Many of us who grew up in the U.S. took water and electricity for granted, but more and more of us are bumping up against the limits of resources. Three stories in the news this past week illustrate what the difficulties are and how different parties address them.


Negotiating water use: It took more than three years of negotiation for farmers, fishers, and tribes in the Klamath River Basin (which spans parts of northern California and southern Oregon) to reach what the LA Times’ Eric Bailey describes as “a breakthrough agreement.” Even after all that negotiating, two environmental groups excluded from the decision oppose the plan, and the company whose dams are slated for removal under the plan wasn’t involved the negotiations and may have other ideas.  

The Klamath Basin has become “the epicenter of the fight over dwindling water in the West,” reports Bailey. Negotiations such as these are likely to become even longer, harder, and more time-consuming as the global supply of usable freshwater dwindles further.

Making a smarter grid (via Gristmill): New power plants are being proposed not so much because we don’t have enough total kilowatts, but because existing plants have a hard time handling the loads at peak times. Business Week’s John Carey explains:

For a year, Jerry Brous lived a little piece of the future. The 67-year-old resident of Sequim, Wash., was part of a test of a home energy system smart enough to respond to changing prices of electricity. When the price rose because of greater demand on the grid, the house automatically dialed back the thermostat, or shut down the water heater and clothes dryer. That shaved an estimated 15% from Brous’ energy bills, giving him average monthly payments of $85 with a monthly high of $148. More important, with more than 100 houses equipped like Brous’ in the experiment, the smart system was good for the grid as well. It smoothed power peaks, reduced the need for expensive new power plants, and cut the chances of a blackout. “It was a wonderful thing,” says Brous. “I frankly miss it.”

Brous and his wife could override the system, but he reports that they only did so 1% of the time. Overall, the test was a big success. It’s an affordable solution – outfitting 112 houses for the study cost roughly $1,000 each – that can save customers money and be a boon to those who make and install the necessary devices. Bailey sums up the chances of widespread adoption:

Of course, there are still daunting hurdles. State and local regulations often make it hard to implement such systems. Not all consumers are as willing as Jerry Brous to allow technology to control their house’s electricity use. And installing smart devices in millions of homes is a massive undertaking. But the ultimate payoff is large—and the demand is there. “When it becomes available, I’ll be the first to get it installed,” says Brous.

Given such impressive results and the incredible potential of this approach, I’m sure there are enough people willing to fight for the necessary regulations and install devices – and, with enough of the right kind of marketing, probably enough people who’d sign up for such a program. The question is how much money and effort the beneficiaries of the status quo are willing to spend to make sure this doesn’t happen. Given the fossil fuel industry’s track record on the climate change issue, I’m worried.

Putting a price tag on nuclear safety: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn’t think that all nuclear power plants need to be able to withstand the impact of a plane flying into them – but others beg to differ. Cindy Skrzycki helps us sort it out in the Washington Post:

“By requiring only a limited subset of anticipated new reactors (less than half of the currently announced plants) to address aircraft impacts as part of the design, the NRC’s proposed rule could undermine public confidence in new nuclear power plants,” George Vanderheyden, president and chief executive of Unistar Nuclear Energy of Baltimore, told the agency in Dec. 17 comments.

Public acceptance of plant safety is considered critical to the rebirth of the nuclear industry, where there has been a de facto moratorium on new construction since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

The 104 existing reactors, which supply 20 percent of U.S. electricity, aren’t covered by the proposed rule. Neither are unbuilt reactors whose designs already have been approved by the NRC. …
 
Adding protection from air attack, such as an extra containment structure, could cost more than $100 million per reactor, according to Adrian Heymer, senior director of new plant deployment at the Nuclear Energy Institute trade group in the District.

Now, I’m actually far more worried about what we’re going to do with the actual problem of all the existing nuclear waste than I am about the potential problem of a plane hitting a nuclear reactor. Even so, building a new power plant that could set off widespread death and destruction if something goes wrong seems like a bad idea. It would be smarter to build reactors that are less vulnerable (to intentional harm or to human error), but it would also be very expensive. The $100 million per reactor seems like a sum that could, say, wire an awful lot of houses to a smart grid system.

The amount of money we have to spend on meeting our country’s growing energy demand is finite. Government will probably end up subsidizing a lot of what ever new facilities are built, and consumers are going to see a lot of the costs in our electric bills. Shouldn’t we put our money towards initiatives that actually solve problems – energy-efficient buildings, smart grids, better batteries, better solar panels – rather than those that create more, now that we’re living in a more resource-constrained world?

Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.

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