Outside/In gets upside down on energy efficiency

Has Outside/In been dragged into the Upside Down?

It is a question posed with the deepest respect for the New Hampshire Public Radio program hosted by Sam Evans-Brown.

Outside/In is about “the natural world and how we use it.” The stories are as vivid and compelling as the unnatural world – the Upside Down -- which the Duffer Brothers created for their Netflix series Stranger Things.

The nine episodes of Stranger Things 2 and the four episodes of Powerline, a series within the Outside/In oeuvre, have little in common beyond roughly contemporaneous release dates.  The Duffer Brothers are concerned with the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana and its struggle against sinister forces from another dimension.  Outside/In is concerned with Hydro Quebec.

“Powerline” alludes to the fact that Hydro Quebec hopes to ship 1,090 megawatts of electricity from dams in northern Quebec to electricity users in Massachusetts via the proposed Northern Pass transmission line that Eversource proposes to slice through New Hampshire lengthwise.  While the discussion in New Hampshire has focused on how that would affect the Granite State, Outside/In has done listeners the service of tracing the power to its source.

The Outside/In production team did not just do that physically, by driving some 20 hours north of Montreal to check out some of Hydro Quebec’s biggest generation facilities.  They traced the political source of the hydropower as well, by telling the story of how the Quebecois quest for self-determinism clashed with the First Nations – i.e., the native people who were dispossessed as the provincially owned utility flooded thousands of acres of land to create the Hydro Quebec empire.

This is radio at its finest – an important story, previously untold, in mostly the real voices of the people who have lived the struggle. We’ve come a long way from Lake Wobegone.

What, then, gives rise to the concern that Sam and his co-host for the Powerline series, Hannah McCarthy, have let themselves be sucked into some alternative reality?  It’s the way they opened, and then closed, their final episode.

Episode 1 was about the history of Hydro Quebec. Episodes 2 and 3 were about the First Nations.  The final episode purported to tie the whole thing together, and the folks at Outside/In began that final installment with a startling promise.

“Were going to tell you what we feel like we’ve learned,” producer Hannah McCarthy advised her listeners.  “And once you know what we think, maybe you can come to your own conclusion about the electrons that are coming down the line.”

In an era when public radio is constantly defending itself against claims of liberal bias, it’s rare indeed for a public radio program to promise an actual conclusion – a confession of what the reporters and producers actually think of the subject they have been covering.  Here, verbatim, is how Evans-Brown and McCarthy made good on that promise at the end of Episode 4:

Evans-Brown: We’ve got to get our power from somewhere.  If we build the Northern Pass or any other power line to the north, that power is linked to flooded native land, the loss of habitats, the mercury in the fish.

McCarthy: But if we choose to get it from somewhere else, our power will be linked with other things – mountaintop removal mining and black lung, or fracking and methane emissions.

Evans-Brown: When you say no to one source of power you say yes to something else.  And no matter what source you name I can give you a dedicated constituency that has legitimate grievances with that source.

McCarthy: Think we should be building offshore wind farms? Talk to the fishermen and the marine biologists.

Evans-Brown: Think we should be building massive solar farms? Talk to the open space advocates or the grid’s electrical engineers.

McCarthy: Maybe that means that if anyone tries to tell you that there’s an easy answer when it comes to this power source, maybe tell them to think it over – to think it all over, one more time.

Such a conclusion is not just cosmically disappointing.  It’s wrong – just like the Upside Down, it flouts the realities that govern existence here on Planet Earth.

In reality, there is a power source that lacks a dedicated constituency with legitimate grievances.  That power source is known as energy efficiency.

Within seconds of hearing the end of Episode 4, I tweeted my contention about energy efficiency to Evans-Brown.  Negawatts instead of megawatts, I proclaimed  (well within my allotted character count).

The always affable Sam tweeted right back:  “Seems a little glib, don't you think? As long as there is an economy it will take watts. Efficiency alone can't get us to zero emissions.”

Yes it can!  Or, at least, efficiency can get us sufficiently close to zero emissions that the zero-sum game Outside/In posits, in which there will always be some constituency that is angry and exploited, will no longer be the dominant paradigm.

According to this chart from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the U.S. used 97.3 “quads” of energy in 2016.  That’s 97.3 quadrillion BTUs, of which 66.4 was “rejected energy.”

Translation:  The U.S. wasted roughly two-thirds of the energy it used last year.   

The LLNL chart reveals that the record specific to the electric sector is the same: production of 37.5 quads; of which 24.9 quads were “rejected.”  In other words, there remains in our national economy a vast potential for squeezing more work per unit of electricity used – negawatts vs. megawatts.

One “dedicated constituency with legitimate grievances” not mentioned by Outside/In is ratepayers, especially the ones in New England where geography and history have conspired to make rates the highest in the continental U.S.  Thus it is useful to take note of this week’s reminder from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

Recently the investment banking firm Lazard issued its annual estimate of the levelized cost of available sources of electricity – but, unlike in previous years, energy efficiency disappeared from the report.  So, the ACEEE compared the Lazard numbers with established estimates of how much it costs electric utilities to invest in energy efficiency (via subsidies to customers)  and, yet again, those negawatts are the cheapest thing out there.

Here in New Hampshire, our electric utilities recently estimated that ratepayer-funded energy efficiency programs, paid for via the system benefits charge on customer bills, cost about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.  Again, according to the utilities, that’s the cheapest source of power we have, if by “power” you mean “source of the next unit of work we will pay our utilities to wring out of the electricity grid for us.”

 This is a big deal, so one can only hope the affable Outside/In crew will forgive glib comparisons to TV series about idealistic, scrappy youth who outperform their elders when it comes to beating back evil.  It’s even more glib to conclude that no plausible energy option exists that is superior to others.  Energy efficiency is that superior option.

New Hampshire lags behind the other New England states when it comes to energy efficiency.  We are the last New England state to adopt an energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) -- and when it kicks in on January 1, our EERS will involve energy savings goals roughly half of those that apply in Massachusetts.  The Bay State happens to be the best state in the nation when it comes to energy efficiency, according to the latest ACEEE annual scorecard.  New Hampshire is 21st.

Meanwhile, our state House of Representatives will vote next month on House Bill 317 which, if it becomes law, will hamstring ratepayer-funded energy efficiency in the Granite State by requiring the any changes to the system benefits charge to be enacted by legislation as opposed to administrative approval by the Public Utilities Commission.  The proponents of the bill could not truthfully attack energy efficiency on its merits, so they based their argument on the dubious theory that the system benefits charge is a tax.

The system benefits charge is not a tax -- the government doesn't collect, hold or spend the money -- it's a tariffed rate, charged by utilities with PUC approval.  The House Science, Technology and Energy Committee nevertheless approved the bill last month on a 11-10 vote after one member proclaimed that if the system benefits charge isn't a tax then it's "a robbery."

That's the kind of thinking one would expect to see in the Upside Down.