Here I Am
Back a while, Patrick Cahalan posted Progress, inviting people to describe how conversations at the League had changed their minds on issues. I remarked at the time that
I only have one issue that I’m really concerned about. It’s long term – I probably won’t live long enough to see it resolved – and it’s happening in slow-motion, so it doesn’t come up and (obviously) no one has changed my mind about it. OTOH, my own belief is that looking back from 2100 it will be viewed as the issue from the first half of the century.
Patrick responded that this paragraph screamed for a guest post. I’ve taken him up on that offer.
So, in one sentence: I want future generations in the American West to have robust reliable electricity (and the high tech that electricity enables), and have concluded that the best way to ensure that result is the peaceful secession of the 11 states stretching from the western parts of the Great Plains to the Pacific (the states highlighted in yellow in the cartogram below; I’ll get back to the figure later). And yes, I know just how odd that sounds. However, if someone had predicted in 1995 that within 25 years most of the states would be having critical budget problems – the Great Recession accelerated the process, but it’s a long way from being over – it would have seemed odd. Even though the budget crises were, and continue to be, present in the trends: political limits to state revenue growth; Medicaid cost growth rates; K-12 education cost growth rates; the growth of equalization schemes that shift K-12 funding from local to state sources; and retiree obligations. And I’m pretty sure that most people at the end of 1830 would have thought the idea that the South would secede within 30 years – and then fight an insanely bloody war over the matter – seemed odd.
The story I’m going to tell here is the result of extrapolating several current trends. It’s a big story that can’t be told adequately in a blog posting; over the last couple of years it has become a book-sized project for me. It’s a big story because it requires pulling so many different threads together. As I’m going to tell it, it’s also a parochial story, focused almost exclusively on the 48 contiguous US states, even though some of the things that drive the story also have significant global impacts. I didn’t start from the idea of secession. I sort of backed into it as I looked at various trends associated with long-term energy supplies, and what it might take to maintain a broadly-rich high-tech society in at least part of the US going forward. Because I’ve tried to keep this to a sane size, all of the arguments presented are incomplete.
Let me start by saying that no one in the world knows how to have a large, rich, developed economy with a high level of technology without producing and consuming prodigious amounts of electricity. China today is an outstanding example. The leadership there is in the process of trying to lift a billion peasants from poverty, and recognizes the amount of electricity required to do that. As a consequence, China is investing massively in anything that produces electricity: coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar. India is attempting the same feat with its peasant population, but is lagging behind China’s progress, in substantial part because they have neglected their electricity supplies. Rich high-tech means electricity, and lots of it.
The first thread is a slowly developing crisis in the US’s ability to produce and deliver sufficient amounts of electricity. Two factors dominate. First, coal-fired generators currently provide the largest share of US electricity . On the other hand, coal is nasty dirty stuff that is becoming, at least in many parts of the country, politically unpopular. Technology exists to deal with most of the non-CO2 pollutants like sulfur dioxide, mercury, and fine particulates. Any serious effort to limit CO2 emissions in the US would have to drastically reduce the amount of coal burned . Second, over the next 30 years, essentially all of the US commercial nuclear reactors will reach the end of their operating license extensions. Given the increasing frequency of problems we are seeing (eg, tritium leaks), and the currently small chance that the US will resolve its spent fuel waste problem in a timely manner, the most probable outcome is that those reactors will be retired when the extensions expire.
Those problems affect a large share of US production. The conventional statement is that the US power grid gets 50% of its electricity from coal and 20% from nuclear. However, the US doesn’t have a single power grid. It has three geographically distinct grids with relatively little power flow between them. They are (rather unimaginatively) known as the Eastern Interconnect, the Western Interconnect, and the Texas Interconnect. The Western Interconnect consists of the same states that make up my 11-state West; the Texas Interconnect consists of most of Texas; and the Eastern Interconnect consists of everything else. The interconnect boundaries don’t follow state borders exactly, but are close enough for my purposes. For several reasons consistent with my East/West story, I’ll be including Texas as part of the East. When we look at the coal-and-nuclear problem, it is disproportionately an Eastern problem. In 2011, the states of the Western Interconnect accounted for 23% of the US population and 18% of total electricity generation, but only 12% of the coal-fired electricity and 9% of the nuclear .
The second thread is a variation on the Peak Oil hypothesis. Peak Oil doesn’t say that we’re about to run out of oil; it simply says that the global rate of production of oil and other liquid hydrocarbon fuels will peak in the near future and then begin to decline . The consequences are unlikely to be a Mad Max end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it quick and total collapse of civilization. However, the amount of liquid fuels available in the US each year will slowly decrease and the price of those fuels increase. The process won’t necessarily be smooth, but it will be steady, with an average decline rate in fuel volume around 2.5% per year. In 25 years, the US will have to get by on roughly half as much liquid fuel as it does today. In 50 years, a quarter as much. Most of the rest of the world will face similar restrictions.
The importance of Peak Oil to my story is that the world becomes a “bigger” place than it is today on several scales. When I say bigger, I mean that reduced physical contact between two places makes them farther apart. On a large scale, there will be less trade between continents: far fewer goods imported from China, much less grain shipped to Africa, many fewer vacations taken in Europe. On a somewhat smaller scale, there will be less contact across the width of the US. Jumping on an airplane to fly from LA to New York or Miami will be, relatively to today, a lot more expensive. And on a small scale, people will stay closer to home. Heading over to the other side of the metro area to eat at that trendy new restaurant will be reserved for special occasions, because of the difficulties (in either money or time) of getting there. One of the most important consequences is that it becomes much more expensive to project military power across a bigger world. The US will become a more regional and less global military power.
The third thread is the continuation of the 80-year trend of depopulation of the US Great Plains. The total population of the Great Plains counties peaked in the 1930s, and has been falling ever since. In some areas, the process has reached the point of positive feedback: the population is too sparse to support many services (for example, a private medical practice), and without those services even more of the remaining people are leaving. Or at least their children are. Global warming is going to make much of the Plains even less well-suited for agriculture than it is already . That’s already happening in West Texas, and will spread north. In short, the Poppers are winning . The Great Plains will provide a 500-mile wide increasingly-empty buffer between the eastern and western portions of the US. In a world where long-distance transportation is more expensive, the effect of that buffer will be greater than it is today.
A fourth thread is that there are a number of other fundamental differences between East and West. Start with the geographical differences. The West is mountainous, which has forced its population to be crowded into a relatively small number of metro areas . On average, using the Census Bureau definition, the West’s population is less rural than the East’s. Most parts of the West receive far less annual precipitation than the country east of the Great Plains, so agriculture in the West has always involved large-scale water storage and management. The same storage-and-management needs have become true for most of the major metro areas. California’s water wars from the early part of last century that made modern Los Angeles possible are well known. Colorado has now passed a law that requires large developers to identify their long-term sources of water before they can build. Dealing with big wildfires is a part of life in much of the West . Even the structure of cities is somewhat different: because so much of the population growth occurred after the automobile was widely available, urban cores are much smaller in the West relative to the overall metro areas.
There is an important political difference as well: the large federal land holdings in the West. In each of those 11 big states, between 30% and 85% of the area is owned by the federal government. To emphasize the point, the cartogram up at the top of this post scales the 48 contiguous states using the size of the federal land holdings in each. If you haven’t lived extensively in the West, it can be difficult to understand the issue this creates. The land holdings have been a source of a lot of resentment since about 1900, the point when the federal government unofficially abandoned its previous practice of getting public land into the hands of either the states or private ownership as quickly as possible. Every 30 years or so, such resentment seems to reach a peak. The last peak was in the late 1970s: the Sagebrush Rebellion . Resentment is on the rise again, with several of the state legislatures introducing – and in some cases passing – bills that either assert control over large parts of the federal lands or demanding transfer of ownership and control to the states.
The final difference I’ll include regards renewable energy resources. The West is rich in renewable resources; the East, not nearly so much, especially compared to Eastern consumption. Depending on the amount of snow pack, between 30% and 40% of the power generated in the states of the Western Interconnect each year already comes from renewable resources. All but two of the states have requirements to increase their use of renewable sources. One of the two that don’t – Idaho – produces such large amounts of electricity (relative to its size) from renewable sources that a mandate seems silly. Examples of some of the more aggressive mandates include Colorado’s requirement to get 30% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, and Los Angeles’ commitment to be coal-free by 2025. There have been several credible nuts-and-bolts level studies that describe how the West can replace its coal and nuclear generation with renewable power. For the East, it’s a much harder problem .
So how would the East deal with the current coal-and-nuclear problem? There are three approaches that appear to have the best chances of working: some combination of austerity, a nuclear renaissance, and raid the West’s renewables. Austerity can mean a lot of different things. One part of it is that the East generates (and consumes) about 35% more electricity per person than the West. The East could seek Western-like efficiency, perhaps using higher prices as the whip. We know a lot more about nuclear reactor design than we did when the current reactors were built. Safer, more efficient reactors are possible. And there are lots of proposals for “raiding,” although generally not described that way. NREL’s Renewable Electricity Futures Study looks, at a relatively high level, for the lowest-cost methods to achieve specific levels of renewable power across all three interconnect regions. As the target level for renewables goes up linearly, the amount of new transmission capacity needed goes up at a much higher rate. The principle reason is that at higher levels, it becomes cheaper to generate electricity in the West and ship it east over large HVDC transmission systems than to squeeze additional production out of Eastern resources.
I argue that in all three of those cases, the East will be motivated to impose its will in one way or another on a not-necessarily cooperative West. Perhaps I’m borrowing trouble, but when (not if) the federal government becomes involved in enforcing austerity, it seems unlikely that the West will escape, even though it is already more efficient overall. In the case of new nuclear, spent fuel repositories (or even spent fuel reprocessing plants) would be needed and would almost certainly be sited on those federal lands in the West. As for raids… well, lots of those big federal land holdings are well suited for renewable generation, and the East has already demonstrated that it has sufficient votes in Congress to dictate land-use policy decisions.
Recent history has continued to provide examples demonstrating that states in the West have reason to be suspicious of the federal government in land-use matters. Elimination of all sites but Yucca Mountain, Nevada for consideration for long-term storage of high-level commercial nuclear wastes in the 1980s turned more on politics than science. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument designation of federal lands in Utah in 1996 was done by President Clinton without consulting any of Utah’s state officials or Congressional delegation. Since 2003, Colorado has been fighting the proposed expansion of the US Army’s Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site. The initial proposal for the expansion covered 6.9 million acres – an area slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts – of mostly privately owned land, much of that to be taken by eminent domain. Half of the existing Maneuver Site was obtained through the largest (in terms of area) eminent domain proceding in US history.
The easiest way for the West to ensure that none of those things happen – or at least that they happen on Western terms – is to secede. A successful secession movement would need to satisfy various conditions. Factors for the West seem more straightforward: there are arguably both economic and political benefits as an independent entity; and in a world with less contact between the coasts, a growing regional identity at the expense of the national identity. Timing is important. I don’t believe secession is a viable option in less than 25 years. Some of the arguments against a standalone West will likely have been resolved in 25 years: for example, the deficit and debt problems, and issues with Mexico. National programs like Social Security are mostly a matter of accounting. A peaceful secession would require convincing the East that it is to their benefit to let the West go. That seems to me the more difficult undertaking.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go put on my flame-proof underwear.
 Electricity from natural gas may come in very slightly ahead of coal in 2012. The switch has largely been the result of the current glut of cheap natural gas. There are good reasons to believe that the glut is temporary, and that prices will return to normal. At which time the big generators that previously used coal will largely switch back.
 Throughout, I’m going to ignore “then a miracle occurs” technology developments. Clean coal – carbon capture and sequestration, CCS – on the necessary scale hasn’t been demonstrated. In anticipation of other arguments, fusion-based commercial power hasn’t been demonstrated, nor has enhanced geothermal power.
 Population figures from the Census Bureau. Electricity generation numbers aggregated from the Energy Information Administration’s by-state-by-source spreadsheets. Corrected whole-year generation figures for 2012 won’t be available until October or November.
 This is an example of what I meant when I said this story was really too big for a blog posting. There are a lot of “But what about X?” questions that challenge the hypothesis that the production rate has peaked or is about to peak. I believe there are good reasons to think that the hypothesis is valid. Feel free to treat it as an assumption.
 Attribute climate change to any source you like, but symptoms such as rapidly shrinking Arctic sea ice extent say that something is making parts of the planet warmer. One of the things that almost all of the computer models agree on is that the Great Plains are one of the ground-zero areas for being warmer and, during critical seasons, drier.
 The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust, 1987.
 Some potentially interesting maps about the effects on the population pattern here.
 Total fire suppression in most of the western forests has to be near the top of the list of the stupidest long-term federal policies ever implemented. Forest restoration across the entire West is impossibly expensive. In another hundred years, the forests will be largely restored, simply because most of them will have burned in catastrophic crown fires and grown back in something closer to their natural state. Of course, dealing with the consequences of those fires will be very expensive in the West, with costs largely borne by the states. And some of the regrowth will take longer than 100 years.
 Triggered in part by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which made perpetual federal ownership the official policy. So far as I have been able to determine, the bill passed without a single aye vote from the Congressional delegations of the 11 western states.
 Studies of the Western Interconnect pretty much all come to the same conclusions: develop the resources here, run the necessary transmission upgrades there (largely determined by the terrain). Attempts at detailed studies for the other interconnects, the Eastern in particular, are hard to find. It really is a much harder problem: fewer resources, population less concentrated, and simply a much larger amount of electricity that has to be generated.