Losing electricity is no fun, whether it is momentary (sensitive equipment can get fried) or for days or weeks, as many of us Houstonians experienced in the wake of Hurricane Ike.
News accounts from Hawaii report that the vacationing President-elect Barack Obama was without power from the early evening until morning due to storms. The Washington Post reported:
“The streetlights outside Obama’s compound in quiet Kailua started to shut off about 6:30 p.m. Friday and the president-elect’s rented estate lost its power about an hour later, not only providing discomfort for the future first family but also raising potential hazards for his security detail.”
“Discomfort” and “hazards”–may the Washington Post and certainly the president-elect and his energy team consider two things in this regard.
1) As many as 1.5 billion people–some 20% of the world’s population, or more–still do not have access to modern forms of energy, including electricity. This is a “planetary emergency,” to use Al Gore’s term in a rightful way.
These people need generators (probably diesel-fired) as a transition to conventional powerplants to displace wood- and dung-burning in the home. Displacing primitive biomass with oil, gas, and coal is the way forward, economically and environmentally. Yet to the extent that U.S. climate policy encourages poor nations to not industrialize is an attack on the most vulnerable. Wind turbines and solar panels are no substitute; these expensive, elitist power sources do not offer the affordability, reach, and reliability of fossil-fuel energies for those suffering from energy poverty.
2) “Hardening” the grid to avoid outages from weather events is the opportunity cost, resource-wise, to the massive investment required to connect remote wind farms (would “industrial wind parks” be a better term?) to population centers.
In Texas, for example, the Public Utility Commission approved a $5 billion project to build transmission lines for some 18.5 GW of wind-generated power from West Texas and the Panhandle region to metropolitan areas in the state. The project is estimated to come on line within five years.
The charge will be $48 per year for every power customer in the state–like it or not. It is a demand charge that cannot be avoided by conservation, opting-out, or anything else. And the poorest Texan pays the same as our state’s T. Boone Pickens (this is an aspect of the “PickensPlan”).
Now, imagine if this money was spent to harden the grid instead of making it less reliable via intermittent wind. Building lines underground is not cheap–and it might not be economical compared to other alternatives such as employing an flotilla of small generators after hurricanes hit. But it makes the grid more reliable on bad weather days–not weaker on all days as would be the case under wind generation-transmission mandates.