Media Beginning to Understand the Situation, Gregg Easterbrook Gets It Mostly Right

Reporters, just like the rest of us, take a while to learn what is going on in a new situation.  While some reporters have the experience with power line issues and have a broader understanding of what is happening, most don’t have the time or the interest to research policy questions and history that underlie power company PR strategies and spin concerning new transmission and outrageous “reliability” claims.

In a recent post on his blog at the Washington Monthly, Gregg Easterbrook shows that he is learning about the reality behind FERC and power conglomerate propaganda.  Here is the opening of his blog post:

Electricity shortages during heat waves long have been common. We tend to miss what doesn’t happen, and what didn’t happen last week was electric power scarcity.

Two factors are at play, one positive and one vexing.


The positive factor is gradual decline in electricity demand. From 1996 to 2007, U.S. power consumption rose 23 percent. Since then, consumption has declined 16 percent. Taking population growth into account, per capita demand decline since 2007 is even greater. Details are in this fun report — every day must be a party at the Energy Information Administration.

The recession is not the root cause — electricity consumption began to moderate before the economy cooled. Homeowners, and businesses, finally are getting religious about high-efficiency lights, programmable thermostats and other power-saving technology. If the United States could achieve, in petroleum use, the same demand-curve moderation observed with electricity, America’s dependence on Persian Gulf dictatorships would decline, along with U.S. greenhouse gas output.

Now the vexing factor. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he declared a looming electricity crisis that would require a national crash program to build generating stations and power lines. This political wolf-cry was forgotten when 9/11 happened. Forgotten, that is, by pundits and national candidates for office. But not by the permanent bureaucracy: last week the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission published rules, years in the making, intended to trigger a major initiative to build power lines.

There are places in the country where lines, and other grid improvements, are needed. But the regulatory bureaucracy is behaving as though power transmission were the crisis Bush once proclaimed it to be — even as moderating demand reduces stress on the system. The potential is for a white elephant: lots of capital sunk into long-distance power lines even as electricity demand continues to moderate, or as localized “distributed generation” catches on.

Not only does Mr. Easterbrook understand the source of the obsolete push for more transmission lines, he understands that the real way forward in our electrical grid is with distributed generation.

Easterbrook then goes on to identify how power conglomerates are using Big Wind and Big Solar as fronts for their new transmission agenda.  I part ways somewhat at this point, because instead of connecting this ploy with the power company agenda, Easterbrook slides off onto media cliches like “isn’t it ironic” and references to “environmentalists” and “the left” supporting obsolete long distance transmission.  This approach has things exactly backwards.  It is not the advocates of renewable power sources that have latched onto big transmission so much as it is the big power conglomerates changing their excuses for new power lines.  Now that large scale solar and wind installations are well established in the US as the fastest growing sources of electrical generation, FERC and the power companies realize that using renewable power as their new reasoning behind transmission expansion is the last hope for pushing through a few big new power lines before the door closes completely on their obsolete technology.

Despite this one lapse, Mr. Easterbrook nails the current situation with Big Transmission.  Here are the last two paragraphs of his post:

Right now central power generation using coal is more cost-effective than distributed generation, even considering transmission losses. But the engineering action is in new ideas for local power, which not far into the future may become a more cost-effective way to generate watts, while cutting out the middleman of transmission. In 19th century Europe, district steam plants made heat for apartment buildings and offices, because the on-site furnace was neither safe nor efficient. That changed. The same change may be in store for how we obtain electricity.

In a decade or two, by the time billions of dollars have been spent and the lines built, power generation may have gone local. Then long-distance power lines may become the next Iridium, a very complex and costly infrastructure for a problem that turns out to have a local solution.

2 thoughts on “Media Beginning to Understand the Situation, Gregg Easterbrook Gets It Mostly Right

  1. Construction of more big transmission lines seems to be a soulution to a problem that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men are desperately seeking to create.

  2. Great analysis, Bill! I’m not hearing any of that power company double-talk about how transmission lines don’t discriminate between “green” and “coal” power flowing through them. That was their excuse when they were pumping coal through their “needed” pet projects, but now that they are greenwashing it, that analogy seems to have died.

    So, AEP, how are you going to make sure your “national grid” carries only new, green power? No, don’t bother mustering your engineers, a phone call to CRA ought to do it…

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