How the U.S. Government Can Take the Lead in Reducing Carbon Emissions

The Department Of Energy (DOE) — Power Marketing Administration (PMA) is an organization dedicated to the marketing of electricity generated from government hydroelectric dams, management of the transmission and distribution grids and economic development. To achieve its mission, the PMA has substantial technical and engineering capability, contract management expertise, good relationships with the major public utilities as well coordination and cooperation with state and local governments.

The U.S. government has other agencies involved with energy, most significant of these are the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Army Corps of Engineers. TVA designs, builds and operates electrical generation from various sources, including hydroelectric power, coal, natural gas and renewable energy (wind, a biofuel-powered plant and partnerships for home solar energy). TVA has charter advantages over the PMA in that it finances its own projects. TVA can design, purchase and build its own power generation facilities and issue its own bonds to finance the project. It must turn a profit to pay off the bonds and plan and invest wisely to sustain its independence. The result is that TVA is one of the largest cooperative power producers in the United States, with great relations with state and local governments, a history of high availability of power assets, and reliable delivery of electric power across seven states.

If the PMA and TVA were given equivalent charters and power, they could create an entirely new role for the U.S. Government: the migration of 100% of US Power production to renewable energy.

The PMA & TVA could work with state and local governments to create a 30-year plan for each region: the Northwest, West, Southwest, Southeast/Mid Atlantic, Midwest and the Northeast). The planned development could align along the territorial boundaries already managed by the PMA and TVA. Each region could build carbon-free energy plans according to the best available resources in each area.

For example, in the Southwest large-scale concentrated solar power plants (in the order of 500 megawatts (MW) could be built in the American deserts of California, Arizona, and New Mexico (and potentially even across the border into the Mexican desert) to supply 100% of that region’s electrical needs. Texas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, the organizations could focus on building large-scale wind farms using the wide open spaces and steady winds to solve the bulk of that region’s needs. Each agency could determine the role of Solar PV, setting specific goals for the number of rooftops, communities, and total PV based electricity.

These agencies could then be charged with implementation of the 30-year plan. The PMA and the TVA could be empowered to use a combination of direct investment (building renewable energy generation plants themselves) and partnerships with existing Public Utilities, Power Generation Cooperatives and interested renewable energy development companies. Detailed renewable energy generation targets could be established for each region and be expected to show annual growth targets. The plan could be a public document that would be shared with state and local government, and all potential partnerships and investors.

Why the PMA and TVA?

1. They both have strong existing relationships with the local governments that will have to be involved with selection of technology, location of generation plants (wind farms, CSP Power plants), permitting of facilities and ensuring sufficient trained local resources exist to construct projects, operate and maintain facilities and deal with the phasing out of carbon-based production plants.

2. They have established partnership arrangements with Public Utilities, power providers, engineering firms and transmission grid managers.

3. They have technical knowledge of power generation, transmission and distribution of electricity and a proven ability to sustain high asset utilization.

4. They have good customer relationships that have been created through reliable operation and savvy customer service.

If you combine these skills with a Congressional mandate to the DOE to convert 100% of U.S. electrical generation to non-carbon renewable energy and the authority to create and implement the plans over the next 30 to 35 years, the job will get done. In many cases, it would be the published plans created by the PMA and TVA with support by state and local governments that force conversion and the needed investment in renewable electrical generation. The plans would lay out how much new power will be brought online and where for each year. Existing providers may choose to be the owner and operator of plants at these new location, or simply allow themselves to be replaced as generating companies.

If you leave the choice of how each region will generate electric power to the public utilities and a hodge podge of unique state laws, then fossil fuels will remain a critical element in the U.S. for decades to come, and even more carbon-based generation will become part of America’s footprint on the world’s climate. Having the PMA and TVA lead the transition makes it clear that someone IS in charge, working toward a very public agenda within a very public timeframe to complete the project.

It will not be without conflict. Utilities and coal mines will not agree to abandon fossil fuels when we have plenty of coal for the next several generations, existing infrastructure to move it to power plants and numerous facilities to convert it into electric energy. The owners of coal-fired plants will argue that clean coal technology should be part of the program (even through there isn’t a single existing carbon-free coal-fired power plant operating anywhere in the world, and no demonstrated ability to completely remove the CO2, particulates, and other toxic elements like Cadmium or Mercury). And even if such technology could be developed, the cost to make every power plant carbon free will exceed the cost of going with carbon-free solutions like solar & wind. Not to mention that the elimination of coal-fired plants will end the environmental pollution from coal mining, transportation of coal and of course the disposal of the ash from burning the coal.

There are two additional agencies that could play substantial rolls in expanding renewable energy production: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which owns many of the existing federal dams and the Army Corps of Engineers, which also owns and operates a large number of dams that today do NOT generate Hydroelectric power. There are an estimated 5,000 dams between them that are suitable for additional generation that should be incorporated into the plan. There are also several thousand turbines whose designs are over 50 years old, and could achieve improved output with more modern turbines, water-flow system upgrades, and new downstream small hydro turbines (all without building ANY new dams).

The point is that our government CAN take the lead in making significant changes in how our electricity is generated. The U.S. government SHOULD take the lead in making a serious push to reduce America’s carbon footprint. It is a moral obligation to reduce America’s liability towards every country and citizen on the planet earth for creating climate change. It is the responsible thing to do. More importantly, it CAN be achieved without raising taxes (sell bonds to finance the plants), without tax investment credits (the MW of electricity generated will pay off the bonds) and without having to wait for consumer pressure on local electric companies and state governments to change the low investment priority existing public utilities have towards renewable energy.

Michael Mellish is a process & system design consultant with 30 years of experience in off-shore oil & gas platforms, substation automation & electrical distribution, power quality & energy management, automotive welding, high-availability systems and manufacturing execution systems. He hold patents in digital signal processing, object-based software and device diagnostics. His graduated from the University of Lowell with a BS in chemical engineering in 1978.

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