Saturday, August 21, 2010


Renewable Energy and the Path Forward — Part I

For about three decades now, talk of America’s energy policy has been dominated by calls for renewable sources of energy — sources of energy that are just as available after you use them as before. Fearful of the theoretical possibility that we might someday run out of oil, coal and natural gas to drive our industrial economy, whipped into frenzy by environmentalists’ scientifically- and economically-deficient howling over what comes out of smoke stacks, leftists have flogged their infatuation with 70s-chic technological solutions that seem, on the surface, to solve both the depletion and pollution problems of fossil fuels.

Never one to miss an opportunity to sound smarter than the citizens he governs, last week our President used the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to reinforce his already-too-well-established endorsement of renewables:

For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked — not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

I don’t agree with any of the premises, either stated or implied, in that paragraph, but I’m having a particular problem these days with the assertion that we need to replace “finite” fossil fuels with “infinite” sources of electricity like wind, solar, and biomass. Renewable though they may be, these are just, plain lousy solutions, and the effort to force markets to choose them over sensible, plentiful, readily-available fossil fuels is likely to lock the US economy into a permanent deep freeze. “Renewable” and “clean” are nice-sounding features, but they ignore the more crucial imperative: energy sources need actually to supply enough energy.

Energy sources for a robust, industrial economy need to be available in plenty, easily transportable to the place they’ll be used, available on demand, relatively safe and easy to use, and they need to be able to do these things at a price that compares well with other energy sources that meet those criteria. When we say an energy source is “renewable,” we’re addressing only one small portion of the first of those criteria. When we say it’s “clean,” we’re addressing only one portion of the “safe” criterion. “Renewable” and “clean” are helpful features, but they’re not sufficient to commend a technology to us. There are other criteria that must also be met, and if our “renewable” source can’t meet them, we need to keep looking until we find something that can.

Nor is “renewable” a necessary criterion. We can continue to use non-renewable energy sources for centuries while we look for alternatives. That there exists no hurry is proved by the fact that there exists no shortage: Enviros have to force fossil fuel prices up artificially in order to make them seem unattractive. If there were real shortages, the prices would rise without anybody’s help.

“Clean” is in some sense necessary, but it’s also relative. Technology has done an amazing job of addressing the soot problems of the 50s and the smog problems of the 70s; air pollution from stationary sources has plateaued and is dropping, even while the number of automobiles and smokestacks is rising. We can all breathe, far into the foreseeable future. How clean do we have to get to be clean enough?

Solar, wind power, and biomass are all limited by the laws of physics. They’re available to some degree everywhere, but they’re diffuse. The Sun may be an enormous source of power, heat, and light, but it’s about 92 million miles away, and only a tiny fraction of its energy actually hits the Earth; you only get so much sunlight on a particular square mile of ground. By the same token, only so much wind passes over a given square mile of earth, and only so much vegetable matter can be grown on that same square mile. They’re all limited by the amount of land that’s available for producing energy; and land is a finite and extremely precious commodity.

Robert Bryce provided a useful metric with which to assess this notion of energy density in an analysis he produced for Forbes Magazine in May 2010.

The two [nuclear power] reactors at the South Texas Project produce 2,700 megawatts of power. The plant covers about 19 square miles, an area slightly smaller than the island of Manhattan. To match that output using wind energy, you’d need a land area nearly the size of Rhode Island. Matching that power output with corn ethanol would require intensive farming on more than 21,000 square miles, an area nearly the size of West Virginia.

Bryce also noted that a marginal oil well producing only about 10 barrels of oil per day has an energy density that’s roughly half that of the South Texas Project nuclear power plant, but about 22 times more dense than that of a wind farm.

These numbers can be improved marginally for wind and solar power, but ultimately they’re limited by the laws of physics. Ultimately, the choice to use these “renewables” is the bad end of a Hobson’s Choice: in order to spare the earth some insult, we’re choosing to permanently use up vast stretches of the earth itself to supply our energy — and there’s no indication that doing so will ever actually provide enough energy to keep our economy rolling.

Furthermore, solar and wind are intermittent. The sun does not shine at night, and gets clouded over frequently during the day. The wind does not blow 100% of the time in the range of speeds required to drive a wind turbine. The electrical grid does not have batteries built into it to store previously-generated electricity against future needs (and the resources required to build such batteries would be unimaginable). So, for every new watt of power from a wind turbine or solar plant an electrical power company builds, the company has to build a conventionally-fueled plant to provide that same watt of power — because sometimes the power will be available from the “renewable,” but sometimes it won’t. And it has to be available at a second’s notice, so — watch carefully — the conventional plant that gets built alongside the “renewable” plant has to be fully powered and ready to be brought on-line at all times, and it has to be large enough to produce just as much power as the “renewable” plant. For this reason, wind turbines and solar plants cannot stop a single ounce of CO² from being generated — and they more than double the price of electricity. Proponents of wind and solar argue that electrical utilities build spare capacity all the time, and they’re correct — but they don’t have to build a watt of spare capacity for every watt of new capacity, it’s more like 20%, or 30%. With renewables, they need to build spare capacity to cover 100% of the capacity of the new source. And that’s new capacity; they can’t just use the existing conventional power plants because they’re already in use generating electricity live.

As for biomass, who could possibly imagine that in a world with 8 billion living souls and land a finite and increasingly valuable resource, it would make sense to burn our food to run our factories? American biofuels subsidies, produced by the Bush administration, are probably responsible for nearly doubling the cost of grain worldwide during a period when hungry nations could least afford it. There’s nothing difficult to predict about this outcome; of course farmers are going to cash in if the government pays them extra to plant corn instead of wheat and provides them with a guaranteed market. Biofuels are a disaster — and that’s before assessing whether they can even produce more energy that it takes to grow them!

Charles Krauthammer took the President to task yesterday for his pompous insistence on using federal power to rescind the laws of nature.

Pedestrian is beneath Obama. Mr. Fix-It he is not. He is world-historical, the visionary, come to make the oceans recede and the planet heal.

How? By creating a glorious, new, clean green economy. And how exactly to do that? From Washington, by presidential command and with tens of billions of dollars thrown around. With the liberal (and professorial) conceit that scientific breakthroughs can be legislated into existence, Obama proposes to give us a new industrial economy… His argument: Well, if we can put a man on the moon, why not this?

Aside from the irony that this most tiresome of cliches comes from a president who is canceling our program to return to the moon, it is utterly meaningless. The wars on cancer and on poverty have been similarly sold. They remain unwon. Why? Because we knew how to land on the moon. We had the physics to do it. Cancer cells, on the other hand, are far more complex than the Newtonian equations that govern a moon landing. Equally daunting are the laws of social interaction — even assuming there are any — that sustain a culture of poverty.

Similarly, we don’t know how to make renewables that match the efficiency of fossil fuels. In the interim, it is Obama and his Democratic allies who, as they dream of such scientific leaps, are unwilling to use existing technologies to reduce our dependence on foreign (i.e., imported) and risky (i.e., deep-water) sources of oil — twin dependencies that Obama decried in Tuesday’s speech.

Private electric companies refuse to build solar power plants and wind farms except where enormous government subsidies distort real economic incentives enough to make them do it. As soon as the subsidies dry up, they abandon the wind farm or the power plant and go right back to generating power using energy-dense, highly available fossil fuels and/or nuclear power. There is no sensible way for a power company to make money using wind or solar to generate electricity on the scale we need. It does not work, and can’t. These are bad ideas.

Today I addressed the question of whether the fact that a power source was renewable was sufficient to commend it as a power source. In a few days, I will add to this by examining the premises on which the President and his leftist friends insist that the national government must force technological change to rescue us from “addiction to fossil fuels.”

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