Before L.E. Modesitt, Jr. wrote best-selling sci-fi and fantasy novels, he worked on Capitol Hill. Specifically he was the director of EPA’s office of legislation and congressional affairs during the Reagan administration. And not surprisingly, Modesitt’s novels focus on the politics of environmental issues. From his early novel, The Green Progression, to his Ecolitan series, Modesitt’s plots frequently involve biological warfare and environmental disasters. More broadly, as in the recent Imager and the forthcoming Haze, Modesitt’s characters struggle with “various aspects of power, how it changes people, and how government systems work and how they don’t.”
Fortnightly sought Modesitt’s perspective on the environmental and political challenges facing the U.S. utility industry today.
Fortnightly: Where is the green movement headed? Is it sustainable, given all the other major upheavals happening in the world—most notably, the financial crisis?
Modesitt: When it gets right down to it, people will opt for whatever inconveniences them the least and doesn’t cost too much.
With the green movement, we see more pressure to account for externalities. Carbon caps provide the means to internalize externalities, and that forces changes in the cost structure and changes in the technological cycle. That’s where green pressures will meet market forces. If you have to pay a whole lot more for clean coal than for natural gas, that will change the market. Huge wind farms and solar power plants are coming. They won’t come as fast as some might hope, but they’ll come faster than many people think. As environmental pressure and political pressure rises, it will affect economics, and will make alternative fuels and green technologies more viable.
Fortnightly: The structures of carbon regulation are politically driven, and history teaches that all political trends are temporary. Won’t the pendulum swing back just as far in the other direction?
Modesitt: I don’t think so, not quite. What if the base of the pendulum moves as well? That’s what’s happened, socially and practically. We’ve moved the base of the pendulum toward the left.
Fortnightly: But when the costs hit people in the pocketbook, won’t a public backlash force policies back the other direction?
Modesitt: There always will be a backlash if things don’t work. People will pay the costs if they perceive value, but they get really irritated if they aren’t getting their money’s worth, as this recent financial crisis demonstrates. That’s why it’s important that environmental technology be well thought-out before it’s implemented on a large scale. If you see a bunch of environmental plants going up and the government gets stuck with the bill, that will create a backlash.
One of the big dangers the green movement faces is forecasting greater benefits than are possible. There’s no way we can quickly change the fundamental infrastructure of the power industry, or the way we use power. You can change it, but it’s got to be gradual, because tremendous capital has been invested.
Fortnightly: As federal environmental policies become more restrictive, the EPA is gaining 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 more concentrated areas.
This is creating a logistical problem for the power industry, and it could create a social problem. Already you’re seeing the effects, in terms of cascading blackouts. A transformer fails here, and all of a sudden the voltage changes and the whole area blacks out. The grid isn’t totally adequate in many areas, which makes the problem worse. But nobody wants a power line built close to them, and nobody wants higher rates no matter what the downside might be. Then when something goes wrong they want it fixed immediately.
To add another complication, it’s conceivable that someone will come up with a fairly inexpensive way to generate distributed power for individual households. What will that do to the grid? What happens when 20 million people want net metering? Will you get power surges you didn’t anticipate?
As power gets more concentrated, the black swans get more dangerous. The negatives become greater.
I don’t think most political institutions recognize how great these problems could be. They don’t want to address it politically, because it points out the vulnerability of the political system. Anything you promise costs money. People can see the benefit if you build them a park, but they don’t see the benefit if their electric system is reliable. As far as most people are concerned, the system always has been reliable. It might have been teetering on the edge for 50 years, and kept together with the equivalent of baling wire and tape, but it’s been reliable.
Fortnightly: That’s a good argument for investing in the smart grid—to maintain reliability while also improving system efficiency and integrating green resources.
Modesitt: True, but then you’re talking about more costs, and a smart grid can do only so much.
Maybe I’m overreacting, but say we get to a world with electric vehicles. What happens to your power load when all those Priuses get recharged every night? Today a lot of power plant maintenance is done at night when loads aren’t as heavy. What happens to your maintenance schedule?
We have a whole generation of people going mobile. My kids don’t even have land lines, and their phones have to be charged at night. One person is no big deal, but a whole generation … I’ve got to believe that when we have more mobile devices charging at night, it will have an impact on the power structure.
We’re seeing this on a greater societal level. Twenty-five years ago in Washington, D.C., there was a defined rush hour—3:30 to 6:30. Now it’s like 2 until 9:30. The roads are jammed all the damned time. Grocery stores used to be closed on Sunday. Now they’re open 24 hours, seven days a week. That’s a lot of power usage. We’re moving into a 24 hour-a-day society, and that has obvious power implications.