The Future’s Electric: Beware Bad Energy Policy.

Whenever I needed to buy an obscure book as a student at the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Newcastle Royal Grammar School in the industrial northeast of England, I would go to a long-established bookstore called Mawson, Swan & Morgan. Outside this venerable establishment there stood incongruously several antique-looking street lamps. Eventually, my father, an electrical engineer himself, explained the anomaly to me. Joseph Swan, born in my hometown of Sunderland in 1828, had invented electric light shortly before Edison. So strong was his patent position that in 1882 the Edison and Swan United Company was formed. When General Electric was founded a decade later, they opted to use Swan's cellulose filament rather than Edison's bamboo filament. The lampposts outside that bookshop were the starting point of the great electrical revolution that has been so beneficial to our society. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

As the great blackouts of last week proved, we live in an electric society. We live, for the most part, under electric light; many of us work on devices that convert electrical signals into readable text. A large number, especially in New York City, get to and from work in vehicles powered by electricity. On the hot days of summer, we rely on electrical air conditioning to make our workplaces viable. We prevent food-borne disease by refrigerating our food electrically. As New York's experience showed, without electric power we virtually cease any and all economic activity. Our wealth and our well-being depend to a large extent on our continued access to affordable and abundant energy.

And we have nowhere near reached America's capacity to exploit that energy, even if we are reaching the limits of the grid's capacity to deliver it. As anyone with any sense knows, wealth breeds wealth, and the better placed we are to exploit our wealth, the more we will create. This means we will require more and more energy.

That means energy from whatever source. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change recognizes this. In a recent report, U.S. Energy Scenarios for the 21st Century, they asked what would happen if the environmentalists' wildest dreams came true. In their scenario, “Technology triumphs,” all their wishes for state intervention and alternative technologies come to pass. State governments set “rigorous” efficiency standards for appliances, enact caps on CO2 emissions from power plants, and introduce more renewable portfolio standards. They also subsidize fuel-cell research and effectively raise federal fuel-economy standards by requiring new cars, minivans, and light trucks to reduce emissions of CO2 per mile traveled. These actions, combined with breakthroughs in solar photovoltaic manufacturing and a shift in consumer preference from “sprawling” to compact residential development, slow the growth of vehicle miles traveled, expand markets for hybrid cars, accelerate power-sector fuel switching from coal to natural gas, and lay the building blocks of a hydrogen economy. Nevertheless, U.S. carbon emissions will rise 15 percent by 2035, 35 percent above the Kyoto treaty target, because the U.S. will be demanding 60 percent more electricity than today (in another scenario, the U.S. will be demanding twice as much electricity as today).

This is all, of course, anathema to some people. Even with everything they want come to pass, it's not good enough. Because CO2 is deemed responsible for every weather-related problem the world faces by the unproven global-warming theory, they see only one option: We must reduce our demand for electricity so that we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted.

Yet it's not industry that's responsible for this—carbon-dioxide emissions by industry have actually fallen below 1990 levels in the last year (at a cost of many thousands of jobs, of course). The explosion in energy demand has been in the commercial and residential sectors. More of us can afford air conditioning. More of us can afford computers. More of us can afford any number of electrically powered gadgets, from boom boxes to Kitchen Aids. Many of these, of course, are labor-saving devices that have enabled societal changes such as women in the workforce and telecommuting. That in turn has led to more wealth.

Yet at the same time as we've seen this electric-powered explosion in the general utility we've also seen an anti-energy movement grow up. The same people who have been freed from a life of backbreaking drudgery by electricity have grown strangely ambivalent to its generation and supply. They have generally supported laws and regulations that have made its production and distribution difficult. For example, the New Source Review, which makes it more onerous for power companies to build new power plants, was extended by the EPA to cover simple upgrading and maintenance activities like replacing corroded turbine blades (the new blades are more efficient, you see, therefore generating more power which the EPA chose to designate as a new source). Power companies therefore have a disincentive to upgrade their capacity. In the area of distribution, we have seen the blocking of plans to build a high-voltage cable between Connecticut and Long Island on environmental grounds. And the survival of Depression-era laws designed to rein in robber barons has meant that regional power companies have not been able to build the interconnections between their grids that are essential in today's high-demand society. The blackouts were the inevitable result, as Dick Cheney warned in 1991, when his energy policy was derided for being too beneficial to “energy interests.”

Energy, of course, interests us all. With global-warming hysteria and a demand for energy caps added on top of an outdated infrastructure the electricity supply might only be able to survive by energy rationing. That means, in practice, rolling blackouts. That will in turn mean more people being unable to engage in economic activity and, in the end, a poorer society, potentially a much poorer society.

If we are to continue to grow and prosper over the next century, we need electricity. We need it cheap and we need it readily available. To get it, we will need to invest heavily in the infrastructure, but, at the same time, we will need to make it just a little bit easier for that to happen by rolling back some of the regulations bedeviling the process and opposing new restrictions, however well-intentioned they seem. Otherwise, we all might have to get used to walking home in darkness, to homes lit only by fire. Joseph Swan, for one, would not have wanted that to happen.