The Blog

Looking Green, Feeling Blue

Environmentalist dreams collide with economic reality.

11:00 PM, Jan 26, 2009 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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The environmentalists, or at least some of them, have fired a warning shot across the bow of Obama's mighty ship of state as it sails "to the shores of need, past the reefs of greed," as Leonard Cohen's perversion of Wordsworth would have it. They have expressed extreme unhappiness with the failure of the stimulus package to include many of the 800 items they had hoped to see in it when they sat down in their office to unwrap it.

There is, from the green point of view, worse. During the campaign and the transition Joe Biden promised that there would be no more coal plants built in the United States; greener-than-green Henry Waxman wrested the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee from the sensible John Dingell; Carol Browner, "an acolyte of former Vice President Al Gore", according to the New York Times, was named White House coordinator of energy and climate policy (aka "czar"); Harvard University physicist John Holdren, a long-time advocate of measures to combat climate change was picked to be the President's science adviser; and Steven Chu, the Nobel prize-winning physicist and advocate of biofuels and solar power, was named to be Secretary of Energy. There are others, all of this green persuasion, all able, all darlings of the environmental movement, all expected to favor sun and wind over nuclear and coal. So far, so green.

But responsibility brings with it doubts, and politics in the form of Democratic senators from coal-producing states brings with it moderation. So environmentalists were horrified when Dr. Chu told senators during his confirmation hearings that he planned to fast-track the development of nuclear plants, accept oil and gas drilling as part of an overall energy package, and would support new coal-powered electric-generating plants even before research into "clean coal" technology bears fruit.

So here we are. Lots of talk about smart grids, solar and wind power, lots of environmentalist appointees -- and an administration still groping for an energy policy that is feasible -- allows for a sufficient increase in the supply of energy to sustain economic growth while at the same time reducing the emission of greenhouse gasses. This means that it is an administration that will soon be at war with part of the environmental movement, and learn that although it controls the White House and the congress, it cannot control environmentalists' use of the courts to stall and in many case kill the development of new sources of energy.

Various environmental groups have already used the courts to force the cancellation of over 50 coal plants. They have used the courts to prevent the opening of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Local groups in the not-in-my-backyard camp have used the courts to prevent the construction of wind farms, with the Kennedy-led opposition to Cape Wind, the project within sight of their Hyannis Port compound, the most famous. And they are increasingly concerned about the amount of land needed for large-scale solar installations.

There is an additional obstacle to the new President's realization of his 25-25 goal: 25 percent of the nation's power to come from renewable sources by 2025. People do not tend to live in windy places, a few hardy Scots being the exception. Nor do they tend to seek out homes in the desert, unless, of course, they can have access to huge amounts of electricity to run super-sized, energy-guzzling air conditioning systems.

In short, renewable sources of energy are remote from the population centers where that energy is needed. Which means that large, high-voltage transmission lines must be built from wind farms and solar sites to major cities, often across beautiful parts of states such as Virginia and Maryland. The enthusiasm of homeowners in those states for views of transmission towers is limited, to say the least.

Michael Morris, CEO of American Electric Power, estimates that to supply 20 percent of the nation's electricity needs with wind by 2030 will require the construction of 19,000 circuit miles of extra-high-voltage transmission. Unless the Obama team is willing to use the right of eminent domain to over-ride all objections from local environmental groups, in the process antagonizing millions of voters, those transmission lines will never get built. Or built only after a 6-year long permitting process, the current average according to Morris.