THE INEVITABILITY OF TRADEOFFS, OR UNDERSTANDING NEW ENGLAND’S SKY HIGH ENERGY COSTS

by Aaron M. Renn 01/15/2015

Photo: Pawtucket Power Plant

Photo: Pawtucket Power Plant

People advance two main sorts of arguments in favor of things for which they advocate: the moral argument (it’s the right thing to do) and the utilitarian one (it will make us better off). As it happens, in practice most people tend to implicitly suggest there’s a 100% overlap between the two categories. That is, if we do what’s right, it will always make us better off too with no down sides at all.

But is that true?

For most of us, our life experience suggests that there are always tradeoffs and there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Urbanists tend to argue in way that suggests this isn’t the case. The types of policies advocated by urbanists tend to be presented not only as right in a certain moral sense, but also ones that make society better off in every way. When things go awry in some respect, as they always seem to do, this is always seen as an avoidable defect in policy implementation, not as a problem inherent to the policy itself. Urbanists aren’t alone in this of course. It affects most of the world. But since I cover the urban beat, I’ll focus on us for a minute.

Trade-offs: Energy Costs & Climate Change

Today the New York Times opens a window into the type of trade-offs that are studiously avoided in most writings on the subject of climate change. Called “Even Before Long Winter Begins, Energy Bills Send Shivers in New England,” it talks about how a lack of natural gas pipeline capacity is sending electricity and gas costs through the roof as the temperature turns cold.

John York, who owns a small printing business here, nearly fell out of his chair the other day when he opened his electric bill. For October, he had paid $376. For November, with virtually no change in his volume of work and without having turned up the thermostat in his two-room shop, his bill came to $788, a staggering increase of 110 percent. “This is insane,” he said, shaking his head. “We can’t go on like this.”

For months, utility companies across New England have been warning customers to expect sharp price increases, for which the companies blame the continuing shortage of pipeline capacity to bring natural gas to the region. Now that the higher bills are starting to arrive, many stunned customers are finding the sticker shock much worse than they imagined.

I’ve written about this before re:Rhode Island, which is among the most expensive states in America for electricity (most of which is generated by gas). But all of New England is high, with Connecticut ranked as having the country’s most expensive electricity. Gas prices spike every winter to levels far above the rest of the country, as the graph below that I found via City Lab shows:


This would appear to be a simple problem to solve: just build more pipelines. I included on mylist of starter ideas for improving economic competitiveness in the state.

Environmental Opposition to New Energy Projects Unfortunately, planned pipelines haven’t been built due to environmental opposition:

The region has five pipeline systems now. Seven new projects have been proposed. But several of them — including a major gas pipeline through western Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, and a transmission line in New Hampshire carrying hydropower from Quebec — have stalled because of ferocious opposition.

The concerns go beyond fears about blighting the countryside and losing property to eminent domain. Environmentalists say it makes no sense to perpetuate the region’s dependence on fossil fuels while it is trying to mitigate the effects of climate change, and many do not want to support the gas-extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that has made the cheap gas from Pennsylvania available.

….

A year ago, the governors of the six New England states agreed to pursue a coordinated regional strategy, including more pipelines and at least one major transmission line for hydropower. The plan called for electricity customers in all six states to subsidize the projects, on the theory that they would make up that money in lower utility bills.

But in August, the Massachusetts Legislature rejected the plan, saying in part that cheap energy would flood the market and thwart attempts to advance wind and solar projects. That halted the whole effort.

Here we see the clear tradeoff in action. Reducing carbon emissions has a clear human and economic cost. High electricity costs wallop household budgets in a region with many communities that are struggling or even outright impoverished (as recently as last year, for example, a third of the residents of Woonsocket, RI were on food stamps). This particularly harms poor and minority residents. What’s more, it helps contribute to the region’s low ranking as a place to do business and its anemic job creation.

Given that gas itself is dirt cheap and will be for the foreseeable future thanks to fracking, hurting residents through high electricity prices designed to drive energy transition is clearly a deliberate policy choice.

Fair enough if you believe reducing carbon requires subordinating other public goals like more money in poor people’s pockets. But how often is this forthrightly stated by advocates? Almost never.

Instead we’re treated to article after article in various urbanist publications talking about some awesome green project that’s being implemented somewhere, and how other places ought to do the same thing. There’s lots of doom and gloom about the increased potential for future disasters if the policies aren’t followed. But there’s seldom much about the immediate negative consequences that almost certainly will follow if they are.

I like energy efficiency. I’m glad we have more fuel efficient cars. I’m very glad I don’t own a car anymore. I’m not so excited about light bulb mandates and other “feel bad” policies that don’t materially affect emissions. But there’s definitely a lot we can do on the energy front.

But I also care about things like poor people’s electricity bills and economic growth. And I’m not willing to make unlimited sacrifices (including imposing sacrifices on other people) in the name of conservation. I can appreciate that others might make different tradeoffs and want more conservation than I do. But at least they ought to be honest about the costs and harm they are imposing on people in the name of their preferred policy matrix.

Instead there’s disingenuous talk about the “green economy” powering local economies when there’s no such thing as green industry. Or claiming, as many did in response to my article earlier this year, that Rhode Island’s government is actually conservative, so its problems can’t be laid at the foot of excessively progressive policies imported from places with vastly more economic leverage than most of New England. I guess I did not know that killing gas pipelines in the name of promoting renewable energy via high prices was a Tea Party idea.

Actually, not even the places that do have huge economic leverage are behaving like this. New York City has more economic leverage than just about anybody. But it also, as the chart above shows, has cheaper gas. One reason is that, as City Lab reported, NYC recently just opened a new gas pipeline into the city:

A really important thing happened last month to New York City and the rest of the mid-Atlantic. This event will change the daily lives of millions of people, especially during the coldest months of winter. And, despite some protesters, it all went down with less fanfare than Jay Z and Beyonce going vegan for a month.

NYC Pursuing Path to Climate Resiliency

An $856-million pipeline expansion began ramping up service, allowing more natural gas to get to New York City consumers. The New York-New Jersey expansion project moves more gas the last few miles from Jersey, which is the terminus for much of the Marcellus Shale gas flowing out of Pennsylvania, into Manhattan. The Energy Information Administration called it “one of the biggest… expansions in the Northeast during the past two decades.” It will bring an additional 800 billion British thermal units (BTU) of gas to the area per day.
Maybe New England wants to out do New York City when it comes to driving a green energy transition. (NYC seems to be focusing more on climate change adaptation, aka “resiliency,” these days). That’s a valid policy choice to make. But it’s one with consequences.

Unfortunately, the consequences of these policy choices are seldom presented by their advocates. People only discover them when the costs show up in a way that can be tangible traced back to those policies. Maybe in the case of New England and energy costs, people are starting to wake up to the matter, possibly in a way similar to how sky high housing costs in so many cities woke people up to the actual trade-offs being made in housing policy.

Advocates are there to advocate of course. So perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect advocates of any stripe to give you the full story. But that’s why we should always pay attention to what the critics of particularly policies have to say. That will give us a more complete picture of the trade-offs any particular policy set will require.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.