|A Crisis of Ignorance - Global Energy Network Institute
'There is no energy shortage, there is no energy crisis, there is a crisis
Over three decades ago, visionary engineer Buckminster Fuller made the
statement that seems heretical today. Any rational person viewing our
energy quagmire would dismiss Dr. Fuller's notion as utopian and out of
Yet it's possible that our present situation in California and the Western
U.S. has everyone focused on immediate answers -- and that few are asking
the larger questions. The numerous players in the energy game see the
issues from completely different perspectives: consumers want cheap, reliable
energy, California utilities want a rate increase to avoid bankruptcy,
out-of-state producers want to make a profit for shareholders, and legislators
want a solution to salvage their deregulation vote of four
years ago. This stew of vested interests offers little confidence in finding
a strategy that meets everyone's needs.
The major problem with deregulation is that market forces were unleashed
before energy supply and demand could be balanced. While the regulations
were changing in California, no additional generation was built. Who would
invest millions into new power supply when the rules of the game are unclear?
Then, in that same period, California's economy boomed, more people and
computers moved in and a hot summer offered up a triple whammy.
So, what are the questions that we should be asking? First, how can we
reduce our demand during the peak hours? Where the utilities and their
customers are getting killed is at the Power Exchange (the hourly marketplace
where the big three utilities must go to buy their megawatts). During
the mid-day hours when demand is highest, our supply must be purchased
from out-of-state. While the utilities are limited to charging a fixed
rate, they must purchase that power at the highest bidder price.
Governor Davis promised to address this folly in his State of the State
speech. But 30 million consumers could dramatically affect this midday
cost/rate gap. How many lights, radios, computers, TVs, are just left
on during the day -- doing no work, but causing utilities to purchase
power at peak prices? Yet without brownouts or blackouts, consumers are
oblivious to this basic inequality of the daily electricity market. The
print media could make the difference here. Newspapers could publish the
hourly price of
power for the previous day and week. This information is as critical as
yesterday's stock prices. When consumers understand that the bulk of their
rate increase comes from 3-4 peak hours, they can choose to turn off those
electrical devices -- thus reducing power demand when prices are their
What about the supply side? Experts are projecting that an additional
10,000-12,000 megawatts of new capacity is needed to balance the supply/demand
equation. Some of this new capacity is under construction, and the Governor
wants to help fast-track even more. Yet, power generation takes 2-3 years
from groundbreaking to commissioning. Almost all of these new projects
are fired by natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels. Our growing
demand has caused a spike in gas prices, which is also being added to
our utility bills for household heating and cooking. This increasing fuel
cost to the generators translates into higher prices for power at the
As all these new natural gas power plants come on-line, does anyone believe
the price of fuel will return to last year's level? And nowhere are the
greenhouse gas emissions being considered when our pocketbook is in peril.
If we return to Buckminster Fuller's thesis -- there is no energy shortage
-- one must examine the larger energy potential of our region. For bulk
power, the western United States, British Columbia, Alberta and northern
Baja California are all linked via a high-voltage electric transmission
grid. This network acts as a ``freeway for electrons,'' enabling power
generator and customer to be hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of
miles apart. This grid is apathetic to the power source, equally delivering
generated from non-renewable energy sources: coal, natural gas, nuclear,
or the renewable sources: solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydropower.
The difference? Nonrenewable sources are mined, transported and then burned
to boil water, creating steam to turn a turbine and generator -- producing
either atmospheric or toxic waste. On the other hand, with renewable resources
we simply need to harvest them: solar radiation in the desert, high winds
in the plains, underground steam and falling water. These resources are
virtually unlimited in potential supply.
And what few people seem to know -- these renewable resources lie within
our western region, and could meet the lion's share of our power needs.
The Department of Energy studied the wind resources of Idaho, Montana,
Wyoming and Colorado, and reported enough potential to meet all the peak
energy needs of the United States today! Sanyo Electric has found that
using just 4% of the world's deserts, photovoltaic cells could meet the
entire electrical needs of the planet! The southwestern US has more than
of the world's deserts. Combining these renewables with existing geothermal
hydropower offer an abundant potential that is far beyond our immediate
shortfall. The cost? Wind, geothermal and hydropower are cost-competitive
The crisis we are facing is very real -- but doesn't have to persist.
Asking the right questions now can alter our path and economy for decades
to come. Can we meet the energy needs of our region and reduce pollution
at the same time?
Peter Meisen, President
Global Energy Network Institute