Thursday, November 29, 2012

East Coast Energy Risks

CNN recently ran a print piece titled "Data shows East Coast gas shortages were inevitable".  The article points out that, given the situation before Hurricane Sandy, any largish disruption was going to create a gasoline shortage.  A number of reasons for the short term problem were cited: low regional reserves, recent refinery closures, heavy dependence on long pipelines, and the dependence of local retailers on the electricity being on in order to operate their pumps.  The author concludes that it will not be easy for the New York metropolitan area to avoid the same risk in future storms as well.

Nor was the situation confined to the New York region.  The area around Washington, DC also experienced wide-spread power outages as shown in the chart to the left (Credit: Washington Post), although they recovered much more quickly.  The risks are widespread throughout the BosWash urban corridor.  These are short term risks: high winds knock out power lines, storm surge floods other sorts of infrastructure, etc.  The more important long-term point alluded to in the article is that the region sits at the end of long pipelines, long power lines, long rail lines, and long shipping routes over which it receives the large majority of its energy inputs.

 The situation is likely to get worse over the next couple of decades.  The area is home to a number of aging nuclear reactors.  Yesterday, the New York Public Service Commission ordered Con Edison, the principle power provider for New York City, to develop plans to keep the power on in the event the Indian Point nuclear complex is shut down (Indian Point provides about 25% of the city's electricity).  The Indian Point operating licenses expire in 2013 and 2015, and renewals are likely to be held up both by procedures at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the political opposition of the governor.  Nor are the Indian Point reactors the only ones that are aging badly (see Oyster Creek's tritium leaks in New Jersey for another example).  Proposed alternatives -- new gas-fired generation, increased imports of hydro power from Quebec -- generally increase the dependence of the region on distant energy supplies.

 From time to time I get into arguments with people about the future of the US East Coast cities in an energy-constrained future.  The people I argue with assert that those cities are in the best position, because they use so much less energy per capita than, say, Mississippi or South Dakota.  My side of the argument is that those cities are very risky places to be, because while they may use less energy, they are dependent on a very large long-distance network of transport systems to get the energy they do use.  A modern city without electricity isn't a city any more; in fact, it quickly becomes uninhabitable as the elevators, refrigeration, water, sewage treatment and so forth quit working.

I'm not as pessimistic as John Michael Greer, but do anticipate a slow steady change in what America and the world look like as energy constraints begin to pinch.  In the long run, I expect (although I don't suppose I'll live long enough to see it) the US to separate into multiple independent parts.  One of the interesting aspects of that separation will be how BosWash behaves.  They're wealthy, they have tremendous political power within the current structure, but they are heavily dependent on a far-flung network to deliver the energy they need.  Whether they can keep the energy flowing over that network will be an interesting question.

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