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Too Much of a Good Thing is Wonderful

by Daniel Coffey
The Daily Transcript, June 30, 2011

Many doubt renewable energy resources can substantially replace fossil fuels. However, in America there exists a shining example of how electrical energy can be produced emitting a minimum of greenhouse gases: the hydroelectric, wind and thermal systems of the Bonneville Power Authority (BPA).

The official Bonneville Power Authority history reminds us: "Franklin Roosevelt delivered a speech in Portland during the 1932 presidential campaign. He promised that the next great federal hydroelectric project would be built on the Columbia River to prevent extortion against the public by the giant electric utility holding companies then dominant in the region. The U.S. Government built Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams in the 1930s and 1940s. Power from these massive projects strengthened the Northwest economy and brought electricity to rural areas that were not served by existing utilities."

"About one-third of the power consumed in the Pacific Northwest comes from BPA" and "today, nearly 3 million people and more than 1.2 million jobs depend on BPA power."

Thus, the massive labors of past generations now provides for their progeny as a result of the wise foresight of political leadership functioning during the most pressing economic times: the Great Depression.

This tradition of insightful leadership continues today. Wind power has reduced wholesale energy prices by 4 to 8 percent, with 20 percent reduction during spring. Washington and Oregon are rapidly placing wind farms in order to produce even more hydrocarbon-combustion-free electricity, and have been doing so for years. BPA now tracks and integrates the output from about 3,522 megawatts of installed wind-power generating capacity (~6000 MW in the Northwest), with much more to come.

BPA shows how wind, water and sun can produce an enormous amount of energy, so much so that despite substantial past construction efforts, the current limitation is insufficient transmission line capacity.

The 2011 spring runoff began earlier than normal, and in January, with warming following this year's astonishing round of rain and snow storms, the Bonneville Power Authority begin releasing water through their hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River, continuously producing approximately 14,000 megawatts of carbon-free power.

With high hydroelectric production and their transmission line export capacity limited, BPA is forced to curtail wind power operations, sometimes to nearly zero. (See

Thus, wind's ability to create emission-free electricity must sit idle for lack of available transmission capacity, though the BPA is currently working diligently to build additional transmission lines. In my view, it can't happen soon enough, but this sentiment is not universal.

"I used to say to our audiences: 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon him not understanding it!'" So wrote Upton Sinclair in his book "I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked," recounting his California gubernatorial stump speeches. Thus, though time is very short, we are reminded that substantial new investment in carbon-free renewable energy systems is naturally disfavored by those who have previously invested in coal and oil, as they demand a stream of payments for their sunk costs.

Among the people who appears to least wish to acknowledge or understand the need for investment in new renewable energy systems to reduce "climate change" are the Koch Brothers, billionaires who inherited enormous wealth and hold substantial oil and coal related interests. They generously sugar-daddy a vast web of various and sundry conservative think tanks and political figures, all of which adopt remarkably similar positions seeking to generate delay and doubt -- to confound the public's understanding of the dangers of climate change resulting from combusting coal and oil.

It seems a think tank is just the obligatory window dressing for whacky ideas in order to make them appear acceptable, conventional, justified and even rational. Those who regularly and authoritatively pronounce that a system of carbon-free renewable electrical energy harnessing water, wind and sun absolutely cannot substantially replace one based on fossil fuels overlook the obvious: it's already happening, and at an accelerating pace.

The popularized article of faith about hydrocarbon-based energy seems to primarily be a delay tactic, though it contains an important bit of cautionary wisdom. While we can almost certainly substantially replace fossil fuels, we need a robust infrastructure, and cannot just build a silly or unwieldy tinker-toy replacement for the current system and hope it will function as we have come to expect. For those who argue that transmission lines are unnecessary, we have the BPA as a dramatic example of what can be a positive future, if we embrace it.

Imagine: a people living comfortably, not plagued by devastating climate change and air pollution; fishes free of coal-based mercury; acid rain: a thing of the past; Black Lung disease -- no more.

Envision: skies so clear and blue you can see horizons as did the tribes who lived near San Diego Bay in 1542.

Mae West once observed: "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."

Daniel Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego.
Too Much of a Good Thing is Wonderful
The Daily Transcript, June 30, 2011

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