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June 11, 2008

Energy Tipping Point – Part 1

Here in Vermont we're at a tipping point: conventional electric heat now costs about the same to use as oil heat at current rates (details here). Although oil prices may recede from the current bubble and electricity rates are likely to rise (speculation here), price drives behavior. Partial conversion to electric heat through judicious use of space heaters is cheap so it's reasonable to assume that electricity usage for heat is about to go up and oil usage go down, probably starting this fall.

The change may be quite rapid as we go through the tipping point. It's a safe prediction that a rapid change will have unforeseen circumstances. There's no excuse, however, for not preparing for the foreseeable. Below are some of my predictions and some suggested actions; please add your own in comments.

Distribution

Although most of us are on the electric grid, the grid does not have adequate capacity everywhere and anytime to deliver all the kilowatts we'll consume if we switch massively to electric heat from oil. The distribution problem starts at home. We have rooms in our house we can't use a space heater in without tripping circuit breakers. The solution is NOT bigger circuit breakers; it's bigger wire and then bigger circuit breakers. More use of electric heat is going to mean more electrical fires (but less carbon monoxide problems).

The lines that come from the grid into our towns won't always have enough peak capacity for very cold days. Many of those lines will have to be upgraded. As always happens, neighbors of the lines will object. Old fears about diseases caused by high voltage lines will be resurrected. Although obviously construction projects need to be responsible and environmental impact needs to be considered, we cannot afford to wait years to get through all of the objections to each proposed project. Financing shouldn't be a major problem given the increased usage which is easy to anticipate – UNLESS each project risks lengthy delays in the regulatory process and the courts. We need to make some basic tradeoffs now. Whether it's the fate of those who can't afford oil for heat, the sources of oil, energy independence, or reduction of carbon footprint which is important to you, substituting electricity (most of which doesn't come from fossil fuel here in Vermont) for oil is worth a loss in each citizen's ability to block each project indefinitely.

BTW, we need to upgrade the national grid as much as the local grid. We get better diversity of supply by being able to move electricity freely between regions. We need less power plants overall if we can share better across the whole grid. We can better match sunny days in Virginia to cold days in Vermont and windy days in Nebraska to baking heat in California if we upgrade the national grid. We've got to do that. Not sure how much role government needs to have in that other than all-important permitting and perhaps use of eminent domain for land acquisition.

Generation

If we're going to use more electricity, we're going to have to produce more of it. The harder it is to get additional supply, the more the price of electricity will rise – perhaps keeping pace with oil. At peak time the electricity needed in New England is usually generated from fossil fuels (but not usually oil or coal). In other parts of the country coal is the major source of electricity.

Here in Vermont we face the issue of relicensing our nuclear plant – Vermont Yankee. There is significant opposition. In my opinion we'll be shooting ourselves in both our environmental left feet and our financial right feet if we don't keep Yankee open. But that issue would be much more clear cut if there were someplace to store nuclear waste other than a pool next to the plant. On a national level, we need to go ahead and get Yucca Mountain Repository operating regardless of Nevada's electoral votes.

In the meantime, it might be good policy to give those states which host nuclear plants preferred access to their output. Perhaps that would help break the log jam on both relicensing and construction of new plants.

Nuclear isn't the whole answer to electrical supply, particularly as we increase the use of electricity for transportation and manufacturing as well as for heating. Both large scale and small scale wind and solar projects can and should provide much of our supply. Again expedited permitting is important. An improved grid and diversity of supply mean that local and regional mismatches between supply and demand when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine will not be nearly as important as they are today.

We are currently shipping coal overseas because it's politically difficult to build new coal-fired electrical plants here. Needless to say, coal has an even larger carbon footprint when it's shipped a long distance than when it's used close to the mine; we just don't watch it being burned. We can't keep dithering over cap-and-trade or carbon tax or wait for CO2 sequestration (which we DO need to work on). We have to find ways to burn our own coal. This subject is worth a post of its own which I'll provide later.

Also upcoming in this series: demand-side smarts, more on hyper-local supply, the problems of the last oil users, rates.

 

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