The Keystone XL Pipeline: Game over?

NASA scientist James Hansen famously warned that if the Keystone XL pipeline gets built, it’s “game over” for the climate. That dire warning lit a fire under the feet of activists, who rightly argue that Canada shouldn’t be producing the dirty, carbon-intensive tar sands oil, and the U.S. shouldn’t enable the climate destruction by building a pipeline to get the oil out of North America. But stopping Keystone won’t stop global warming, and building it won’t make environmentalists throw in the towel. If this is a game, we are pawns as well as players, so we can never walk away.

Frankly, it’s hard to understand right-wing enthusiasm in the U.S. for a pipeline benefiting a Canadian company extracting Canadian oil intended for the world market. In spite of all the talk about jobs, it will employ only a few thousand workers temporarily, and not in the areas of the country where unemployed construction workers live. Moreover, building it requires the government to seize private property from unwilling landowners to benefit a private interest—usually the sort of thing that makes Republicans go ballistic.

I might add that the environmental damage being done to thousands of square miles of Canadian arboreal forests and lakes is staggering—but Republicans have long since made it clear that they do not consider despoiling nature a drawback when there is energy to be had and profit to be made. (If you are a Republican and you bristle at this, see if you can name a recent oil, gas, or coal mining project your party has opposed for environmental reasons. I can only name one, and that doesn’t get beyond “sort of.” See the Tennessee Conservative Union’s ad opposing mountaintop removal coal mining, now that a Chinese company wants to do it.)

Some would argue that the climate case against Keystone is overstated. Tar sands oil is “only” 14-24% more carbon intensive than conventional oil, if you ignore a nasty byproduct called petroleum coke that adds to the total carbon footprint. Yet surely if the reverse were true, and the carbon footprint of tar sands oil were less than that of conventional oil, it would be hailed as some kind of a planet-saving fuel. Incremental changes are what got us into this mess in the first place.

If Keystone represents evil, though, it has plenty of company, and there is blame enough to go around. Canadians are developing tar sands oil because the worldwide demand for petroleum is high and growing, there is money to be made meeting the demand, and there is no one who will make them stop. The harm done exceeds the profit to be made, but most of the harm is borne by people in other countries.

That makes the case against the pipeline mostly a moral one, and moral arguments don’t get much respect these days. Yet when the State Department or the Washington Post urges that if we don’t build the pipeline, the Canadians will just find other ways to get the oil to market, the proper response should be outrage. Their position is the moral equivalent of justifying buying stolen goods on the theory that if you don’t do it, the thieves will just find a fence somewhere else.

Admittedly, lots of people would buy stolen goods if there weren’t a law against it; for such people, morality is most successful when immorality gets you arrested. And there isn’t a law against tar sands oil; Canada is the only country with jurisdiction, and it prefers to look away.

Americans also have a little problem that we do, indeed, buy a lot of stolen goods. As the world’s biggest oil consumers, we have a credibility problem. On the other hand, if we don’t set the standards, who will? And if we don’t start here, then where?

Keystone or no Keystone, the fight against climate change will go on, because our lives and our children’s lives depend on it. It’s not a game we can stop playing—but we sure shouldn’t make it even harder for ourselves to win.

Tom Farrell’s nuclear fantasy

Tom Farrell doesn’t get it. Dominion Power, the utility of which he is CEO, has been all about building natural gas plants for the past couple of years, as it rushes to take advantage of cheap fracked gas. Out with the aging coal plants that had been its first love, in with the next cheap thing, and never mind the pollution! Then suddenly two weeks ago, faced with a question about climate change, Farrell told reporters the answer is more nuclear plants.

Mother Earth to Tom Farrell: The correct answer is “renewable energy.”

Most of the rest of the country gets this. Wind supplied more new electric generation than natural gas did in 2012. More people work in solar energy than in coal mining. Renewable energy has overtaken nuclear worldwide. Almost no one is building nuclear plants, partly because—here’s an inconvenient truth for you, Tom—they cost too much. Almost three years ago a Duke University study found that power from new nuclear plants is more expensive than solar energy, and the cost of solar has only gone down since then.

But Farrell is convinced wind and solar can’t provide reliable electricity to power the whole grid. You’d think he’d been reading propaganda from the Koch Brothers and had come to believe that if there are solar panels somewhere and a cloud crosses the sun, the whole grid crashes.

Can I just point out here that Dominion’s own North Anna nuclear reactors shut down suddenly in 2011 following an earthquake in Virginia, and the grid did not crash? Even though nuclear is one-third of Dominion’s Virginia portfolio, and North Anna represents more than half of that? And even though, while weather forecasters are pretty good at predicting regional cloud cover, no one can yet predict an earthquake?

The reason the grid didn’t crash is that grid operators make sure there is enough surplus generation available to keep supplying power even at times of catastrophic failure. And note that the nuclear plants didn’t come back online when the clouds cleared off, either. They were down for four months.

If nuclear power is more expensive than renewables, and it has to be backed up 100% with other forms of energy, for much longer time periods, where is the place for new nuclear?

As the CEO of a utility, Tom Farrell should know better. He should also know about the new study demonstrating that renewable energy alone—onshore wind, offshore wind, and solar energy—can power the entire grid 99.9% of the time. The study authors show that doing this would actually cost less than conventional sources of electricity, assuming you include in the price the “external” cost society pays for the use of fossil fuels. That is, if you factor in the cost of climate change, it’s cheaper to build renewable energy than new fossil fuel plants.

Climate aside, there’s other evidence for the superior value of renewable energy in providing price stability for customers and a whole range of benefits for the grid. And of course, for meeting demand at the cheapest possible cost, you can’t beat energy efficiency.

It’s time to face reality, Tom Farrell. If all you care about is making money for Dominion today, your natural gas strategy probably makes sense. But if you care about tomorrow—or even about the big picture today—it doesn’t. Either way, there’s no room in the picture for expensive new nuclear plants.

And if you’re sincerely concerned about climate change, now would be a good time for Dominion to invest in energy efficiency, wind and solar.

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Note to readers: Willett Kempton, one of the authors of the study cited above on powering the grid with renewable energy, will be speaking at a townhall meeting sponsored by Sierra Club and Environment America this Wednesday, March 13, at the MetroStage Theatre, 1201 North Royal St., Alexandria, VA. The meeting is open to the public (Tom Farrell is especially invited). To RSVP, contact Phillip Ellis at or 571-970-0275.


Dominion takes the wrong way on solar

On February 12, Virginia’s State Corporation Commission held a public hearing to decide whether to approve Dominion Virginia Power’s plan to buy 3 megawatts of solar power from Virginia residents and businesses to sell to the company’s voluntary Green Power Program. Sound like a good idea? It’s not.

Yes, Virginians want solar power. Investing in solar means stably priced electricity, cleaner air and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Solar power is now cost-effective in Virginia even in the absence of state incentives, thanks to federal tax credits and a steep decline in the price of solar panels. But a high upfront cost still limits who can afford to install it.

Utilities and the SCC have a role to play in bringing new solar power onto the grid. Dominion’s program to install 30 megawatts of solar on leased rooftops, which the SCC approved this fall, provides an example of how utilities can strengthen the grid, diversify their power sources, supply valuable peak-demand electricity, and contribute to their own learning curve on integrating renewable energy, all while meeting a portion of their customers’ demand for clean power.

The 3-megawatt program, on the other hand, gets nothing right. Under the program, customers who have solar panels would sell all their solar power to Dominion for 15 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), and buy regular fossil-fuel electricity (known as “brown power”) from Dominion at the normal retail rate of about 11 cents. Cost to Dominion: 4 cents/kWh.

Dominion would then resell the solar power to the participants in its Green Power Program, not for the 4 cents it costs the company, but for 11 cents. Dominion would keep 7 cents/kWh.

Dominion tells us that the 7 cents would go to its rate base, not its own bottom line. But it’s clear who loses. The do-gooders who pay extra on their utility bills for the Green Power Program would pay 11 cents for something Dominion bought for 4 cents. They are being played for chumps.

Last year the Green Power Program bought Virginia solar power directly for 4 cents/kWh through the purchase of renewable energy certificates. So why should the program pay 11 cents for something it can get for 4?

Since Dominion administers the program, it will be up to the SCC to prevent this misuse of its funds.

This is only part of the problem. The reason Dominion wants to shift the cost of the solar purchase onto the Green Power Program is its insistence that the value of solar energy isn’t the retail rate of electricity, but is the utility’s “avoided cost”—roughly, the price at which it can buy brown power on the wholesale market, which is around 4 cents/kWh.

Of course, if the current wholesale price were the only thing that mattered, you’d have to question why Dominion ever builds its own electric generation, including its new coal-fired plant that delivers power at 9.3 cents/kWh.

The SCC allows Dominion to build its own generation in Virginia for a host of other reasons, all of which apply equally to Virginia solar. Rooftop solar also provides significant additional benefits to the utility and the electric grid that utility-supplied brown power does not. A number of recent studies have quantified these benefits to prove that net-metered solar (where customers sell solar power to the grid at the retail rate) lowers costs for everyone.

Yet Dominion wants to shift costs onto a voluntary program, while keeping the benefits. This is bad for the Green Power Program, and it sets a terrible precedent for valuing solar that could retard its growth in Virginia. And that would be bad for all of us.