Posted by: bkivey | 27 December 2010

John Galt To The Rescue?

Recently the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved a plan to close Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant by 2020 with the cooperation of PGE, the plant’s operating utility. PGE agreed to close the plant rather than spend nearly half a billion dollars to bring the facility’s emissions into compliance with state and federal regulations. The 550 megawatts generated at the site represent 6% of Oregon’s total electricity generation capacity and nearly one fifth of PGE’s capacity.

Ten years is not a long time and it would seem reasonable that plans would be well along to replace such a significant portion of the state’s generating capacity before setting a date certain to take it offline.

Such hopes would be in vain.

The Boardman coal plant represents what is known in the industry as base-load power: capacity that’s constant regardless of environmental conditions. Other examples include gas-fired, hydroelectric, nuclear, and to a lesser extent, geothermal generating facilities. Because Oregon is fortunate to share with Washington the third-largest river in the country by volume, the state is able to generate nearly 60% of its electricity through four large dams. Fossil fuel fired facilities account for another 34% of capacity, while the remaining electricity comes from wind and wood product generation.

People in favor of closing the coal plant invariably gloss over its replacement, as if closing the plant will inevitably lead to a solution to replace the lost generating capacity. This is nothing more than wishful thinking, exemplified by this passage from an editorial in The Oregonian on the closure:

The real unknown going forward is replacement power. Much depends upon whether PGE can, for a price ratepayers will find tolerable, develop a mix of renewable sources that can augment a steady power output from a cleaner but yet-to-be-built natural gas plant.

PGE and Oregon will, and must, find a way.

Power plants take time to build, with the legal wrangling often taking longer than the actual construction time. Unless the aforementioned gas-fired plant is under way now, it’s unlikely that it will be ready in ten years, and it’s a certainty that the so-called renewables of wind and solar are never going to provide more than supplementary power. Renewable sources are entirely dependent on environmental factors, and while power so generated can be moved around when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, it can’t be stored for use at night or during periods of calm. For that you need a consistent, independent source of power generation.

Because it’s not practical to add any more hydroelectric capacity, there is a source of base-load power that doesn’t depend on burning hydrocarbons: nuclear. Three or four medium-sized nukes plus the existing dams would supply all of Oregon’s energy needs with capacity to spare. No need for thousands of view- and bird-destroying wind turbines or square miles of solar arrays. France generates three-quarters of its power with nuclear; Slovakia and Belgium more than half. A person who professes concern about ‘greenhouse gases’ without considering nuclear power is not someone I can take seriously.

By artificially accelerating the closing of the coal plant the opponents of fossil-fuel electricity generation are counting on a couple of things: the insatiable appetite of technical people to solve problems, and the fact that people generally work better under deadline.

One problem with this approach is that the earnest environmentalists tend to think of man-made deadlines and goals as inviolate, when in fact they are anything but. Witness the European Union’s lack of success in meeting Kyoto Protocol goals for carbon emission reductions. Most countries haven’t come anywhere near their stated goals, and the response has been a shrug and promise to do better. Meanwhile, the Earth keeps on turning and life goes on.

Another problem with counting on the inventiveness of technical people is that after putting up with one imposed deadline after another, they may individually or collectively decide, as John Galt did in Atlas Shrugged, that the people defining the conditions are incompetent and not worthy of attention. I suspect that as environmental regulation becomes increasingly divorced from practical reality a new class of technical refuseniks will emerge, and then the enviro-apparatchiks are going to have some real problems far more immediate than the ones they create.  

I suspect that in ten years Oregon will find itself in a position where it’s not practical to close the Boardman plant through a combination of population growth and lack of replacement capacity. There will be much wailing and wringing of hands from the usual quarters as ratepayers are forced to choose between paying for extremely costly pollution controls or buying power from elsewhere. Either way, it’s going to be expensive. But when one lives in a fantasy world where nothing costs anything, it’s okay to have someone else produce goods for you, as long as you don’t have to look at the means of production.

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