Monday, March 31, 2008

Real Trade-offs

In systems with as many complex inter-connections as our national and global energy networks, every decision about new capacity entails difficult trade-offs. It was refreshing to see the New York Times remind opponents of the proposed Broadwater LNG facility of that fact in an editorial today--though I'm not sure that was precisely the Times' intent. We now possess an array of alternatives to expanding the supply of conventional energy. Renewable energy, efficiency technology, and old-fashioned conservation can substitute for many--though not yet all--of the attributes of their "dirtier" cousins. However, this development also shifts the onus of responsibility onto those who band together to block conventional energy projects. It's not enough merely to protect an unsustainable status quo; they must make good on their promised alternatives. If that's not what the Times had in mind when they said, "Broadwater’s critics are committing themselves to bearing the cost of the cleaner, greener way," it should have been.

Having lived within a couple of miles of the Long Island Sound shoreline at the time that the Broadwater LNG terminal was first proposed, I've followed this argument for some time. I still think that Broadwater is conceptually sound; putting LNG capacity near the end-market for natural gas makes more sense than the default option of placing it on the other end of a thousand miles of pipelines and their attendant bottlenecks. Yet I also remain skeptical that Broadwater will ever be built. I really can't imagine a less congenial location for such a facility, whatever its technical merits. Unfortunately, I remain equally unconvinced that the alternatives that are being used to justify turning down Broadwater's permit applications will ever see the light of day. Good intentions for efficiency investments have a tendency to devolve into endless faffing about with the details, and the only large-scale local alternative of which I'm aware, Long Island Power Authority's proposed Jones Beach wind farm, was derailed last year by similar opposition.

So what are the underlying trade-offs, if Broadwater's billion-cubic-foot per day LNG terminal is nixed, but its supply isn't promptly replaced by a combination of renewables, demand-side management, and conservation? Well, residential natural gas prices will stay exceptionally high, and fewer homeowners will convert from heating oil, even after a winter that set new price records for that fuel. That will translate into higher greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution, and more intense competition with Europe and Asia for global diesel fuel/heating oil supplies--and hence higher diesel prices in the future. At the same time, higher natural gas prices and potentially constrained supplies mean that businesses and consumers in the New York and Connecticut markets that Broadwater would serve will pay more for electricity, too, and more of that power will be generated from coal, either locally or from other states with a surplus. None of that bodes well for the economy of a region that is being hit harder than many by the combined effects of the housing market collapse and the inevitable contraction of Wall Street firms.

None of this is inevitable. However, avoiding that outcome will require environmental and other groups to agree on a set of real priorities, and then work to marginalize those members with a proclivity to block everything new. Perpetuating an alliance that, by allowing every subgroup to veto any alternative, is effectively against coal and LNG and nuclear and wind power is a recipe for economic stagnation that ultimately won't benefit the environment, either. So when the New York Times talks about " a serious commitment to energy conservation and serious investments in wind and solar power, and in retooling existing power plants for efficiency and cleanliness," that's not just an argument against LNG; it's an absolute obligation to ensure that the proposed alternatives actually materialize.

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