Friday, July 3, 2009

The Perils of Democracy

One of the problems with democracy is that when everyone gets a chance for input, it can be impossible to get anything done.

Heard much about the rebuilding of New Orleans? No surprise, since not much is happening. The problem is that the professional planners want to abandon some of the below sea level neighborhoods and focus all the available money on higher land -- this is in keeping with a longstanding Federal policy of buying out people on floodplains rather than helping them rebuild. But in New Orleans the low-lying neighborhoods are black and the high and dry neighborhoods are white, and no politician will sign on to a plan that gives all the money to the white neighborhoods and tells the blacks to take a hike. Been following the debate over opening levees along the Mississippi so the river's silt can fight the erosion of marshland? Every expert thinks this is essential, but nobody in Louisiana wants his neighborhood to be the one that loses protection. Our government seems to lack the will, or the legitimacy, to force several thousand people out of their homes in the name of saving half the state.

This is on my mind because the Times has a feature today on China's drive toward wind and solar power. Power generation and transfer is one of the businesses I work in, so I know a little about it, and in the US the whole thing is a nightmare. Everybody wants wind power, but nobody wants to live near a wind farm, so whenever anybody proposes one the neighbors fight it like crazy. Remember the fight over the proposed offshore farm that would be visible from Nantucket? Nothing ever happened. A few years ago the state of Maryland proposed a large wind project for the western part of the state, where coal mining is dying out. I have been working out there, and signs and bumper stickers opposing the project are everywhere. The project is in limbo and I am sure it will soon be dead.

The obvious solution to that problem is to build wind farms in places where nobody lives, and anyway North Dakota is one of our windiest states. But that would mean building a lot more high voltage power lines, and in the US today it is easier to find a unicorn than to build a new long-distance transmission line. Again, our government seems to lack to will to force a new line on any group of people for the benefit of the rest. Of the dozen or so new high voltage lines I have worked on over the course of my career, none has been built.

In China, wind farms and solar power plants are being built at a rate several times that in the US, because there are no regulatory hurdles and the government doesn't give a damn what the neighbors think. It shows the advantage of an authoritarian system. It also cuts across the usual left/right divide in politics, at least American politics. In the US, environmentalists tend to be small-is-good opponents of big business and advocates of neighborhood empowerment. You know, think globally, act locally. But local empowerment makes it impossible to build wind farms or transmission lines, and only the biggest businesses have the capital and staying power to pursue one of these projects. The people who give money to the Sierra Club are the very ones who would be most outraged by a new power line in the neighborhood. Some more globally-minded environmentalists have joined forces with power companies to pursue wind power projects, but this puts them in opposition to their own base of support.

Unless something changes radically in US politics, which I very much doubt, we simply cannot build a green power infrastructure with current technology. We need some way to transfer power underground. This could either be an insulator effective and cheap enough for use in thousand-mile-long underground lines, or a different way of shipping power, say by splitting water in North Dakota and shipping hydrogen through pipelines to the coast. Either is decades away.

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