Bold Ideas to Address Society’s Energy Issues Deserve Consideration, not Dismissal

By TIMMONS ROBERTS

The Providence Journal recently ran a lead editorial blasting an earlier op-ed by erstwhile gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown. The piece was dismissive and demeaning about the bold ideas proposed by Brown to solve what is one of the thorniest issues of our time, and the one with the gravest implications for our future: climate change.

Brown’s piece was far-sighted, turning what is a challenge into an opportunity for our state, addressing the need to transform our energy system away from damaging fossil fuels we import for more than $3 billion a year and replacing them with zero-carbon renewable energy we produce and control here.

What I find most exciting about Brown’s ideas are how they address the two deepest problems of our day — inequality and climate change — together. By having our state in the driver’s seat on developing its vast offshore wind resource, Rhode Island could reap significant income each year, indefinitely, by selling the power to our larger neighboring states. Current estimates are that Rhode Island could be producing two to three times our own needs, allowing the sale of significant power to our neighbors. Like Alaska’s annual checks, Rhode Islanders could be receiving an annual dividend check for that revenue.

Without citing any sources, the Providence Journal summarily dismisses Brown’s propositions. “There is no feasible technology to store power for use when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.”

This is blatantly false, and getting more so all the time, as batteries get less expensive very fast. Tesla is already putting solar roofs onto people’s homes and PowerWalls into their garages, making their homes and potentially neighborhoods much more self-sufficient and more resilient to power outages.

There is also "pumped hydro,” a simple, safe and old solution. The idea is to pump water uphill when there is excess renewable energy from the wind and sun, and run it back down through turbines when demand peaks while solar and wind power is lagging.

Developing grid-scale energy storage needs a lot of work, but it’s not something we should shy away from. Such “grid storage” could utilize our state’s existing mill ponds, as I noted in a blog for the Brookings Institution. Water energy storage had been done in the 1820s on the Woonasquatucket River, creating 84 days of capacity to run those mills for the entire dry season.

In a heavily renewable-focused grid, we only need a few hours or a few days of storage, not 12 weeks, as we had back then. Pumped hydro using Rhode Island's mill ponds is just one idea meriting investigation. More immediately, we know that there’s huge hydroelectric capacity up in Quebec and Labrador that can be switched on quickly, especially if one of the power-line projects gets finished, through Maine or Vermont — New Hampshire’s Northern Pass power-line proposal is apparently dead.

There are many other potential storage modes. However, the greatest benefits can come from making such storage and most generation unnecessary: from efficiency, conservation, “load shedding” and peak shaving. The latter idea is to reduce our demand at peak hours of the late afternoon in summer by automatically shutting off water heaters, by running appliances and charging vehicles and other batteries at night, and so on. With a decent effort on these, we can avoid building any new gas infrastructure and shut down existing ones in a systematic way, all while keeping the lights on and the houses warm.

These are commonsense ideas, and one has to wonder why the Providence Journal selectively ignores them and paints people proposing them as believers in “unicorns.”

The skeptics at the Providence Journal argue that “even if Rhode Island could afford to build hundreds of very expensive, massive industrial-scale, heavily oil-lubricated turbines off its beautiful coast to harness wind.” This is a truly shabby presentation of a false choice. The choice is not this, it’s whether we are going to burn coal, oil and gas and pollute those landscapes, while destroying our “beautiful coast” from sea-level rise that climate change is causing now.

The Providence Journal also argues that, “Fortunately, natural gas is not nearly as polluting as the oil and coal our region once relied on much more heavily. So it serves well as a bridge to get us to our cleaner energy future.”

This is line of thinking is becoming increasingly less untrue as we learn more about natural gas and hydraulic fracturing, such as the major leakage of natural gas during fracking and from pipelines and distribution. This leakage makes methane (natural gas) as bad or worse than coal. The problem is that methane in the short term is 80 to 100 times more potent at trapping heat inside the atmosphere than the top greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Natural gas is no longer a bridge fuel.

Finally, the Journal resorts to its usual below-the-belt punch. “Energy is a life-and-death matter, particularly in the depths of a brutally cold New England winter.”

Heat is life and death in winter in New England. This, however, raises an issue which is not addressed: Why should we use natural gas for creating electricity? The competition for natural-gas supply from electricity generation worsens the risks of winter shortages for heating. A blackout in winter would also disable thermostats and pilot lights for furnaces. That is frightening. All our energy eggs are in one basket, as we are already heavy dependent upon gas; diversity in energy supply is far safer. Why build more gas-fired electric power plants and worsen our dangerous over-reliance on one fuel?

The April 17 Journal editorial begins and ends with a slap at Brown for pandering. “Pandering is a common habit of politicians. But those in important leadership positions, such as governor, can do real harm if they ignore hard realities and pretend there is no need to make difficult decisions. … Real leaders weigh the public interest and must sometimes make unpopular decisions. Self-serving politicians merely pander.”

The idea that looking for positive solutions to the existential crisis that Rhode Island and the global human population faces in a destabilized climate system is pandering is a very sad perspective indeed. To slam someone for putting forward bold ideas that address that crisis in new ways is itself against the public interest.

Given how the paper has come out in strong support of every dirty infrastructure project over the past 50 years, we have to question its judgement. What would Rhode Island look like if all those projects were built where they were proposed? Such persistent ad hominem attacks and dismissing of visionary positions to speed the energy transition we know is inevitable and happening far too slowly leads us to logically question the intentions and interests of the Providence Journal’s editorial team. They are advancing a very private interest, not the public interest. Bold ideas to address fundamental social dilemmas deserve consideration, not dismissal.

Timmons Roberts is a professor at Brown University and directs the Climate and Development Lab. His ideas expressed here are his own, not those of his institution. He is also a volunteer Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a volunteer supporter of the carbon pricing solution legislation EnergizeRI.org.