Change is Hard, Necessary: Rethinking Our Electricity System Post-Sandy

Seth Kaplan

Change is hard.

And the larger, more important and more entrenched the thing being changed, the harder it is.

There are few things that are larger and more important than our electricity system. Just ask a parent of a child who was in the intensive care unit of a New York City hospital when Hurricane Sandy wiped away the electric grid and the emergency generators failed. In some moments, like that, electricity is quite literally a life-saver.

In 1882, the world’s first practical coal fired electric power plant came online in New York. For the last fifty years coal has been the dominant fuel and backbone of our electric generation system, spawning a  massive industrial process of extracting coal from the earth, transporting it to power plants, burning it to make heat, transforming it into electricity, and finally disposing of the plants’ waste products into the air, land and water.

Given coal’s longstanding role in maintaining a stable electricity system in this country, it is not shocking that some reasonable folks find it hard to contemplate life without it – despite the evidence of the harm it causes both to human health and the environment.

But ending our dependence on the most harmful fuels to generate electricity is part of the change we need to make if we are going to avert full-on climate disaster. The hard truth is that past emissions of greenhouse gas pollution from coal plants and other dirty fuel sources have already transformed our world, warming our oceans and increasing the water vapor in our atmosphere. As a result, the weather dice are now loaded in favor of catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy, among many other effects.

Propping up and retaining our obsolete and inefficient old coal plants so they can continue to spew global warming greenhouse gases into the air is not an option – and thankfully, the economic tide in this country is starting to turn against them. But after decades of depending on coal for electricity, many wonder how we are going to keep the lights on without it. The answer, to borrow a phrase, is: “Use less electricity, mostly renewable.”

The first step is very clear: we must be much smarter and careful about how we use electricity. This means going all out in our deployment of  energy efficiency that slashes energy use at all times, and also reducing electricity demand at the moments of greatest need when the system is pressed hardest. We are evolving towards a world where highly flexible demand will simply be a routine part of our energy system – our dishwashers, cell phone chargers and air conditioners will ramp up or down their energy use based on price signals and energy system conditions.

Second, we need to redouble our commitment to develop zero emissions renewable electricity generation like wind and solar. Every watt of energy we get from those sources displaces the need for energy that comes from the burning of fossil fuels. Eventually, we will be able to store enough of that clean power to meet demand even when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. But, until that technology matures, we will still require some “firming” power to fill in the gaps.

Here in the Northeast, that power is likely to come from sources like hydroelectric dams, or natural gas fired power plants, which are cleaner and cheaper than coal, but  come with their own environmental price tags. The specter of over-dependence on natural gas is the cause of much consternation in environmental and energy expert circles. And for good reason: locking ourselves into dependence on a finite imported fossil fuel would be a mistake. Instead, we need to carefully manage our transition to a new and cleaner power system, ensuring that we maintain a sufficiently diverse portfolio of resources and keep the lights on as we move surely and steadily away from fossil fuels.

The transition from dependence on coal to natural gas in our electricity system is crudely analogous to a heroin addict moving to methadone. It is a step in the right direction and movement away from a dangerous addiction, but it is still only a partial step toward toward the full recovery we need: elimination of greenhouse gas pollution from our electric system.

Fundamental change is indeed hard, but the roaring winds of Katrina, Irene and Sandy loudly remind us that we have an absolute obligation to step up and manage the transition to a better, safer and cleaner energy future.

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