Try tolerating reality

-A A +A

Energy planning offers no neat solutions

By Merilee Dannemann

Talking about infrastructure planning for the future of New Mexico energy is a serious exercise in testing your ability to tolerate reality.
There is no pie in the sky. This is about how you and I will be able to turn the lights on, 20 years from now.
PNM is currently undergoing such an exercise, with a full complement of public participation. The participants are not a hand-picked group. Everybody who showed up got a place at the table.
Wherever  you are in New Mexico, this affects you. You are part of the region and face similar cost issues and environmental trade-offs. You also breathe the same air.
The trade-offs look like this:
First you have to estimate future demand based on available data for projected population growth and likely energy demands per capita.
You have to assume existing technology. You can’t engage in wishful thinking about a perpetual-motion machine that runs on garbage and eats carbon dioxide.
If reliable power is the top priority, you need an energy source that is available at all times. Right now, the primary sources are coal and natural gas.
Solar and wind power are available only when the sun shines or the wind blows.
This exercise is taking place in the shadow of last winter’s gas supply crisis, and in the wake of the Japanese nuclear plant disaster, which means new uncertainty about the future of nuclear.
It’s taking place amid continuing concern over global warming as New Mexico experiences a genuinely scary drought.
Cost is a priority, so you have to evaluate each power source not only for operational costs but also for construction. New Mexico’s coal plants are already built.
Peak demand is another factor.
The system has to be able to run the air conditioners on the hottest days.
Peak demand is different economically from base load, because when you put a generating source online for few days of the year, it makes economic sense to build the least expensive machinery and if necessary use the most expensive fuel.
One critical variable is a possible carbon tax, which primarily affects the cost of coal. Computer simulations have been run for various combinations of power sources.  
By changing the cost of the carbon tax you can see how the cost factors will change.  Above a certain tax rate, it becomes more desirable to add more of the other power sources.
People around the table are also thinking about the non-measured environmental costs. I’m thinking that wind generators, like jet engines, kill birds.
We don’t have good data for the environmental effects of acres upon acres of reflective solar panels. What do we sacrifice when energy generation uses all that water?
And where do they get the raw materials for those photovoltaic panels?
These issues raise the level of complexity to the point where we couldn’t have a coherent discussion. But we all know that in the real world everything is related to everything else.
We are challenged today as never before to look at reality without flinching, without fantasies and without blaming anybody for our current predicament.
When we do, it becomes clear that, as with other issues that we confront today — government budgets, the health care system and all the rest — our lifestyle is stretching the boundaries of what the world can sustain. The only truly clean solution to our long-range energy needs is to need less.  

Merilee Dannemann
© New Mexico
News Service 2011