The energy industry has known for decades that federal regulators eventually would set rules under the Clean Air Act to govern emissions of mercury and other air toxics from coal-fired power...
authority. Is that anything to worry about?
Modesitt: It’s a lot to worry about. It’s necessary for the government to tell you what standards you must meet, but it’s not a good idea for the government to tell you how to do it. The EPA has the tendency to say you have to use a certain technology or process. That stifles innovation, and assumes that one size fits all. Certain technologies don’t yield the benefits that other technologies do, depending on fuel inputs, etc.
On the other hand, industry doesn’t do itself a lot of good by protesting “we can’t do that” when EPA puts forth a certain standard. It leads the EPA to say, “If you can’t meet that standard with your technology, then you must use this other technology.”
Fortnightly: Is the green movement changing the government’s role?
Modesitt: It’s not just the green movement. The green movement is a symptom of something much larger.
When I was very young, a company had a good year if it made a 5-percent profit. A CEO made 20 times what his workers made. All that has changed. Now, a 5-percent profit is considered a failure—not necessarily in the utility industry, but many industries. Bonuses two or three times an executive’s salary are part of the game plan. There’s a backlash to this sort of thing. There’s a sense of powerlessness by a large segment of the population, so people are delegating their concerns to government to tell industry what it can’t do. Whenever there’s a new regulation, the lawyers and technologists will say, “How can I get around it?” That leads regulators to create more regulations, and so on. The public’s reaction to perceived excesses is fueling a tremendous growth in government.
You see the same thing in the environmental movement. Go back to Superfund and the scandals of the Reagan administration. People got upset that companies weren’t using the best technologies, and they were creating hazardous wastes, and acid rain was denuding New England. People reacted by penalizing various classes of polluters. It’s the same mechanism.
Fortnightly: In your novels, your characters frequently struggle with unintended consequences. What consequences might blind-side utilities and policy makers focused on green energy?
Modesitt: When you concentrate on one thing, other things happen. For example, if you become more reliant on natural gas to get clean energy, you have to deal with volatile prices. When prices are low, exploration and production declines, and you get a price spike. Then everybody drills and you get a roller-coaster effect.
Another example: If you build a bigger, higher-capacity grid, you become more vulnerable to solar flares.
This is part of the population density problem. During the last century-and-a-half, we’ve been concentrating our population. The more people you put into a smaller area, the more social control you need. It requires a functioning social structure and also a functioning infrastructure.
What we haven’t seen previously is this incredible growth in power consumption. As a society we’re becoming much more power intensive. We’re funneling more power into