Must We Freeze in the Dark?

Power companies can't build generating plants anymore.

Not so long ago, Californians suffered rolling cutoffs in their electricity supply.  The reason was simple -- nobody had been able to build an electric generating plant in or near California for several decades.  As more and more Californians wanted more and more electricity, there wasn't enough electricity to be had at any price.

The electricity shortage was entirely predictable.  All the utilities had been moaning about the coming supply crisis for years, but until California ran out of power and people began to sweat in the dark, nobody would let the greedy, filthy, earth-destroying, capitalistic, profit-mongering utilities build any new plants.

NIMBY in New York

This isn't a new phenomenon.  Many years ago, I was consulting for Con Ed, the Manhattan electric utility, and ended up talking with the VP of power generation.  He told me things were going to get bad.  Pulling cables to power the recently-constructed World Trade Center had filled their last tunnels in lower Manhattan; they weren't going to be able to build new tunnels to get more power to that part of their market.

What was worse, they weren't allowed to build any generating capacity anywhere; nobody wanted to live near an electric plant.  Demand was going up and he was worried that Con Ed would fall short.  The city had gone dark twice due to interruptions in the electricity supply from Canada.  As a highly-motivated professional, he felt the two blackouts keenly.

I told him not to worry.  "What?" he said, "we're running out of capacity, it's going to hit the wall."

I asked him if he'd warned everybody.  He'd been putting out press releases for years, everybody he'd talked to was tired of hearing him bleat about the coming crisis.  So I told him, "You warned 'em, right?  You can prove you warned them; they can't really blame you, not that they won't.  What might happen?  If demand doesn't keep growing you're OK, right?"  I got a nod.  "If someone invents fusion in a suitcase, you put a box in every basement and you're OK, right?"  Another nod.

"If nothing changes, you'll run out of power, right?  When the governor and the legislature start to freeze in the dark, they'll get out of the way.  How long will it take you to build a plant if everybody gets out of the way?  I mean really gets out of the way."

"What do you mean, 'really gets out of the way'?"

"I mean really gets out of the way.  You put a pin in the map anywhere you want the plant, they send out eviction notices the next day and follow up with the National Guard to bayonet anybody gets in front of your bulldozers.  No bidding -- you call your buddies, tell them they can have all the OT they want, the state is guaranteeing your loans, just get it built NOW!"

"Oh, you mean really get out of the way."  His eyes went vague as he gazed into space.  "If they let me do my job without filling out all the paperwork, we could do it in 9 months, the hard part would be getting the turbine shaft machined.  Less than a year anyway."

"Don't worry about it," I told him, "either there is a problem or there isn't.  If there is, they'll freeze in the dark until they get out of your way."

As it turned out, my friend lucked out.  9-11 reduced electricity demand in lower Manhattan and made it politically possible to dig new tunnels there; he's OK.  The crisis came in California instead of in Manhattan.

When Californians began to sweat in the dark, everybody got out of the way and the utilities fixed the problem just as I'd predicted.  The price of electricity went way up -- somebody had to pay for doing things in a hurry.  As usual, it's the customers who pay for everything.

California, Here We Come

The global warming scam has put the whole country on a path to reenact the California electricity crisis except that most of the country is colder than California; we'll freeze in the dark instead of sweating.  Coal provides over 50 percent of the nation's electricity.  Coal-fired electric plants emit 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, about a third of the country's total.

Until recently, utilities were starting the approvals process for new facilities, pointing out that charging hybrid cars will reduce our dependence on foreign energy supplies because we have several hundred years worth of coal in the ground.

All of a sudden, utilities are abandoning their plans for new coal-fired power plants.  A report Decline in New Coal Power Plant Construction says:

Most Newly Proposed Coal Power Plants Are Never Built. According to the Department of Energy, proposals to build new power plants are often speculative and typically operate on "boom & bust" cycles, based upon the ever changing economic climate of power generation markets. As such, many of the proposed plants will not likely be built. For example, out of a total portfolio (gas, coal, etc) of 500 GW of newly planned power plant capacity announced in 2001, 91 GW have been already been scrapped or delayed.

20% of the planned power plants are being canceled even though demand is likely to double over the next 30 years.  The reason these plants are being canceled isn't hard to find -- environmentalists have decided to play hardball.

"Our goal is to oppose these projects at each and every stage, from zoning and air and water permits, to their mining permits and new coal railroads," said Bruce Nilles, a Sierra Club attorney who directs the group's national coal campaign. "They know they don't have an answer to global warming, so they're fighting for their life. [sic]" [emphasis added]

Industry representatives say the environmentalists' actions threaten to undermine the country's fragile power grid, setting the stage for a future of high-priced electricity and uncontrollable blackouts.

Nilles said the Sierra Club spent about $1 million on such efforts in 2007 and hopes to ratchet that figure up to $10 million this year.

The process of getting a new electric plant approved has become so complicated that $10 million buys a lot of delay.  Delay is the most cruel form of denial.  Delay costs the utilities money and makes the projects much more risky.

I have friends who lived in New Hampshire while the electric utility built a nuclear electric plant called Seabrook.  The "Clamshell Alliance" introduced so many delays and cost increases that the utility went bankrupt.  At the time, New Hampshire had the second highest electric rates in the nation.  It takes real effort to bankrupt an electric utility when rates are that high.

After the stockholders were wiped out, an out of state utility offered to take over the facility if they were promised rate increases of 5% a year compounded for 7 years.  They wouldn't touch it unless these increases were written into law.

With their constituents freezing in the dark, the legislature passed the rate increases in record time.  Democrat Jean Shaheen was later elected governor on a platform of cutting electric bills even though she knew that the courts would uphold the rates which had been written  into the law.  She won the election on a promise she couldn't keep, but that's politics.

There's no way utilities can answer global warming because it's a scam.  The fact that it's a scam doesn't keep the environmentalists from making it very difficult and very expensive to build new electric plants.

Utilities have learned three important lessons:

  • Seabrook and the Clamshell Alliance taught them not to fight environmentalists to the last breath.  They'll file applications just to keep in practice and they'll get the odd plant approved here and there, but they won't get serious about new capacity until they're assured that everybody will get out of the way.
  • California taught the utilities that as long as they keep the people informed about trying to build plants, the public won't blame them when the electricity runs out.
  • When taxpayers start to sweat or freeze in the dark, red tape unwinds like magic and they can build new generating plants without much hassle.

The sensible thing for utilities to do is play patty-cake with the environmentalists until it hits the fan, then they can build whatever they like.  The more negative publicity they get from the environmentalists, the less the public blames them when the electricity runs out.

The California legislature was so panicked by voters screaming at them that they signed long-term contracts for electricity at very high prices just as the New Hampshire legislature had done.  This will happen in all states where the environmentalists are able to delay construction enough to cause a crisis.  As usual, we customers will pay for it all.

Modern environmentalists believe in global warming with religious zeal and hate coal power as much as the Clamshell Alliance hated nuclear power.  France gets 80% of its electric power from nuclear plants; American coal is both cheap and domestic but facts mean nothing in the face of zeal.  The environmentalists won't get out of the way until we get really pissed and tell our elected representatives to make them lay off.

Unless we tell our politicians to ignore Al Gore's scam, we'll all freeze in the dark.  When that happens, electric plants will be built, but we'll end up paying very high rates for electricity thanks to Al Gore's misguided minions.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments
"I mean really gets out of the way. You put a pin in the map anywhere you want the plant, they send out eviction notices the next day and follow up with the National Guard to bayonet anybody gets in front of your bulldozers. No bidding -- you call your buddies, tell them they can have all the OT they want, the state is guaranteeing your loans, just get it built NOW!"

Beautiful. If only things worked that way. I've been in construction for decades. I can only imagine how my life would be different (more productive, more profitable, etc) if the government would just "get out of the way" as you put it.
February 14, 2008 9:36 AM
Eminent domain is supposed to mean just that - the government can take whatever property it wants, when it wants it, for a public purpose. The only restriction is that the government has to PAY for it - but all these years of nonsense hearings and lawsuits are certainly not required by the Constitution. All that's needed is a great big check with the property owner's name on it.
February 14, 2008 11:32 AM
Of course, we must! (freeze in the dark). That's what liberals want.
February 14, 2008 2:28 PM
I agree with david. Liberals, particularly environmentalists, are about shunting technological progress. The more we move away from the jungle, the more evil we are. At the root, that's pretty much the entire issue.
February 14, 2008 2:40 PM
Recent satellite photos show the the northwest passage through the Artic may fully open this year. Probablly not good news for a few local polar bears and native "Articans" about to lose their igloo who live there. I wonder what they did in 1903, 1905, 1940, 1941, and 1943 when this happened before? History actually shows that tempatures started rising in the mid 1850's, almost 100 years prior to our current over use of hydrocarbon fuels. The only way the oceans will rise enough to sink lets say Washington DC, is if the Antartica melts, and that simply is not happening. In fact, this year Antartica has set several new records for the coldest tempatures ever recorded.
Global warming can best be viewed as simply another arena for special interest groups to profit through legislation. While the US certainly has its hands in "politically correctness liberal" policies, the big push is coming from the United Nations. It seems as though the UN has around 600 scientists with computer models and charts to confirm their need for action. However, at last count, there is close to 2400 scientist who disagree and question Al Gores comment that "a computer generated graph from 1938 predicted all of this". I am not sure if it was Microsoft, Hewett Packard, or Apple technology. Whatever computer they used in "1938" certainly was only as good as the programmer.
The US should not only get out of the UN, it should force them to relocate off US soil, lets say to Antartica. Global warming is simply about the "power to control energy" in the future. As the UN discusses population control in their back rooms, the power to deliver or prohibit energy could certainly impact the lives of all of us to a much greater extent than the media is letting on.
Vote Ron Paul 2008....he knows whats going on.
February 23, 2008 8:58 AM
Others are catching on. On p 38 of the June 30 issue of Forbes magazine, the article "Brownout" began:

"What happens when you don't build more power plants? Get ready for spiking electricity rates, brownouts, and even blackouts as demand soars."

The article says that oil use is up 15% since the first oil crisis in 1973 whereas electricity use is up 115% since then.

Get ready to freeze in the dark!
June 28, 2008 11:17 AM
The Economist says England is heading into the darkness.

How long till the lights go out?


North Sea gas has served Britain well, but supply peaked in 1999. Since then the flow has fallen by half; by 2015 it will have dropped by two-thirds. By 2015 four of Britain's ten nuclear stations will have shut and no new ones could be ready for years after that. As for coal, it is fiendishly dirty: Britain will be breaking just about every green promise it has ever made if it is using anything like as much as it does today. Renewable energy sources will help, but even if the wind and waves can be harnessed (and Britain has plenty of both), these on-off forces cannot easily replace more predictable gas, nuclear and coal power. There will be a shortfall-perhaps of as much as 20GW-which, if nothing radical is done, will have to be met from imported gas. A large chunk of it may come from Vladimir Putin's deeply unreliable and corrupt Russia.

British politicians, after all, have had 30 years to prepare for the day when the hydrocarbons beneath the North Sea run out; it is hardly a national secret that the country's nuclear plants are old and its coal-power stations filthy. Recession has only delayed the looming energy crunch (see article). How did Britain end up in this mess?

Tony Blair spent most of his prime ministership running around the issue of nuclear power (at the last minute deciding it was all right). Asked about energy, Gordon Brown has tended to waffle on about his (unfulfilled) ambitions for renewable energy. Nobody has been willing to discuss pipelines, terminals and power generation.

To make matters worse, the new capacity that is in the works is probably the wrong sort. With no official energy policy, the power firms look sure to go for the easiest option-building more gas plants, which are cheap, relatively clean and quick to build. Britain's dependence on gas for its electricity seems set to rise from just under half to three-quarters in a decade. Even if this new dash for gas happens fast enough to keep most of the lights on, which is by no means certain, it would leave the country overly reliant on one power source.
August 9, 2009 3:03 PM
The Times reports that environmentally-friendly dishwasher detergents do not work as well as the older ones.

Cleaner for the Environment, Not for the Dishes
Many find low-phosphate detergents as appealing as low-flow showers, underscoring the tradeoffs people often face in a more environmentally conscious marketplace.
September 19, 2010 1:01 PM

Real low cost Energy
by Troy Jordan
Electricity for $0.04 per KW
I began looking for alternative energy sources several years ago while managing the utilities for a large mental hospital.
1) After running the numbers in 1983 I determining that it requires more energy (BTUs) to make a gallon of ethanol than you get out when it is burned in an automobile or anything else. Ethanol also has less energy than even regular gasoline and can reduce gas mileage up to 20% compared to gasoline. It is stupid to pour money into continuing production of ethanol from corn or any food. Until we have a process that can create more BTUs output than required BTUs input.
2) Windmills are not the answer. Check out what happened in England in December 2010 when it gets really cold there is very little wind. Their windmills produced very little electricity during the coldest weather they have had in years. Huge investment in infrastructure of little to no use, fossil fuel plants had to carry the load when demand was highest and reliability was foremost.
3) Solar panels are not the answer. They only work when the sun shines, and at present the efficiency is only 10%. Solar cells now in experimental labs are almost 20% efficient but it will be years before those units are available and costs may be prohibitive.
For 2 and 3 above:
a) They can not be placed near where the most power is needed (large Cities).
b) It is necessary to build huge additions to the current power grid.
c) Both of these options also require huge tracks of land.
I have found what I believe is the most viable source for all of this nation's future electrical energy needs.
"The Liquid Fluoride Thorium reactor."
A proof-of-concept fluoride reactor (Aircraft Reactor Experiment) was built and operated in 1954 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. A 3 megawatt reactor was actually made small enough to be placed on a bomber and flown around Texas and New Mexico to test for shielding of the crew. They envisioned nuclear powered bombers until ballistic missiles made such plans obsolete.
The Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE), was built and operated by Oak Ridge National Labatory from 1965 to 1969. The Atomic Energy Comission moved to shut down all research on fluoride reactors at ORNL in the mid-1970s, and the fluoride reactor team was disbanded and assigned to other projects.
a) These reactors will shut themselves down with no harm if there is a power failure.
b) They can not blow up or explode.
c) 100 Megawatt units can be manufactured in a factory and shipped on a tractor trailer truck for emergencies.
d) They can destroy spent nuclear fuel form other reactors.
e) The reactor operates at very low pressure (near atmospheric).
f) There is no need for a huge containment vessel.
g) One ton of Thorium fuel will produce a gigawatt of power for a year.
h) The US government already has over 330 tons of thorium stored in the Nevada desert.
i) Thorium is plentiful in the US and the world.
j) Fuel can be added while the unit is operation.
k) Fuel reprocessing is carried out while the reactor is in operation.
There is a wealth in information about this on the web. I have read that 2 or 3 billion dollars would be needed to rediscover technology that the tax payers have already paid for once if the regulators would cooperate.

July 20, 2011 12:31 PM
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