Why Didn’t the Heat Wave Cause Power Failures?

Last week a record-setting heat wave afflicted much of the United States — yet there were no brownouts.

Electricity shortages during heat waves long have been common. We tend to miss what doesn’t happen, and what didn’t happen last week was electric power scarcity.

Two factors are at play, one positive and one vexing.

The positive factor is gradual decline in electricity demand. From 1996 to 2007, U.S. power consumption rose 23 percent. Since then, consumption has declined 16 percent. Taking population growth into account, per capita demand decline since 2007 is even greater. Details are in this fun report — every day must be a party at the Energy Information Administration.

The recession is not the root cause — electricity consumption began to moderate before the economy cooled. Homeowners, and businesses, finally are getting religious about high-efficiency lights, programmable thermostats and other power-saving technology. If the United States could achieve, in petroleum use, the same demand-curve moderation observed with electricity, America’s dependence on Persian Gulf dictatorships would decline, along with U.S. greenhouse gas output.

Now the vexing factor. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he declared a looming electricity crisis that would require a national crash program to build generating stations and power lines. This political wolf-cry was forgotten when 9/11 happened. Forgotten, that is, by pundits and national candidates for office. But not by the permanent bureaucracy: last week the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission published rules, years in the making, intended to trigger a major initiative to build power lines.

There are places in the country where lines, and other grid improvements, are needed. But the regulatory bureaucracy is behaving as though power transmission were the crisis Bush once proclaimed it to be — even as moderating demand reduces stress on the system. The potential is for a white elephant: lots of capital sunk into long-distance power lines even as electricity demand continues to moderate, or as localized “distributed generation” catches on.

Here’s the kicker — environmentalists, who for decades opposed power lines because they made possible large, centralized coal-fired generating stations, now are supporters of new lines.

Other things being equal, you’d expect the Obama administration would overturn the Bush administration’s initiative to invest large sums in centralized electricity infrastructure. But now that the environmental lobby perceives an interest in such infrastructure, this has caused Obama’s regulatory agencies to favor the Bush-begun push. The FERC decision makes it easier to build power lines across state borders or through the jurisdictions of grid-management firms such as PJM.

Why has the political left switched sides on power lines? Big solar power installations will be in deserts or other areas far from cities, requiring new electricity lines. Most wind farms will be in rural areas. Colorado, for example, just approved a 150-mile, $180 million line to bring wind and solar electricity generated in the alpine area of the state to Denver.

Set aside whether the economics of remote solar and wind power make sense. The 2010 book “Power Hungry” by Robert Bryce contends that remote solar and wind farms will require so much capital that greater greenhouse-gas reductions could be attained, at lower cost, via energy conservation technology at homes and businesses.

But solar and wind are politically correct. Politicians want to be photographed at groundbreaking ceremonies for high-tech green power. And there’s no way big solar and wind energy facilities will fly without a commitment to invest billions in new power lines and their attendant rights-of-way. Utility customers will face higher rates, and investors lower dividends, as new lines are built to solar and wind facilities.

Considering enviros once campaigned for small-is-beautiful solutions such as roof solar panels for schools, that environmental lobbyists now back huge investments in power lines seems one of history’s little ironies. What if it turns out the small-is-beautiful view was right all along?

Distributed generation — lots of local, low-output power plants rather than a few high-output central facilities — may be the next new thing in electricity. Distributed generation would eliminate transmission losses, which can claim as much as a third of watts in a large grid. Local generation would make the power system less susceptible to regional failures, such as the Northeast blackout of 2003. And distributed generation may not just mean local green power: it could mean lots of small natural-gas or hydrogen-fired generators. It could mean small, local-use atomic reactors running on nuclear waste.

Right now central power generation using coal is more cost-effective than distributed generation, even considering transmission losses. But the engineering action is in new ideas for local power, which not far into the future may become a more cost-effective way to generate watts, while cutting out the middleman of transmission. In 19th century Europe, district steam plants made heat for apartment buildings and offices, because the on-site furnace was neither safe nor efficient. That changed. The same change may be in store for how we obtain electricity.

In a decade or two, by the time billions of dollars have been spent and the lines built, power generation may have gone local. Then long-distance power lines may become the next Iridium, a very complex and costly infrastructure for a problem that turns out to have a local solution.

[Cross-posted at Reuters.com]

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and the Atlantic. He's also a columnist for ESPN.com.