WEINSTEIN: Temperatures up, lights out across America

Obama’s energy policies are stressing the electricity grid

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This summer’s record-breaking temperatures are straining the electric power grid as never before. The Obama administration’s obsession with alternative sources of energy and persecution of the ones that work are threatening to break the system.

Electricity is generated and transmitted over three networks: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection and the Texas Interconnection. Last summer’s record heat wave in Texas - and the consequent demand on the state’s power grid - may be a precursor of things to come. For example, at 5 p.m. Aug. 3, power demand approached 70,000 megawatts, or 96 percent of the state’s generating capacity. Had a major plant gone off-line that afternoon, many businesses and households would have experienced brownouts or blackouts. Luckily, as a result of voluntary curtailments by large electricity consumers, that did not happen. Though the summer of 2012 is only a few weeks old, the Texas Interconnection already has requested curtailments by large power consumers across the state on six different days.

Here’s the problem: Population growth, along with the revival of America’s energy-intensive manufacturing industries and record-high temperatures, has boosted the demand for electricity while power producers have been slow to invest in new generating capacity. According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States will need an additional 2 billion kilowatts of power by 2035, an increase of more than 50 percent. The cost to construct this capacity is estimated at $500 billion.

The Obama administration’s war against fossil fuels and infatuation with renewable energy have exacerbated the shortage of generating capacity. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled new standards in December that sharply limit emissions of mercury and other pollutants from the nation’s coal- and oil-burning power plants. If the Utility Maximum Achievable Control Technology Rule is implemented as proposed, more than 60 coal-fired power plants, currently generating enough electricity to supply 22 million households, likely will be shut down because retrofitting would not be economical. Forthcoming rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants will likely shutter additional units.

As for natural gas, though the administration pays lip service to the potential of this abundant domestic fuel, it continues to prohibit drilling on most federal lands as well as the Outer Continental Shelf. It also wants the EPA and Interior Department to get into the business of regulating hydraulic fracturing. On the nuclear front, the president’s support for suspending construction of the Yucca Mountain spent-fuel repository effectively killed the nascent nuclear revival even before the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident last year in Japan.

Virtually every new power plant constructed in recent years has been fueled with natural gas. Gas plants are relatively inexpensive to build, and gas prices are projected to remain low for at least the next decade. In addition, we must keep nuclear power on the table. Currently, nuclear plants produce about 20 percent of America’s electricity. Public sentiment toward nuclear energy is improving, and even some environmental groups have changed their tune because of nuclear’s zero carbon footprint. Another advantage of nuclear power is that production costs don’t fluctuate as they do with fossil fuel plants.

Still, the true believers in President Obama’s camp continue to argue that new investments in renewable energy can fulfill America’s long-term power needs. Although wind, solar and biofuels have received about $50 billion in direct federal subsidies in the past 3 1/2 years, today they account for less than 4 percent of America’s installed power generating capacity. Texas’ experience last summer may be instructive. The state has almost 10,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity, triple that of California. But mid-afternoon on Aug. 3, the hottest day of last summer’s heat wave, wind’s contribution to the power grid was close to zero. Renewables like wind and solar are intermittent and don’t obviate the need for base load power.

America’s economy relies more than ever on reliable and affordable supplies of electricity. Without question, natural gas and nuclear power plants are the sensible choices for supplying the lion’s share of the nation’s future power needs. Public policies should be encouraging, rather than inhibiting, their expansion.

Bernard L. Weinstein is associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University and a fellow with the George W. Bush Institute.

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