Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Is Mickey Kaus My College Classmate? If So, Do I Need To Disclose That?

Mickey Kaus, in going after Paul Krugman yet one more time, cites a paper by Gregg Easterbrook to prove that the Bush Administration’s environmental record isn’t as bad as portrayed in the media. Maybe so, but Easterbrook's paper ignores a Bush administration rollback of a Clinton administration environmental initiative — one that just may counteract any good in any overall emissions reduction proposed as part of Blue Skies.

In his review of Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago in the August 12, 2002, edition of The New Yorker (not available online), Malcolm Gladwell notes that the investigation of the 1995 Chicago heat wave by the Centers for Disease Control concluded that air conditioners might have prevented more than half of the deaths. But many low-income people couldn’t afford to run their air conditioners, and those that could have also suffered power failures that week.

As Gladwell notes, all air conditioners are basically the same. A small motor and small heat exchanger are cheaper to buy, but more expensive to run. A better motor and larger heat exchanger are more expensive to buy, but the energy savings dwarfs the higher purchase price.

Rational consumers would buy the more expensive units, knowing that they would recoup the extra cost in their electric bills. But the market didn’t quite work, because the people who bought air conditioners — builders and landlords — weren’t the people paying the utility bills to run them. So Congress adopted a minimum efficiency standard for air conditioners, which had to score at least a 10 on the seasonal energy-efficiency ratio (SEER) scale.

In its last days, the Clinton administration raised the SEER standard to 13. This spring, however, the Bush administration cut the increase by a third, to SEER 12. I suppose Kaus would call this a case where the Bush administration is getting a raw deal, because SEER 12 is still better than the old SEER 10 standard, but it’s still a rollback from the Clinton SEER 13 standard, and one with serious consequences.

Gladwell notes that SEER 13 isn’t technologically more difficult than SEER 12, simply slightly more expensive to make and more-than-slightly cheaper to operate. The battle wasn’t a typical business-versus-the environment dispute either, because while the largest air conditioner manufacturer, Carrier, favored SEER 12, the second-largest, Goodman (maker of Amana), favored SEER 13. Gladwell believes that the Bush administration felt politically safe to roll back the Clinton standard because most of the time, the difference between the two standards is “negligible” — except, because of the difference between average and peak electrical demand, during heat waves.

The Bush administration decision to cut the SEER upgrade, Gladwell calculates, means that by 2020, national peak electrical demand will be 14,000 megawatts higher than it would have been under the SEER 13 standard. The extra peak demand will require constructing about fifty new power plants, increasing the cost of electricity for everybody and straining local distribution systems when a heat wave hits.

In Chicago during the summer of 1995, extraordinary peak demand for power put an overwhelming strain on the local utility. Over 1,300 equipment failures left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity during the worst of the heat wave. If more than half of those who died could have lived only if they had had air conditioning, then those were not just interruptions in service, but killer outages — and outages that didn’t have to happen, as Gladwell writes:

But what is really staggering is how easy it would have been to avoid these power outages. Commonwealth Edison, the city’s utility, had forecast a year earlier that electricity use in the summer of 1995 would peak at 18,600 megawatts. The actual high, on the Friday of the heat wave, was 19,201. The difference, in other words, between the demand that the utility was prepared to handle and the demand that brought the city to its knees was six hundred and one megawatts, or 3.2 per cent of the total – which is just about what a place like Chicago might save by having a city full of SEER 13 air-conditioners instead of SEER 12 air-conditioners.

The Bush administration’s rollback to SEER 12 means that electricity generally will cost more, because of the higher costs in building, maintaining, and operating plants only needed to meet these infrequent higher peak demands for power. The rollback also means that local distribution systems, when faced with heat like Chicago in 1995, will operate that much more at or above capacity, and face a greater risk of crashing. Both factors mean that vulnerable people in places like Chicago — the elderly and the infirm — will die from heat waves unnecessarily. But the extra fifty power plants needed to meet the higher peak demand also will discharge more pollutants into the air, perhaps even more than the Blue Skies initiative allegedly will remove.

If that’s the counterexample of the Bush administration’s commitment to the environment, maybe somebody owes Paul Krugman an apology. Then again (and here’s my rhetorical overkill), I’m sure it’s a lot more fun to participate in some self-referential debate about bias in The New York Times than to worry about elderly people living alone in Chicago who didn't have to die during a future heat wave.

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