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September 16, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

UPDATE: Portugal has announced a wave generator project that is expected to power 1500 homes. The technology has arrived!

September 16 , 2006

Albany Should Generate Power

We have the means, let’s create power while we still can

Conversation stops everytime I bring up this topic, and I don’t understand why. It’s not like I’m describing disgusting bodily functions or complaining about my childhood, nothing tedious like that. But the way people react, I may as well be.

Mostly I get frowns and blank looks. Every so often I get a condescending “Yes, that sounds like a good idea.” Then the conversation changes abruptly and I don’t seem to be participating any longer.

Wind TurbineIs municipal energy generation really that embarrassing? Is it a subject that nice people don’t bring up in polite company? While I admit to a certain degree of social ineptitude, I can usually figure out why people are not talking to me. And if I can’t, The Wife is always helpful. (“Must you discuss your trip to the bathroom while we’re eating?”)

There is nothing to prevent the City of Albany from getting into the business of generating electricity. For example, the City maintains a superb water system, far and away the best and most reliable in the region. During drought years Albany is always the last to declare a water emergency and the first to declare it over. The City makes piles of money selling water to the poorly planned suburbs which are incapable of providing such a basic service without help.

The City makes money hand over fist importing garbage and dumping it into the Pine Bush. As everyone knows by now, some ten percent of the annual City budget comes from dump revenues. But only nine percent of the “landfill” comes from Albany households, and maybe ten to twenty percent of the dump’s volume comes from the surrounding suburbs. (No one knows for sure, the figures are secret.) The other seventy to eighty percent of garbage in the "landfill" comes from private haulers.

Most people don’t know that the City makes about $2 million or so a year from the dirt used to cap the closed parts of the dump, dirt which is contaminated with toxics. So next time you hear that the City is “capping part of the landfill” you’ll know exactly why. They are disposing of toxic waste.

If the City can engage in peddling water and burying garbage under toxic waste, then it can produce and sell electricity. This is not a far-fetched notion. Municipal power generation a very doable business which leads to real benefits for everybody.

For that matter, why can’t Albany County make electricity? I’m told by multiple reliable sources that the County has a dormant municipal power authority already in place. The County could go into business immediately without any of the preliminary rigamarole with the State.

The advantages of providing power to ourselves are obvious. First, there is the advantage of eventual independence from the corporate controlled power grid. New York State is suffering under the lash of energy “deregulation.” This means that corporate privateers operating as a cartel can raise prices any time they want to gouge.

Believe me, folks, National Grid doesn’t care if working folks are going broke. What those corporate socialists need is a good old fashioned dose of competition. Please understand that competition to National Grid’s monopoly will not come by itself. The only way that they will ever see competition is if we create it ourselves. And that means providing lower prices to ourselves.

Second, there are the economic benefits to the community. If Albany wishes to attract businesses that create jobs, then it makes sense to be able to offer reliable power at a competitive or discount price. Thanks to Pataki’s energy “deregulation,” energy producers have been steadily raising prices. It is only a matter of time before “deregulation” results in artificial blackouts, the same as Enron created in California.

If the City is in control of its own power generation, then it can make long term contracts with beneficial businesses that provide good jobs. Energy stability is no small thing, and it will become increasingly important in the future.

Third, the City can make money... lots of money. Eventually the City can look forward to a situation similar to the selling of water. Currently, the City government provides water for itself, sells water to City residents and peddles water to the suburbs. (Again, the profits from selling water are kept secret by the City, but they are substantial.) There is no reason in the world why the City can’t duplicate this success.

Fourth, the City can ease out of the malodorous garbage business without penalizing its own citizens by raising taxes and cutting services. This, of course, is what Mayor Jerry Jennings and his minions have been threatening to do if they aren’t allowed to expand their garbage collection racket.

Whenever he faces criticism about expanding the importation of garbage, The Mayor repeats the same line about how the citizens “shouldn’t object if you don’t have an alternative.” Then he quickly changes the subject or leaves the room before anyone can suggest solutions. And his advisors and minions always fend off discussion by saying things like, “we tried that and it didn’t work,” or “we looked into that and it’s not feasible.”

This is not to say that power generation is a magic panacea that will solve all our problems over night. Far from it. For Albany to get into the power business would take long-term planning and political will. This is why now is the time to begin. Like our excellent water system, which took many years to build and has undergone many major improvements over the years, municipal generation is a capital investment that will become an integral part of the City itself.

Okay, you may say, it’s a great idea. So how exactly is Albany supposed to produced sale-able electrons?

There are lots of cost efficient methods readily available. Indeed, it seems to me that the City should undertake multiple methods of power generation. That way the City could experiment and learn from its mistakes without massive consequence, and could have multiple backup sources of power during emergencies. As they say, diversify your portfolio and don’t put all your eggs in one frying pan.

But first, let me tell you how NOT to generate power. Don’t for example, build a gas fired power plant, which is the "solution" that has been pushed by Governor Pataki. Remember how our gas bills went up thirty five percent last winter, even though more gas is now available in New York State for domestic consumption than ever before? According to most experts, it was because of all the new gas fired generators across the state demanding priority for gas supplies. This drove up the price of gas, which in turn drove up the price of electricity.

Thank you, George Pataki. Another fine example of the failure of corporate socialism.

Using any fossil fuel to generate municipal power is a bad idea. The problem is that corporate cartels control these fuels, which means that any fossil fuel powered project run by the City will be controlled by these suppliers. Such a course of action will not make Albany autonomous, and it is guaranteed to lose money.

As a small businessman, I know that in order to succeed one has to find a way to conduct business that is not “normal” “approved” or “conventional.” To make a profit from scratch you have to take the path that is less picked over. So here are my suggestions for generating electricity with what Albany has readily available.

1) A Field Of Solar Panels As one of his first acts as President in 1981, evil Ronnie Reagan removed the solar panels that were placed on the roof of the White House by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. This symbolic act began a long national slide into energy dependence on international corporations and foreign governments.

But wait a minute. At the beginning of his first term in 2001, the elite oilman George W. Bush, a creature even more evil than Ronnie, quietly replaced those solar panels on the White House roof. This was done as a security measure. No matter what happens, even if all fossil fuels to Washington DC are cut off, the sun still shines. Even if the sky is rendered dark with pollution, a big bank of batteries can provide emergency power for a week or more.

Most people have been trained to dismiss solar power out of hand as marginal hippy drippy dreaming. To those people I say, get over that nonsense or get left behind.

Most military bases in the US today have their own solar fields. In fact, military commanders in Iraq are literally begging for solar panels and wind generators for the troops.

The State of New York requires that all new State buildings and renovations incorporate solar power generation. In all cases solar energy is being utilized to increase security in an increasingly privatized world.

And despite stories to the contrary, solar power generation is practicable in the Northeast United States. Our rainy climate gets about two thirds of the total sunshine of the Arizona desert. With current technology, the typical home in the Northeast can easily provide more than enough power for itself on its roof, except for a deficit during the low-sun months of November, December and January.

So here is my proposal. Jerry Jennings wants to use 350 acres of prime ecologically sensitive farmland along the Hudson River in Coeymans as a new dump. Unfortunately for The Mayor, who for too long put all his eggs into one frying pan, the entire village and everybody else nearby is very, very upset. Who can blame them? They have held off the Mayor and his plan for years while the City taxpayers bleed money over this lunatic project.

But suppose that field were to be used for solar panels. One third of the Coeymans acreage is said to be wetland, but even with that we are still talking about 250+ acres of solar panels. Not one of those panels would stink, and none of them would leach toxins into the Hudson. Would the neighbors object to that?

2) A Wind Farm Up north in the Town of Greenfield in Washington County, an Irish corporation called Airtricity wants to erect a field of wind turbines, enough to supply power for up to 1000 households. Spread out over 250 acres, the towers would rise 240 feet and support giant three-bladed rotors that would extend another 150 feet into the sky. The towers, like all new commercial wind turbines, are single columns without struts so that birds will not perch on them and get caught in the blades. Airtricity is currently constructing two similar fields in Texas, and currently operates fields in Ireland, Scotland and England. They are quiet, efficient money makers that last for decades without serious maintenance.

Sounds great, but there is only one problem. The Town of Greenfield is moving toward approval, and is no doubt happy to get the taxes. But how else does this privately capitalized venture benefit the town?

If the Town of Greenfield had managed to capitalize such a project, they would have been on their way to achieving energy independence from the grid. All profits would have been plowed back into the town budget. But perhaps Greenfield is too small to contemplate initiating such a huge project.

However, the City of Albany or perhaps Albany County could acquire land in the County or beyond, and enter into some sort of partnership with the local community that is hosting the wind turbines. Mayor Jennings picked Coeymans to site his new superdump because he believed the community was too poor to fight back. There are plenty of economically depressed communities near the Capital District that may welcome these clean wind turbines.

Wave generators

3) Wave Generators We have this big river called the Hudson that runs along the east side of the City. Mostly it is underutilized. With a little creativity the river could be used to run one or many traditional hydro generating systems. But there is another idea out there.

On warm sunny weekends, The Wife in her canoe and me in my kayak like to paddle around the Hudson River, often putting in down at the Corning Preserve here in Albany. Thus I can testify that the Hudson River experiences a variety of wave action, including regular tides.

No, I’m not kidding about this. Wave generator technology is not in its infancy anymore, it’s more like childhood entering puberty. There are a variety of systems available here and now. It would take a little investigation to find out which system would work best here upriver but it could be done. Indeed, it is already being tried downriver in New York City.

Since wave generator systems are still not economically proven, it seems very likely that the City (or the County) could enter into a partnership with a private or public entity to pioneer a system. It is likely that any experimental renewable source of power merits development grants, especially in this atmosphere of rising energy costs. The more the price of fossil fuel goes up, the sooner the return on capital investment of renewable energy.

Okay. There I’ve presented three or four suggestions that utilize existing unused resources for generating power in Albany. The easiest part is selling the electrons.

Immediately, the City can sell power to the grid. New York State law is structured so that anyone, even homeowners, can install devices that make their power meters run backwards.

The next step will be to provide power to city buildings and facilities. Once a bare bones infrastructure is in place, the city can begin to peddle power to nearby businesses and residences. If the power offered is competitive and reliable, demand for City power will rise, which will fund further expansion of the power infrastructure.

And it is not unreasonable that the City of Albany could set up a system like the City of San Diego in California. They have their own municipal power authority that is connected to the grid. but because they are a municipal authority, they are regulated by a different set of rules than the energy privateers around them. Thus, San Diego can set its own lower rates and protect itself from artificial blackouts.

Can all this be done? With political will it is all practical and quite possible. Look at Jerry Jenning’s stupid proposed convention center which has so far managed to attract hundreds of millions of dollars of State money, even though such projects are well known to be proven financial failures. Despite this, there has not been the slightest effective political resistance to the convention center.

The Mayor’s will is very powerful. Given enough time he can build just about anything he wants in the City. And yet he chooses to build a boondoggle that will leave future generations cursing his name. Does he not wish to be praised for his foresight? Shouldn’t Albany, instead of wrecking itself with an unneeded convention center and covering itself with garbage, be better off declaring energy independence?

We’d better not hold our collective breaths waiting for Mayor Jennings to start generating common sense. Perhaps the next mayor will see the renewable light. and hopefully, if and when that happens, it will not be too late

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