Our Wrong-Headed Approach to Utilizing Alternative Energy Sources
I just had an interesting correspondence with the editor of an energy publication. Here’s a story that should put it into perspective. Tell me if I’m crazy.
Let’s say some investors and developers step forward with a reportedly new type of commercial grade electrical power. They named it “Zephyr Integrated Power” (ZIP). Since these people are clever types, they spent a lot of time and money on the marketing aspect of ZIP. (They knew that this was necessary to be able to break into the system -- and they want on the grid in a big way.)
So they tell us that ZIP is “free, clean, and green.” Sounds good!
Oh yes, for good measure they also add that implementing ZIP will create oodles of jobs.
So the basic question is this: exactly what do we do before we allow these people and their new product on the electric grid?
We wouldn’t be so gullible to just take their word for ZIP’s purported benefits, would we?
At the current time, the disturbing answer is yes, that is exactly what we do!
And there is more: our politicians are so enamored with ZIP that they tell these promoters that we will not only allow them on the grid, they will force utilities to use ZIP. (Hmmm. Wouldn’t utilities want to use ZIP if it was so great?)
How are utilities going to be forced to use ZIP? Lobbyists have sold our politicians a clever tool called RPS to do just that.
Despite the supposed benefits (which a free market would obviously jump on) they offer the ZIP people the promise that something like a trillion dollars of taxpayer and ratepayer money will be spent to support their product!
Even the ZIP lobbyists have a hard time believing how easy this has become. The incentives offered amount to ZIP investors earning an annual 25%, government guaranteed.
Remember, all this is without independent proof that ZIP has any real benefits.
This astounding state of affairs is how our current lobbyist driven system operates.
My Pollyanna vision is that such complex technical matters should instead be solved by science. It would go something like this:
1. The ZIP promoters would be sincerely thanked for their efforts, and asked to submit their information to a federal energy agency that would be roughly equivalent to the FDA. Let’s call it the EAA (Energy Assessment Agency) -- which would have some similarities to the former OTA (Office of Technology Assessment).
The EAA would do one thing: make a scientific assessment as to whether or not ZIP met the standards (reliability, etc.) of our existing sources of electrical power.
2. The “scientific” part means that there would be a comprehensive, independent, and transparent assessment of the merits of such proposals like ZIP. It would be up to the promoters to provide whatever information is needed for a proper assessment (just as pharmaceutical companies are required to do for the FDA).
3. All new industrial electrical power sources would be scientifically evaluated in three areas:
3) environment (which includes human impact)
Again, they would be compared to verify that they meet (or exceed) our existing options. (Why would anything be approved that was an inferior choice to what we already have?)
4. If ZIP passes with flying colors, then (and only then) will it be allowed on the grid, and supported (as appropriate) with any public funds.
None of this is currently done.
This process (called using the scientific method) would be a radical departure from the political (lobbyist) approach we now use.
The end results would be profoundly different -- not only making real contributions to the energy and environmental issues we have, but in truly benefiting citizens and businesses.
Our current system is so dysfunctional that we are supporting sources that fail all three evaluation areas of item “3.”
For instance, a key consideration in the technical part is the impact of any proposed new source (e.g., ZIP) on our existing electrical grid.
Carefully consider this challenge:
“Compared to our other alternatives, name one consequential benefit that wind energy provides to our electrical grid”.
I am aware of some serious grid liabilities of adding wind energy to the grid, but zero benefits -- but please correct me if I’m wrong.
So it’s our choice: throw away hundreds of billions to support the agendas of lobbyists, or take a scientific approach and get an enormously higher bang for our buck.