A Free-Market Energy Blog

Tom Tanton Interview (Part I)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- June 9, 2014

“I view my 40+ year career as progressions on a common theme; understanding (and promoting) the role of free markets and technology innovation one to the other, both to improve humankind’s’ lot.”

MasterResource from time to time conducts interviews with leading free-market scholars (see Ken Green here). This two-part interview with Tom Tanton continues tomorrow.

Q. Let’s start with your current position and responsibilities.

TT: I’m currently Director of Science and Technology Assessment at the Energy and Environment Legal Institute (EELI). I’m also President of my consulting firm T2 and Associates, which stands for “Trust in Technology” not my initials.

EELI is focused on strategic litigation, such as testing the constitutionality of the renewable portfolio standard in Colorado, and on increasing government transparency through Freedom of Information Act requests and litigation. T² & Associates are active primarily in the area of renewable energy and interconnected infrastructures, analyzing and providing advice on their impacts on energy prices, environmental quality and regional economic development.

With respect to EELI, I bring my knowledge and expertise of energy technologies, markets, and networks to complement the legal expertise of our Chief Counsel David Schnare and Senior Legal Fellow Chris Horner.

Q. Energy and environmental issues go closely together ….

TT: Yes, of course. And a large part of my daily grind is in educating people that modern energy improves the environment; the are not mutually exclusive or in contretemps. It’s also important to recognize there’s a third “E” that goes closely together, and that’s the economy.

All three work hand in hand to improve people lives (the doubling of life expectancy over the past 100 years is one example) and increase leisure time, education opportunities, food, shelter, and comfort.

Q. You have been at EELI for four years. What has made you stay?

TT: I’m not sure if it’s a long time in the grand scheme of things. I was at the CEC for 27 years, EPRI about 3 years, and IER for 6 years. What I like about EELI, without taking away from the others, is the targeted strategic application of my experience.

In fact, I view my 40+ year career as progressions on a common theme; understanding (and promoting) the role of free markets and technology innovation one to the other, both to improve humankind’s’ lot.

Q. I recall you worked with free-market economist Richard Bilas while at CEC. How did he affect your thinking and expertise?

TT: Before I directly worked with Dick, I had no idea what ‘economics’ was about, nor for that matter the similarities with chemistry, my core area of study. I had completed a study of externalities, as required by the State Legislature, quantifying their value.

My work looked at the damages avoided by marginal reductions in emissions, and took developing cognition of atmospheric chemistry, epidemiology as well as contingent valuation and demographics. I only had training in one of those fields, so I had a lot of new things to learn.

At the time, it was one of, if not the, first regulatory use of damage- based estimates of externalities used in resource planning. This was about 1985. In any event, parts of the study exposed me to some economics, which I adored.

The fact that Dick knew about Chicago-school economics, Austrian-school economics, and Public Choice political economics certainly helped, along with his introducing me to others like Rob Bradley. (My knowledge of life cycle analysis helped Rob with his important “Renewable Energy: Not Cheap Not ‘Green’” piece for Cato in 1997.)

I was also privileged to work with David Rohy, who came to the Commission from the technology arena, and kept me grounded there, with my other foot in economics.

Q. Describe your work on life cycle analysis?

TT: At the time, in the early seventies, the main energy debate in California had to do with whether nuclear should be part of the portfolio. I lead a study of the various inputs and outputs of nuclear versus every other technology option. It crystallized my thinking about ‘indirect’ effects given that changes in one step of the life cycle necessarily change other steps including in other apparently unrelated sectors.

One of the outcomes was a recognition that wind energy, intended to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power generation, creates massive emissions of carbon dioxide from the manufacture of cement for the large foundations required to “balance a school bus on a telephone pole,” the analogy I use to describe an industrial sized wind turbine.

Similarly, the demands (at the time for the technology) for solar cells using high grade silicon mitigated some of the benefit of generating electricity without combustion.

Q. What happened with the externality study?

TT: Well even with some pretty generous estimates from the insurance companies on values of various health responses to pollutants we found that traditional energy technologies, at least in California, were still less costly than renewables, on a total social cost basis. It infuriated some activists. And it turned out the major damages, at least in dollar terms, was to the agricultural sector given reduced crop production, not to people’s health.

It also showed that some air districts were over-regulating, when measured by economic value, as they continued to push down standards. But that’s a manifestation of the basic construct. THAT exposed me to thought of egalitarianism, elitism, utilitarianism etc, for the regulators were bound to act under what may be best described as elitism: protecting the one most sensitive individual form the impacts of, for example, ozone.

It also raised the idea of comparative costs: how to protect that one individual while not unduly raising costs on everybody. Why not provide special breathing conditions or paying to relocate that one individual at less total cost?

My main regret was never having had a chance to balance external cost with external benefits, as each technology has a diverse and different set. Just as an example, wind and biomass both impact on air pollutant emissions (which vary and change sign with penetration and existing fleet) but one can also ‘solve’ other issues like forest fire risk or odor control.

Finally, it gave me a better appreciation of the hazards of doing ‘generic’ type studies rather than case specific, because not only will the magnitude change, but often the sign. And THAT gave me a better understanding of the foibles of central planning.

Q. Can you explain the problem with generic studies more?

The main thrust of the study was on air pollutant emissions and consequent health impacts. Yet a ton of NOx, for example, emitted in the coastal portion of Los Angeles has a different impact on ozone than one emitted in the eastern portion, and in fact can scavenge ozone as it moves through the basin.

That plus differences in receptors—population density and susceptibility—make general findings of ‘value’ quite hazardous. But it might make sense, physically, to intentionally release NOx in some areas to control ozone. Sort of geo-engineering.

That has real world implications today, with all the talk about the ‘social cost of carbon’ not even counting the ‘social benefit of carbon’—what about doubled life expectancy? Surely, that has a value.

Q. You made a major move from technology to markets. How did this come about?

TT: I like to think that it was more a merging of technologies and markets than a move from one to another. There’s an old PBS series by James Burke that traces the non-linear connection of markets and technology, which was called appropriately enough “Connections.”  I still remember how the show traced the invention of the steam engine to a strong market for indigo dye for royal robes. While that thought was bouncing around somewhat nebulous for me for years, I had the opportunity to work on a project that brought it all together. Led by Department of Defense and Electric Power Research Institute, it was the Complex Interactive Network System Initiative, or CINSI. It ultimately led in part to the self-healing smart grid concept for electricity and for other critical infrastructure benefits.  What made it an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me was how clearly it showed the interdependency of one critical infrastructure to each of the others: for example, electricity depends on natural gas transmission, while natural gas depends on electric compressor stations, and both are interconnected to banking and finance networks, while transportation networks rely on the internet which relies on electricity.  Imagine yourself at the airport waiting for a flight and the ‘net goes down…airlines don’t know where the planes are nor where the passengers are and chaos, or at least delays, ensue.

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