Saturday, May 02, 2009

NPR skeptical on smart grid

ME and ATC just finished a week-long series on the potential for modernizing the nation's electricity grid. The ten-part series covered a lot of issues, but one message was clear from the first installment by Jeff Brady on Monday:
"It's fairly easy with coal and gas generators. You just fire one up when you need electricity. But solar and wind are far less reliable."
This turned out to be a major underlying message repeated throughout the week.

Christopher Joyce with:
"The grid can't handle all the new solar and wind power the president wants to build to create a greener energy economy."
And
"Despite the promise that these are needed to get more green energy from solar and wind generators, the proposal faces a host of obstacles."
And
"Does everyone really want renewable energy brought in from distant producers over power lines subsidized by the federal government?"
And
"Making the grid smarter and greener will cost a huge amount of money."
And Elizabeth Shogren with:
"There aren't enough transmission lines to carry the electricity from rural areas like his to the big cities where the electricity is needed."
Certainly the modernization of our country's energy infrastructure is a tremendous challenge, but why is NPR so down on the prospect? Part of the problem might be the fact that the reporters overwhelmingly spent their time interviewing representatives of the electric power industry, who just might favor the status quo.

To his credit, Richard Harris on Wednesday pointed out that power companies will profit regardless of whether new transmission lines carry renewable energy or electricity from coal-fired power plants.
"The big push to expand the electric grid into areas rich in renewable energy doesn't guarantee that the new, improved grid will be more climate-friendly."
However, even this misses the point that the nation's electric power supply is dominated by corporations that find the current system extremely profitable, corporations that might value profits over benefits to ratepayers, society, and environment. Although the costs of updating the electricity system would ultimately be borne by the public through rate hikes and taxes, that doesn't mean the changes wouldn't threaten the profits of the industry. In fact, many of these corporations have vast investments in coal-fired power plants that would be financially at risk from any move toward energy conservation and renewable power.

To be certain, it is nice to see NPR reporters show some healthy skepticism. But why does it seem such skepticism is most pronounced (and repeated) at precisely those times that it dovetails with the interests of the status quo?

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brian:

But why does it seem such skepticism is most pronounced (and repeated) at precisely those times that it dovetails with the interests of the status quo?

Coincidence?

Do I win a free lifetime membership to WHYY or what? Nice analysis.

edk

Woody (Tokin Librul/Rogue Scholar/ Helluvafella!) said...

Why is NPR so down on energy reform and renovation?

because they have big corporate sponsors, like Dixie Power, for which such reforms might mean having to spend quite a lot of the profits they've been squirreling away...

Anonymous said...

Real skepticism is healthy, but not all skepticism is genuine.

Take, for example, the "skepticism" of the fossil fuel industry which ignored/squelched their own scientists) on global warming and the skepticism of the tobacco industry (who also ignored/squelched their own scientists) on the link between cancer and cigarette smoking.

That's not real "skepticism".

It's fraud based on a predetermined agenda.

Does NPR have an agenda here?

The only way that we the listeners can determine that is to look at what (and whom) they have included in their piece and what (whom) they excluded.


With that in mind, let us consider the NPR series:

It's called "Power Hungry: Reinventing The U.S. Electric Grid' and does not even mention Amory Lovins, one of the nation's real experts on that very issue.

A search for "Amory Lovins" and for "Rocky Mountain Institute" in the specific search box "Search 'Power Hungry: Reinventing The U.S. Electric Grid' Stories"
(located on this page)
returned "We're sorry, your search returned no results." Zilch. Nada.

Not covering in some detail (to say nothing of not even mentioning) the ideas an considerable research of Lovins, who is a REAL expert on this very issue is either idiotic if simply an oversight or extremely biased if done knowingly. If it was done purposefully, it is also very dishonest.

Amory Lovins and his wife Hunter Lovins have been doing cutting edge research on energy use and efficiency (including a 1981 report on the power grid done for the Pentagon: "Brittle Power"*** see below) at their Rocky Mountain Institute since the seventies.

Lovins (a physicist by training) was just included by TIME Magazine in its list of "100 most influential people"

As Lovins details in multiple articles (see below) and books, less centralized power production is MORE (not less) reliable and also more efficient to boot (producing electrical power where it is needed reduces the 15-20% transmission loss)
Does a Big Economy Need Big Power Plants?
By Amory B. Lovins


***Brittle Power:
The Globe and Mail (PDF-90k)
Blackouts come from dim planning decisions — a brittle, centralized grid and inefficient pricing policies, says U.S. energy guru Amory Lovins. The usual suspects — politicians, regulators, deregulators, utilities, and environmentalists — were promptly rounded up when the Aug. 14 blackout lost 61 billion watts of capacity in nine seconds. Yet the real culprit was none of the above — just as in 1965, 1977, and other regional blackouts described in a 1981 report for the Pentagon, Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security. The real cause is the overcentralized power grid. By Amory Lovins. This article appeared in The Globe and Mail (www.globeandmail.com) (21 August 2003).
http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid114.php
//

end RMI quote

Judith said...

I'm skeptical of it too but for different reasons; first it seems likely to be being pushed in order to make it easier to use power from coal-fired plants; and second, the very last thing we need is more power corridors ripping up forests and fields to take power over extreme distances from the rural to the metropolitan. It makes more sense to decentralize things, both from a view to losing less power in transmission and to making less targets rather than more. But it is awfully easy for folks in DC to want to wave their magic wands and have electricity come magically from the hinterland, who cares how or whose farm/forest/mountain they have to rip up to do so.

Two things they never mention in these stories are conservation and population control.

WarOnWarOff said...

The company I work for (an environmental consulting firm) currently has more business than it can handle siting transmission lines from wind farms in West Texas. And no, Judith, no land is being "ripped up."

Anonymous said...

judith said: It makes more sense to decentralize things, both from a view to losing less power in transmission and to making less targets rather than more."Those are precisely the points that Amory Lovins makes as well.

of course, when did "making sense" ever determine policy in Washington?

The two guys that Obama put at the helm of our wayward economic ship ( Larry Summers and Tim Geithner) have been firmly entrenched/entangled in the "deregulation" policies that produced the fininacial meltdown.

And they are now 9at this very minute) puttin gthe final touches on a plan to use over $1 trillion public dollars to "back" toxic bank assets to prop up the failed system (a plan that Nobel economist Joe Stiglitz has called "robbery of the American people")

And they are also handing over hundreds of billions in bailouts to the very people at the failed banks who made the bad investments in what later became the toxic assets.

I wish someone could explain to me how any of this makes sense.

God knows NPR's Planet Money -- a vacuous (atmosphere-less) planet devoid of any intelligence and run by robots and monitored by an ombot -- has tried but failed miserably.

Meanwhile, the rational folk in all this (people like Nobel economist Joe Stiglitz and former S&l fraud investigator William Black) get barely a mention on "news' programs like NPR.

The latter two (and other economists like Dean Baker) are ignored entirely, purposefully, no doubt because what they say would "offend" the very banks who are contributing to NPR programming (Bank of America).

And Willaim black has some very disturbing and incriminating things to say about banks. Namely, that many of the big banks engaged in massive fraud.

And by the way, I'd guess that the reason NPR does not mention "Population control" is that it is on the Conservative list of
"10 dirtiest phrases".

It means two things to them: "birth control" and "abortion" (also on the list).

Anonymous said...

I should qualify my above comment "I wish someone could explain to me how any of this makes sense"

explain to me how it makes sense for the American public as a whole.

It obviously makes sense to the bankers (who are probably laughing all the way to the bank) and makes sense to Obama's chief economic adviser Larry Summers who just last year received hundreds of thousands in "speaking fees" from several of the the very banks that are now being bailed out.

Anonymous said...

RE: power corridors ripping up forests and fields.

There are not many places in the country that are far away from an existing power corridor so the impact may not be as big as it might appear.

RE: claim by Elizabeth Shogren (in NPR piece):

"There aren't enough transmission lines to carry the electricity from rural areas like his to the big cities where the electricity is needed."

I have a suggestion.

Let's take that $1 trillion plus (some economists think it will be at least $2 trillion, but it's really one of those things that Donald Rumsfeld would call "Known Unknowns") that Obama/Summers/Geithner have proposed using to back the banks' toxic assets (basically, "bets that the housing bubble would keep increasing in size forever") and instead invest it in power transmission lines.

How far would those transmission lines go?

A very long ways, it turns out.

It costs somewhere in the ballpark of $1 million per mile to build a high voltage transmission line.
http://www.nppd.com/etr/additional_files/faq.asp

So, do the math.

$1 trillion/ ($1 million per mile) equals 1 million miles of transmission lines.
(click here)

What fraction of the total transmission lines in the US is that?

You may be surprised. I was.

"Today, an extensive system consisting of more than 150,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines works to provide reliable electricity service and transport electricity from power plants to consumers."
http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-08-347R

wikipedia says

"United States power transmission grid consists of 300,000 km of lines operated by 500 companies."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission

300,000km is about 180,000 miles

but let's round it up to an even 200,000 miles.

1 million miles/ 200,000 miles = 5

In other words, $1 trillion is enough to replace the current transmission grid about 5 times over! (I'd say that's sufficient, wouldn't you?)

Plus, as an added benefit, you get all the jobs and economic growth created to support the project.

Plus you end up with a grid that is modernized (more efficient, more reliable, etc)

So, which is better:

Using (with a good chance of losing a significant fraction of) $1 trillion plus to back toxic bank assets that many economists believe are worth far less than their paper value) or investing in something that we KNOW will have a large value and return on the initial investment: revamping the electrical grid AND building new bridges and highways around the country? (it has bee nestimated that a total revamping of this nation's infrastructure would cost somewhere around $2 trillion)


And by the way, with the amount of money we are talking about here ($1 trillion plus), it really is an either/or situation. Spending $1 trillion plus on the bank bailout will almost certainly mean that there is less money spent on things like infrastructure. You can count on that.

So, which is the better investment? bankrupt banks or infrastructure?

This is really a no-brainer, and given that there are some very smart people in Washington), that really tells you something (and I'll let you in on a little secret: it ain't that "our politicians are working for us, the American people")

Forgive me for being odd and a bit contrarian, but I always thought having discussions about how best to spend public funds was precisely the purpose of "public" radio.

Silly me.

Instead, "public' radio has become a megaphone for whoever happens to hold the reigns of power.

It is DISGUSTING. The people at NPR who peddle this garbage on the public 24/7 day in and day out are DISGUSTING.

They are a complete disservice to the public that they claim to represent.

Anonymous said...

I think NPR will soon have their effort re-directed toward "clean and safe" nuclear power. And watch how vigourously the Capitalist Apologists involved in MarketPlace and business (how come there is no show called Labor's Side) reporting start advocating that these plants be completely paid for by consumers.

But in the meantime - FIRE 'EM UP!

edk