Wellinghoff, Adams, Obama; Is Hope Dangerous?

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Just in time for ABC’s quote from environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. calling President Barack Obama an indentured servant of the coal industry (and Kennedy’s later retraction), comes the pronouncement from none other than the chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Jon Wellinghoff (who joined the FERC under Bush), that the U.S. may never need another coal plant. Or nuclear plant, Wellinghoff added, noting that the concept of baseload capacity (i.e., coal-fired power plants running 24.7) may become a thing of the past.

Wellinghoff seems to suggest that renewable energy can be used in a complimentary fashion; wind kicking in on cloudy days, solar taking up the load on calm days, biomass filling the interstices and technologically advanced energy storage systems balancing the load. Currently, the U.S. has more than 10 percent of its power mix in renewables – and that includes a whopping 6.6 percent in hydroelectric (January 2009). But throw in advanced energy efficiencies, demand-side management (DSM

Nuclear proponent Rod Adams’ ad hominem attack describes Wellinghoff as a “dangerous man”.  Wellinghoff, an energy law specialist on renewable energy, energy efficiency and distributed generation, seems more hopeful than dangerous, but perhaps this type of enthusiasm, however misguided, is what is needed to get us off our collective asses (or hobby horses) and moving toward a renewable but reliable energy future.

Wellinghoff’s optimism coincides nicely with an April assessment by the U.S. Department of Energy, which says that, at most, two new coal plants might be needed by 2025. This projection is presumably based on the fact that coal-fired generation fell by the largest amount, a full 5.5 percent, from January of 2008 to January of 2009. Coal is baseload generation in the U.S., taking up 48.9 percent of the mix.

Part of this is due, no doubt, to what the SET Energy website describes as “electricity emissions in freefall” as a consequence of the economic downturn. The downturn has seen energy production fall 2.3 percent between (January) 2008 and 2009. This, in spite of a 3 percent rise in residential energy consumption for January (a month during which average heating days were close to normal, so we can’t blame winter). In fact, residential energy consumption has been rising by 23 percent since 1998, largely due to electronics like computers and plasma TVs.

These rises are offset by a 10 percent decline in industrial production for the year, confirming economists’ worst fears. So the takeaway from Wellinghoff’s remark would seem to be that now is exactly the right time to push alternative energy as a larger part of the generation mix.

Environmentalists couldn’t agree more, but alternative energy proposals are often a Catch-22 with a strong NIMBY factor. RFK Jr. may be an environmentalist, but Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is blocking the Cape Wind project offshore of his Hyannis Port home, situated in the Kennedy Compound. 

In Canada, First Nations Cree and the Sierra Club both opposed the Rupert River diversion, which will send 2,000 megawatts of energy across the border to the northeastern U.S when completed. I sided with both groups; the Rupert River is an astonishingly beautiful ecosystem, but one has to ask, in the words of former USSR head Mikhail Gorbachev: “If not me, who? And if not now, when?” – a sentiment echoed by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who responded to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) objection to the Mojave Desert solar proposal by saying:  “If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it.”

In Kansas, Governor Kathleen Sebelius just blocked two new coal-fired plants – the fourth coal bill she has rejected in two years. What tune will she sing when (or if) appointed as Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, since Obama has already expressed determination to see “clean” coal as part of the U.S. energy mix?

NIMBYism aside, I feel compelled to ask: what’s wrong with hope anyway? “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” Robert Browning observed more than a century ago. Though modernists might prefer Bucy’s Law

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