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Towards a Rational Power Policy, by Neil Fabricant and Robert M. Hallman; Power Generation and Environmental Change, edited by D

Power Politics

Towards a Rational Power Policy: Energy, Politics & Pollution.
by Neil Fabricant and Robert M. Hallman.
Braziller. 292 pp. $8.95.

Power Generation and Environmental Change.
by David A. Berkowitz and Arthur M. Squires.
MIT Press. 440 pp. $16.95.

These two books, with similar if not interchangeable titles, cover the same subject but resemble each other as little as Uncle Tom’s Cabin resembles Frederick Olmsted’s Journey Through the Seaboard Slave States. My analogy is more than whimsical. Human slavery and the generation of electrical power both represent efforts to harness energy so that work may be done. One method relies on the grossly inefficient mobilization of human metabolism, while the other depends on converting heat to mechanical energy which can then be used to induce electric current in a wire coil by spinning it in a magnetic field. Both techniques—slavery and electric generation—have their critics Who stand on moral or practical grounds, or both. Fabricant and Hallman belong to the Harriet Beecher Stowe school: they are radical abolitionists. The technical writers assembled by Squires and Berkowitz resemble Olmsted in their dedication to the goal of amelioration: recognizing that the act of abolition will not itself usher in a millennium of peace and plenty, they explore in detail the shortcomings of present-day electric power systems, and what can be done to surmount them.

Starting first with the Fabricant-Hallman work, we discover almost instantly that it is less a book in the traditional sense than a debater’s outline. It was originally issued under the semi-official aegis of New York City’s Environmental Protection Administration, an agency for which Fabricant and Hallman both work, or worked, and its purpose was to block approval by the city of a new fossil-fuel generating station in Astoria, Queens. But the brief, if one may so term it, does not limit itself to the merits of the specific proposal. In effect, it is a plea for a restraining order which would enjoin the court of public opinion from permitting the construction of any more non-nuclear thermal electric-generating plants in New York State, and which would make practically impossible the construction of additional nuclear plants as well.

Though they write in effect as lawyers asking for a decision on the pleadings, Fabricant and Hallman build their case against further construction of electric power stations with a minimum of evidentiary support, and a maximum of deductive reasoning. Following the scheme of their pleading in detail is probably unnecessary and, besides, it is extraordinarily difficult. The book consists of a photoelectric reproduction of a text produced on an electric typewriter. The text is presented in outline form—with the paragraphs numbered and lettered like a submission to a judge (or an instructor in a Junior High School history course)—but the short pages destroy the symmetry necessary to visualizing what is law and what is merely commentary. Yet the whole of it is impressive enough to demand comment, and the work has been unquestionably effective in at least one part of its aim; thanks to it, Mayor Lindsay, over the objections of his other advisers, reduced by half the size of the plant which Con Edison would be allowed to build. Ironically enough, the New York State Society of Professional Engineers has recently concluded that the plant as originally conceived would have reduced New York City’s air pollution by speeding the retirement of Con Edison’s pre-1940 installations; however, it is less good, in any case, than a similar plant built outside the city where a much smaller population would be affected by its smokestack emissions. Yet Fabricant and Hallman submit in their brief a recommended power “policy” which, by giving control of plant and transmission-line location to representatives of the governmental jurisdictions in which the plants would stand, or through which the lines would pass, would make such out-of-city plants practically impossible to build.

The authors plead that electric power generation in central stations is intrinsically hazardous, though the arguments they advance to support this seem, particularly in the light of the Berkowitz-Squires volume, astonishingly limp. Coal and oil plants are bad because they cause noxious gases to come from the stacks; no one likes the sulfur oxides, the nitrogen oxides, or even the carbon oxides that come pouring out. In trying to quantify the resulting health hazard, however, the authors give no data on the nitrogen oxides, which are responsible for the photochemical reaction called “smog.” (In fact, 65 per cent of the nitrogen oxides in New York State’s air is produced by sources other than electric power generation, mostly by automotive exhaust.) As for sulfur oxides, the authors tell us that “the combination of sulfur oxides and particulates” in New York City’s air causes between 1,000 and 2,000 premature deaths per year. The figure is on the face of it appalling—it suggests that approximately 2½ per cent of the deaths in New York City each year result from air pollution—but we should give it a moment’s consideration. Who derived the figure? The authors do not tell us, remarking instead that Ralph Nader’s people accept it. Then what does the word “premature” mean in this context? If it means that 1,000-2,000 otherwise healthy New Yorkers, taken at random, die significantly earlier than is normal because of the sulfur in the air, we may remain appalled. But if it means that 1,000-2,000 New Yorkers who suffer from chronic asthma, emphysema, pulmonary tuberculosis, or other major respiratory and circulatory diseases live shorter lives in New York than they might in Tucson or Saranac Lake, we have been told nothing that wasn’t equally true a hundred years ago. We also do not know how the longevity of such people might be affected by a shutdown of air-conditioning and electric elevators.

About the third noxious gas, carbon dioxide—carbon monoxide, the result of inefficient burning, is not produced by power plants—our authors tell us little, although it presents, on a global scale, a serious potential menace. The carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere has observably increased over the past decade, although no one knows whether this is due to increased man-made combustion, volcanic action, or some other cause. We also do not yet fully know how quickly the added carbon dioxide can be absorbed by plant life. Increased carbon dioxide in the air will inhibit the escape of heat from the earth, thus causing a warming of the climate, according to generally accepted scientific doctrine, and if the climate warms even a few degrees, the consequent melting of the polar ice cap could cause a worldwide disaster; but there is no general agreement that present trends in power generation will necessarily lead to such a result.

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What can be done to cut down effects which we can all agree are noxious, even if the extent of the danger they pose remains imprecise? Fabricant and Hallman claim that just about nothing can be done. In practice, sulfur oxides have been reduced in New York City by the burning of low-sulfur coal and oil, but since the supply of such fuel is limited, and since particulate matter from pulverized low-sulfur coal is harder to trap in the smokestack than the ash from higher-sulfur coal, the policy may itself be short-sighted. Professor Squires, in the other volume, suggests that new burning techniques in the power station may, when fully developed, not only reduce the sulfur emissions drastically, but also make it possible to recapture the sulfur for industrial purposes. Nitrogen oxides in the air would be significantly reduced, as they must be, by an improvement in automobile engines, or by a major replacement of private vehicular movement by electric-powered mass transit in the metropolitan area. Carbon oxides will be reduced only by the use of nuclear energy, which, since it does not involve combustion, will produce none.

Yet Fabricant and Hallman object seriously to the development of nuclear power plants, and for a familiar variety of reasons. First, and least equivocal, is the fact that nuclear plants of the fission type now in use or development waste significantly more heat than do fossil-fuel (coal, oil, or gas) plants. This, in turn, causes a rise in the temperature of the water drawn into the steam cycle of the nuclear plant in order to condense the steam propellant of the plant turbine. The return of the cooling water to natural watercourses heats them, and may seriously derange their ecosystems. The authors point out that no entirely satisfactory cooling system for nuclear power plants has been devised; any long-continued extension of the current rate of electric power increase will make such a development essential. I believe that on a very long-range time-scale, the perfected use of nuclear fusion will make possible the direct conversion of heat energy to electricity without the use of the steam cycle; in the meantime, special cooling ponds, the use of liquid sodium as a coolant instead of water, and other cooling devices offer some hope of interim relief.

Fabricant and Hallman also discuss the problems of radioactivity, reaching the conclusion that the public-health dangers of radioactivity are “intolerable.” (This conclusion is, incidentally, totally in conflict with Merrill Eisenbud’s paper on the same subject in the other volume, and contrasts decisively with comments on the Eisenbud paper by other technical specialists, even though they are themselves generally less sanguine than he.) Fabricant and Hallman see three types of radioactivity perils: the danger of accident, the danger of genetic damage, and the danger of somatic damage.

Discussion of the reality of nuclear danger is a subject far out of reach of the lay commentator, who can observe only that since apparently expert opinion can be found either to minimize or to maximize the dangers, the selection of a point of view seems to reflect the world outlook of the selector more accurately than it reflects an objective assessment of the situation. With respect to nuclear accident, it is a fact that there have been more than 100 reactor years of operation in the commercial generation of power, and 780 reactor years in the United States Navy, without, in either category, a single serious nuclear accident involving the loss of life. It is also a fact that there have been no discernible adverse effects on the health of workers in nuclear power plants or on nuclear naval vessels. If the state of one’s humors is good, one may wish to argue from these facts that there is no reason to believe that future nuclear generating plants will be any more dangerous to the population than the sidewalks of New York which, apparently, contain more radioactivity than the atmosphere surrounding a nuclear power station. If, on the other hand, one is afflicted, like Messrs. Fabricant and Hallman, with an excess of bile and choler, one might point out that the scale of a nuclear disaster, if one should occur, would be so tremendous that otherwise acceptable risks become unacceptable in the here and now; that the past is never a perfect guide to the future; and that the technicians of the world have assured their fellows of the safety of many inventions and developments which have since been disclosed to be anything but safe.

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In the remainder of their book Messrs. Fabricant and Hallman unfurl the banners of their “rational” power policy, the object of which is to cut down the use, and, therefore, the generation, of power. The basic premise on which this policy depends is that the demand for power has been carefully cultivated by the power interests, through advertising and political pressure, and that therefore a government that truly represented its constituents would protect them from the further development of an inherently destructive demand. This takes us to the heart of what I have called the abolitionist argument, which, since it has already been put forth with some persuasiveness by others, and since it will be increasingly heard of in the future, I propose to deal with at some length.

Fabricant and Hallman tell us that three venal factors fertilize the “projected increase in the per capita consumption of electricity.” These are, first, the constantly diminishing price of electricity, due to the fact, specially mentioned among others which are not mentioned, that no one takes account of the costs venally imposed by electric generation on the environment; second, the use, by New York’s venal utilities (and others) of what the authors call a promotional rate structure, in which the unit price of electricity diminishes as the use, by any consumer, increases; third, the promotional and advertising activities of the generating companies and their allies, the manufacturers of electrically-powered equipment, in the effort to aggrandize profits by increasing sales at a lower unit price.

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In regard to the first charge—the failure to include in the rate structure the true general cost of environmental degradation—the authors admit the presence of a difficult problem in quantification. They do give us a list of nine “factors” which might be considered in such a quantification. Among them are some which, on present evidence, would not universally be acknowledged to exist (“calculating the cost of genetic damage resulting from radiation exposure”). Others involve unmentioned off-setting costs which would also have to be taken into account in establishing a fair rate base, as for example, “the economic cost to a particular locality of businesses or industries relocating in another area as a result of environmental degradation.” To set this up properly, one would have to subtract from it as a contra-account the economic cost to a particular locality of businesses or industries relocating because of excessively high power costs, or the non-availability of power for manufacturing or transportation of employees and goods. A third group of factors can be identified as roughly quantifiable, like property damage and cost of illness associated with electric-generating air pollution, but since these depend on an analysis of effects which the authors have already tried to describe specifically, but, at least in my view, unsuccessfully, we may still be said to lack a truly firm foundation on which to begin the assessment of such costs. Finally, the authors propound, as one factor, a question which goes to the kernel of the whole argument: “Should social costs be predicted [predicated?] on the harm caused by power generation and distribution or on the funds necessary to prevent or eliminate harm?”

Here the authors have finally run head-on into the essential incompatibility between religious and economic concepts. If social costs are in any sense quantifiable—if they are to be met by charges paid directly by those who own the productive process and indirectly by those who buy its services or goods—then one must be prepared to cover those costs from the income received on the sale of the product. If environmental damage is to be “prevented or eliminated” by increased capital investment—for example, if commercial fishing losses are to be “prevented or eliminated” by new installations of cooling ponds as in Illinois, where such utility-built ponds have actually increased fishing and recreational resources—the costs of the additional capital must be recouped from the payments made by the consumers of electricity. To the extent that these added costs are, in fact, the costs of additional capital, the cost apportioned to each unit of the product will grow smaller as the number of units sold increases.

There may, of course, be some environmental problems which can be met by changes in operating procedures, such as burning costlier low-sulfur fuel; these added costs are apportioned equally, kilowatt hour by kilowatt hour. But in general the nature of the environmental problems which Fabricant and Hallman describe suggests that they are primarily to be met by added capital investment. If electricity generation is to eliminate and prevent environmental damage, its product, electricity, must be sold on a price schedule which encourages consumption. The alternative is to set rates so high that only the wealthy can afford it. Promotional rates, which the authors decry as their second point, become the inevitable result of adding expensive devices to the capital base of the electric generating station in order to diminish the impact of that station on the environment.

If, on the other hand, the cost of electricity is to be boosted by a mere money allowance “for damaging the environment,” we are either conspiring to pay a few people for what has been a general loss—for example, paying “fishermen” for their loss in fish when what has been lost affects everyone—or else we are simply making it possible for some regulatory body to prevent the construction of any electric power facility whatsoever by establishing on its books an environmental liability which cannot be met in money terms. Suddenly, it seems that what Fabricant and Hallman are seeking to avoid is not environmental degradation but original sin.

To my worldly objection that a liability which cannot be liquidated in cash can be discharged only by termination of the business, Fabricant and Hallman would respond, I suspect, that the world would be a better place without electricity—electric power generation being, as they put it, grossly inefficient. They suggest, for instance, that home heating, for which they claim 90 per cent “efficiency,” is much preferable to central-station electric heating, which they tell us is only about 35 per cent efficient. What they do not say is that the efficiency loss in the present central-station generating cycle occurs almost entirely in the course of turning heat into mechanical energy; house heating is cheaper than centrally generated electric heating because in homes the heat energy is used directly as heat. However, oil cannot be burned in a home heating plant without some electric energy to operate the blower and atomize the fuel, and in any case most home plants are reported to operate at much lower efficiency than the theoretical rate, while the smoke from the hundreds of thousands of oil heaters in the small homes and apartment houses of New York City presents an enforcement problem far more serious than that presented by the plants of Con Edison.

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The second of the authors’ three counts places the blame for the increasing per capita consumption of electricity on the use of what they choose to call promotional rates. Electric rates in New York State do provide that the charge per kilowatt hour decreases with each increment of actual use, thus reflecting the reduction in marginal cost of the capital-intensive electricity process. Gordon R. Corey, chairman of the Finance Committee of Commonwealth Edison, claims that electric power companies “use more capital than almost any other business—$3.66 of net plant investment per dollar of revenue” as against 74 cents per dollar of sales for the steel industry, and 23 cents for the automobile industry (his figures). Industrial electricity charges offer an even greater incentive to high use because they include a flat charge which does not fluctuate according to actual use. Under the “demand” system employed in New York City, an industrial user pays a stipulated charge for the peak demand which he may expect to make on the system. This charge is designed to assess the ultimate consumer for the amount it costs the utility to install the additional capacity he needs, and the authors should praise it for that reason. Yet, as the actual use increases, the “effect” of this charge on each kilowatt hour of consumption grows smaller, and for that reason the authors should condemn it. Curiously, they omit any discussion of it altogether.

Curiouser, but hardly stranger, is the omission by the authors of any reference to the tax impost placed on Con Edison by the New York City government. New York State’s local utility tax permits the city to exact an income equal to a percentage of the value of a utility company’s total property, personal as well as real. This tax makes the New York City government the biggest beneficiary of Con Edison’s capital. Although some of that capital is invested outside city limits, the City’s dollar tax receipts on Con Edison’s investments still exceed the income received by all Con Edison bondholders and stock owners combined. Somehow the authors have neglected to mention that this tax is levied on invested capital, and that if that capital were to be grossly underemployed, as they wish it to be, the consequent tax impact per kilowatt hour would make the ordinary household bill even greater than it is, and it is already the highest in the nation. The way for government to discourage a “promotional” rate structure is to reshape its own taxing policies. It could, for example, change its local utility tax from an ad valorem basis—the impact of which encourages increased sales—to a use or sales tax which would remain a constant burden per sales unit, no matter how the load increased. But municipal governments are getting too much money from the present system to consider such a change seriously.

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The third and last of the counts excoriates the utilities for undertaking advertising and promotional campaigns which are intended to increase the consumption of electricity. Fabricant and Hallman suggest that many of the uses of electricity are not really willed by the people of New York State, but are imposed on them by the clever publicists of the power companies. Certainly it is true that manufacturers, large and small, happily devise new gadgets, both meaningful (to use one of the authors’ busier words) and meaningless, to entice money from the wallets of their customers. Some of these gadgets are electrically powered. Those among them that are battery driven might commend themselves to our authors. Others, alas, plug into the socket to brush the teeth, slice the steak, or polish the boots electrically. Their total power demand scarcely seems significant. But if our authors believe that it is advertising that made air-conditioning popular in New York City in August, or promotion that forced large-screen color television on people against their better judgment, I must differ with their appraisal of the powers of these arts.

Fabricant and Hallman never propose what one might expect them to propose—a frank limitation on the wattage of installed air-conditioning per family unit, or a ban on the construction of office buildings with electric-powered air-conditioning. This, at least, would put the issue fairly. Instead, they suggest that advertising perverts the public taste and makes rational thinking impossible. This moral indictment should be regarded with some skepticism. Power companies use advertising generally for two purposes. The first of these purposes I detest; it involves the attempt to bring about legislation that will be favorable to privately-owned power systems, or unfavorable to public systems. The second, more benign, purpose is to help bring about a balanced power demand that will enable the power generating system to enjoy more efficient round-the-clock and round-the-calendar employment of its capital investment. While our authors are startled and frightened by economic motives, I continue to believe that the savings in capital and in the public tax load that can be made possible by a system used efficiently would be sufficient to finance improvements in combustion, cooling, and nuclear technology at a cost which the subway rider, the elevator passenger, the seamstress in a New York garment factory, and, yes, even the television viewer, can afford.

In sum, I am unsympathetic to the authors’ suggestions for a “rational” power policy. Instead of attempting to calculate the state’s total power needs and to provide a mechanism for meeting them with the least possible disturbance of natural resources and natural values, they create a system heavily weighted with local interests, relying on the parochial spirit to prevent the construction of power plants and transmission lines. This is sly, but, in the end, not sly enough to escape the attention of the subway traveler whose train stalls for lack of power. I do not believe that any system for regulating power can be called rational which would discourage efforts to achieve a balanced electric load; which would permit local representatives to block or (at tremendous cost) bury high-tension transmission lines, thus making inevitable the construction of power stations only in population centers that require their output; which would add to the present regulatory structure a new commission on power sites, heavily biased in the direction of local participation and larded with three “official citizens” not one of whom represents either industrial interests or the consuming public. All of these recommendations constitute semi-concealed efforts to accomplish the goal of reducing power production and use, but none of them would put the question squarely to the public: What electric service do you want, and at what cost?

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The Berkowitz-Squires book—based on a seminar held only two years ago, but already somewhat dated by technological developments in the interim—offers a welcome relief from the political-legal approach to the problems of pollution. The technicians spread no universal cheer. The problems of atmospheric pollution are not susceptible of easy answers, nor is the case different with the effects of heated effluent from power stations, radiation, or hydropower projects.

The relief offered by the technicians is rather one of attitude: the determination found in the best of these papers to arrive at the facts within the limits of scientific observation, and to see the problems as they really are, whether they are amenable to political action or not. Thus, Arthur Squires, writing about the effort to find a way to extract heat from coal with minimal environmental damage, points out that the biggest handicap to new technology does not lie in the desire of the utilities to sell more power, nor in a defect in the regulatory process, but rather in the fact that all of the capital of the fossil-fuel electric power stations is invested in plants wedded to a basic technology—pulverized fuel burning—which may not be the best technology for successful in-plant extraction of sulfur. Merrill Eisenbud is equally interesting on the credibility problems of nuclear power, and remarkably lucid in his discussion of the several different types of reactors now in use or under development. Dr. Shields Warren, of the Cancer Research Institute of the New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston, tells us that “if we had applied the same rigorous standards for the maintenance of public health and safety as are current in the atomic energy industry, there would be no aviation or automobile industry, few chemical plants or oil refineries, few sewage systems.” (Some would of course say that it would be a very good thing if these developments had in fact not occurred, but the remark is frivolous as well as idle.)

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The Squires-Berkowitz book is not without its surprises. Harry Perry, Senior Specialist in Environmental Policy at the Legislative Reference Service of the Library of Congress, tells us that strip mining, properly done, damages the environment far less than underground mining, and he provides photographs in support of the point. Richard Cadle and Eric Allen tell us that as fast as carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere, particulate matter, cutting down the sun’s penetration, cools it again. The discussion, by a number of experts with different backgrounds and interests, of the problem of thermal effects indicates how complex the subject really is. While none of the experts minimizes the problem, all have hopes for a solution or solutions to the dissipation of waste heat with minimal adverse effects: some even foresee its useful application. Underlying all of these technical discussions is the belief that advanced technology, together with the strategic allocation of resources to power generation—free from provincial constrictions—insures that what men have created they can also control.

This promise will fall far short of the requirements of those who believe that all power, including the electrical variety, corrupts, and that pollution must be cast off like wickedness, if the race—and the individual—are to survive. Something of this spirit, I fancy, moved the priests of the wheel-less Mayan civilization to extirpate, seriatim, all the bright young men who, I am convinced, invented the wheel and brought it to them for approval. I suspect that the priests of Yucatan were unwilling to risk anything that might have threatened the immortality of the civilization they loved; you can almost see them if you go there, surrounded by its ruins.

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