TCS Daily

Electricity Realities

By Duane D. Freese - September 3, 2003 12:00 AM

When Bill Baxter, one of three presidentially appointed directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority, visited the Asheville, N.C., Citizen Times offices just before the massive Northeast blackout, the paper's executive editor confronted him with something Robert Redford had told the editor on a visit the year before.

"The TVA is killing you," Redford reportedly said. The reason: Sixty percent of the electrical power the TVA produces comes from coal-fired plants. And Redford, as many environmentalists, blames such plants for smog, which can affect people's breathing.

Just after the blackout, Baxter and the TVA got another message. This one came from a Rob Ikard, Tennessee director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, in a commentary in the Nashville City Paper.

"TVA electrocuting small businesses," the commentary's headline screamed. The reason: The TVA board had proposed a 7.4 percent rate increase for residential and small businesses -- the first since 1997 -- in great part to help pay for better emissions control.

One lesson you might draw from this is that the TVA simply can't win, no matter what it does. So, it might as well simply do its best balancing and integrating what TVA Chairman Glenn McCullough described in July as the authority's unique responsibilities for "electricity, stewardship of the environment and high quality jobs." It did that Wednesday when it approved the rate increase.

But another lesson is that too many people have too many unrealistic expectations regarding energy and power, which is a more serious and longer term threat to the nation's national economic and environmental well being than the mid-August energy blackout in the Northeast.

Additional evidence of that cupidity regarding energy was demonstrated this week when the Environmental Protection Agency issued revised provisions for new source review under the Clean Air Act.

The provisions require the use of best available pollution control technology at power plants. But until the Clinton administration, they only applied to new plants or substantial upgrades at old ones. Then under President Clinton's EPA Chief Carol Browner, the administration sought to force old plants to upgrade every time they engaged in just about any kind of maintenance. Utilities balked because they couldn't afford it. So a lot of maintenance ended up being deferred, dirtying the air in the process.

The Bush administration's refinements to the rules say directly that plants can't exceed their emissions limits. Major upgrades will still be covered under new source review, as well as a welter of other clean air rules that will reduce emissions. But now power plants will be able to perform needed maintenance -- maintenance that will make them more efficient, so they use less fuel and thus they will pollute less.

But to hear the plethora of presidential hopefuls and their gubernatorial hopeful brethren among state attorneys general, the skies are about to darken and the world go black with soot.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts intoned that the provisions amount to a "get out of jail free card" for industrial polluters. Sen. Joe Lieberman, another Democratic presidential candidate called it a "green light to dirty our air with impunity." Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, meanwhile, saw it as the administration "giving the green light to major industrial plant operators to spew millions of tons more in air pollution without being held accountable."

Of course, all of this will have a devastating affect on asthma and other respiratory illnesses, Kerry predicted.

As a Wall Street Journal editorial intoned about this nonsensical political posturing by the political left, "Puh-leeze."

But sadly, it isn't just Democrats with higher political aspirations who are posturing over pollution and energy matters. As can be seen in the contradictory demands and debates involving TVA, left, right and center all have an ability to ignore reality.

The left doesn't like it that the TVA uses so much coal and not enough "green power" -- solar and wind. It isn't enough that the agency will spend $5.6 billion over 10 years to clean up the coal plants. Or that it is building a $25 million wind system to serve 4,500 homes. Or that it is working with the military to develop flow cell batteries -- a vital tool to provide both stability to the power grid and to making solar and wind power more economic. No. It needs to put in "green power" now, before the technology is available, tested, ready and affordable.

The political right, meanwhile, doesn't like the fact that the 70-year-old agency is federally owned. They would like to see it privatized. But they don't have a grip either on political or financial reality. TVA is enmeshed in too many regional activities -- flood control, economic development, and electricity transmission research -- to be blithely sold to the highest bidder. And who would take on the TVA's $25 billion in debt incurred back in the 1970s and 1980s, before nuclear energy paranoia halted in its tracks the TVA's building of several nuclear power plants? Taxpayers?

Finally, some in the middle attack the TVA for not being well run. They want management reforms that would expand its three-member board of directors to include "more experts," make it part time and hire a CEO. The Office of Management and Budget, for its part, wants the agency to aggressively cut its debt.

But if something isn't broke, why fix it? Further, the agency has demonstrated an admirable competence in delivering electricity, with 99.99 percent efficiency -- beating the national performance level of 99.9 percent. And all of this with residential and small business rates that are less than the national average. Indeed, aside from the debt, the OMB has given TVA high marks. And even on that score, as U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., told the Chattanooga, Tenn., Times Free Press in April, "TVA is lowering its debt while meeting its environmental responsibilities. ... TVA can't cut the debt in half the way some in the OMB want without severely hampering our competitiveness as a region, which was the very justification for TVA to begin with."

In many ways, the criticisms leveled at the TVA represent in microcosm a bigger problem facing the nation. Everyone has a perfect or ideal solution to the nation's electricity needs, but few of them make practical sense.

People need practical answers soon, as Baxter, a Bush appointee, knows from his background as a businessman. He noted in a newspaper column that U.S. power demand "increased 30 percent in the last decade while transmission capacity has increased only 15 percent." The Northeast felt the impact of that imbalance last month. The country as a whole will, too, if it doesn't get its energy act together soon.

To do that, the nation has to get real about what can be done to improve the nation's electricity system in ways that are affordable.

The TVA again points the way. It's collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to build the National Transmission Technology Research Center is creating practical technology -- new materials and switches -- that will lower the cost of upgrading the nation's overloaded transmission facilities.

Better technology -- not ideal technology -- will keep the lights on, machines in factories and hospitals humming, and people working. It will do more to reduce pollution than all the invective spouted by actors, ideologues and politicians.

People need reliable electricity, not impractical demands on those who produce and deliver it. Too many such demands are why the grid is unstable. And when it goes down, as New York and other communities discovered this summer, people suffer.


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