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Thursday, July 27, 2017 12:19 am

Agency problems

The dilemmas of public power on a warming planet

Tighter building standards to promote energy conservation would be a safe bet on an uncertain future.


As I write this the weather is, as my grandmother used to say, sultry. Central Illinois is not on the Gulf coast, but Gulf air is in central Illinois much of the year. The damp heat typical of summer hereabouts is another of the South’s curses on Illinois. But while we got that region’s politics and cuisine, we never got Southern houses. In colonial Louisiana, the houses had shading verandas and were perched off the ground so cooling air could flow beneath them. The latter feature, alas, would have rendered a house uninhabitable in a central Illinois February.

Mid-Illinoisans had our own cunning devices to stay alive until fall. The rich built houses whose rooms had high ceilings, which act as a heat trap; come nightfall, they retired to screened-in sleeping porches. That’s what my grandparents did in Beardstown until they hit upon an even more effective way to get a cool night’s sleep – move to California, which they did in the 1940s.

Under the most widely accepted climate change scenarios, downstate Illinois by 2050 will have Houston-like weather. “We’ve always had heat waves,” I hear people say, sounding very like a frog happily splashing in a pot of water on the stove. We also have always had floods. And droughts. What’s different is that they are becoming a little more frequent and more intense.

Who cares? During July 1936, for example, heat was either a direct cause or a contributing factor in 50 deaths in Springfield, but we don’t see numbers like that anymore because of the near-universal use of mechanical cooling. With such machines, traditional ways to cope with the heat were abandoned. Look at the today versions of the mansions on Aristocracy Hill. No accommodation to the realities of the season in these houses. They are built and sited without regard to insolation or solar orientation on streets shaded by no trees, and thus are as ill-adapted to a future Houston-ness as the Illinois Policy Institute is to governing.

Which means near-total reliance on air-conditioning. In April, when it was still cool enough to think straight, I took up some of the implications of climate change for City Water, Light & Power. (See “Powerful forces,”April 13, 2017.) The issue affects more than CWLP’s managers, however. That hulking power plant by the lake belongs to the people of the city, and they thus also own, in a sense, the CO2 that pours from its stack. In order for the city to keep itself cool, Springfield is helping make the planet hotter, which means its air conditioners must be run even harder, which means emissions of even more CO2, etc. The conscientious CWLP customer might find it hard to keep her body and her conscience comfortable at the same time.

Are there enough conscientious CWLP customers to constitute a constituency? It would be nice to think so. Reducing the city’s dependence on coal in 2050 by adopting tighter building standards today will be a whole lot easier to achieve and probably cheaper than finding massive amounts of 24-hour-a-day wind or solar. But if the past is any guide, the Springfield city council will begin to debate the wisdom of stiffening insulation requirements on new buildings around 2030, and begin phased in adoption of watered-down versions by 2060 or so.

Some will see wisdom in this indolence. Some will ask – and should, because it’s a fair question – why the city should compel private builders to increase the cost of new structures in anticipation of a disaster – Houston-ness – that only might happen. My reply is that the city already compels private builders to increase the cost of new structures in anticipation of something that only might happen – that something being continued benign summers. Every regulation that affects durable infrastructure is a bet on the future. As such bets go, tightening building standards is pretty safe. Such rules add only marginally to the cost of new structures but save the owners a lot of money over the lifetime of the building in reduced energy costs. That would be true whether Springfield turns into Houston or Little Rock or even Green Bay.

I worry, though, that the City of Springfield, having a very expensive power plant to pay off, will deliberately refrain from applying even intelligent building requirements because it would cost the city money as customers gradually spend less money on summer cooling. This is Springfield’s version of a familiar corporate agency problem: The interests of the aldermen, acting as directors of CWLP responsible for its financial health, do not align with the interests of CWLP’s shareholders. This is a dilemma not anticipated by Willis Spaulding, father of Springfield’s municipal utilities.

Customers face an agency problem too. That lakeside complex was intended to serve public interests rather than private profit, but what if it serves the interests of the smaller public of Springfield at the expense of the interests of the larger global public of which they also are a part?

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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