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As 2017 gets rolling, we are set to swear in a new President.  The politics are already interesting.  The question is what will change, when and how.  For example there has been an ongoing discussion of infrastructure bills, but aside from WITAF approval, little clear direction has been forthcoming.  We only know that private sector participation will be encouraged.  Of course virtually all projects constructed in the public sector are constructed by private contractors, so how/if that will change is unclear.

It is also unclear which industries will be affected.  There are already comments about not pursuing he renewable energy opportunities  – China sees 13 million jobs in the coming 5 years as their economy cranks up to meet the needs.  They are contributing $360 billion to enhance this sector.  I have previously blogged about potential opportunities in the US to grow renewables.  But they are just like recycling in the 1970s.  Recycling needed to be subsidized until such time as the facilities and processes were in place to make it competitive.  Now for steel and aluminum, it is less costly than virgin iron or bauxite.  That has several benefits to the economy and the environment.

I have previously suggested that those who do the research, develop the solutions and control the patents tend to rule the economy.  The US did in throughout the 20th century.  Energy is the 21st century opportunity and I would hope we don’t cede that elsewhere due to politics.  13 million jobs would really help places in rural America and place like Detroit and Flint which have the workers.  It may be that instead of the federal government doing much in this arena, the state and local officials will lead the charge.  California has been successful to a degree in this regard.  Let’s see if making money will “trump” the politics of oil. That would be good for a lot of local governments that have workers and factories, but not jobs.  That would help people like those in Flint.  And it would help their utilities.  Let’s work on this with our local officials


In an interesting twist of fate, USEPA caused a spill on the Animas River when a staffer accidently breached a dike holding back a solution of heavy metals at the Gold King mine because the misjudged the pressure behind the dike.  Pressure?  The spill flowed at 500 gpm (0.7 MGD), spilling yellow water spilled into the river.  Downstream, the plume has travelled through parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and will ultimately hit Lake Mead.  Officials, residents, and farmers are outraged.  People were told not to drink the water because the yellow water carried at least 200 times more arsenic and 3,500 times more lead than is considered safe for drinking. The conspiracy theorists are out.  The pictures are otherworldly.

colorado-mine-spillRayna Willhite holds a bottle of water she collected form the Animas River north of Durango Colo., on Thursday, August 6th, 2015. About a million gallons of toxic mine waste emptied out of the Gold King Mine north of Silverton that eventually made it into the Animas River. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald via AP)

0807 colo spill epa-spill-

But they are all missing the point, and the problem.  This is one of hundreds of “legacy disasters” waiting to happen.  We are just surprised when they actually do.  A legacy disaster is one that is predicated on events that have happened in the past, that can impact the future.  In some cases the far past.  There are two big ones that linger over communities all over the west and the southeast – mines and coal.  Now don’t get me wrong, we have used coal and needed metals form mines.  That’s ok.  But the problem is no one has dealt with the effects of mining or coal ash for many years.  And then people are upset.  Why?  We can expect these issues to happen.

One major problem is that both are often located adjacent to or uphill from rivers.  That’s a disaster waiting to happen.  The King Gold mine is just the latest.  We had recent coal ash spills in Kingston, Tennessee (TVA, 2008) and the Dan River in 2014 (Duke Power). The Dan River spill was 30-40,000 tons.  Kingston cleanup has exceeded a billion dollars.  Coal ash is still stored at both places.  Next to rivers.  We had the federal government build ion exchange facilities in Leadville, CO and Idaho Springs, CO to deal with leaking water from mine tailings from the mountains. Examples are in the hundreds.  The photos are of the two coal spills, mine tailings that have been sitting the ground for 140 years in Leadville and one of the stormwater ponds – water is red in Leadville, not yellow.

kingston_coalash POLLUTE-master675 IMG_4803 IMG_6527 (2015_03_08 17_53_48 UTC)

When the disaster does occur, the federal government ends up fixing it, as opposed those responsible who are usually long gone or suddenly bankrupt, so it is no surprise that EPA and other regulatory folks are often very skeptical of mining operations, especially when large amounts of water are involved.  We can predict that a problem will happen, so expensive measures are often required to treat the waste and minimize the potential for damage from spills.  That costs money, but creates jobs.

For those long gone or bankrupt problems, Congress passed the Superfund legislation 40 years ago to provide cleanup funds.  But Congress deleted funding for the program in the early 2000s because they did not want to continue taxing the business community (mines, power plants, etc.).  So EPA uses ARRA funds from 2009.  And funding is down from historical levels, which makes some businesses and local communities happy.  The spectre of Superfund often impacts potential developers and buyers who are concerned about impacts to future residents.  We all remember Love Canals and Erin Brockovich.  Lack of development is “bad.”  They ignore the thousands or jobs and $31 billion in annual economic activity that cleanup creates, but it all about perception.

But squabbling about Superfund ignores the problem.  We continue to stockpile coal ash near rivers and have legacy mine problems.  Instead we should be asking different questions:

WHY are these sites permitted to store ash, tailings, and liquids near water bodies in the first place?  EPA would not be inspecting them if the wastes were not there.

WHY aren’t the current operators of these mines and power plants required to treat and remove the wastes immediately like wastewater operators do?  You cannot have millions of gallons of water, or tons of coal ash appear overnight on a site, which means these potential disasters are allowed to fester for long periods of time.  Coal ash is years.  Mine tailings… well, sometimes hundreds of years.

One resident on the news was reported to have said “Something should be done, something should be done to those who are responsible!”  Let’s start with not storing materials on site, next to rivers.  Let’s get the waste off site immediately and disposed of in a safe manner.  Let’s recover the metals.  Let’s start with Gold King mine.  Or Duke Power.  Or TVA.


As storm season arrives, I found an interesting figure which comes from Power magazine and shows all the power stations that are at risk from storms.  That’s a lot of power.  The question is how do we address this?  Water and wastewater utilities are actively looking for means to reduce power costs.  Pumping water can account for 80-90 percent of total power consumption, especially with high service pumps.

Water and wastewater power plants tend to have backup power.  Or at least we hope they do.  In Florida we created FLAWarn after the hurricanes in 2005.  The concept was to put utilities together to allow them to share generators and other assets in case of emergency.  Many utilities here have generators at pump stations, tanks and on trailers.  The goal is to insure service can be provided regardless of the damage.  And that did come in handy after Wilma in 2006.  FLAWarn serves as a model for other states.

There are also renewable power which some utilities have invested in.  Renewable power on plant sites is a means to address the potential grid interruptions.  This solution, however, may not be embraced by power utilities due to the potential revenue reduction. As the water facility takes on on-site generation, the utility load profile may shift significantly placing them in under a different rate structure which may greatly reduce the benefit to the utility.  One problem.

Also there are some at work to derail green power solutions, trying to reduce the attractiveness and subsidies on renewable power.  Interesting that many power providers are not in that group because all power in the US is subsidized – oil, gas and renewables.  The oil and gas sector is much larger and while many renewable power solutions are used by large power entities.   In some states, the states have taken action to encourage these investments because of the potential benefits to the population.  Local entities have gotten involved also.  It just makes sense if you are in the right region and the price/risk ratio is right.  A number of water and sewer utilities have pursued this option successfully.  That will help as well during outages.

Now if we can keep the trees from being planted above the pipelines ….power systems


Interesting that while we all love low gas prices and the low cost of energy is fueling an expansion of our economy, including the first gains in middle income salaries since 2008, the states reliant on oil and gas may be facing real problems financially.  A year ago I read an article that noted the reluctance of North Dakota residents and politicians to invest in roads and other infrastructure despite the influx of oil money.  Keep taxes low was the mantra.  SO they did.  A recent Governing magazine article notes that a dollar drop in oil means $7.5 million decrease in revenues for the State of New Mexico.  Since oil has lost about $30 a barrel in the past year – that is $200 million loss.  Louisiana sees a $12 million cost/dollar drop so they have $171 billion less to work with.  Alaska, perhaps the most oil dependent budget (90 percent) has a $3.4 billion shortfall, but $14.7 billion in revenues.  Texas, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Kansas are other states facing losses.  Fast growing states like North Dakota and Wyoming now have hard decisions to make.  Growth in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas may be cut by 2/3 of prior estimates as a result.  A double hit on anticipated revenues.

The comparison is interesting financial straights experienced by the “property value” states like Florida, Nevada and Arizona before and after the economic collapse in 2008.  Florida politicians couldn’t wait to cut taxes and slow spending during boom years, then got caught badly after the 2008 recession when property values dropped in half and state sales tax revenues (tourism) dropped steeply.  They ran out of reserves and refused to raise taxes (after cutting them), so cut things like education and health care to balance the budget.  Not sure how either helped low and middle class Floridians get back on track since Florida has primarily create low wage jobs since that time, not high paying jobs.  We are paying the price still.  I am guessing Nevada and Arizona are similar.

We clearly have not learned the lessons of the many mill towns in the south or the rust belt cities of the Midwest that encountered difficulties when those economies collapsed. Everyone refused to believe the good times would end.  Now Detroit is half of its former self and Akron has the same population as it did on 1910.

The moral of the story is that booms great, but short term.  Diversity in the economy is a key.  Florida will continue to be subject to economic downturns more severe than other states when it relies primarily on tourism and retirees to fuel the economy.  Detroit relied on automobiles, Akron rubber and chemicals, Cleveland steel, etc.  Some day the Silicon Valley will suffer when the next generation of technology occurs that makes the current works obsolete.  It is what happens when you are a “one economy” town.  It is also what happens when you believe the booms are “normal” and fail to financially plan by putting money aside during the boom to soften the subsequent period.

An argument could be made that if the federal government had not enacted tax cuts in 2000 when the budget was finally balanced and surpluses were presumed to loom ahead, we could have banked that money (or bought down our debts), and the amount of borrowing would have been less in 2008.  Buying down debt when times are good is good business.  So is putting money in reserve.  The question is why the politicians do not understand it.  We can run government like a business financially, but takes leadership to do it.  It takes leadership to explain why reserves are good and tax cuts are a future problem.  It takes leadership to make hard decisions like raising taxes, spending more on infrastructure, requiring people to move out of flood plains, not rebuilding in vulnerable areas, and curtaining water use policies when they damage society.  Leadership is making decisions that help the needs of the many, versus the needs of the few.  Oh wait, I see the issue now.  We need Spock to lead us…

 


So what does this mean for water and sewer utilities. First, we’d love to stay out of the fray. Water and sewer utilities recognize that they are the “peak” power supply for electric utilities. The means to expand power supplies is made difficult by the rules for capital recovery for power utilities that penalizes peak and redundant power supply construction. It must be used and useful to qualify for a return. Hence NextEra builds inexpensive, small increment renewable wind systems to be made whole and encourages residents to reduce demands so they do not need to build more large scale capacity. That works as long as access to renewables or increases in efficiency are available. The use of federal subsidies encourages the used of new technology but without the subsidies, expect the construction to slow.

The European Union is looking to phase out renewable power subsidies by 2017, which may have fairly significant consequences for the European renewable market. The Koch brothers and the Tea Party operatives they fund through many organizations like the Institute for Energy Research, Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Foundation, are fighting federal tax credits for wind, while backing tax credits for oil and gas. Why do the Koch brothers keep showing up? Because as we noted in a prior blog – they stand to lose profits if the US depends less on oil and gas IT si a problem with big money interests using that money for self preservation as opposed to progression of technology and ideas.

Think what would have happened 100 years ago if big money was allowed to control progress. And I have just the perfect scenario pitting two sides of my family. My mother’s great uncle made Concord coaches. As long as horse drawn carriages and coaches were the primary transportation options, they made money. OF course many cities and towns found that they spend much of their tax money cleaning up after the horses, one of the all-time yuckiest jobs. Tons of horse poop was cleaned up nightly on the streets on many cities. Images are available on line. Of course there was also the stench, disease, vectors, etc associated with all that poop.

Then came Henry Ford. My Dad’s side of the family were Detroiters. They got jobs in the Ford factories, and made money from services to autoworkers as well. The cities loved having cars – less poop. In fact Henry’s cars worked so well, that very quickly cities didn’t have to pick up poop. And the stench and disease decreased. Of course back then, my mothers’ family did not have the same means to buy influence to prevent Henry Ford from producing cars. My uncle went broke, but America and my father’s family in Detroit, benefitted greatly as a result of the new technology. I think we all benefitted from the automobile. Thankfully the coachmakers didn’t have money.

Using politics and influence to resist new technology seems unAmerican. Using subsidies to encourage is seems far more beneficial to society as long as those subsidies actually benefit society. Subsidies have long been a means for governments to alter consumer and corporate behavior and encourage new technologies. Subsidies for recycling steel, aluminum, glass, paper and other materials remained in place until the technology was cost effective to compete with new materials. Now recovered steel is cheaper than new steel materials. The subsidies had their effect. The same is true with aluminum and glass. Subsidies in the form of grants encouraged water and sewer utilities to upgrade treatment and install pipes to serve new customers. Now those are low interest loans because most of the cost effective connections have been made. It benefitted society.

Subsides have been used for years in the US and Europe to encourage renewable power use. The result is a reduction in renewable costs as more people invested in the technology. Greater supply means lower costs (economy of scale, and, theory of economic supply and demand), and subsides are designed to reduce purchase prices sooner than the market might otherwise. Otherwise most of these industries never get off the ground because they cannot get to cost effective production levels. Stay tuned.


In a prior blog we talked about the difference between urban and rural counties and the impact of the differences between incomes and how that would affect utilities.  Keep in mind that the 40 largest urban counties in the US contain nearly half the US population as do the 50 largest utilities.  So in a recent article in Governing, the focus was on the few counties where income was higher than average.  In fact, in looking at counties, within the top 20 in per capita income are 10 counties in North and South Dakota.  Interesting until you review why.  All are in areas where fracking is ongoing and corporate farming is prevelant.  It is no surprise that the fracking boom has created wealth in rural areas that have limited populations, limited regulations and state and local officials who are desperate to reduce unemployment and stimulate laggard economies.  We noted before that rural counties are often desperate for jobs, so they often ignore what could possibly go wrong when jobs and development are the only priorities for a community.  Governing used the example of Wells County, ND where the per capita income has doubled since 1997 and is 75% above the national average.  Yet the local governments are looking at which roads they will allow to go back to gravel.  How is this possible? 

The issue is not relegated to just Wells, ND.  Despite the fact that many rural communities in areas with intensive farming or fracking have grown 10-15% since 2007, local officials are finding it difficult to raise taxes to pay for infrastructure.  Roads are the most obvious and pressing issue because of the impact from fracking traffic.  As new wells are constructed, the frackers build new dirt roads and use the existing roadways.  Some believe the need to fix many of the roads is temporary so why bother, but it neglects the need to infrastructure improvements in general.  The same argument could be used for water and sewer infrastructure as well, but these wealthy rural communities do not want to increase governmental spending to improve any infrastructure, so the opportunity to address the community needs is being lost.  

What is more interesting is that the states where these rural counties exist, including the Dakotas, along with Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and most of the southeastern states are among the states that rely most heavily on federal funding.  So when incomes increase, the dependency remains.  These are the same states that tax residents the least, spend the least on education, have the poorest health care (and the fewest people signed up for the Affordable Care Act and few have state exchanges) and have the most people in poverty.  The dichotomy between reality and the political perception is interesting in these states, which leads one to wonder if the residents of these states like their situation and keep electing representatives that reflect this desire, or they have fallen victim to political interests that cause them to vote consistently against their better interests, or for the interests of a limited few that deny them access to the education, infrastructure, medical care and other benefits their urban and wealthier neighbors enjoy. 

That is a tough question but the bigger question is how to infrastructure agencies like utilities attempt to overcome either of these perceptions?  Neglecting infrastructure, education, medical and the like does not promote local economies, does not create jobs and more likely causes the migration of the best and brightest young people out of the community in search of better prospects, which further imperils their rural situation.  Keep in mind that most cities are relatively permanent, but fracking, like mining, oil and timber before them, have been booms and busts.  The situation if far more dire after the boomtown than it was before.  After all, what could possibly go wrong when 50,000 miners, or frackers, descend upon a community of 1,500 people?  They will consume all the resources, then leave.  Locally those well paying jobs are imported due to the lack of skills and education, and then they leave with the bust.  This has played out many times in the past.  It is not sustainable.  We need to learn from the past – when the boom hits, make the investments you need in infrastructure, education, medicine, etc. so that the future is better after the bust. 

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