NYT’s Elisabeth Rosenthal Details Corporate Nostalgia Trip

NYT’s Elisabeth Rosenthal has joined fellow reporter Matt Wald as the latest mouthpiece for transmission line propaganda.  Here is a link to her article in today’s Times.

Here is Ms. Rosenthal’s nostalgic sigh of a conclusion to her story:

Perhaps the answer is simply that in an increasingly crowded powered-on world, we’re all going to have to accept that Governor Cuomo’s so-called energy highway is likely to traverse our backyard.

“There will always be people who don’t like these things near them,” said Mr. Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations. “I live on Second Avenue, where they’re building a new subway, and it’s been really noisy for a long time now. But at some point we have to function as a society rather than as individuals, in order to get the things we need built.”

The funny thing is that this fatalistic acceptance of unneeded high voltage transmission is simply wrong.  Of course, the lead up to Ms. Rosenthal’s philosophical acceptance of fate is simply a restatement of power companies’ out of date claims:

In his recent State of the State address, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York proposed creating an “energy highway system” of high-voltage lines to bring power from wind and hydropower projects upstate and in Quebec all the way to New York City. He might recall that a similar transmission system, New York Regional Interconnect, was proposed in 2006, only to be withdrawn after four years of court battles with residents and environmentalists in the Hudson Valley.

But as states are encouraging the construction of wind and solar power plants with incentives and tax breaks, there has got to be a corresponding boom in transmission line planning and construction, said Alex Klein, chief of research at IHS Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass. “It’s both absolutely necessary and extremely contentious, “ he said. “People want renewables, but nobody wants transmission.”

He said that the lack of transmission lines to get electricity out of remote windy areas in Texas, the Midwest and Minnesota was “one of the most significant hurdles” to the growth of the domestic wind industry. Some wind farms have even had to curtail production because they can’t move the electricity they generate. The most cost-effective wind farms are in desolate areas where the wind howls and land is cheap, meaning they are the farthest from users. Burying high-voltage electricity lines underground is technically feasible but extremely expensive and makes maintenance extremely difficult.

For the thousandth time on The Power Line, I will point out that what is really driving this push for new transmission lines is the fact that investment banks rushed to finance land based wind power in “remote windy areas.”  Now there is a lot of excess land based wind capacity crying out for urban markets.  Claims that land based wind power is “cheap” are simply false when you add to their cost the need to build new high voltage transmission lines to get their power to population centers which lie on both coasts and the Great Lakes.

The problem is that the misguided investments in land based wind power were foolish.  It would have made much more sense to develop offshore wind farms that were more expensive to build, but required little new transmission capacity to get their power to population centers.  Now penny-wise pound-foolish land based wind farm developers are facing a financial calamity if they can’t get their transmission lines built.  They are fighting hard to get total federal control over transmission licensing at FERC, but they are getting a lot of resistance from citizens and state regulators.

Poor Ms. Rosenthal.  She even includes a quote about an “energy highway system.”  There is only one word for such uninformed reporting: pathetic.  At least she used the modifier “so called.”

But the discussion of transmission lines only comes at the end of Ms. Rosenthal’s story.  She begins with an extensive discussion of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and makes the connection between oil transmission and electrical transmission.  While there are very significant distinctions between these kinds of transmission, none of which Ms. Rosenthal mentions in her story, there are some interesting connections between the bigger picture of oil demand and electric power demand in the US, that she also misses.

As you have read many times on The Power Line, and from reporters who know what they are talking about, the market for high voltage transmission lines, hyped so heavily by the industry 5 years ago, is disappearing because of long term declines in electricity demand and increasing management of what demand remains.

There are some interesting connections in the Keystone XL story.  US demand for refined oil products has dropped significantly in the past 5 years.  Ten years ago, US oil refiners were screaming that the US needed to drop environmental regulation of their industry, because they could not keep up with demand for gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel.  However, in the last quarter of 2011, there was so much excess domestic capacity in the US refining industry that refined oil products were the number one export of the US in terms of dollar value.

One thing is clear, US refiners do not need Canadian oil from bitumen (often called “tar sands” but that misrepresents the fact that this is the mining of a solid mineral that is chemically treated to produce a very low grade petroleum), to meet US fuel demand.  US refiners want Canadian “oil” because they want to run at full capacity in a collapsed domestic fuel market so they can sell their refined to the Chinese and the Indians, who have driven the world price for refined fuels to new higher levels.

So falling US demand is driving the XL oil transmission project, while falling demand is eliminating the need for high voltage electric transmission lines.  While falling demand is pushing these transmission industries in different directions, there are crucial industries that have excess capacity that they are trying to fill by building new transmission lines.  The US oil refiners are desperate for export customers in Asia, and US land based wind farm developers are desperate to connect to distant power consumers because they had foolishly neglected to factor transmission costs into their investment equations.

Oh, one more thing, in her attempt to reinforce citizens’ need to accept high voltage transmission projects as inevitable, Ms. Rosenthal failed to mention major citizen victories over misguided transmission projects, such as, — oh, I don’t know — maybe PATH.

Well, maybe next time, Elisabeth Rosenthal could write an informative article instead of this story that reflects only the wistful regrets of a dying industry.

Update:  Here’s more silliness from the NYTimes.  Look at the blurb the Web edition editors put with the link to the Rosenthal story described above:  “Critics of pipelines forget one crucial thing: power has to be moved somehow or we’ll have to turn off our phones and refrigerators.”  Brownouts and blackouts, oh my!

One thought on “NYT’s Elisabeth Rosenthal Details Corporate Nostalgia Trip

  1. And what will a “green superhighway” accomplish? An article in the ultra-exciting Public Utilities Fortnightly (Energy, Money, Power!) says that it could enable expansion of coal-fired generation by the equivalent of 30 new plants by 2020. Unfortunately, the article is not available free online. If you want to know where to get a copy, let me know.

    This is nothing really new… it’s what we’ve been saying here and on stoppath and c4rp blogs for months now. However, some RE fans cannot see the forest for the trees. The article also gives a more realistic price tag for this midwest wind shell game – more than $500B.

    The simplest rebuttal of these idiots’ “highway” comparison is that the U.S. highway system is owned by who? The people. The usage charges collected go in whose pocket? The people. Any “profits” from the system go in whose pocket? The people. The answer to all these questions when it’s a “transmission superhighway” is: The investor-owned utility’s pocket. Hardly an apt comparison.

    P.S. You need an account to read the NYT op-ed piece. Just another way of keeping the discussion of energy policy out of the eyes of us “little people.”

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