Monday, October 2, 2017 Blog · News

Wendell Berry film on Tuesday. The energy solution – competition and conservation. Don’t rush to gas. First, decentralize – wisdom from an options trader. Things we ought to do now.

by Dana Beach


First, an acknowledgment of last week’s mistake.  Two sharp-eyed readers pointed out that my description of the Land Institute’s perennial grain program contained an embarrassing malapropism.  I said the Institute was developing “perineal” grains.  If you don’t know what that means, don’t look it up.  My only excuse is that my computer was too dumb to recognize the error.  Sorry!

The following article from the Post and Courier reports that the Charleston Music Hall will present a movie this Tuesday called “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.”  The sponsors are Lowcountry Local First, Grow Food Carolina, the Lowcountry Street Grocery and Blue Bicycle Books.

Post and Courier: Film to focus on ‘localism’ message of author, farmer Wendell Berry

(You can reserve tickets here: “Look & See” at the Charleston Music Hall )

If there was ever a time to contemplate Wendell Berry, it is now.  Over the past 50 years, his beautiful, inspiring essays and poems have extolled the importance – environmentally, economically and spiritually – of localism and good work, of embracing ecological limits, of intellectual humility and of life on a human scale.  At the same time, Berry has warned of separating (geographically) production from consumption, of technological arrogance and of striving for comfort and convenience over honest labor.

This website lists 17 rules for a sustainable community from Berry.

Sustainable Traditions: Wendell Berry: 17 rules for a sustainable local community

The following three are especially relevant:

6. Develop properly scaled value-adding industries for local products to ensure that the community does not become merely a colony of a national or global economy.

7. Develop small-scale industries and businesses to support the local farm and/or forest economy.

8. Strive to supply as much of the community’s own energy as possible.

Each of this week’s articles reveals the risks of ignoring Berry’s perspective.

For example, the debacle over SCANA and Santee Cooper’s abandoned nuclear plant worsens almost every day.  This example of technological and financial hubris and mismanagement will cost everyone – rate payers, taxpayers and regular citizens – more than $6 billion in one way or another, on top of a decade of delay and missed opportunities.

All is not lost, though.  Perhaps the experience will provide the wake-up call necessary to change direction and, with Berry’s principles in mind, set a course for a sustainable energy future.

But how?  The following link will take you to an 8-minute video of Conservation League Energy and Climate Director Eddy Moore.  Eddy testified last week before the S.C. House committee examining the nuclear fiasco.

YouTube: Eddy Moore’s testimony at S.C. House

Eddy proposes two principles – competition and conservation.  On the first point, he suggests that we separate energy production from energy transmission, and that we allow private companies and homeowners full access to produce energy and sell it to the “power grid,” which would continue to be operated by the utilities.

The following article from Slate explains why that is important.

Slate: After the hurricanes, can we rebuild a stronger, greener grid?

From the article:

Back in 2011, when a magnitude 9 earthquake hit just off the coast of Japan, the initial seismic activity broke records on its own, but the resulting tsunami and nuclear meltdowns made the disaster truly horrific. Almost 16,000 people died, and millions went without electricity. But as Reuters reported in a recent piece, in the six years since the disaster struck, a “quiet energy revolution” has started. Motivated by their harrowing experiences in the 2011 earthquake and its aftermath, residents of the northern city of Higashi Matsushima are using relief funds and clean energy subsidies to rebuild better than before:

After losing three-quarters of its homes and 1,100 people in the March 2011 temblor and tsunami … The city of 40,000 chose to construct micro-grids and de-centralized renewable power generation to create a self-sustaining system capable of producing an average of 25 percent of its electricity without the need of the region’s local power utility.

The city’s steps illustrate a massive yet little known effort to take dozens of Japan’s towns and communities off the power grid and make them partly self-sufficient in generating electricity.

The bottom line is that decentralized, competitive power production is:  1. Safer and more reliable. (It does not depend on a few gigantic power plants.)  2.  Cleaner. (It includes renewable sources like solar and wind when they are cost competitive, as they [especially solar] are today in South Carolina.)  3.  Cheaper. (Many producers compete to provide the lowest cost to consumers.)

This change must be a part of any reform package for things to change for the better.

Eddy also explains that energy efficiency – the least expensive option to meet current and future energy needs – must be supported more aggressively than it has been.  But, he notes, SCANA has cut back on efficiency every year for the past three years.  This is beyond foolish, when efficiency costs around 3 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to the nuclear plant, which, at best, would have been 10 times that cost.

This next article from the Post and Courier reports on one potential mistake we could make right away – rushing to build more natural gas plants to replace the lost nuclear capacity.

Post and Courier: Disputed East Coast pipeline likely to expand to South Carolina

The article reports that Virginia-based Dominion Energy is considering a major expansion of their gas system into South Carolina.  Called the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the project could bring a billion cubic feet of gas a day into the state, according to Dominion.

The pipeline is already supported by the state’s business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Manufacturers Alliance.  It is worth noting that these groups also enthusiastically supported and promoted the Base Load Review Act, which allowed SCANA to charge customers $5 billion in advance for the abandoned nuclear plant.

These types of reflexive endorsements, especially by groups that are highly respected in the Legislature, are irresponsible and potentially harmful.  Any decision on new pipelines must be justified by a rigorous, objective and comprehensive assessment comparing this option to other energy sources.  And the analysis should consider the environmental costs of burning carbon.  With respect to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, we will soon see whether our state’s leaders have learned anything from the nuclear plant experience.

A final note this week on scale.  The London Times has called Nicholas Hassim Taleb, the author of “The Black Swan,” the “hottest thinker in the world.”  Taleb approaches decision making from a completely different perspective (options trading) than Wendell Berry does (farming).  But he comes to the same conclusion.  In this article from the Financial Times, Taleb echoes Berry’s conclusion about the risk presented by large, centralized economies and technologies.

Financial Times: Whatever the weather

The author writes:

Taleb has plenty of advice to offer us on how to become more antifragile. (By which, he means resilient and less prone to giant mistakes.)  We should embrace unpredictable change, rather than chase after an illusion of stability; refuse to believe anyone who offers advice without taking personal risk; keep institutions and systems small and self-contained to ensure that they can fail without bringing the entire system down; build slack into our lives and systems to accommodate surprises; and, above all, recognize the impossibility of predicting anything with too much precision.

I recommend Taleb’s books to anyone trying to figure out why we consistently make such bad decisions, and how we can do a better job in the future.

Finally, bad decisions are not only about doing the wrong thing, they are also about doing nothing when most of the evidence is in.  As the old version of the Episcopal General Confession said: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done…”

This op-ed from the Post and Courier by Mark Bloom makes the case for bold action on flooding in Charleston.

Post and Courier: Bloom editorial: Take quick action on flooding

Charleston needs a flooding czar, a power broker with the unchallenged authority to make politicians and bureaucrats shiver in their Wellies. This person needs a blank check for engineering and financial decisions to make Charleston as flood-proof as possible, as quickly as feasible, say 2018 or 2020. Otherwise, the city will tread water till it drowns. Otherwise, homeowners will be forced to sell to the lowest bidders and the Charleston boom will fizzle into a layer of pluff mud.

We also know that the city is largely defenseless against a big-time storm surge.

Yet the city is moving at a glacial pace. Take for example the news that an expert in Dutch dikes may visit Charleston for consultations sometime in the next few weeks, date uncertain. Next few weeks? Why not last spring? Why not last year? Or the year before that? Did the mayor just hear about the wonders of Dutch dikes?

Indeed, such defeatist talk is meek and self-fulfilling, not that of a bold and courageous leadership. Bold and courageous was when President Kennedy in April 1961 made the audacious pledge that America would land men on the moon before the decade was out. It was not easy but Apollo 11 put men on the moon in July 1969. It took dedication and engineering creativity.


Enjoy this magnificent fall day, surely the first of many!


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