GUEST COMMENTARY: Energy production must move away from private sector

Sunday, July 31, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Flip on that switch,

Who cares the source;

We'll get gouged

For it, of course.

Energy production is too vital to be left to private industry's tender mercies. Therefore, sensible nations run that sector of the economy themselves. Unfortunately, there aren't many sensible nations, and those that are often get invaded.

Hence, the International Monetary Fund just made Greece sell off its government-owned electric utility, the Public Power Corp. Consequently, the private misuse of Greek energy will now further destroy both the world's economy and its environment.

To wit locally, coal is a key cause of climate change, but coal companies still succeed in squeezing out environmental exemptions and federal subsidies. That's because oil is identified ever more plainly as a main cause of both wars and climate disruption. Oil companies nevertheless continue to muscle through subsidies and pipeline permits. And, even as the links between natural gas "fracking," or hydraulic fracturing, and grievous water pollution grow clearer, gas companies are spreading their drilling operations like kudzu around the world. And, as the dangers posed by the world's aging nuclear reactors are becoming better known … Well, you get the picture.

In the United States, even though we have now identified some major renewable solutions for energy, there are no appealing profits in them and no big corporations lobbying to get them built. Wind and solar power are commonly recognized answers to climate change, but there's little money to be made exploiting them. No lucrative mines or wells are required, for example.

What those sustainable solutions desperately need are permits and transmission lines. To get these requires expensive lobbying and strong government support, both of which are lacking today. Coal, oil and gas control Congress. Nuclear power is the darling of the White House.

Then add to this corporate energy cartel the classic American-style monopoly of electricity. It makes an interesting case. Back when streetlights first became feasible 100 years ago, some municipalities undertook that task themselves. Others fobbed it off to newly formed lighting companies. Over time, most of those municipal departments grew to provide cheap, reliable power to their towns. The corporations, conversely, grew to become monster monopolies. Public utilities commissions struggle, generally unsuccessfully, to regulate them. Power companies still do what all monopolies do — overcharge.

As a result of leaving most energy to the pillage of the private sector, coal mines devastate the environment and society from West Virginia to Bangladesh; oil extraction defiles life in Louisiana, Alberta and Nigeria; natural gas fracking destroys water tables in Pennsylvania, New York and Colorado; uranium quietly poisons western Indian reservations and other poor spots around the globe.

Yes, it's a bit late to correct this catastrophic public policy mistake and move energy into the public sector. We couldn't afford it. But we can do a whole lot better on subsidies, permits and regulations. President Barack Obama is surely better at this than President George W. Bush, but he's still tragically wimpy.

And because Congress is effectively paralyzed on energy issues, it's unfortunately left to the White House to promote wind, solar, geothermal and tide energy. But there are no tasty profits looming from any of these technologies, so don't hold your breath.

William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn. This column was first published at

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Ellis Smith July 31, 2011 | 5:24 a.m.

Apparently Mr. Collins has lead a sheltered life. Has he ever lived and worked in a country where the state (meaning the federal government) controls electrical power generation? I have. The DAILY power outages were very enjoyable! You see, capacity was marginal, because unlike private sector generation the bureaucrats had failed to plan ahead. Bureaucrats in various countries frequently fail to plan ahead.

The country in question was near the equator, so you can guess at what time of day the power outages occurred: about 2-3 in the afternoon. This also meant that people had no electricity in their homes, with a temperature at 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

In order to operate a factory without power interruption it was necessary to begin the day shift early in the morning (still dark) and run until Noon, but our furnaces, which operated 24/7, had flame safety devices on them and had to be manually restarted each time an electrical outage occurred.

The bureaucrats were located in the national capital several hundred miles away. Their air conditioning was no doubt working and their offices were probably very comfortable.

Air conditioning notwithstanding, what's the track record for some of our EXISTING government agencies? Do we really want the federal government to control power generation?

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking July 31, 2011 | 7:58 a.m.

"Wind and solar power are commonly recognized answers to climate change, but there's little money to be made exploiting them."

Actually wind and solar are fairly profitable things, especially when you look at the generous subsidies they enjoy. They're just a lot more expensive per energy unit than conventional sources. They're also hard to integrate into the grid in large quantity because of their unpredictability.

"Energy production is too vital to be left to private industry's tender mercies."

Starting an electric utility is a fairly capital intensive thing, so cities (or other govb't entities) find it easier to get financing if they operate it themselves. However, if we look at CW&L, the electricity they generate is a good biy more expensive than the electricity which Ameren sells (Columbia gets up to about half of its power from Ameren anyway). Large private power companies tend to be more efficient than government run ones.

It's one thing to advocate for renewables to help stabilize CO2 levels, but understand electricity so generated will be far more expensive than what we enjoy now.


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Gary Straub July 31, 2011 | 11:00 a.m.

"Apparently Mr. Collins has lead a sheltered life. Has he ever lived and worked in a country where the state (meaning the federal government) controls electrical power generation? I have."

This statement is much like those who say it is not hot here so there is no warming of the planet. I have lived and traveled extensively in countries that have state owned or state controlled utilities that function very well. I have also experienced, as have most of us, power outages here. The author's point that energy is and should be of utmost national security is very valid. Look what allowing the oil industry to charge 'what the market will bare' has done to the world economy.

The overlooked point is the amount of influence the energy lobby has on us. It is extremely difficult and expensive to get permits for alternative sources to connect to the grid. There is no logical reason to not allow all forms of energy to contribute to the grids resources, other than it would increase supply thus eventually leading to lowered costs to the consumer, we the people.

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frank christian July 31, 2011 | 2:24 p.m.

Gary Straub - "Look what allowing the oil industry to charge 'what the market will bare' has done to the world economy." Not sure about the world, but this is what market priced oil (even after our Democrat controlled Gov't has hampered it's production at every turn) has done for the U.S. economy.

"1. US consumers’ energy spending accounts for only 5.2% of disposable income, below 6.3% in 2008 and a 6.5% average during the 1980s—a decade in which real US GDP grew at a 3.0% compound annual rate. (We use 2008 because oil hit its nominal all-time high that year. But even so, neither oil prices nor flagging consumer spending were significant drivers of 2008’s financial panic.)" Your attitude reads like that of any "anti-profit as a motive", run of the mill,liberal.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking July 31, 2011 | 3:42 p.m.

Gary Straub wrote:

"There is no logical reason to not allow all forms of energy to contribute to the grids resources,"

Actually there is, and it's a reason I didn't fully understand when I installed my first solar system.

Electricity from the grid has two properties, voltage and frequency. The voltage is set by transformers, but the frequency is set by the speed of the generators and never changes.

If you increase the load on a generator, its speed will decrease, and therefore the frequency of the electricity it is generating. To meet load, and maintain a constant frequency, more energy must be applied to the generator, returning its speed to normal. Vice versa for decreased load. Thia is how power companies follow load (it's done more or less automatically, by monitoring frequency - the machines are called governors), and give us reliable power, at a constant frequency.

Inductive (Google is your friend) things like generators and transformers do not operate efficiently at frequencies very different from their design frequency. This is why ntility generators will disconnect from the grid if frequency varies more than perhaps 5%.

If you add a large amount of a variable generating resource (say a wind farm), the governors of the mechanical generators now have to follow both the load from customers, and the constantly varying output of the wind farm. Depending on the size of the farm relative to the generators, this may cause situations where the output (or lack of it) from the wind farm overwhelms the capacity of the mechanical generators to compensate. This means things trip off line, and we have a power failure. It's happened in Texas, where wind was just a few percent of the total grid mix:

Addressing the dispatchability problems of wind and solar are going to take a lot more than activists demanding more of it. There are fundamental physical reasons why power companies are reluctant to invest in wind and solar, even with generous subsidies. If addition of a resource makes it more difficult to provide reliable electricity, then that resource is a lot less valuable than its average power output might otherwise indicate.


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Ellis Smith August 1, 2011 | 5:57 a.m.

What Collins proposes has historically been called "nationalization," yet Collins does not use that word. Maybe the words "nationalization" and "nationalize" lack the luster Collins wanted for his polemic.

While we're at it, let's nationalize commercial air carriers, the railroads, and motor freight carriers. They must be awful people too. Some railroads derive a considerable portion of their revenue from hauling coal. What more need be said?

During recent weeks we - and the entire world - have been treated to the sorry spectacle of our federal government unable to get its financial act together. Perhaps it should worry more about its internal operations and less about any safaris into the private sector. :)

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking August 1, 2011 | 7:58 a.m.

Ellis Smith wrote:

"What Collins proposes has historically been called "nationalization,"..."

Yes. Venezuela nationalized its oil fields several years ago, and their oil output has been dropping steadily since. Nationalization has a poor track record historically at improving production and services.


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Gary Straub August 1, 2011 | 11:05 a.m.

'Your attitude reads like that of any "anti-profit as a motive", run of the mill,liberal.'

Brilliant response, I never indicated that the cost of energy had anything to do with the recession, that was your mis-interpretation. The exorbitant cost of fuel has caused a problem with inflation which is disastrous during a time of crisis such as this. Although people like the one that wrote the above statement seem to have a problem with mirror vision, what we pay at the pumps is only a small fraction of the equation. Diesel fuels which have been selling at a far higher price than gasoline, are the real culprits. Everything that is made or sold relies to some extent on diesel. Diesel is an oil and requires less refining than gas and cost less to produce, besides being used for the transportation of most goods, is the most used fuel for energy production.

As far as the hertz equation, that issue has been resolved. However, solar and wind or only two of the many sources for sustainable energy sources. bio-mass, hydroelectric, geothermal, and the best,IMHO, fuel-cells, are some of the alternatives which are working very well. Right now alternative energy sources are producing more of our nations electricity than nuclear, which shatters the myth of the naysayers.

Funny Venezuela was mentioned as it is one of our major suppliers. Also Mexico, any body ever heard of PEMEX. There are many countries that successfully either own, or control the fuel industry of their country as they know that energy is of the most vital security issues there is, which was the point of the article in the first place.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz August 1, 2011 | 12:50 p.m.

Or maybe those countries want to make sure they benefit (i.e. receive money) from those energy sources?

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield August 1, 2011 | 2:06 p.m.

"They're also hard to integrate into the grid in large quantity because of their unpredictability."

Hence this question on the General exam:

G4E11 (C)
Which of the following is a disadvantage of using wind as the primary source of power for an emergency station?

A. The conversion efficiency from mechanical energy to electrical energy is less than 2 percent

B. The voltage and current ratings of such systems are not compatible with amateur equipment

C. A large energy storage system is needed to supply power when the wind is not blowing

D. All of these choices are correct

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking August 5, 2011 | 3:39 a.m.

I'd say "C", as I power my station off solar, but with a large battery reserve. Conversion of mechanical energy in generators is usually very good, and current and voltage requirements are simply a matter of having the right converters.

Gary Straub wrote:

"As far as the hertz equation, that issue has been resolved"

It hasw not, and cannot be as long as the grid relies on mechanical generators to follow load (without significant energy storage, e. g. pumped hydro). It's an issue with the mechanical generators, not the renewables.

"Right now alternative energy sources are producing more of our nations electricity than nuclear,"

Almost all of that is hydro, which is the most desirable energy source for following variable generators. Denmark owes its large wind contribution to Norway's hydro - without it, they'd use wind a lot less efficiently.

Show me one commercial fuel cell that is providing power to the grid.

Venezuelan oil production is in decline, and Chavez has been powerless to do anything about it other than appropriate resources that were built with foreign investment. Mot a climate to encourage further foreign investment.

The scidentific case for man's contribution to climate change is strong, ande electrical generation is a big part of that. We need a mix of low carbon electrical sources, plus a hefty dose of efficiency and conservation, to stabilize CO2 levels. This includes the "N" word - we won't do it without it.


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