Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Luddites Against Fracking

I have a dream.

I have a dream that someday soon--from the Midtown skyscrapers to the Rockaway bungalows, from the brownstones to the bodegas, from the Brooklyn walk-ups to the Bronx projects--I have a dream that electricity in New York City will cost three cents per kilowatt-hour.

At 3 cents Google starts moving server farms from Washington State to Queens. Indeed, Google moves it's entire operation to Manhattan.

At 3 cents, New York City becomes the hub for additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D-printing. The cost of entry is cheap--just think about all the entrepreneurial energy that clever, well-connected New Yorkers can bring to that task.

At 3 cents, electric cars become viable, at least for niche applications. I'm thinking taxicabs and city buses can run off electricity--clean, quiet, cheap. Of course with Google right next door, the dawn of fully automated taxicabs is nigh. Cab fares will become much cheaper.

Mix cheap cabs, cheap electricity, cheap lighting, a fully-employed population, and just imagine what happens to Times Square. You think it's bright and cheerful now? Just you wait. Those poor folks in Las Vegas won't know what hit them. New York will again become the entertainment capital of the world.

So how do we get from today's 13 cents/kwh to 3 cents? You need three things: 1) cheap, clean fuel; 2) cold water; 3) a smart grid and infrastructure. Dallas might have cheap fuel, but it doesn't have cold water. Seattle has cold water, but it lacks fuel. Anchorage has both fuel and cold water, but it's too isolated to have a smart infrastructure. Los Angeles doesn't have squat.

New York City has it all.

The cheap fuel comes from natural gas--shale gas from Pennsylvania and (eventually) New York. Unlike coal, gas can be piped to where it's needed--no noisy, dirty, diesel trucks required.

New York has lots of cold water--it's on islands surrounded by the sea. Cold water is needed as a heat sink--thermodynamics says that the energy you get from any power plant depends on the temperature difference between the boiler and the cold temperature reservoir. A boiler by itself will not generate electricity.

The smart infrastructure is necessary to engage the highly creative, well educated, totally connected population. But more than that, it is cheapest to generate electricity near where it is used--a lot of power is lost in transmission. I foresee several dozen small power plants along New York's extensive waterfront, each connected by pipelines to a fuel source, and informed by a smart grid to dial out just the right amount of power. Today New York gets power from Quebec and Niagara, necessitating long, ugly, wasteful and expensive high tension wires over long distances. This will not be necessary in a 3 cent/kwh world.

So how do we get to my dream (or something like it) from our current reality? I admit, it will take a lot of really smart engineers working overtime to get the price down to 3 cents/kwh, but that's not the hard part. What we really need is a new crew of politicians. The so-called "public servants" we're now stuck with are all card-carrying members of the pro-poverty crowd. I'm looking at you, Mr. Obama, Mr. Cuomo, and Mr. Bloomberg.

  • They think poor people are better for the environment than rich people. They're wrong.
  • They prefer to tax electricity and use it to pay welfare benefits, rather than dispensing with the necessity for welfare by making electricity cheap.
  • They worry more about long-term, hypothetical problems (like global warming), about which they can do nothing except purely symbolic and very expensive stuff.
  • They're afraid somebody besides them might actually have some good ideas.
This blog's beat is to cover papers like The Militant and Socialist Action (SA). This post is inspired by an article in SA. It's one of those that I've read so that you don't have to, but if you're a masochist and want to follow along, here it is. I'd like to say that the ravings of a radical socialist grouplet are irrelevant to political discourse, but sadly that's not true. The points made in the SA article are only slightly more extreme than those expressed by the pro-poverty politicians.

SA has never met an environmental horror story that it doesn't believe. Fracking, per SA, pollutes well water, turns tap water into a flammable substance, creates a "chemical cocktail of radioactivity," causes something called "vibro-acoustic disease," is responsible for subsidence, which in turn leads to volatile organic compounds, and it requires sand quarrying, which leads to tailings and water pollution. Etc. That's not to mention the earthquakes. Oh, and it kills songbirds.

Much of this list is just plain nonsense, and all of it grossly exaggerates reality. Fracking is a $200 billion business today, and growing fast. We've been doing it for 20+ years. People know how to do it right. Everything in life is a tradeoff, and fracking is no exception. There are hazards, but containing and minimizing those hazards is just not that hard or expensive. Properly constructing the wellhead will minimize leaks into the ground water. Correct preparation of the fracking fluid will save money and preserve the environment. And so forth. Fracking is less dangerous or destructive than most other mining activities.. SA hopes to win the argument by making utterly incredible claims that no knowledgeable person can believe. This tactic won't be successful.

But here is the real problem: while SA hugely exaggerates the cost of fracking, they all but ignore any of the benefits. From the article, the ONLY benefit of fracking is to enrich the oil and gas companies. And apparently not even that: "Much of the investment is only on paper, with one-quarter of the reserve growth coming through mergers and acquisitions and massive share repurchases by the majors, giving the illusion of profitability. In other words, the industry is thriving on fake growth, much like the financial markets." How can something in which no real money is being invested be so disruptive of the environment? And are the gas companies really so dumb to put money down a rat hole, for no reason other than to make the Greenies mad? No--it's silly all the way round.

Of course the main beneficiaries are not the gas companies. The main beneficiaries--if I get my way--will be the eight million people living in New York City. All of those people will have cheaper electricity, better jobs, and a higher standard of living because of fracking.

Let my people go and get rich. Down with poverty.

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