Grandfathering Our Problems, Blocking Our Solutions

energy saviorThe United States has a peculiar problem adopting necessary change. With so many constituencies to palliate, the almost-universal solution is to avoid conflict where possible and payoff the constituencies where not.

This can run up quite a bill, in both dollar and procedural terms.

We have a society full of bad, worm-eaten decisions. Look no further than drilling in deep water when you don’t know how to deal with leaks; heaping all the risks of nuclear accidents and disposal on society so we can keep doing nuclear; getting ready to sweep under the rug issues with shale gas, our newest familiar energy savior; and the worst of them all, sustaining a perpetual co-dependency with our oil suppliers in the Mideast. And I haven’t even mentioned global warming.

Sometimes we try to come to grips with our energy problems. Our political solutions can look pretty ugly. They basically say, ok, we can’t change what we have been doing (think, Clean Air Act and existing coal plants), but we can make it really hard for any NEW facility to meet much more stringent requirements. This ‘art of the possible’ solution creates a procrustean foundation of bad practices and a stimulus to keep them going the way they are as long as possible. We have “grandfathered” our problems.

In the meantime, because business as usual sucks so much, we create a core of heroic environmental lawyers who sue every living representative of the energy establishment. They make every effort to find ways to stop conventional energy projects. And they win most of the time, because this is really what society (and its judges) wants. Thus we have developed a substantial bulk of case law that backs preventing new power plants or transmission, all designed to stop conventional energy.

Now along comes solar energy. Along comes wind and solar as solutions to our problems. What happens? Everything gets stopped dead in its tracks by the same case law!

Even the most hallucinatory green lawyer would not argue that solar and wind are the same as natural gas drilling and coal power plants. But the same case law gets asserted against them. power plantBrightSource’s half-gigawatt Ivanpah solar thermal plant gets delayed by the same desert tortoise as a coal plant. Someone’s wind or solar transmission line looks like it won’t go in anyone’s back yard because of prior successes blocking transmission lines meant for nuclear and coal plants. First Solar’s half-gigawatt Topaz PV project, which uses no water and just sits there, gets the same treatment as any power plant. And no one knows if they will be sued even if they meet every existing regulation. Stand by for another half decade of debilitating delays while the rest of the world moves ahead!

We have grandfathered our problems and blocked our solutions. We can site new deep water drilling in the Gulf, because “so many people depend on it” (who are not fishermen); but we can’t site 10,000 MWs of new solar in the desert. What is wrong with us? Are we stupid? Or do we simply have to give credence to everybody’s individual whine, without judging their relative merits? Yes, we are ignorant as well as stupid, or at least that’s how we act.

We have a bureaucracy full of well-meaning people who examine the grindstone in front of them, and cannot sit back far enough to realize the tiny space of legal resistance they live by is standing in the way of the far greater societal, economic, and environmental good we are trying to put in place. In Washington, facilitating a project means adding focus on it (presumably to make it happen sooner), with the almost certain result that more signatures will be needed and more angels dancing on the head of a pin will be counted.

Meanwhile public angst fired by petro-dollars can carry the day with every conventional energy solution, like sustaining our drilling in the Gulf or our oil addiction in the other Gulf.

Without decisive leadership from the President, this will continue. Only the President can cut this Gordian knot.

Ken Zweibel


Ray Marshall
August 2, 2010 10:17 am

Is your department monitoring the Solar Energy Development Programmatic EIS ( If yes, do you believe this initiative will pave the way for solar energy adoption on a grand scale in the near term? Also, what are the strengths and weaknesses, risks and opportunities, and short-term/long-term challenges of this initiative?

August 2, 2010 10:35 am

We have begun to look at the PEIS. It does not, currently, seem as though it will greatly accelerate deployment (avoiding/streamlining NEPA regulations). However, it may minimize some environmental push-back by encouraging solar development in designated renewable “zones.”
We will be looking at this issue in greater detail in the coming months.
Alex Winn

Richard W. Ford

It’s good to see energy scientists speaking out against the political obstacles to sustainable energy solutions. Political obstacles are movable, but they will take as much or more effort than the technical solutions. For instance, central air conditioners with EER’s of 14 have been available for years, but if I buy one to replace my EER 10 model, the electric company will automatically increase the average cost per kWh for the remaining electricity I buy. My contribution to their fixed costs is “grandfathered.”
Richard Ford

August 4, 2010 9:33 am

Thanks for that example. They are everywhere, aren’t they?
When the price of natural gas rises, PUCs automatically approve passing along the higher cost because they have been conditioned to accept that they have no alternative.
What can we do to help ourselves?

Ray Marshall
August 11, 2010 10:00 am

Interesting article published yesterday in the NY Times that touches on the issues raised in this blog. See article at .