The new economy runs on coal

Published April 1, 2001

The New Economy’s primary interface with the old comes down to one thing: electricity. Computers and information technology are huge consumers of it. It is what flows through all those silicon computer chips and moves those gigabytes of data across thousands of miles of telephone and cable lines. It’s what makes computer monitors glow and laser printers print.

Brownouts and blackouts from San Francisco to Detroit expose how vulnerable the New Economy is to interruptions in electricity supply. In such situations, government asks businesses to cut back . . . but many New Economy companies operate 24/7 and can’t simply shut down for the afternoon. The price to them can amount to millions of dollars an hour.

The answer, according to some New Economy thinkers, will lie in New Economy companies generating their own electric power on standby. Peter Huber and Mark Mills, coeditors of Power Report, say this private generation will lead to hundreds of billions of dollars a year being invested in new technologies “to move, condition, store, and distribute electrons for the Internet Economy.”

Maybe so. But expensive new technologies cannot meet the entire nation’s electricity needs, at least not for the foreseeable future. The cost of the new technologies, as Huber and Mills point out, is up to 200 times current energy costs. In an economy built on cheap energy, such technology is likely to be used sparingly, at least for some years to come.

Where’s the juice?

So from where is the rest of the juice for the Internet and general economy going to come?

The Energy Information Administration estimates the energy needs of the nation over the next 20 years will require the equivalent of 1,200 new power plants producing some 360 gigawatts of more power than we’re producing today.

But rather than building up the nation’s power supply, regulators seem bent on tearing it down.

As former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told Congress last year, “While demand for electricity is soaring, . . . the reliability of our electric grid is, at times, faltering, mainly because policymakers haven’t kept pace with rapid changes in the electric-utility industry.”

Indeed, one agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, seemed ready to dismantle the existing system entirely without allowing anything to replace it.

EPA’s attack on coal

In the fall of 1999, EPA sued seven electric utilities, claiming the routine maintenance they performed on their plants violated the Clean Air Act. The agency wanted them to go through a review that would force them to retrofit their plants with the latest technology.

While the courts have delayed that action against private utilities, EPA has succeeded in stymieing efforts by the federal Tennessee Valley Authority to improve its plants.

Most of EPA’s ire has been aimed at coal-fired facilities. It sees them not only as endangering health, but also contributing to global warming by releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.

But EPA has no authority from Congress to control CO2. That common gas is vital to life on the planet. And no one knows how much of it would have to be cut back to have any effect on climate change–except to know that it would require many times the reductions the Clinton administration and other nations agreed to at Kyoto three years ago.

Indeed, James Hansen, one of the leading scientific proponents of global warming theory, has said the world would be better off focusing on other greenhouse gases, such as methane and certain kinds of aerosols. Hansen contends controlling those emissions would give us “more bang for the buck” than could be achieved by reducing CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

Cleaning up its act

Nor is coal the environmental disaster many of its critics claim. Not anymore.

In a fashion not so unusual for government agencies, the Energy Department has promoted the development of clean coal technology even as EPA has gone to war against the substance.

More than $5 billion has been invested. An Energy Department brochure, “The Investment Pays Off,” issued just as EPA began suing utilities, proclaimed: “The pioneer power systems introduced [in the Clean Coal Technology Program] have laid the foundation for a new generation of power systems responsive to worldwide concern about global climate change.”

The future will run on coal

EPA and its state-level counterparts have hurt the nation’s energy infrastructure in another way, by erecting regulatory roadblocks in the path of new facilities, even those that rely on cleaner-burning technologies. Communities often have little choice but to keep their old, dirtier plants online.

It currently takes almost 10 years to get the necessary government approvals to build a new power plant. That is just plain foolish.

For the foreseeable future, the U.S. will rely on coal-fired plants for the bulk of its power. Coal represents 94 percent of the nation’s proven energy reserves. Coal-fired plants provide 53 percent of the nation’s electric power. With most nuclear plants likely to be mothballed, there is little that can replace coal. Not wind, not solar, not hydroelectric, not conservation . . . not any combination of those things can meet the nation’s electric needs. Not even private high-tech power.

Someone needs to deliver that message to environmental regulators before the Internet goes blank and people start shouting: Where’s the juice?

Duane D. Freese, a Reston, Virginia-based freelance writer, is an editorial consultant to Tech Central Station.