JABbering Stooge

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Are we getting Enroned in CenTex?

Remember the California blackouts in 2000/2001? It's happening in Texas now.

Yesterday, we had rolling blackouts here in central Texas as record-high triple-digit temperatures beat down on the city. The official recorded temperature was 100 degrees, and in some parts of the Austin TV stations' viewing areas, got as high as 106 - in April, no less (and they say that global warming is a myth!).

As a result, pressure on the energy grid (of which 15% was already down for seasonal maintenance) forced the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to institute rolling blackouts yesterday and consumers are being asked to reduce their energy use between 3 and 7 PM today. According to the Austin American-Statesman, the outages were felt across much of Texas, including Houston and Dallas. And yet, ERCOT spokesman Paul Wattles claimed that doing the rolling blackouts helped prevent "region-wide outages." Earth to Paul Wattles: when an energy crunch affects something like 60% of your coverage area, that IS a region-wide outage! (ERCOT's grid covers 80% of Texas, and is essentially separate from the national grid - connected in only three places.)

Of course, as with the California blackouts, conservatives will jump on this to lay every last micron of blame at the feet of environmenalists and people who want the energy industry to be regulated. They'll break out the usual strawman arguments. Envirionmentalists don't want ANY increase in production capacity (because they're evil, terrorists who hate capitalism and want us to return to nature, conservatives will say with a Cheney-esque sneer). The regulation proponents want to drive energy companies out of the state (the same argument they made to make malpractice lawsuits illegal in 2003) - because reglation propoents are evil communists who hate competition and want big government to control EVERYTHING conservatives will say sneeringly (and these are the same people who want big government in a woman's uterus, your web browser, your telephone, your e-mail, your medical records, your political history, etc. etc. etc.).

The answer to both these charges is simple. The problem with the power grid in this country is NOT lack of power generation. The problem is that we've got First-World generating capacity but Third-World transmission infrastructure - the transmission lines can't handle the amount of energy that's being sent over them, especially at peak usage hours - that much was made clear in the 2003 Northeastern Blackout. And besides, even if power generation were an issue, the environmentalists argue that there are more eco-friendly ways of getting that generating capacity - wind and solar power and bio-diesel/ethanol for now (which have gotten a lot more efficient in recent years, but are just not getting the focus they need, especially under this administration which is heavily beholden to the oil/nuclear fission lobby) and nuclear fusion power and fuel cells later on down the road.

As for energy regulation, it is necessary, as in all market activity to prevent corrupt CEOs and accountants from gaming the system for their own personal gain at the expense of their employees and the American public in general. I would think that the Enron/WorldCom/Tyco debacle in 2002/2003 would've clearly illustrated this necessity, but clearly, some people are resistant to education that contradicts their ideological beliefs.

Oh, and speaking of energy prices, oil is now $71/barrel. Here in Austin, average gasoline prices have always lagged behind the national average...until now. One year ago, the average price of unleaded gas in Austin was $2.095/gallon, while the national average was $2.216/gallon. Today, Austin's average price per gallon is only four cents lower than the national average - $2.733/gallon in Austin vs. $2.773/gallon nationwide.

So the question, then, is this: are we getting Enroned in Central Texas? You decide.

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