Got Gas?


by Terry Hogan 


I was sitting in front of the computer screen, watching the cursor not moving.  I was contemplating what I should be writing about.  It's not that I have "writer's block".  You have to be a writer to have that. I've never heard of a "columnist's block". This wasted thought was interrupted by my periodic associate and occasional unsung co-author, The VAR.


For those of you who have not encountered The VAR in this column, I offer a slight digression.  (If you know about the VAR, you can jump to the next paragraph.)  The VAR is a very small gnome-like creature that inhabits electric power lines.  He vibrates at 60 cycles per second. At that speed, he appears almost transparent. He is never seen, at least by me, without his hammer.  The hammer is used to beat on the transmission line conductors to scare electrons.  The electrons surge down the transmission lines, much like frightened cattle stampeding.  These stampeding electrons are what we know as electricity. Because the electrical grid in the United States is all interconnected, there are lots of VARs beating on transmission line wires at any particular moment.  Also because they are all interconnected, and beating on the wires gets boring, the VARs exchange gossip about what is going on within the various power companies.  They are particularly well-informed on the "going-ons" in the Board Rooms. The VAR changes color from his normal electric blue to a crimson red when he talks about the rampant greed of the CEO's and their ilk. (But back to this story.)


The VAR looked at me and chuckled.  I asked him what was so amusing.  Of course, he said that I was.  I was wearing insulated slippers, Levi's, and a hooded sweatshirt over a shirt.  Like so many folks, we are trying to keep the thermostat set a little cooler so that we don't have to sell a car to make the gas payment.  


The VAR asked me if I knew just how much trouble the U.S. has on the horizon due to the shortage of "base load" electric generation. Base load generation is that electric generation that operates day in and day out to meet the routine electrical demands of our lives.  In the Midwest, this base load generation is typically a mix of coal-fired and nuclear generation.  Peaking demand in the Midwest is electrical energy demands that usually occur on very hot summer days when residential energy use is up to run air conditioning.


The VAR began to lecture his stupid student (once again).   Because of de-regulation or the threat (or promise) of deregulation, electric utilities are generally disinclined to build new base load electric generation and new transmission lines.  Despite this hesitancy, our use of electricity grows daily. So base load capacity is increasing very slowly. Note that base load capacity is very expensive to build, but is, relatively, cheaper to operate that peaking capacity. As noted before, in the Midwest, base load capacity is typically coal or nuclear.  Although new coal or nuclear facilities bring new jobs and a tax base, neighbors and the local community tend to oppose them.  Also with deregulation, the utility companies have little assurance that they will be able to make money off the new generation. 


Instead, the VAR goes on, utilities up to a couple of years ago, decided it was much cheaper and safer to build gas-fired peaking plants that are combustion turbines.  Combustion turbines are much cheaper to build, but are very inefficient to operate as they waste a lot of heat energy. 


Of course those of us, who heat our homes with natural gas, know what has been happening to natural gas prices.  Prices continue to rise, and America continues to turn down the thermostat. Thus the VAR's appearance at my computer. He wants me to type this article, mostly dictated by his grumpy and superior way (my description, not his). It is his opinion that I am just merely too stupid to deal with on anything like an equal basis.


The VAR's message, or warning, is a simple one.  The American public needs an energy policy. It needs to be making hard decisions now.  Do you want the price of electricity to skyrocket with the price of natural gas? It will. It has to if we continue down the path.  With insufficient new base load generation being currently built, the peaking generation (gas-fired) will have to run more and more, raising the price of electricity due to fuel price increases.  Gas is much, much more expensive than coal as a fuel source and a coal-fired power plant is much more energy efficient than a gas-fired simple cycle combustion turbine.


Thus the VAR points out, that the communities and the environmentalists have some hard decisions to face. They have to face reality.  Do we want energy shortages and extremely high electricity prices or do we want to accept new state-of-the-art coal-fired generation and/or the rebirth of nuclear power plants?  The VAR chuckles as he says this.  I think he has a broadly unkind view of the American public in general.  This makes me feel a little better.  It is not just me that he thinks is remarkably stupid.  He reminded me, once again, of my Enron stock.


After the reference to my Enron stock, he asks me if I believe that we would be in Iraq if it didn't play a crucial role in the oil-rich Middle East. No, I said that even I didn't think that.  There is too much tragedy in Africa that we ignore in areas that just happen not to have oil.


I asked the VAR about wind power or solar power. Couldn't that be used in place of nuclear and coal-fired generation in the Midwest?  He gave me a scornful look. He asked his stupid student, "Do you know how to make the sun shine at night or the wind to always blow?" "We're talking about reliable base load generation, not some intermittent source of energy." I remained silent. 


The VAR pointed out that I can turn down the thermostat and put on a sweatshirt to keep warm this winter.  But he really didn't want to see me turning up the thermostat next summer and taking my clothes off.  He began to disappear.  I pondered his last statement. Was he trying to say a kind thing to me, or was he commenting on my body?


It seems to me that the VAR was telling me something. I think he was saying that if we haven't got gas, we'd better get an energy policy, or when it "hits the fan", the fan won't be turning. I think the idea is there, but it is too long for a bumper sticker. 

Perhaps, "Got Gas?" might work.