Juicing Up for the Straight Line Projection: A Coal Rush Is On

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A variety of electricity demand growth projections have been published recently, provoking intense public debates, often triggered over coal-plant siting. It's not your classic NIMBY syndrome this time. With Climate Change, "backyard" is virtual, risk and outrage are potentially continguous to all. Citing just one recent example, Rocky Mountain News reported on a just released task force report claiming that "Colorado's demand for electricity is on track to jump 50 percent over the next two decades. To meet that burgeoning need, the state will require new power plants, which will cost billions of dollars, to generate 4,900 megawatts of additional electricity through 2025". By the way "Unless Colorado's 61 electric utilities start planning immediately, customers will suffer more outages in the future and also pay higher rates. And that will mean thousands of job losses and millions of dollars in economic losses". Setting "negawatts" aside for sake of a more methodological argument, the report's preparers seem to have assumed, as had the thousands of economic development type task forces that preceded them, that the old "straight line projection" has eternal validity, that no housing bubble will burst, and that high population growth and consumption are desireable...effectively communicating that no other scenarios belong on the table. Not decided yet: who will host the plants and transmission lines, where the cooling water will come from, and the impacts of a fifty percent increase in coal emissions into an already air quality-compromised Denver basin, or the earth's "backyard". Similar reports are out for other regions of the US. Lemming-like, this hazy future setting process appears to be the rule rather than the exception. Hence, our post photo is a pair of Lemmings. Don't holler at Coloradans for running up to the cliff's edge. They're no different than the rest of us.
The history of flat line and bubble growth projections often ends ridiculously; and, we think few regions will match such electricity demand growth. Gulf coast states? Fifty percent demand growth in 20 years? Right.

The elephant in the coal bin is immigration. If many more come and have big families, will we build capacity to match their demand? You bet. But as with all the other key factors, immigration rates will not be uniform by state or region.

The last time that Japanese car makers stole market share after gas prices went sky high, new regional economic development stereotypes were named: the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt. Could we be poised for a parallel discrepancy? Haze Belt seems likely for Denver and environs. Hey how about the Green Belt? Where would that be?

While a Coal Rush mentality seemingly drives most state and and regional electrical generation planning, a more circumspect approach is being tested in California, wherein at least some of the "unmentionables" like climate are dealt with directly. If California had crippling power outages for a decade to come, Colorado could indeed be offered an exodus, thus fulfilling this demand growth prophecy. Conversely, if California manages to satisfy electricity demand, balancing a host of renewable sources and conservation initiatives to do so, the Coal Rush may end where the Gold Rush began. In that lies some hope of sanity.