Don’t miss Elisabeth Rosenthal’s important and well-written piece at NYT on Portugal’s energy policy. With remarkable clarity given the potentially technical subject matter, she explains exactly how the Portuguese government went from generating 17% of its electricity from alternative sources a few years ago to 45% today. (That is electricity, not all energy; so they’re still filling up their automobile tanks with gasoline and heating their homes with natural gas for the most part. It will be a decade before even a third of their over-all energy comes from alternative sources).
Key, she says, was the virtual nationalization of the power grid, so that the state could ensure that power generated in remote, wind-swept or sunny areas, could actually get to the cities where it is needed. Likewise, the Portuguese scientists and engineers came up with ingenious solutions to the problem of intermittency (the inability to generate, e.g., solar power at night or when it is very overcast, or the inability to generate wind power when it is still). They use computers to make complex mixture calculations to keep the whole thing going, and, e.g., use blustery nights to pump water uphill with wind-generated power and then produce hydroelectric power with that during the days when energy use is intensive.
The next step is to build electric power stations and move to electric cars powered by the wind, sun and hydroelectric. The Portuguese officials involved point out that their success shows that such transformations can be accomplished relatively quickly.
Rosenthal is pessimistic about this model being replicated in the US, where much energy policy is legislated by individual states, and where the big electricity and coal companies have a great deal of sway over both state and federal governments. Likewise, the European Union’s sanctions on hydrocarbons helped the Portuguese, whereas there is no similar pressure coming from Washington.
I only have one criticism of Rosenthal’s excellent article, which is that when she speaks of the higher cost of electricity in Portugal, she neglects to note that cheap electricity in the United States is only cheap if one looks at the industry in a vacuum. Acid rain and air pollution from coal burning plants, the hidden but extreme environmental damage of fracking for natural gas production, and the creeping, insidious harm of global warming (which may well be implicated in Russia’s forest fires, Pakistan’s unprecedented floods, and the collapse of a Greenland ice shelf this week, the first two via a super-charged and unusually northerly jet stream) are only some of the costs of carbon-generated electricity that are not figured into the price paid by consumers on their monthly bills. But if that cost were included, then clean Portuguese energy would look cheap indeed.
I have noticed that the environmental costs of hydrocarbons are often viewed as an externality by reporters on economic issues, possibly because the American way of doing economics encourages such blinders. But as climate change accelerates in the coming decades, this ‘economic man’ way of thinking will increasingly seem anachronistic, in a world where a holistic accounting of the environment will be crucial for calculating human welfare.