Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What Went Wrong With Rural Electrification

It appears quite obvious that our local power co-op is now firmly against renewables. For more information about that, you can read my letter to the editor of the Ely Times.

To understand why Mt. Wheeler Power and Deseret Power are the way they are today, we need to remember their history.

Deseret Power was founded in 1978 by six rural cooperatives, one of which was Mt. Wheeler Power. Within 7 years, the co-op of these co-ops had built the Bonanza coal-fired power plant. But they didn't do this all on their own. This power plant was heavily subsidized by the Rural Electrification Administration (REA).

The REA was initiated back during the Great Depression to bring electric power to Rural areas of America. And the program worked. Nonetheless, as late as the 1970s, various places in the Central Great Basin still didn't have power. The construction of the Bonanza power plant and related rural power infrastructure changed all that.

Looking back, they did accomplish their mission, but they could have done a better job. By the 1970s, the technology to generate distributed power locally was beginning to be marketed. Windmills and solar power were expensive, but so was bringing in a power line from hundreds of miles away.

During the 70s, President Carter was trying very hard to promote and develop alternative energy. At the time, rural homes had the most competitive conditions for the installation and development of home power generation. But the inertia of the established fossil fuel power generation system was too much for even the most powerful man on the planet to shift.

The coal industry knew our environmental situation back then. They didn't care. Scientists and engineers knew about greenhouse gases back in the 70s. They also knew about the substantial number of other very dangerous effluents from coal-fired power plants. But scientists and engineers weren't making the decisions.

By the 1970s, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) had become a conduit for money for established industries that had figured out how to milk the system for millions (if not billions) of dollars. The REA could have been an impetus for the development of new cleaner power technology, but it had become just the opposite. By subsidizing old technology, the REA ended up holding back new cleaner and safer technologies.

In 1980, President Carter's re-election was unsuccessful – in part due to generous contributions from the fossil fuel industry to his opponent. In the end, our engineer President was gone – and so were his pro-renewable power policies. Everything we had learned during the 60s and 70s about the environment, our unsustainable economy, the limited supply of fossil fuels, and the potential for end-game wars over resources seemed not to matter anymore. The press stopped paying attention, and so did the people. It was amazing.

That was when Deseret Power built a coal-fired power plant.

More recently; Deseret Power has attempted to build another coal-fired power plant facility. They could have built solar or wind generation facilities. They could have financed the construction of home power generation. But they stuck with their game plan since their formation – coal power.

Two years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) permitted Deseret Power to build another coal-fired unit. This created quite a national outrage, because the US Supreme Court had earlier ordered the EPA to regulate Carbon Dioxide – and by giving this permit without any CO2 restrictions, the EPA essentially ignored the US Supreme Court.

One year ago, the EPA Environmental Appeals Board essentially shut the expansion down (without best available control technology).

Now we are facing the creation of legislation to Cap and Trade Carbon Dioxide emissions – and Deseret Power is up in arms.

Since the Appeals Board stopped the construction of the new coal-fired unit (without CO2 sequestration), Deseret Power, to my knowledge, has not made any effort to build any renewable power facilities. It appears that they are still sticking with their game plan; coal-fired power.

It looks to me like Deseret Power wants to turn the clock back. They want back their REA subsidies. And they want to get away with emitting as much Carbon Dioxide as they please with no financial consequences. It looks like they essentially want the “freedom” to pollute – and get subsidies for doing it. Moreover, they don't want any other form of power generation to share in the advantages coal has benefited from. It sure looks like they don't give a damn about anyone else, anything else, or the future. And they're willing to “influence” our political system (with our money), to get their way.


Now of course, there are going to be a number of people who know this story far better than I do. I'm only generalizing... I only wish to make an important point – from the perspective of an outsider.

...And my point is this:

Deseret Power was formed to build a coal-fired power plant. Deseret Power's primary purpose, from its beginning, is to supply coal-fired power. Its founders did what they did because coal seemed safer than nuclear (after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident) and less complex than renewables. But the main reason Deseret Power chose a coal-fired power plant was because there was substantial government funding (taxpayer money) available in the form of subsidies. Even today, there are still a number of huge subsidies for the coal industry.

Which leads to the almost schizophrenicly mixed signals our government is sending to the power industry. For all these decades, we have been giving billions of dollars of subsidy money to the coal industry. Now, while we're still giving them billions more in subsidies; we're essentially saying we don't want them anymore.

How can we not to expect the coal industry to feel a little frustrated over the issue?

However, those who truly love America should feel a lot more frustrated.

The fossil fuel industry has spent decades manipulating, subverting, and redesigning our American governmental system. And they have profited immensely from these actions – at the expense of the American taxpayer and consequent instability of America and the planet's environment. Moreover, they do everything they can legally get away with to see that we don't fix these problems.

Regulations, taxation, and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry are totally unmanageable and unsustainable within our government – because that's what the fossil fuel industry has been striving to achieve for well over 50 years.

But I don't want to blame this all on Deseret Power. Deseret Power didn't create the conditions from which it was formed. Deseret Power is simply the organizational creature that has adapted to the economic environment that we, as a society, have allowed to form. The beast (though it has the best of intentions) is gnawing on the hand that feeds it. Can we reign in the beast – or are we going to wait until it gnaws further up our collective arm?

Already scientists from Oxford are predicting that “a rise of at least two meters in the world's sea levels is now almost unstoppable.” Stefan Rahmstorf, from Germany's Potsdam Institute, has said; “There is no way I can see to stop this rise, even if we have gone to zero emissions”

(say goodbye to the Everglades)

The world, and especially the established American energy companies and co-ops, have ignored this truth for decades now. And apparently, in the name of short term profits, want to keep us ignoring the truth.

All I want is for them to do the right thing.

And the right thing to do is to either help or stay out of the way.


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