Re: Walking gently - what does it take?
From: Kay Argyle (kay.argyleutah.edu)
Date: Tue, 3 Jul 2007 17:16:18 -0700 (PDT)
The question of what costs, financial or otherwise, should be considered,
cuts to the heart of many discussions.  For instance, building a house with
a gray-water system uses extra resources; isn't that wasteful?  Why even
discuss how to get a permit to do so? Honestly, all that extra PVC is so
environmentally unsound.  

>From a narrow economic point of view, a gray-water system doesn't make
sense; the decrease in the monthly water bill may not pay for the plumbing
in the time one owns the house, and unless everyone does it, the reduction
in one's share of the indirect costs, such as chlorine released into the
environment, water diverted from natural bodies, and municipal taxes to
build and operate water treatment plants, is pretty minute. (This is
unfortunately theoretical; Utah doesn't allow gray-water systems.)  

The division of direct/indirect costs results in some really perverse market
forces.  The actual cost of water in Utah would be a big incentive to
conserve.  It would also interfere with economic growth.  Therefore, the
state heavily subsidizes water projects.  Water is unnaturally cheap.  So
the second driest state in the union has the second highest per capita water
use. (This refers to treated water, of course; a lawn takes as much water in
Portland as Salt Lake, but in Portland it's irrigated with the form of
untreated water known as "rain".)

In mature industries, a lower price may in fact reflect more-efficient use
of energy and/or commodities such as copper, corn, timber, or petroleum; or
it may reflect savings from union-busting, evading PM10 controls, or a
below-market bid to clear-cut a national forest, at the hidden indirect
costs of polluted water sheds, high local rates of asthma, or full-time
workers needing food banks and charity medical clinics.

A new more-efficient technology typically doesn't replace old technology
with paid-off infrastructure until the former's lower operating cost recoups
its startup costs (including research) - which can take a long time.  The
steelplant where my dad worked withstood forty years of competition from
newer plants with more-efficient basic oxygen or electric arc furnaces. A
couple of years ago, the seventy-year-old open-hearth furnace was finally
sold to a plant in China, where it will make money again, because its owners
won't have to pay for smokestack scrubbers or unionized labor with a decent
standard of living.

Low demand for new (or old but not widely adopted) technology leaves a
pricey niche market.  If demand grows, however, more suppliers get into the
business, supply grows, and the price drops.   The technology gets refined
with greater use, and the price drops further.  

If I pay a premium ($2 per 100 kWh block, I think) to Rocky Mountain Power
for their commitment to use that money to acquire new sources of renewable
energy, RMP then signs a contract with a company building a wind farm,
instead of with a company building a coal-fired plant.  Contract in hand,
the wind farm company can get a loan to build.  Some depressed, windy
flyspeck on the Wyoming map gets a source of income besides ranching or
mining. Order in hand, the wind tower manufacturer expands their assembly
line.  With a bigger plant, they can build towers more economically.  RMP
boasts about the success of its Blue Skies program, and another thousand
customers join.  RMP needs more wind power; the wind farm needs more towers
- at the new lower price.  The cost of wind-generated electricity starts to
undercut that of coal power.  Since the rate commission requires RMP to buy
the cheapest power (its Blue Skies initiative is a sneaky endrun around the
commission), fifteen years from now my conservative anti-environmentalist
neighbors will willy-nilly be using "green" wind power.  

Purchasing choices can thus leverage change. 

Maybe I personally only get a little of my cost back, in the form of fewer
days with bronchitis, or better visibility when I visit Bryce National Park
- so? It's an investment in the type of world I want to live in.  I think of
it like paying taxes; I rarely see a direct benefit from that either - and
at least my electric company doesn't start a war in Iraq with my money.

Kay Argyle

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