Each woman would get 2.1 licenses, which she could buy or sell depending on how many children she wants to have.25

Daly acknowledged that the directness of the birth license plan might put people off. "It frankly recognizes that reproduction must henceforth be considered a scarce right and logically faces the issue of how best to distribute that right and whether and how to permit voluntary reallocation." Because limiting reproduction is a forbidden subject for many people, they prefer indirect discouragement of reproduction through expanding women's social roles, encouraging consumption of commodities over having more children, and so on. Birth licenses, however, are more efficient. What's more, in his view, "the direct approach requires clarity of purpose and frank objectives, which are politically inconvenient when commitment to the objective is halfhearted to begin with."26

(3) Depletion quotas for resources. The best way to control throughput, Daly argues, is to control the rate at which resources, especially nonrenewables such as fossil fuels, are depleted. Limiting the quantity of resources that enters the economy necessarily also limits how much waste and pollution leaves it. Moreover, since the stock of manmade capital is made from resources, and since the human population depends on resources, controlling the rate of depletion necessarily controls how big the population and capital stock can get.
If these are his favorite books, that says a lot. The man is an Ehrlichite, like Holdren. He wants negative population growth for the US and a smaller economy. When the economy gets smaller, we call that a recession. When it doesn't start growing again, it's a Depression. Jerry Pournelle says,
Low cost energy is the key to economic growth, and nothing the government is doing would have as great an effect as a huge nuclear power program. The TVA was the best investment of the New Deal. It may be that private power would have done as well, but the cheap energy from TVA brought energy to the South. Cheap power is the key to growth; and clearly that will not happen under the Change that we can believe in.
Hold on to your hats, wallets, kids, and groceries — the Deep Greens are taking over. There will be sustainable and fashionable poverty for all, except the Nomenklatura, who will just have to keep on using those jets and living in those big houses, because their work is so important!

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