Richardson acts to save DOE’s research parks
In “Preserving DOE’s Research Parks” (Issues, Winter 1997-98), we argued that some of the nation’s most irreplaceable outdoor laboratories for scientific research and education are at risk of being disposed of by the Department of Energy (DOE). We are pleased that Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson has recently acted to protect the unique values of DOE property, but we believe that more steps should be taken.
Since June 1999, Richardson has set aside lands in five of the seven DOE research parks for wildlife preservation, research, education, and recreation. Management plans have been or are being established for 1,000 acres at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, 57,000 acres at the Hanford Nuclear Reserve in Washington, 10,000 acres at the Savannah River Site in Georgia, 74,000 acres at the Idaho National Environmental and Engineering Laboratory, and 3,000 acres at the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee. These sites are to be managed as biological and wildlife preserves, allowing opportunities for research, education, and, for most of them, recreation. “In places of rare environmental resources,” Richardson said, “we have a special responsibility to the states and communities that have supported and hosted America’s long effort to win the Cold War . . . and we owe it to future generations to protect these precious places so that they can enjoy nature’s plenty just as we do.”
The preserves are home to several rare wildlife species, including bald eagles and loggerhead shrike, as well as numerous other animal and plant species. The only population of one rare plant, the White Bluffs bladder pod, occurs at the Hanford site. Under Richardson’s plan, traditional Native American cultural uses of these sites will continue. The preserves will also continue to provide a safety buffer for DOE facilities.
Despite these promising moves, the long-term viability of the management arrangements that have been established varies across the sites. For example, because of various constraints, the DOE agreement with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for management of the Three Bend Scenic and Wildlife Refuge on the Oak Ridge Reservation is for only five years, compared to the 25-year agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Hanford. Further, some Oak Ridge city leaders have opposed establishing the refuge, because they want the land to be used for housing and industrial development.
Pressure to develop these unique lands is likely to continue to mount. Although DOE is required to identify surplus property according to the terms of Executive Order 12512, we have asked that this process occur without compromising long-term research, conservation, and education opportunities, including possible new facilities. To date, we feel that these values have not been given adequate weight and have not been integrated into national environmental goals.
We also believe that retaining the research parks is a cost-effective means of bolstering President Clinton’s Lands Legacy Initiative. Research park lands near communities can serve as buffers against sprawl as well as offering nearby urban residents diverse educational and recreational opportunities, such as hiking, biking, hunting, and nature walks.
We further recommend that DOE develop a long-term management plan for protecting opportunities for energy-related research, conservation, and education in the DOE research parks. This plan should include an outreach program specifying ways for the community, educators, and scientists to take advantage of the user facilities of the parks. For example, local science camps could be expanded to become national opportunities for students and educators to learn about energy use, conservation, and the environment. We envision that DOE’s “EcoCamps” could be just as popular as NASA’s Space Camps.
States take lead in utility reform
In “Unleashing Innovation in Electricity Generation” (Issues, Spring 1998), I argued that removing the barriers to competition would disseminate state-of-the-art electric systems, foster technological innovations, double the U.S. electric system’s efficiency, cut the generation of pollutants and greenhouse gases, enhance productivity and economic development, spawn a multibillion-dollar export industry, and reduce consumer costs. The United States, in fact, is on the verge of a revolution in power plant innovation.
I also noted, however, that this revolution will occur only if lawmakers eliminate the numerous policy barriers, based on a decades-old system of regulated monopolies, that retard the deployment of these innovative technologies. Needed, for instance, are national interconnection standards to ensure that utility monopolies don’t set gold-plated requirements designed to restrict the access of competitors to the grid. Needed also are new environmental regulations that don’t ignore the fact that innovative technologies will displace polluting power plants. Needed, moreover, are common tax treatments, so that advanced turbines used to generate electricity do not face lengthy and prohibitive depreciation schedules.
Twenty-four states have moved to restructure their electricity industry, believing that competition rather than monopoly regulation will lead to lower prices and better service. Rather than focus on ways to advance innovation, however, most of the policy debate in those states concentrated on how much existing utilities could recover of the stranded costs associated with their power plants and other assets judged to be uneconomic in a competitive marketplace. In most states, in fact, utility lobbyists won lucrative stranded-cost judgments that are making it difficult for entrepreneurs to compete.
Progress on federal legislation has been slow. Moreover, H.R. 2944, which was approved in 1999 by a House subcommittee, also was quite favorable toward utilities, which wanted to ensure that the states, where utility lobbyists hold substantial sway, would maintain control of most restructuring issues.
Several new initiatives, however, point to a growing interest in policies that advance innovation in the electricity market. Illinois, for instance, allowed consumers using small and efficient generators to be relieved from high stranded-cost charges. Pennsylvania also curtailed stranded costs and opened the door for scores of competitors willing to finance and build innovative power stations. The Clinton administration’s legislative proposal included tax incentives for combined heat and power systems, and H.R. 2944 advanced national interconnection standards to ensure that utility monopolies could not block competitors providing distributed generation.
Yet there also have been new barriers that retard competition and innovation. Utility lobbyists in late 1999, for instance, convinced the New York State Public Utility Commission to permit the charging of significantly higher fees to any generator using backup power for anything other than an emergency outage. Many utilities also have begun to impose “uplift charges” or additional fees for use of their transmission and distribution system.
No doubt restructuring this critical industry, with its whopping $400-plus billion in annual revenue, is complex. The policy debate, however, was sparked initially by technological advancements, particularly in turbines. The challenge remains for policymakers to reform an outmoded regulatory system that blocks the United States from enjoying the full benefits of these innovations.