Last week’s pictures of New York must have been the ultimate rush for the opponents to electrical generation expansion, interchange reconstruction and freeway expansion. The inability of cars to move anywhere had to be a real-time preview of the dreams of what Milwaukee could be — if we could only tear down the freeways, downsize the Marquette Interchange and keep Interstate 94 at three lanes each way. The photos of millions of New Yorkers walking home and some back to work must have been a dream come true for our good city mayor. Surely those millions of stranded New Yorkers are lining up to sell their cars and rent a flat in the Big Apple.
Milwaukee and Wisconsin dodged a bullet. Few people had known that the electrical transmission systems across this country are so intertwined and so fragile.
Forgotten were the blackouts that occurred in Chicago in 1999, but fortunately We Energies had not. Its Power the Future project was, in part, in reaction to Chicago’s blackouts and in anticipation of future electrical needs for southeastern Wisconsin for decades to come.
Environmentalists, NIMBYs quiet
As a good chunk of the eastern United States and Canada coped with no power and having to boil water, the silence of the environmentalists and the NIMBYs was deafening. It’s rather easy to shout about bad air days, even though such occurrences are rare and seldom, if ever, unhealthy. With the backing of onerous and largely ineffectual Environmental Protection Agency regulations, the ozone zealots and NIMBYs have attempted to block reasonable expansion of electrical infrastructure. The last nuclear power plant – still the safest and cleanest energy generation we have ever had – was built more than a quarter of a century ago. Wisconsin, as I recall, even passed a law prohibiting new nuclear power plant construction. Electrical transmission lines have been attacked by NIMBYs wherever they are proposed. In spite of a 30 percent growth in electricity demand, transmission-line growth has been less than half that. And as we witnessed last week, the lines we do have are old and subject to failure. This is one reason Power the Future includes more than $2 billion of new transmission-line construction.
The NIMBYs have been silent for a few days as the eastern half of the United States sorts things out. Little known from the general media is that the Ohio-based utility First Energy Corp. has been a target of the environmentalists even though it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading pollution controls for its facilities.
On Aug. 7, just a week before the blackouts, a court ruled that its pollution-control upgrades were not enough. This utility spent hundreds of millions making its facilities safer and cleaner and millions more fighting the inevitable lawsuits that whatever it did was not good enough. A week after it lost in court, 50 million people were caught in a blackout. Coincidence? Probably. Could the same thing happen here? Let’s hope not; but let’s also hope the Public Service Commission gives a quick yes to Power the Future.
‘Bad air days’ few and far between
It’s worth noting how infrequent southeastern Wisconsin has “bad air days.” In the three years before our Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources started issuing Ozone Action Day alerts, 1992-1994, there were just seven bad air days, or an average of 2.3 days a year. On four of those seven days, only one of 12 ozone monitoring sites recorded “bad air” and then only for an hour or so. Since 1995, the DNR has issued 76 ozone alerts. But what is not generally known is that on only 12 of those days was the DNR rewarded with bad air. Even counting a couple of bad air days the DNR failed to alert, the average number of bad air days from 1995 to 2003 was 2.3 days a year — exactly the same as for the three years prior to the DNR regulations (reformulated gas, emissions testing, etc) that were implemented.
In other words, our area rarely incurs what the EPA and our DNR (not to mention, the American Lung Association) claim to be bad air. Even when such readings do occur, they occur very briefly — an hour or so — and along the Lake Michigan beach. Waukesha County, our fastest-growing county, has not had even one bad air day. Washington County has had one (June 16, 1994.)
We hope last week’s blackouts will help put our energy expansion options into perspective. The endless wrangling about oil vs. coal is an environmental nonissue. Our area rarely has bad air, and to the extent we do, the ozone drifts in from Lake Michigan and has had nothing whatsoever to do with the type of facility We Energies is planning to build.
Of far greater concern is moving forward with a comprehensive program to expand power generation and to upgrade and expand transmission grids. Like it or not, the growth of electrical usage continues, and availability and reliability of electricity impacts the health of everyone to a far greater extent than we had realized, including but not limited to safe drinking water, toilets and sanitary facilities, safe indoor temperatures, food storage and at-home medical care.
In the larger picture, allowing companies to make a fair return to maintain and expand power generation is crucial to our health and well being. The shouting of the environmentalists and NIMBYs about virtually nonexistent bad air pales in relevance. It’s too much to hope for, but wouldn’t it be nice if the NIMBY silence continued for awhile? Now that is something that would really clean our air.
Donald Croysdale is executive director for the American Subcontractors Association of Greater Milwaukee. For more information on ASA or its next chapter event, call the Greater Milwaukee Chapter at 414-276-1743 or visit the Web site.