During his twenty-five-years at Burns & McDonnell, Ken Gerling has managed transmission projects with capital costs of nearly two billion dollars, and led teams with as many as three hundred...
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