Holes in the ground update

Warren half-way supports my pumped storage plan.

Some random blogger, last month, arguing for a large US investment in pumped hydro storage:

Picking with a pin, a 100 GW initial programme looks reasonable. […] it will cost a ballpark $60 bn. […] Where should the dams go? As a climate justice measure, it has to be Appalachia, since that is where most of the unemployed miners are and will be.

Candidate Elizabeth Warren, adopting Inslee’s climate plan with bells and whistles, earlier today:

We’ll provide dedicated support for the four Power Marketing Administrations, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Appalachian Regional Commission to help them build publicly-owned clean energy assets and deploy clean power to help communities transition off fossil fuels. And we’ll expand investments in smart energy storage solutions and cybersecurity for the grid.

Pretty close. The only thing the Appalachian Regional Commission can usefully spend money on is pumped storage, so Warren’s plan would buy some. However, her plan lacks specificity, numbers, and immediacy. “If you build a Bath County dam here, it will create 1,000 jobs for five years”. She achieves this elsewhere:

I’ll also invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, including ensuring that every federal interstate highway rest stop hosts a fast-charging station by the end of my first term in office.

See the difference?

China is currently building 30 GW of pumped hydro, on top of the existing stock of 19 GW, a shade under the USA’s 24 GW. The programme includes one 3.6 GW megaproject at Fengning which will knock Bath County from its three-decade reign as the world’s largest. Another 6 GW has just been added to the pipeline, taking the future total to 55 GW. The USA is being left in the dust and should aim at a bare minimum to match this.

The ambitious rollout is steered by China State Grid, the huge national high-voltage transmission monopoly. Warren’s plan leaves out a national grid too, merely rebranding FERC, weak tea by her high standards. But it may be good politics. Steering new funding to existing public bodies can be got through Congress by reconciliation. A national grid and electricity market would need primary legislation, a very scarce resource in the Warren (or Sanders or Biden) Presidency.

FWIW, if I were an American Democrat and primary elector, I would focus less on the details of the rival climate plans, and more on the ability of the candidates to get anything done. The plans will converge, as there are few serious ideological divides among Democrats equivalent to those on universal health care. The nearest is on nuclear power. Sanders rules it out; Biden will spend on research; Warren ducks. Fair enough, as the practical question is merely how much money to throw away on new reactor designs that will never be built commercially at any scale. Nuclear is a side-issue, not worth wasting political capital on. It’s more important who the new President would appoint as Secretary for Energy.

Footnote

For aficionados, there’s an interesting machinery-of-government angle. One part of the DoE’s job is minding the nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear waste. These are thousand-year headaches, with no tolerance for mistakes, and highly technical, though they only create major policy issues irregularly. That is why Obama appointed top-flight nuclear physicists as Secretaries. This inevitably creates a pro-nuclear bias in the other side of the job, energy policy. Warren (&c) might consider hiving off the nuclear stewardship job to a distinct non-Cabinet agency with considerable professional autonomy, like the Fed, and a real scientist in the Chu or Moniz mould as head. The Cabinet-level energy and climate czar would have plenty of other things to do, leading a multi-trillion-dollar GND.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

3 thoughts on “Holes in the ground update”

  1. I just wonder how much waste and corruption we are going to have to swallow to get programs like these accomplished. I can see capacity-based incentives working but I hate to see politicians deciding on where and how capacity should be built.

  2. After the overspend on the Jubilee Line extension in London, somebody farsighted decided to prevent the same happening with the London Olympics. The work was essentially a thorough revamp of the standard forms of contract for large construction projects, stripping out the many incentives for delay and waste. For instance, it became nearly impossible for the London Olympic Organizing Committee to change the specifications for new venues after contract signature. The Olympics infrastructure was built on time and to budget. In France, the Millau motorway viaduct and the Perthus HSR tunnel were also built on time and to budget. (The latter had to wait several years till the Spanish, saddled with an unreformed contract system, got round to building the much easier connecting link to Barcelona.) Such changes are not a panacea: the huge Crossrail project is late and over budget, but not absurdly so. See also Rickover’s nuclear submarines. It is possible to get public infrastructure right.

    On PHS dams, the political aspects are (a) NIMBY opposition (b) local job creation. It does not seem plausible to ignore these and delegate the decision to unaccountable technocrats. But you can have a pretty transparent process of choice from a shortlist of technically optimised project options.

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