Friday, March 31, 2017

Politics, Pipelines, and Power

Among the many political events in an event filled third week of March, the Trump administration made good on a campaign promise and granted the permit to build the TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline. The permit was previously denied by the Obama State Department back in 2015 (FYI - TransCanada’s US headquarters is here in Westborough).

The pipeline has long been hailed as a way to make the US more independent of Middle Eastern oil, create tens of thousands of new jobs, and lower the price of oil. The reality is that it will do none of these things.

It will provide between 2,000 and 6,000 temporary jobs during construction and perhaps a few hundred permanent jobs during its lifetime. The pipeline will transport heavy bitumen mined from the Canadian Athabasca tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast where it will be processed for export, not domestic use. Even the pipeline steel will be manufactured in Russia or India.

We can also contrast this pipeline with the alternative energy industry’s record over the last several years. In 2015, the solar energy and wind energy industries employed 209,000 and 88,000 people respectively on a permanent basis and grew 20% from just the previous year.

States, communities and landowners along the pipeline will bear the risk in the event of a pipeline rupture. Pipelines that transport diluted bitumen, as this one will, break 25 times more frequently than pipelines transporting normal crude oil due to internal corrosion.

The benefits of Keystone XL to the US economy will be trivial, at best, although TransCanada will profit handsomely.

The powers that be have been dismissing solar and wind power as too intermittent, too expensive and too insufficient. In fact, I had conversation a couple of weeks ago with a retired engineer who worked at the Seabrook nuclear power plant, who was just as dismissive for the same reasons. The math says otherwise.

Seabrook is rated at 1244 Megawatts and produces 10,800 Gigawatt hours of electricity per year. The first five wind turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm are rated at 30 Megawatts and currently produce 125 Gigawatt hours per year. Simple math says that 430 such turbines would generate the equivalent of Seabrook plant.

430 is a big number until you consider that Europe currently has 3,230 offshore wind turbines and installed over 400 in 2015 alone. Texas has over 10,000 turbines, which produce up to 50% of the state’s power.

We are way behind the alternative energy curve here in the US, except in states like Texas, ironically enough. Economies of scale have brought down the price of solar and wind to the point where they are competitive with natural gas or coal and are way cheaper than nuclear power.

Approving the Keystone XL pipeline may have had great political symbolic value to the Trump administration; however, it’s a nonstarter economically. If Donald Trump really wanted to put his influence behind energy industries that are creating jobs, he wouldn’t be promoting tar-sands pipelines and a dying coal industry.

It should come as no surprise that clearly, he is listening to the wrong people.

Published in the Westborough News, March 31, 2017

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