Cheney Lobbies for a Discredited Centralized, Bureaucratic Approach to Energy Policy

May 2, 2001

By Jock Gill for


Yes, we need to increase the amount and quality of the electricity we generate in America and the world. But Dick Cheney and his Big Energy lobby are dead wrong about the best way to do it.

Despite decades of research on how to be more efficient in generating and distributing electricity their vision of the future continues to rely exclusively on large, centralized power plants, especially those which produce highly toxic radioactive wastes that must be kept in storage for thousands of years.

This would be a huge mistake. Cheney and the rest of the power club he speaks for are more than willing to sacrificing a sound future for all Americans for the short term benefit of a handful of powerful corporations. Once again, the Bushites let the past trump the future. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Republicans got more than twice as much of the electric power industry’s record $8 million in soft money contributions in 2000 as the Democrats. And now, with Dick Cheney leading the way, it is payback time.

If reason and science were in charge rather than money and politics we would be moving as quickly as possible to a distributed and environmentally appropriate generating paradigm - most buildings making their own clean, safe and reliable power on location. The technology for doing this is already in an advanced state of development. They are called fuel cells (FCs).

Fuel cells for homes are an exciting solution since they carry almost none of the baggage of the centralized, bureaucratic Big Power approach. Plug Power of Latham, New York, for example, makes a 7 Kw fuel cell for use in homes. Ballard Power in Canada also has small stationary FCs for domestic use -- only they are selling their 1 Kw FCs to the Japanese market. Ballard also makes a 75 Kw fuel cell for next generation power systems in cars.

At the moment, these FCs for domestic use are about the size of a dishwasher or small refrigerator. They are fueled by natural gas from which they extract the pure hydrogen they require. In the future, they will burn hydrogen delivered directly. Better yet, these FCs can be used to also provide domestic hot water and possibly some home heating as well. This co-generation strategy brings the over all efficiency of domestic fuels cells to 80% -- or higher. This is much, much better than any known central generating power plant technology. In other words, any other solution is wasteful and inefficient.

Fuel cells also have huge environmental benefits. The main emission from a FC is pure hot water you can drink – once it cools off, of course. FCs are quiet and produce very small amounts of smog precursors even when the hydrogen fuel is extracted from natural gas. The plan that Dick Cheney and the rest of the Power Club are hawking will add more mercury to your fish, more carbon dioxide to the environment to accelerate global warming, and tons of deadly radio active waste we will have to store for thousands of years – something no civilization has ever achieved.

If you are a stockholder in an energy company then Dick Cheney works for you, since it is designed to keep dividends coming your way. But if you are a citizen his proposed solution is terrible since you are going to get stuck with the costs.

If efficient new energy production were the nation’s goal rather than lining the pockets of Big Power executives we would embark on a massive challenge – putting fuel cells into 10 million homes in the next ten years.

The numbers tell the story: The average domestic FC produces around 7 kilowatts, so 10 million of them, spread across America, would produce around 70 gigawatts. This is equivalent to about 70 average sized nuclear power plants. Which would you prefer: A safe, quiet, efficient, clean fuel cell in your basement or a nuclear power plant in your neighborhood, creating toxic waste that will need to be stored for thousands of years?

So not only would we get the juice we need, but look at all the other advantages:

1. The fuel cell strategy eliminates the requirement to raise one or two billion dollars for a new centralized plant in the 1 gigawatt range. The financing risks are considerable and time consuming. You will pay for all of these costs. If you doubt this, call a friend in California and ask them about power company behavior.

2. The small investments required by domestic FCs can be matched to need. There is no longer any need to gamble on notoriously inaccurate long range power company demand forecasts since we can add capacity as the load requires.

3. The costs of transmission and delivery are much lower, with lower lines losses.

4. The fuel cell strategy eliminates principal cause of power outages in a home - damage to distribution system from weather, such as ice storms and tornadoes, accidents and, worse, possible terrorism.

Another concern, of course, is that we are not using the current energy problem in America to discuss where we want to be in the future and how best to start getting there now. We know that we will not be burning oil, gas and coal forever. And we know the environmental benefits of kicking our carbon addiction. But where is the leadership to help us make the transition to this better solution?

Who is helping to ask what can we do today to improve the quality of life for generations to come?

This is a job for 21st Century Democrats, not 19th century Republican Robber Barons.