Bishop: Blizzard Whining

Friday, January 05, 2018


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It’s been two months since National Grid restored power to 155,000 customers in a remarkable 4 days following ‘hurricane Gina’ in southeastern New England on October 29th (nobody bothered naming that virtual typhoon, and this author took the liberty of recognizing the Governor as the one most exercised by that storm). That is hardly a poor record, but the politicians and the media have made hay out of the fiction that this reflects some kind of ‘lazy faire’ at the utility. Thus, the governor took pains to explain yesterday that she told National Grid they better be ready for this storm, as if this political grandstanding has anything to do with operating utilities.

This storm already has a name, Grayson, thanks to the Weather Channel which has found popular culture almost as important to its followers as the Weather and has undertaken to name winter storms for our entertainment.  Of course one gets to wondering about the relevance of naming these storms as we are up to “G” already and I can’t recall where storms Aiden, Benji, Chloe, Dylan, Ethan and Frankie have gone

The outcome of utility work[ings] will have more significant impacts in this storm given the cold. That suggests preparations are appropriate not just for utility crews but also for utility customers as it is simply unreasonable to expect that there won’t be serious disruptions in service and that it won’t take several days if not several weeks to set everything right under current weather circumstances. Governor Gina, to her credit, did call on individuals to plan for exigencies -- albeit the options she offered were rather bipolar, shelter in place but if anything goes wrong get the hell out.

If there is any question about institutional preparedness though, it tends to reveal the misplaced priorities of state energy policies that focus on renewable energy instead of supply stability. Our expensive power rates aren’t buying us more stability, they are buying us less.

Julian Simon first wrote about energy as the master resource. His essay, largely aimed at dismissing the notion we were running out of oil, didn’t discount the possibility that solar energy might eventually be a relevant provider. As we all know, we aren’t running out of oil; and America has elbowed others out of the way to become the predominate producer of fossil fuel energy in the world. In this balance, solar isn’t remotely competitive; but our utility policy forces you to subsidize the solar cells on your neighbors roof while politicians have not done enough to ensure access to more practical fuels which are just as important as grid repair at a time like this.

Indeed, Blomberg, reporting on the strain that this cold snap is placing on the electric grid specifically cites power generation in the northeast during extreme cold as suddenly predominated by fuel oil which may be difficult to resupply on the schedule needed in prolonged cold.

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Remember that ‘high-dollar dirty diesel’? We spent 700 million dollars of ratepayers money to place a few spinning toys in Block Island sound and supplant relatively tiny ‘high-dollar dirty diesel’ generators on Block Island. It hardly explains the entire phenomenon, but how ironic that such largess is squandered on grossly inefficient generation in economic terms to solve the ‘problem’ of a small remote island relying on fuel oil for electricity (as do most islands) while replacing that ‘problem’ with literally 30% of the mainland getting its power from fuel oil. Even if the turbines off Block Island aren’t feathered as protection against the gusts of this storm they might be sending in 1% of Rhode Islands power. If you look at the costs of that project and the idea of scaling that up to get any significant amount of power, sending everyone to Florida and turning out the lights becomes a much more practical solution.

In the meantime gas pipelines, storage of liquid natural gas and added gas generation provide a relevant hedge on price and stability for both the energy grid and home heating supply for the next decade or two. But our brilliant progressive leaders resist, even while complaining should National Grid have the temerity to shut off someone who can’t pay the exorbitant prices they themselves have engineered. Talk about having your cake and eating it too. If you believe poor folks should live in yurts and burn ox dung for heat, then at least there is some consistency in the resistance to fossil fuels. But complaining that others live like kings doesn’t explain how the poorest in our society will fare in a contemporary world without cheap abundant fossil fuels.

If one is hostile to coal because of its CO2 footprint, it is hardly consistent to espouse policies that have us burning fuel oil as an alternative to natural gas where coal has approximately double, i.e. 100% more, emission per btu than natural gas, but fuel oil still has 50% more emissions. To be fair, some opponents of natural gas infrastructure probably understand that their advocacy leads to more CO2 emissions now, but believe placing pressure on the industry could lead to more adoption of renewables. The thing still to reconciled is, this just means they are artificially increasing the price of fossil fuels so that renewables look more attractive. This doesn’t make energy more affordable. If you think its expensive now, wait til its free. Why they think we will have a more progressive world when energy is more expensive is beyond me.

Neighborhoods, not political factions are the units that can help each other through bad weather and power outages. The effort here isn’t to insulate National Grid from criticism. It has been amongst the architects of some of the stupidest energy policy in the country by going along with stupid progressive priorities so long as company coffers get filled in the process. But the thing to do is fix that policy rather than beat them up every time we have bad weather.

One cannot imagine that the government will ride to the rescue. At the exteme, where there is an immediate threat to life they are called on. But when it comes to protecting property and coping with the more mundane problems of freezing pipes relatively modest solutions exist with or without the power on.

The key is to balance convenience and safety – another thing which many are far too reliant on government for. Watching for blocked intakes and outlets on modern gas heating appliances is important. At best such blockages will shut down heating systems, at worst safety controls will fail and carbon monoxide will be produced. When running kerosene and propane indoor heaters or substituting gas stove burners or ovens for conventional heat air quality is an issue if seldom deadly carbon monoxide. In any event, working battery powered carbon monoxide detectors are cheap and keep you ahead of that curve.

You can’t go get them right now, but having these in mind before the storm is the kind of preparedness that individuals can engage in even as National Grid calls in crews to stand at the ready.

Thinking about how to keep pipes from freezing by dripping faucets can be critical if heat fails, or just in the event of extreme cold. Moving water is much less likely to freeze although any unconventional approach needs to be monitored, as drains could freeze and the dripping water could back up out of the sink! If loss of power also results in loss of water pressure then shutting off water service at least prevents over flow if frozen pipes thaw. In that event, any portable heating should focus on keeping pipes warm as much as people so locate yourself and your heaters accordingly.

If you have baseboard heat its critical to keep the water circulating at regular intervals if not constantly. In extreme cold you want to avoid programmed thermostat setbacks as they can result in longer cycles between heating and if the baseboard pipes freeze then no heat will move.  Your heating professional can help prep for this.

The best backup for all of this isn’t the government, but a neighbor or family member with a little ingenuity and keeping those ties with your repairman strong. Best to keep those lines up in case the electric lines go down.


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Brian Bishop is on the board of OSTPA and has spent 20 years of activism protecting property rights, fighting over regulation and perverse incentives in tax policy. 


Related Slideshow: GoLocal: Benchmark Poll, October 2017

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Sponsor: GoLocalProv

Sample: N=403

Rhode Island General Election Voters Margin of Error: +/- 4.9% at 95% Confidence Level

Interviewing Period: October 9-11, 2017

Mode: Landline (61%) and Mobile (39%)

Telephone Directed by: John Della Volpe, SocialSphere, Inc.

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Are you registered to vote at this address?

Yes: 100%

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When it comes to voting, do you consider yourself to be affiliated with the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Moderate, or Unaffiliated with a major party?

Unaffiliated: 49%

Democrat: 32%

Republican: 15%

Moderate: .4%

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Next year, in November of 2018, there will be a statewide general election for Governor and many other state offices. How likely is it that you will vote in this election?

Will you definitely be voting, will you probably be voting, are you 50-50...

Definitely be voting: 78%

Probably be voting: 13%

50-50: 9%

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In general, would you say things in Rhode Island are headed in the right direction or are they off on the wrong track?

Right track: 39%

Wrong track: 45%

Mixed: 10%

Don't know/Refused: .6%

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Prev Next

What would you say is the number one problem facing Rhode Island that you would like the Governor to address?

Jobs and economy:  21%

Education: 12%

Taxes: 12%

Roads: 12%

State budget: 9%

Corruption/Public integrity: .8%

Healthcare: 3%

Governor: 3%

Homelessness: 2%

Immigration: 2%

Other: 7%

Don’t know: .9%

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Over the past three years or so, would you say the economy in Rhode Island has improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 35%

Changed for the worse: 16%

Not changed at all: 43%

Don't know/Refused: 5%

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Over the same time, has your family's financial situation improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 26%

Changed for the worse: 19%

Not changed at all: 54%

Don't know/Refused: 1%

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Recently, a proposal has been made to permit the issuance of $81 million in bonds by the State to build a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox. If there was an election today on this issue, would you vote to approve or reject issuing $81 million in financing supported moral obligation bonds to build the stadium?

Net: Approve: 28%

Definitely approve: 15%

Probably approve: 14%

Net: Reject: 67%

Probably reject: 19%

Definitely reject: 48%

Don't know: 4%

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Could you please tell me your age?

18-24: 7%

25-34: 15%

35-44: 15%

45-54: 20%

55-64: 17%

65+: 25%

Don't know/refused: 1%

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What was the last grade you completed in school?

0-11: 2%

High school grad: 16%

Technical/Vocational school: 1%

Some college: 23%

College grad: 34%

Graduate degree: 24%

Don't know/refused: 1%

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The next question is about the total income of YOUR HOUSEHOLD for the PAST 12 MONTHS. Please include your income PLUS the income of all members living in your household (including cohabiting partners and armed forces members living at home).

$50,000 or less: 27%

More $50,000 but less than $75,000: 13%

More $75,000 but less than $100,000: 13%

More $100,000 but less than $150,000: 17%

$150,000 or more: 13%

Don't know/refused: 17%

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What particular ethnic group or nationality - such as English, French, Italian, Irish, Latino, Jewish, African American, and so forth - do you consider yourself a part of or feel closest to?

American/None: 21%

English: 13%

Italian: 13%

Irish: 12%

Black or African American: 6%

Latino/Hispanic: 6%

French: 6%

Portuguese: 3%

Jewish: 3%

German: 1%

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Would you say that Donald Trump has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as President?

Excellent: 13%
Good: 12%
Fair: 14%
Poor: 57%
Never heard of:  0%
Cannot rate: 3%

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Would you say that Jack Reed has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 22%
Good: 29%
Fair: 23%
Poor: 15%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 6%

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Would you say that Sheldon Whitehouse has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 17%
Good: 22%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 28%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 7%

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Would you say that David Cicilline has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 9%
Good: 29%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 27%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate:  8%

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Would you say that James Langevin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 7%
Good: 30%
Fair: 20%
Poor: 18%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 11%

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Would you say that Gina Raimondo has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Governor?

Excellent: 6%
Good: 28%
Fair: 30%
Poor: 31%
Never heard of: 1%
Cannot rate: 3%

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Would you say that Daniel McKee has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Lieutenant Governor?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 16%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 8%
Never heard of: 26%
Cannot rate: 25%

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Would you say that Peter Kilmartin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Attorney General?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 20%
Fair: 28%
Poor: 17%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 19%

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Would you say that Seth Magaziner has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as General Treasurer?

Excellent: 4%
Good: 18%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 13%
Never heard of: 21%
Cannot rate: 21%

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Would you say that Nellie Gorbea has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Secretary of State?

Excellent: 5%
Good: 21%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 10%
Never heard of: 20%
Cannot rate: 23%

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Would you say that Jorge Elorza has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Mayor of Providence?

Excellent: 4%
Good: 24%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 22%
Never heard of: 9%
Cannot rate: 15%


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