Is ‘Decarbonization’ a Fool’s Errand?

Energy pragmatism should trump wishful thinking
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

This article appears in print in the December 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

The great fossil fuel hysteria of 2019 is remarkable as much for the rapidity with which the fervor has swept the landscape as for the long-term consequences it promises to wreak. Popular madnesses with a financial twist are nothing new, dating back to the era of tulip-bulb mania. This region, in its short history, has seen a few of them — the Klondike gold rush, the dot-com stock boom.

Those, like most, burned themselves out in short order, with rewards for a few and disappointment and loss for most. But the rush to “decarbonize” the American economy, energy system and society is a different phenomenon.

It’s driven not by the masses looking to capitalize on the mirage of a great opportunity. Rather, it’s more the product of eco-celebrities and elites swanning around the globe hectoring the masses about the doom that awaits them from unremedied climate change. And it offers no promises of great wealth (outside of a few hucksters promoting the Green New Deal). If anything, the bill is going to be huge, and everyone will get to share.

The decarbonization movement does share qualities with other popular delusions, in that the fevered pursuit leaves little time for asking, much less answering, some pertinent questions — never mind the cosmic questions about climate change’s direction, intensity or cause, and whether proposed remedies would have any actual impact on the climate.

There are more ground-level, real-world questions to be researched and resolved before charging off into a carbon-free future. Such as: Are home water and space heating, from an energy efficiency and density standpoint, the best applications for electricity? Is the grid ready for massive injections of unstable, undispatchable, unschedulable renewable power supplies on one end and massive, variable demands for it on the other end?

And most crucially, especially here in the Northwest, is there enough generating capacity to handle the increased demand for electricity for home space and water heating, and transportation, as well as population and business growth? With retirements of coal-fired generating capacity in the Northwest, such as TransAlta’s Centralia plant, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council is sounding warnings about supply adequacy in the next decade. (The increased calls to take more hydropower out of the system won’t help.)

In recent years, the easy answer would have been to add some gas-fired generating capacity, which offers the multiple attributes of being comparatively quick, simple and inexpensive to deploy, and which could provide a reliable base to firm up the use of solar and wind.

But natural gas, as recently as a few months ago regarded as a hero fuel for helping drive away Demon Coal and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, is now on the list of substances not to be produced or used. Seattle City Council’s consideration of a ban on natural gas in new residential construction for heating is part of the broad stampede.

The experts have guessed wrong about energy before: Peak oil was not just inevitable, it was already here; nuclear power would produce electricity in an abundance too cheap to meter. The belief that a decarbonized energy system will be cleaner, cheaper, more reliable and supply-adequate seems destined for the same fate. For Washington, that means more expensive power, negating one of its competitive economic advantages. Consumers will feel the bite too, given electricity accounts for a larger share of home heating (another legacy of cheap hydropower) here than the rest of the country.

The state also is likely to wind up as part of a bifurcated national energy system, as divided as the nation’s politics are now. Those parts of the country with natural gas production and greater use are unlikely to be interested in wrecking their economies just to indulge a few coastal politicians’ latest fetish.

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. Reach him at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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