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Guest Editorial
by Eric Blank, Land and Water Fund of the Rockies (now Western Resource Advocates)

Energy in the West

In June of 1891, a switch was flipped at the Ames hydropower plant in a deep mountain gorge outside of Telluride, Colorado, and electricity began flowing to the Gold King mine three miles away. By shaving $24,000 off the mine's annual energy bill, hydropower saved the owners from bankruptcy. Thus was born the electric industry in the western United States.

Transmission lines and sunset.From these humble beginnings, the electric industry in the Rocky Mountain and Desert Southwest region has become an economic giant generating close to $15 billion in annual revenues and employing over 30,000 people. While the industry accounts for roughly four percent of the overall economic activity in the intermountain west, its influence on our lives is even larger. Today, energy surges forth from the Hoover Dam, the Laramie River coal station, the Palo Verde nuclear units, and other large power plants in the region. Indeed, virtually all of the electric generation in the West comes from three primary sources—the burning of fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydroelectric. Without this power to pump water, run factories, cool and heat offices, light homes and run computers, the West would be dramatically different and much poorer. Affordable, reliable electricity is central to the region's economic health and quality of life.

Despite the tremendous benefits provided by the industry, we should not be blind to the many pressing environmental problems caused by the generation, transmission, and consumption of electricity. In fact, the industry's environmental footprint—its impact on local, western, and even global landscapes—is enormous. Environmental problems include, among others, regional haze and visibility impairment in national parks and wilderness areas, the negative impact of utility emissions on urban air quality, the risk of global climate change resulting from power plant carbon dioxide emissions, the damming of free flowing rivers, adverse land and water impacts from coal and natural gas exploration, siting problems over new power generation and delivery facilities, and concerns over nuclear waste disposal.

Over the past decade, alternatives to traditional fossil fuel, nuclear, and hydroelectric generating plants, that are far less damaging environmentally, have emerged. Enhanced energy efficiency—using better lighting, motor drive, and temperature control technologies to reduce electric demands—can often meet growing energy needs at a fraction of the economic and environmental cost of building a new power plant. Likewise, the costs of wind energy and solar power are declining rapidly and, in many instances, these technologies are already cost-effective. At the same time, new distributed generation technologies are reducing the costs of clean, on-site electric production in combined heat and power formats. Taken as a package, these clean energy approaches can both lower long-term costs and produce a cleaner energy future for the West.

The stakes associated with energy investment decisions are high. These decisions fundamentally shape our landscape, in terms of what we see out our windows and the type of economic opportunities available. The development of new coal plants, for example, will almost inevitably produce strip mines, railroads (to deliver the coal), power generating facilities, new transmission and distribution lines, and increased pollutant emissions. New gas plants result in increased gas drilling and exploration, new pipelines and power plants and the associated delivery infrastructure. In contrast, investments in energy efficiency lead to the manufacturing of products that use energy more wisely, better-designed buildings and energy management systems, and a trained array of architects, builders, operators, and installers focused on improving efficiency.

While these clean energy technologies have substantial potential, much work remains to be done to take advantage of them. Indeed, the West is at a critical crossroads. California is now struggling to manage soaring energy prices, rolling blackouts due to inadequate supply, and the potential bankruptcy of its two largest energy utilities. In this crisis atmosphere, talk of drilling for natural gas in pristine wilderness areas and waiving environmental regulations designed to protect air quality is becoming commonplace. As the California concerns spread throughout the West, especially given the interconnected nature of the electric grid, the region is confronted with a fundamental choice between conventional and emerging energy technologies. The decision hinges on how core concerns—involving economic well-being and environmental quality—are valued. Conventional technologies produce cheaper energy in the short term, but are subject to fuel price volatility and have adverse environmental impacts. Cleaner technologies are generally more expensive right now, but have long-term economic and environmental benefits.

Coal-fired power plant.Can the West develop a more sustainable energy future given the spread of the California crisis and in the face of close to a decade of rapid economic and population growth? The answer is clearly yes. Although we cannot afford the cleanest possible energy supply immediately—we can afford to pursue a long-term blueprint relying more heavily on clean technologies, one that sensibly balances economic and environmental concerns. Meeting this challenge will not be easy in the crisis atmosphere that now grips much of the West. It will take an unprecedented level of vision, courage, coordination, and cooperation on behalf of utility executives, independent power producers, public utility regulators, state and federal legislators, governors, tribes, business leaders, environmentalists, individual consumers, and many others.

The potential consequences are high. If the region does not move now in the direction of clean energy, industry is likely to do what it knows best—construct another round of conventional fossil fuel power plants—and a unique opportunity will be lost. To the many stakeholders who care about this region, I offer this challenge: our actions today will determine what is possible tomorrow. A cleaner energy future beckons—now is the time to deliver.


Eric Blank is the former director of the Energy Project of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies (now Western Resource Advocates), a regional non-profit clean energy advocacy group that has helped shape energy policy in the Intermountain West for the past ten years. More recently, Eric co-founded Community Energy, Inc., a new business that develops and markets clean energy technologies, like energy efficiency and wind power, to end-use electric customers in competitive electric markets. Eric has been involved with energy policy since 1982, and has published and presented widely on energy issues. He has a J.D. from Yale Law School and an M.Sc. in Economics from the London School of Economics.
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