No Efficiency Focus In Power Line Debate

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dominion Virginia Power is actively pursuing approval for a high-voltage power line that would bring electricity from "cheap coal" plants to the area. This line would cut through parks and other natural areas, desecrating some of the most beautiful areas of the nation.

Proponents of the power line claim that without it, the area would face electricity shortages by 2011. Sadly, too much of the public discussion of the power line focuses on the not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) response vs. the requirements of growth. There is no discussion or focus on whether demand can be met in ways that would be more efficient, friendlier to human living conditions and the environment and cost significantly less.

In fact, some of the best reasons for this project not to go forward have nothing to do with NIMBYism and little (perhaps nothing) to do with potential damage to bucolic rural vistas. For the $1.5 billion that this project is estimated to cost, the region could work to make such a power line unnecessary.

Public officials, before rushing forward with approval of Dominion's proposal, should ask the following questions and consider potential responses:

1. Could investment by utilities and government (and individuals and the private sector) in regulations, incentives and building codes cut electrical requirements by efficiency while supporting economic and population growth?

Amory Lovins, one of the nation's top energy experts, coined the phrase "negawatts" to capture the concept of the value of investing in efficiency to cut electrical requirements. With systems designed for efficiency, we could reduce our per capita electrical needs by roughly 20 to 25 percent -- at an average cost of less than 2 cents per kilowatt. Such investments would put off for a decade any requirement for new transmission lines.

2. In addition to saving energy, are there ways for the region to generate more of its own power through efficient local means and/or renewable power sources such as solar or urban wind projects? Renewable-energy systems -- such as solar water-heating -- are already cost-effective. For government and many businesses, small solar and wind projects can save money by assuring continuity of operations during external power interruptions. Such projects could both foster a more efficient power structure and provide resilience against disasters that might interrupt power supplies. Making a concerted effort to develop such projects would reduce the need to devastate natural treasures to bring electricity from polluting coal plants.

3. Does the utility have any incentive to explore energy efficiency and distributed power generation rather than expanding the distribution system to facilitate greater use of electricity?

Sadly, no. The utility rate structure rewards the utility for selling more kilowatt hours. Under current structuring, massive energy-efficiency projects would be money-losers. There are ways to address this -- most notably through profit-decoupling, which provides paths for a utility to make money through "negawatts" just as it might through selling more kilowatts.

There are tremendous opportunities, in the use of efficiency programs and the sensible pursuit of renewable energy, for Northern Virginia, the metropolitan area and the nation to reduce reliance on power sources that pollute.

We must not discount the potential to eliminate the need for the power lines through investment that would both reduce electricity demand (efficiency) and promote distributed power that provides resilience in the face of disaster.

These activities could help wean the United States off its reliance on Middle East oil while opening the path to a sustainable and prosperous energy future.

All of this would protect the environment by reducing the demand to carve through parks to erect new power lines while reducing, as well, the Washington area's contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions.

There is a win-win solution out there that does not involve vistas of pylons in national parks.

Adam Siegel of McLean is a founding board member of the Energy Consensus, a nonprofit organization seeking to enhance the nation's dialog on energy issues to achieve a more sustainable and profitable future.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company