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<nettime> e-power pollution
brian carroll on 19 Aug 2000 16:52:51 -0000

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<nettime> e-power pollution

 i wrote and sent this message to the electricity-list, but i have
 the nettime crowd, especially Bruce Sterling, on my mind as i write
 about the subject. Bruce sent a post to nettime about a study which
 stated that computers would increase the demand for coal-fired power
 plants. and although it was contested, this summer in California
 has confirmed at least part of that equation: that there is a lack
 of supply, and a demand for more (and cheap) electrical energy, which
 will likely be from new polluting coal-fired plants. one statistic
 on coverage of the power crisis in California stated that the new
 economy boom of info-tech has raised electrical demand by ~10-18%,
 stating that a simple wireless palm pilot (when linked up to the
 routers and servers) consumes as much power as a refrigerator. 
 (see electricity-l archives for the recent post). also, although
 a computer may run at the low-energy level of a lightbulb, the
 process of creating the computer artifact via manufacturing
 microprocessors and other devices adds to its energy cost. it
 was stated in an article on the need for building more private
 power plants in Silicon Valley, as the semiconductor industry
 is who is consuming the most energy. in any case, with power
 reserves of the California state electrical grid within 5 or
 10 percent of capacity (resulting in total blackouts i assume),
 i think it is time we connect this inside world of the Internet
 with the outside world of power plants, environmental destruction,
 and wars over energy resources to provide this electronic oasis. 
 the architecture of electricity


 the following article reports that electrical power plants, especially
 unregulated ones, are producers of the most toxins in the air, which
 are known to cause cancer. it has me thinking of the recent article
 posted to electricity-l about the 'new economy' of digital technology
 requiring the building of more and more powerplants, because supply
 cannot meet demand. apparently in the U.S. there is currently a need
 to build 500+ electric power plants to keep up with the increase in
 demand. the reason given for the current lack of supply has been that
 the utility industry is too regulated (if my memory is correct). that
 may be in regard to environmental/pollution standards and the costs
 of building clean plants. in California, so far this summer there have
 been 12 days of power emergencies, where large customers and domestic
 customers have been asked to curb electric power use, or there would
 be roving brownouts (for a period of 2 or so hours) to keep the system
 up and running. they go in stages, stage 2, stage 3 alerts. and local
 businesses can get rebates or price breaks for signing up with utilities
 that requires them to turn off unnecessary devices, like idling equip-
 ment, such as computers and hallway lights. other companies, if i heard
 it correctly, make arrangements with the utility to be totally taken
 off the grid and transferred to private power, usually a large-scale
 generator that can run for several hours until power is back on. then,
 there is the 'old economy' industrial model of high-tech companies
 such as database software company Oracle and a semiconductor business
 whose name i forget who are proposing developing private power plants
 like the steel and auto industries. in California, power is politics
 of late, as the electricity market is currently being deregulated. 
 it has happened in San Diego, and the local private utility that had
 a monopoly over the generation and transmission and distribution of
 power has been broken up into a market model with competitors. i've
 heard it has already happened in Texas, but i'm not sure to what
 effect, (except that G.W. Bush has ties with Enron, a huge energy
 company, maybe the biggest and most profitable, so i have a hunch)... 
 but in San Diego there was 'rate payer revolt', when their electric
 utility bills doubled and tripled in a years time, due to market
 fluctuations. this may have been based upon the lack of supply
 and the increase in demand, but also because utilities are not
 building new plants because they don't like the new rules or their
 profits won't be as great because of the rules and environmental
 regulations. old politics. or, maybe it is just political reality. 
 although i am sure the public/private ownership issue of electric
 utilities (and others) varies from country to country, the facts
 remain the same about the effects of old-style power generation
 via large centralized plants and thousands of miles of transmission
 towers and distribution poles that, in effect, lose up to 2/3rds
 of their energy to heat loss along lines, and even more energy is
 lost in the working of electronic equipment. what really haunts
 this cyberspace of utopians and kakatopians is that this 'new'
 freedom of electronic communication, where people can discuss
 the future and change and esoterica and age-old questions, such
 as the 'championing of democracy/freedom/liberty/etc.' is that
 this is an illusion, the result of a paradigm shift that we can
 not yet collectively relate, the means to the ends of cyberspace. 
 the means are highly polluting power plants, run by a cartel of
 international energy providers whose directives are given by the
 marketplace not by consumer or environmental welfare unless by
 regulation. this electrical infrastructure, and its order in the
 built environment, is in stark contrast to ideas of democracy
 and freedom and liberty and civil and human rights. it does not
 seem to be simply an issue of public versus private ownership,
 but, entrenched interests and power over the direction and the
 development of the future of the industry by corporations (which
 legally act as superhuman 'individuals' with 'individual rights') 
 whose motive is short-term profit. albeit, many are experimenting
 with energy efficiency devices and are developing alternative
 energy sources, but, the 20th century system of power generation
 to transmission to distribution to consumption is, at its base,
 severely flawed. what is needed is change, a new order of electrical
 development which will eventually replace the old, centralized and
 highly toxic and inefficient model with smaller scale, local,
 active and passive energy producing and savings solutions. it is
 happening in small ways, but it needs to happen in big ways. and
 it is not just the utilities, but every dimension of society that
 develops and uses e-technologies. for example, the utility here
 is having TV commercials advertising their highly energy efficient
 model homes which includes appliances and is sold based on the
 energy savings (which translates directly into money) that it will
 save the homeowner. not to say these are desirable homes in an
 aesthetic sense, but it is the right idea. but it should be enacted
 not by the electric utility and one developer, but by developers
 themselves. neither should old technologies be allowed to exploit
 the environment by not changing to cleaner technologies, as
 electric utilities should not be allowed to continue building
 old model power plants that are the number one cause of air
 pollution in the world. it is especially critical in the U.S., as
 i believe we consume between 20 and 30% of the world's energy. 
 electrical power seems like any other industry, too. in the sense
 that it can come under the rubric of 'national defense', wherein
 the US Department of Energy is a wing of the US Dept. of Defense. 
 sounds like the old military-industrial complex. and, suprisingly,
 even though many doubt any connection between the two, this is
 the thing that has created and supported and sustained the Internet,
 yesterday, today, and tomorrow. the only thing i can think of doing
 is writing about it. but then one may risk becoming an energy wonk. 
 to me, it seems that it is not pollution, or politics alone, but
 other dimensions, such as the fragility of this system that is
 being replicated from Silicon Valley worldwide. it is an order of
 electrical power that i propose translates into other kinds of
 power, be it military, political, economic, or social. i've been
 reading about electronic warfare recently, about lasers and the now
 tested graphite bombs that short out electrical grids (such as those
 used in Iraq and the war over Kosovo). and one really scary thing
 came across, a relic from the cold war, but still looming on the
 horizon of the present, the e-bomb. i think it is called an electro-
 magnetic pulse (EMP) bomb, wherein a nuclear-like weapon is detonated
 above ground, in the atmosphere, in such a way that it destroys
 all the electronic equipment in the vicinity (besides killing
 everyone with the pulse wave and insane doses of radiation, i'm
 guessing). i recently read that there have been 30 civilizations
 in the last 5000 years. and it made me think how easy it would be
 to stop this new electronic civilization, underway in Silicon Valley
 which can be considered the world capital of information technology. 
 in one swift and decisive move, the new economy could be destroyed,
 and another civilization could recede until a new one is rebuilt. 
 not to sound desperate, but this type of warfare _is_ the future
 of the world's military forces. it is in their doctrine, it is
 in their research and development labs, it is in their trainings,
 eventually, it is in mandates from national security agencies
 of the world which underight this outgrowth of energy research
 departments: the same ones that manage to oversee the electric
 utilities that are polluting the environment and necessitating
 wars over energy resources. it is a deadly circle. it is an issue
 that directly relates to everyone who uses electric technologies,
 be it a computer with Internet access, a toaster, or a car. this
 scenario is ubiquitous in its influence and effect upon both the
 quality of life and the likelihood of global wars over energy. 
 i hope others will find this issue to be of vital importance
 to the other debates online right now about freedom, democracy,
 the new economy, net.art, etc. they are all suprastructures of
 the electrical infrastructure, while in this electronic medium. 
 it is an issue i hope we can collectively raise in public forums. 



Coal Fired Power Plants Emitting Clouds of Toxics

WASHINGTON, DC, August 15, 2000 (ENS) - Pollution from electrical
generation facilities is more dangerous than the utilities say, claims a
U.S.  environmental group. Utilities have historically downplayed their
emissions and claimed that they have minimal or no impact on health or the

Coal fired power plants provide electricity to grids across the United
States (Two photos courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory)  For the
year 1998, electric power plants across the country were required to
report toxic air emissions to the federal Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) for the first time. "The numbers are astonishing," says Mark Wenzler
of the National Environmental Trust. 

In 1998, electric utilities discharged more than one billion pounds of
toxic chemicals into the air, making utilities the number one toxic air
polluting industry in the U.S. 

Utilities were required to report data on 1998 for the first time,
although most other industries have reported toxic releases to the EPA
annually since 1987.

"The EPA data tells us what wešve suspected for years," says Wenzler.
"That electric power plants are the biggest source of toxic air pollution.
If we want clean and healthy air, the logical place to start is cleaning
up the oldest and dirtiest power plants." 

The Trust has released a new study, "Toxic Power," that analyzes the
emissions data reported under the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) program. 

Power plants burn mountains of coal each year Electric utilities released
over one billion pounds of toxic pollution in 1998, more than the
chemical, paper, plastics and refining industries combined, the report
notes. Coal and oil fired power plants released almost nine million pounds
of toxic metals and metal compounds into the air that year, many of which
are known or suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins. 

Coal and oil fired power plants released over three quarters of a billion
pounds of dangerous acid gases, which can cause acute respiratory
problems, and aggravate asthma and emphysema, it adds. Acid gases and
metals from combustion facilities also contribute to the formation of fine
particle pollution, which is linked to 45,000 premature deaths each year. 

Mercury and mercury compounds released by electric power plants were not
reported to TRI for 1998, although they are on the list of TRI chemicals. 
While power plants are the single largest source of mercury air emissions
in the U.S. - the EPA estimates that they release some 52 tons of mercury
and mercury compounds to the air each year - no single plant reaches the
current TRI threshold for reporting. Large coal-fired power plants release
several hundred pounds of mercury per year. 

The 1998 TRI reporting rules required reporting only for facilities that
produce or process 25,000 pounds of a chemical, even if the chemical is an
impurity like mercury. 

Loopholes in U.S. law are a major factor in the large toxic emissions from
electric utilities, claims the report. While chemical plants are regulated
under the Clean Air Act, there are no restrictions on emissions from power

A recent spate of state and federal lawsuits has attempted to address
power plant emissions from southern and midwestern states, which produce
the lionšs share of power plant pollution. This pollution drifts across
state borders, preventing some northeastern states from meeting federal
clean air standards. Several of these states have sued power plant owners
in other states over this pollution. 

The TRI report lends weight to their argument. Heading the state by state
rankings for the amount of emissions released per electric power plant are
West Virginia, Georgia, Alabama and Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky. Each of
these states is home to at least one of the seven utilities sued by the
federal government over interstate pollution. 

Alabama Power's coal fired James H. Miller, Jr. Electric Generating Plant
is located along the Black Warrior River near West Jefferson, Alabama
(Photo courtesy Alabama Power)  The seven utilities named in the suit are
among the nationšs worst power plant polluters, the TRI report reveals.
Southern Company topped the TRI list with more than 114 million pounds of
pollutants released in 1998.  American Electric Power was second with over
98 million pounds released. 

The federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority ranked third, with almost
57 million pounds released. The utility was not among those sued by the
government, but was named in an administrative order issued by the EPA,
charging the federal utility agency with pollution violations at seven
power plants.

"According to their own records, electric utilities are by far the largest
air polluters in America, and unregulated power plants are the worst of
the worst," said Tom Natan, research director for the Trust and author of
the report. "There are effective means to reduce toxic emissions from
power plants."

"Simply requiring all power plants to meet modern emissions control
standards will have a huge impact in reducing levels of toxic chemicals in
our air," Natan explained. 

The National Environmental Trust was established in 1994 to disseminate
information on environmental problems and the effect on health and quality
of life.

copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2000. All Rights Reserved. 


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