I have seen the future and I don’t like it.
I’m talking about alternative energy. I’ve spent the past four days looking for it.
Early Sunday morning, a tree took out a power line across from my house. Ever since, I’ve been trying to find an alternative to the energy that flowed so reliably from my electric outlets for so many years.
I called JCP&L to report my outage. I got an answering machine. The next morning, another answering machine called back to say my power had been restored. It hadn’t. That answering machine gave me a number to call, just in case I still didn’t have power. I called and got another answering machine.
In the midst of all this, I had to recharge my cell phone. I plugged it into my car’s 12-volt outlet. The car battery died.
The upside is that I had a lot of time to sit around in the dark, pondering the future that awaits us here in New Jersey. The Trenton crowd has signed on to a program that will require us to get 22.5 percent of our power from alternative energy sources within 10 years, up from the current level of about 1 percent.
Sounds nice. But after what I and thousands of other Jerseyans experienced this week, perhaps our elected officials might want to consider getting the current grid in shape to handle storms that come along at regular intervals.
The Jersey Shore got a lot of our governor’s attention last week in the run-up to Irene. But it would have been nice if someone in state government had taken a look at the Shore before the storm. There are lots of big trees, with shallow roots, growing in sandy soil. Every time there’s a big coastal storm, some of these trees get blown over and take out the electricity.
It would seem a simple task to prohibit the planting of such trees in favor of native species that don’t fall over every time a stiff breeze arises. But such a ban might upset the tree-huggers. And they seem to have inordinate power in this state.
That’s how we ended up with that goal of getting almost a quarter of our energy from alternative sources. It’s not going to work, says Myron Ebell, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
As the name implies, the institute is dedicated to encouraging the same sort of economic growth that Gov. Chris Christie wants to bring to New Jersey. But we have a big problem in terms of competitiveness: high electricity rates. New Jersey’s are among the top five nationally.
That will get only worse if we move to alternatives such as wind and solar, Ebell says.
“Your electricity is going to get more and more expensive and less and less reliable,” Ebell says. He adds that wind costs twice as much per kilowatt-hour as conventional sources do and solar can cost four times as much.
Alternative energy must be subsidized by surcharges that drive electricity rates higher. If you want to drive them lower, there’s a simple solution: coal.
Christie has sworn off it, but the states that burn the most coal have the lowest energy costs.
The other big source of cheap energy is natural gas, Ebell says, and it’s going to get a lot cheaper thanks to all that gas being produced by “fracking,” another tactic despised by the environmental lobby. Whether the enviros like it or not, we’re going to need gas-powered plants as a backup to alternative energy, he says.
“Wind and solar are essentially a way to force utilities to build a lot more gas turbines,” he says.
But gas turbines are most efficient when run at a consistent speed for long periods of time. It’s wasteful to keep turning them on and off.
So why not just install the turbines and spare the expense of building the windmills altogether?
That’s Ebell’s question for Christie. The answer is that our governor is trying to stay in the middle of the road on energy. One can hardly blame him, given the strength of the environmental lobby. But there’s an old saying about politics: There’s nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow line and dead skunks.
After Irene, you could add falling trees and downed power lines. Time to pick a side.
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