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Power Lunch Letters

Readers eagerly took over where the experts left off in our July/August energy forum, "Power Lunch." What follows is a small sampling of the conversation, which continues on our Web site at www.sierraclub.org/powerlunch. What are your ideas about moving America toward a clean energy future? Your input will help the Sierra Club develop a detailed road map for the nation’s next 50 to 100 years.

BIRD CUISINARTS?
Sierra’s July/August cover would have been more accurate if you had shown several of the thousands of dead raptors and other birds that are killed each year by so-called environmentally friendly wind farms. Isn’t it time to start working for their elimination rather than encouraging the development of more?
Neville S. Long
Orinda, California

Editor replies: It’s true that early wind farms–especially the sprawling facility at Altamont Pass in Northern California–killed large numbers of birds. While the problem has not been solved, it has been greatly reduced. Key modifications include siting turbines away from customary flight paths, designing the supporting structures to discourage nesting, and slowing rotor speeds so that birds can see the blades. Opponents of alternative energy such as the Cato Institute continue to attack windmills as bird killers, despite the fact that even the National Audubon Society, the nation’s premier bird protector, supports well-sited wind turbines. For further information, see "Do Windmills Eat Birds?" by David Case at www.tompaine.com/feature.cfm/ID/4270.

Policy for Profit
The United States never seems to get an honest national energy policy–just various levels of oil or coal extraction. What can we expect when our government leaders practice public policy for political and personal profit? This is especially true with our current administration, with its close ties to the oil and coal industries.

It is easy to point to a map and say "bomb" in order to protect an oil supply in a faraway region. It is easy to point to American wilderness and say "drill." What is hard for our government leaders, who have made a life out of thinking in quarterly business cycles, is to think in terms of future generations.
Paul Arms
Los Angeles, California

If Bush continues to behave in such an ecologically irresponsible manner, it is our duty as Americans to ensure that he feels the pressure of the electorate. The environment has been called the Achilles’ heel of the Bush administration. Our high-flying president has proclaimed on many occasions, "Stop polluting my record!" Well, we would, if he’d stop polluting our Earth.
Paras D. Bhayani
Homewood, Illinois

NOT IN MY BACKYARD
Municipalities still offer tremendous resistance to alternative energy. When I tried to put up a wind turbine, city officials objected that it could be noisy, unsightly, and a threat to property values. Ultimately the city came around to permitting them, but required that the proposed property site be at least an acre. Since my lot is less than that, I couldn’t have one.

So I went to solar panels, but these must have an "inverter" that converts the direct current generated by the panels into alternating current to be used in my house, with the excess fed back into the city’s power grid. I also needed a million dollars of liability insurance to protect the city’s public-utility board against failure of my inverter (even though the inverter is certified by Underwriters Laboratories to have automatic cutoffs to prevent this type of failure).

Until these obstacles can be overcome, wind turbines and solar panels will remain an option only for people living in rural areas.
John J. B. Miller
Kerrville, Texas

Kurt Yeager: It is indeed regrettable that so much potential technical progress is being stifled by shortsighted bureaucratic self-interest. Most of the issues that were used to discourage Mr. Miller could have been positively dealt with. For example, six states (California, Maryland, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington) have already prohibited additional insurance requirements for net-metered (small-scale) energy facilities. Five other states (Idaho, New Mexico, New York, Virginia, and Vermont) have limited the liability insurance requirements for such facilities. Furthermore, in Mr. Miller’s own state, the Texas Public Utility Commission has rejected insurance requests for such systems, but it apparently has no jurisdiction over municipalities.

PRICE SIGNALS
In most markets today, consumers do not receive accurate price signals that reflect the time-varying costs of electricity. This is due in part to the inability of the installed meters to convey such information to retail customers, and in part to the reluctance of regulatory agencies to send such price signals.
Ahmad Faruqui
Oakland, California

David Freeman: We see a large and growing role for real-time pricing in California. The state has already purchased and installed real-time meters for larger customers, and the California Power Authority is financing real-time meters for smaller ones. Meanwhile, state agencies are working together to advance rate designs to reflect real-time pricing.

EMPOWERED
Here in Takoma Park, Maryland, we are exploring the feasibility of municipalizing our power-distribution system to reduce our total greenhouse-gas emissions. This would enable us to initiate demand-side management programs citywide and purchase green energy for the city’s residential and commercial customers. In addition, we hope to offer low-interest financing for energy-efficiency upgrades. We might also be able to use water-source heat pumps to extract Btus from the municipal water system.
Albert Nunez
Takoma Park, Maryland

NUKED HYDROGEN
Is Yucca Mountain a government subsidy for the nuclear industry or a subsidy for a national prerogative? If new nuclear plants are built and prove to be assets, would you approve of the idea of mass production of hydrogen using nuclear plants?
Simon Lobdell
State College, Pennsylvania

Kurt Yeager: Yucca Mountain is certainly a matter of national prerogative. The funding of the research to determine the suitability of the site, along with its licensing, construction, and operation, is being paid for by the nuclear power plant owner/operators. They pay one dollar per megawatt-hour produced. This is one of the few examples of environmental costs being internalized in the cost of the product. Only the producers pay.

Mass production of hydrogen by nuclear plants is being considered. Several designs under development could generate hydrogen through the thermal/chemical splitting of water. The designs will require certification by the regulators to ensure that they protect the health and safety of the public.

Carl Pope: Yucca Mountain is a political solution to a scientific problem. There is ample evidence that it poses a major risk of leaking radiation long before the wastes stored beneath its surface have lost their toxicity. Congress picked the site because Nevada has a small population and is relatively powerless to fight back, and other states didn’t want the waste to end up within their boundaries. Given that we still have no idea how to safely and permanently store nuclear waste, we shouldn’t build new nuclear power plants–it’s simply irresponsible.

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