“Elmer Gantry,” a noir classic novel by Sinclair Lewis and a 1960 film, features a tortured central character with the word “love” tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and “hate” on the knuckles of the other hand. The vision of the hands together intertwined as symbols of the dilemma of the conflicted protagonist’s internal battles is evocative of the disconnect between our deep and undeniable thirst for energy and our disdain for the manner by which it is produced and delivered to us.
A History of Options:
Coal fired power plants are coming under heavy fire as the U.S. seeks to significantly reduce air emissions. Global climate change, health impacts and a series of other negative effects on the ecosystem are cited as bases for accelerated retirements of these generation stations. No doubt coal mining is a tough and dirty business; yet for two centuries it has provided the backbone of the development of electric power plants and the extraordinary benefits of electric energy. How to reconcile this history with the current political climate? How do we transition from coal as a major US fuel source, one that provides domestic supply and multiple benefits in employment, tax base, and economic activity?
Likewise, hydroelectric generation is enshrined in the transformation of much of the West in the songs of Woody Guthrie, as a magnificent contribution to our development as a nation. And, the desirability of hydroelectric generation is magnified when the only “issue on the table” is the greenhouse gas impacts of generation. Yet, the impacts of hydroelectric development have had deleterious effects on fish, landscapes, and water supply. And, as drought strangles much of the West, there is a struggle over whether to tear down the much admired, in fact almost “loved,” green dams of the New Deal Era. The question at issue here is which side is good and which is evil, and the answer is “it all depends.”
Another love-hate relationship lies with the nuclear generation fleet. From the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions, the nuclear generation fleet is a winner. Yet to some anti-nuclear interests, the nuclear stations (for the most part, forty years or older) are the devil incarnate, and subject to exorcism. Yet, these facilities provide nearly 20 per cent of the electric power of the country. So again, the desire for a clean electric supply and antipathy to the technology clash. In this case, dealing with the aftermath of closing a nuclear generation station includes the significant and seemingly intractable problem of nuclear waste storage and disposal, leading to more profoundly difficult questions and concerns.
Another emotional “generation war” is centered on the role of natural gas fired generation. Once again, there are epic clashes over gas. Gas is ever more obviously abundant and relatively desirable from an environmental standpoint. However, extreme passions have been aroused by gas production-related issues like hydraulic fracturing, new pipeline capacity and fears about safety, and harmful environmental effects from natural gas drilling, production, transportation and distribution. Despite the fact that natural gas fueled generation has filled approximately a quarter of the nation’s electric generation demand for many years, and is likely to be a major solution to the shift from coal, nuclear and some hydroelectric plants, the heated anti-fracking debate continues. Thus, the struggle continues between “good,” (by those who see gas as a solution to the need for reliable generation) and “evil” (by those who oppose the drilling, development and delivery impacts of any form of hydrocarbon-related fuel). Indeed, the politics, sophistication and interest of high profile opponents has elevated the bitter war of words and politics to a new level.
Finally, the role of renewables as a source of generation to replace nuclear, coal and other forms of generation would, superficially, seem to be uncontroversial. Yet once the specifics of a project become known, opposition to the project grows. Like politics, all projects are local. Wind power towers, with associated land use, avian impacts, noise, reliability and transmission-related needs become the object of ire for interests that may not benefit from the projects. Likewise, solar projects with land use, impact on wildlife water use and other hot-button issues may precipitate other battles. The beauty of the project is in the eye of the beholder and beneficiary.
The Paradox Ahead
Overarching all these projects are difficult issues associated with transmission capacity and cost, reliability, taxation, employment and overall local economic dependency. And uncertainty about the need for new generation makes things worse: why tolerate potentially disruptive technologies if efficiency increases and other factors means that new generation isn’t needed? In light of the volatile, complicated, politically charged environment, the struggle for answers and stability will continue. As long as our society remains conflicted, these issues will continue unabated to be “front page,” and lawyer and politician intensive. The search for rational solutions to meet the needs of the country for reliable, safe, environmentally acceptable electric generation must continue for the nation to survive and thrive, despite the pain, cost and compromise necessary. And like the soul of “Elmer Gantry,” we must ultimately cease to be at war with ourselves to survive.