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Our Energy Inheritance: Living With Our Grandparents’ Decisions

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Almost all the new electrical capacity in the United States comes from natural gas and wind power, but we'll be living with the legacy of our past choices for a long time. Chart: EIA

Most news coverage of energy and the environment is in love with the new: cool new technologies, new research, and all the impressive creative energy that’s being poured into these fields. Yet one of the most significant factors shaping the energy field is the power of old decisions.

Take, for example, the power plants that supply our electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration released a report on the age of the nation’s generating stations this month, and one of the most striking things is how old they are. Half of our generating capacity (51 percent) is at least 30 years old.

But the other interesting point is the age of different kinds of plants. For example:

  • Of the 25 oldest power plants in the country, 24 of them are hydroelectric dams, built more than 60 years ago.
  • Three-quarters of our coal plants were built before 1980.
  • Most of our nuclear plants were built in a two-decade period between 1970 and 1990.
  • Almost all of the new capacity – the plants brought on line in the last 10 years – comes either from natural gas plants or wind farms.

If you look at the history, these trends make sense. In the first half of the 20th Century, Americans believed in big public works, like Hoover Dam. But views have changed, and there aren’t many more major rivers that could be dammed even if we wanted to. The trend toward nuclear power picked up speed in the 1970s until the Three Mile Island accident occurred, and even after the accident a number of nuclear plants already in the pipeline were completed. Coal has been the world’s go-to power source since the Industrial Revolution.

And the current trend toward natural gas and wind? That’s been driven by the improving economics of natural gas, as well as concern over climate change and the other environmental downsides of coal.

To a remarkable extent, we’re living with the energy choices of our grandparents. Power plants can easily last for generations. And while our grandparents undoubtedly made the choices that made sense for them at the time, they couldn’t possibly anticipate all the consequences of their decisions.

The real lesson here is that, just as our grandparents made choices for us, we’re making choices for our grandchildren. The natural gas plants and wind farms we’re building now will be serving our needs for decades to come. Domestically, that will leave us with a cleaner and more diversified energy system than we have now, although at the current pace it’s going to take a long, long time.

But the United States is only one player in the energy world, and arguably not the most important one anymore. China, India and the developing world are the ones adding power capacity at a feverish pace to keep with growth, and they’re the ones who are going to really shape the global energy future. It’s also no coincidence that the International Energy Agency warned last year that the world is coming uncomfortably close to locking itself into an “insecure, inefficient, and high-carbon energy system.”

There’s an old saying that “nothing lasts so long as the provisional.” In the energy world, there are remarkably few purely short-term decisions – and yet we make so many  of our choices based on short-term thinking. Maybe it’s time to remind ourselves that it’s our children who will live in the energy environment we create for them. Are we bequeathing them an energy system that considers their interests in the long term, or will we just continue doing what’s easier for now?