The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

March 3, 2014

Dennis Simmers | Gamesa's closing just the tip of energy blade

JOHNSTOWN — The U.S. electrical energy portfolio is in dire need of serious discussion, including hard questions on national security and grid stability. This is not a time for political posturing and special interest-group, drama-queen hysterics.

The recent and tragic closing of the Gamesa blade factory in Ebensburg could be the face of an ill-conceived energy policy of some people. I say tragic because I know people who worked there. They are just hard-working, regular folks who were thrown a life preserver a few years ago. They got a good job with family-sustaining wages, and now it’s gone.

Much to the contrary of a recent “assessment” of Gamesa’s fate by Tom Schuster of the Sierra Club, it was not one particular party or politician that sealed Gamesa’s fate. It was everyone’s fault. The U.S. is still a capitalist, entrepreneurial, market-based economy (for now). Dangerous government-directed energy policies, where energy winners and losers are picked by bureaucrats, are doomed to fail in this free economy.

The well-publicized solar-industry failures are prime examples of what happens when a nonfree, market-based industry is thrust upon us and picked as a “winner.” Absent significant taxpayer dollars, the business cannot survive on its own.

Meanwhile, in the “losers” column, certain energy sectors are being driven to extinction, in large part, due to government interference. These sectors are also at risk due to free market dynamics; however that reason is palatable. For example, coal and gas both have an over/under price that makes one or the other more economical.

What is not palatable is when special interest groups like the Sierra Club influence government to enact legislation and laws that transcend capitalism.

Where it becomes not funny is when agents of interference prevail, and the stability of the national or regional grid come into question. January is a textbook example of the brink of what the future may hold.

We live in the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland grid (PJM). During January, actions, alerts and warnings sprang forth from the PJM website (www.pjm.com) at a rate not seen in the recallable past. The PJM was running out of capacity, demand was that great. In fact, on two occasions, capacity slipped below the minimum safety net, or “spinning reserve.”

Imported power from other grids was scarce because those geographic locales were suffering from the same historic cold weather we were. Ultimately, 61 million customers in the PJM were asked to reduce power consumption – a last-ditch effort. Eight of the 10 highest winter-record demands for electricity in PJM’s 87-year history occurred in January. Many days were 15,000-20,000 megawatts (the equivalent of an extra 25 million homes on the grid) above normal in demand.

So let’s pull it all together for our friends at the Sierra Club: Due to government overextending its reach into private industry, 58,000 megawatts of fossil-powered energy is scheduled to come off the national grid in about a year or so from now. That’s 74.5 million homes’ electric requirements. Flash forward to the winter of 2015. What happens if we repeat another cold January? We just made it in January 2014 with the 58,000 fossil-powered megawatts. What are we going to do without them?

State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Washington County, and Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene County, have been pressing PJM with these kind of questions since two fossil plants were closed in 2013 inside of their jurisdictions. That’s more than 2,000 megawatts gone of the 58,000. Thus far, the answers and reassurances have not been very comforting. Hats off to the legislators, however, for trying.

On the federal level, legislators on both side of the aisle have expressed concerns about what could happen. However, President Obama has presided over this nation during the most robust assault on fossil fuel in our nation’s history. In 2008, the president said, “You can build a new coal plant, but it will bankrupt you.” What is “it”? “It” is the government, and it has declared fossil fuel a loser.

It’s time to set aside the game of picking winners and losers in the energy industry based upon blind ideology. Economically and financially, we have had an abundance of failures with this tact. It’s now time for an abundance of caution.

Dennis Simmers of Ebensburg has been involved in environmental engineering in fossil fuel-powered electric generation for the past 19 years. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Indiana University.

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