Magazine article The New Yorker

UNTRANSFORMED; COMMENT; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

UNTRANSFORMED; COMMENT; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Article excerpt

A distribution transformer, much, say, like an elevator, is easy to ignore until it malfunctions. Its unromantic job, in most cases, is to take the high-voltage current transmitted over the grid and convert it--or step it down--to the lower-voltage current that emerges from a wall socket. There are an estimated three million distribution transformers in operation in the United States, and virtually all the electricity produced in the country--some four trillion kilowatt hours per year--passes through at least one of them en route from the plant where it was generated to the heating element in your toaster. Along the way, some energy is inevitably lost, and even though proportionately these losses are small, when you're talking about four trillion kilowatt hours they quickly add up.

Last month, more than fourteen years after Congress mandated transformer standards, the Bush Administration finally got around to proposing them. (The original deadline was missed during the Clinton Administration.) To prepare the proposal, the Department of Energy assessed six possible levels of efficiency, ranging from the highest, known in bureaucratese as Trial Standard Level 6, to the lowest, Trial Standard Level 1. According to the department's figures, the ideal balance between the up-front costs and the long-term gains was achieved at Level 4. Nevertheless, the department turned around and recommended a much lower transformer standard, Level 2. The decision obviously makes no sense on environmental grounds--in effect, the department is proposing to squander some twelve billion kilowatt hours per year, or roughly enough electricity to power all the households in Iowa--and also no sense on financial ones: the D.O.E.'s own analysis shows that the net cost of the lower standard will actually be higher over the life of the average transformer, which is estimated to be thirty years. The proposal leaves "billions in savings just sitting on the table," is how Steven Nadel, the executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, put it to the Christian Science Monitor.

As it happens, right around the same time that the Bush Administration was making its feeble goals public, three thousand miles away, in Sacramento, California, ambitious new standards were being set. The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 may well be the most important piece of legislation passed this year; certainly it is the most far-sighted. When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signs it, as he has promised to do by the end of next week, California will become the first place in America where climate change is truly taken seriously. The act commits the state to cutting its greenhouse-gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010--an eleven-per-cent reduction from "business as usual"--and to 1990 levels by 2020: a twenty-nine-per-cent reduction. Significantly, the bill does not depend on voluntary compliance but authorizes the California Air Resources Board to take any steps necessary to enforce the limits. Peter Darbee, the head of the state's largest utility, P.G. & E., whose support was crucial to the bill's passage, said he welcomed the strictness of the regulations as a spur to innovation. "The incentives really aren't there for the creation of new technologies and investments to reduce carbon dioxide unless mandatory caps are put in place," he told the Times. …

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