Friday, September 18, 2009

The Clean Energy Farce

We use a lot of energy from multiple sources. Some energy sources suffer from the stigma of political incorrectness, while others are promoted as divinely eco-friendly. Except for those on the bizarre fringe, nobody wants us to stop consuming energy. But many want us to do it smarter and more efficiently. (Cue the politicians …)

It is at this point that politicians come on the scene promising to deliver clean, renewable energy that will make us “energy independent,” whatever that means. (I’m not sure how it can be argued that protectionism has ever produced salutary results.) But many of the plans offered by these political saviors would kill the very environment they purport to be fighting to save, while simultaneously harming the economy. Hey, it takes talent to pull off a feat like that.

Some that tout the incredible marvel of expensive electric automobiles (that still need a secondary energy source to go more than a few miles, require long hours of recharging between uses, and would produce masses of solid toxic pollution upon disposal) seem blissfully oblivious to the fact that vast quantities of our electricity comes from coal fired plants. It’s “clean coal,” of course. But even the cleanest coal exacts serious environmental costs. Apparently, moving environmental impacts to more remote locations (out of sight and out of mind) is a saving grace.

Yet another marvelous plan is to achieve ‘energy independence’ by forcing a shift from petroleum to natural gas in many applications. After all, natural gas “burns clean,” as the story goes. Oddly, many of the eco worshippers seem unperturbed about the fact that natural gas is, as Wikipedia puts it, “a potent greenhouse gas.” Can you imagine who is spending money to try to make this coercive shift happen and where that money is going?

It’s very reminiscent of the law passed in 2007 to ban incandescent light bulbs by 2012. Never mind that this will produce inadequate lighting for many situations and introduce a lot of mercury into homes and the environment, while significantly raising costs for consumers. Many industry giants, like GE, heavily lobbied for this top-down solution that is supposed to save the environment while killing it at the same time. One might question the purity of their motives.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) complains in this WSJ op-ed that the Obama administration’s solar power initiatives would cover over a thousand square miles of this nation with solar panels that require vast amounts of water (in locations where water is scarce) for monthly cleaning. The administration’s wind power plans would build “186,000 50-story wind turbines that would cover an area the size of West Virginia.” All of this would require “19,000 new miles of high-voltage transmission lines.”

And guess who will be doing the environmental impact statements on all this environmentally messy expansion? Ah yes, the classic example of the fox guarding the henhouse. What a wonderful system of checks and balances we have.

Land is also a scarce commodity. We all rely on it. Indeed, it is a vital habitat for a significant portion of this planet’s flora and fauna. Yet (except for where it is reclaimed from the sea) it does not vary with population. So, land must also be considered when discussing energy sources.

Alexander lays out the amount of land needed to produce one million megawatt-hours per year from different sources. Some might quibble with Alexander’s numbers, but they are quite interesting.
  • Nuclear: 1 sq mi
  • Geothermal: 3 sq mi
  • Coal: 4 sq mi
  • Solar thermal: 6 sq mi
  • Natural gas: 8 sq mi
  • Petroleum: 18 sq mi
  • Wind farms: 30 sq mi
  • Biofuels: up to 500 sq mi
Alexander brings up the inconvenient truth that there are significant environmental costs to all energy sources, even those that fall under the politically correct eco friendliness rubric. There is no truly ‘clean’ energy. There are only tradeoffs. Didn’t we learn anything from the corn ethanol debacle that continues to persist, although, the market for it would evaporate without government meddling?

There is a one-size-fits-all political solution to all energy issues: more government intervention. While that interference may come in the form of subsidies, regulation, prevention, protectionism, mandates, etc, the answer is always more government. This is true regardless of party persuasion. I mean, what else are politicians for if not to insinuate more political ‘solutions’ into the fabric of daily American life?

Many are quick to say that such intervention is necessary to break into the market currently dominated by petroleum. Few even consider the possibility of getting rid of the subsidies and regulations that kill opportunities to compete with petroleum. Why, that would be unthinkable! Perhaps we should change the wording on our coinage to read, “In politicians we trust”?

Many studies have been produced that show that most of our public policy aimed at improving the environment actually harms the environment. Indeed, the only examples of where public environmental policy has not caused harm are where we have merely codified what has already been freely implemented.

It has repeatedly been shown that environmental improvements occur naturally as the standard of living improves. The inverse of this is also true. But the enviro-political class does a mighty fine job of spreading propaganda that makes people feel good about policies that create the appearance of helping the environment. It plays very well for the religion of environment crowd.

I hear people on both the left and the right whine about a lack of a coherent national energy policy. It was the combination of people like that on the left and right that brought the wonders of centralized planning to the USSR and to Germany in the 1930s-40s. Given how centralized planning works in real life, the best national energy policy would be for the politicians to admit that they aren’t as smart as the combined knowledge of millions of people working freely in their own spheres.

GMU economist Don Boudreaux has a series of blog posts titled Cleaned by Capitalism that tout a number of environmental improvements brought about by the free market. He deliberately focuses on smaller matters that have actual impact on our individual lives rather than on big celebrity causes. He argues that these factors combined have improved the environment infinitely more than the big causes that receive a lot of political attention.

Part of me wants people like Boudreaux to keep quiet. The politicians have already figured out how to regulate our toilets, light bulbs, and air conditioners. We don’t want to give them any more ideas.


Unknown said...

Naturally you have no strong feelings about this.

The comment about all the miles of new transmission lines that would be necessary for massive wind farms reminded me about an exciting breakthrough in battery technology that could change the way we think about the power grid. You might be interested -

Scott Hinrichs said...

The free market at work. Very interesting.

But, as the article notes, it's not problem free. Sudden widespread adoption would be impossible.

The way something like this would have to work is that you'd first see high end adopters putting it in homes and businesses. This would grease the skids for innovation by others that would develop even more efficient methods. It would take some time for the technology to make it to the general consumer market. But that's OK.

More 'power' to them. :)

Cameron said...

"the subsidies and regulations that kill opportunities to compete with petroleum."

This is an interesting statement that I'd love to see expounded upon.

Unknown said...

I think that we have to accept that sudden and widespread adoption is not an option whether we mandate, subsidize, regulate, protect, prevent, or simply allow the market to work.

RD said...

electric cars are the same as gas cars disposal wise other then the battery's of which NIHM are biodegradable and lithium which are recyclable. The biggest problem with electric cars is actually the production of O3 in the brush's in a DC motor, tho AC motors don't have as large an issue with this.

CNG was never practical due to pipe line limitations. A 1 inch 500 PSI line takes 36+ hours to fill a 5000 gallon storage tank at a gas station. And cars fill up by equalizing the pressure between its tank and the gas station tank so if the gas stations tank isn't "full" nether will your cars tank get "full". (One of my clients at work is a guy from the Utah Department of Air Quality who owns CNG car)

clear "coal" is a dangerous idiotic idea that will never actually be implemented. What they are referring to with Clean coal is actually carbon sequestration. basically you drill a really deep hole into bedrock somewhere and pump all of the CO2 from a coal plant into it millions and millions of tons worth. of course the slightest crack or earthquake and everyone in a 10 mile radius will find their air deprived of oxygen.

As to nuclear the proposed green river plant here in utah will produce 3 gigawatts of power in way less then a square mile =p. The only issue I take with it is that they are not using a more water conserving design, the proposed plant will consume 1billion gallons per year. But it's still far less then the 1.7billion gallons used by the 235Mwatt Magna coal plant.

Scott Hinrichs said...

A billion gallons per year is a lot of water in a state where it's a relatively scarce commodity. But, as you say, it's less than they're using in the coal operation.