Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Tragic Scam

The Obama administration is moving aggressively on its stated plans to implement various forms of renewable energy, and there are indications that massive changes in energy policy are being made without carefully considering potential costs......such as the lives of 300 million or so American citizens.

The urgency is understandable. At this point in time, oil production has most likely peaked, at least according to prominent oil geologists Kenneth Deffeyes and Colin Campbell, and gas supplies on this continent will reach their production peak at some point in the future. It's hard to determine exactly when, but a major jump in demand for natural gas will surely cause that resource to deplete rapidly. Worse, U.S. has made almost no provisions for lower energy consumption or for alternatives to oil, gas, and coal.

Unfortunately, we are engaged in a frantic struggle to pretend that we can manage a steep reduction of consumption of fossil fuels with absolutely no alteration of our habits or living arrangement whatsoever, and this pretense is driving our policy decisions, with results that will echo and amplify down through decades. Whether or not we will even have reliable electric power will depend on policies implemented right now, given the power of the government to impose broad policies and fund them lavishly, at the expense of the taxpayers. It is unfortunate that this country tipped into to total statism and has erected massive barriers to the individual initiatives and adjustments that could produce appropriate adjustments on a small, local scale, but we have to deal with things as they are.

When the feds decide to implement a program, it is done decisively, and broadly. Unfortunately, it is also done without due consideration of the costs involved, and least of all to unintended consequences. Worse, once a particular policy is in place, we seem unable to reverse it, or correct its more pernicious effects. The disastrous unintended consequences of programs put into place 40, 50, 75 years ago are still cascading through the system, producing the same disastrous results, only vastly amplified, and foreclosing the very actions and adjustments that otherwise might correct the distortions and massive misallocations of resources resulting.

And, just as we have been unable to control or reverse the destruction of our cities, the metastatic spread of suburban sprawl, or the overpaving of our landscape and our inflexible demand for outrageous quantities of fossil fuels that are the end results of the well-intended programs of Roosevelt and Eisenhower, we will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to control or reverse the end results of the energy policies of the Obama administration.

Therefore, it is deeply unsettling to read the broadside statements of Jon Wellinghoff, Chief of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in which he states that no new coal or nuclear plants may ever be needed in the U.S. and that "renewables" such as wind and solar will fill the gap. Wellinghoff's statement is stunningly irresponsible given the energy demands of our current systems and the realities of solar, wind, biomass, and other "renewable" forms of energy generation as they are currently known. Notice that he is not promoting the development of wind and solar alongside nuclear, but is suggesting that we abandon all research and development of nuclear and coal in favor of solar, wind, biomass, and other renewable energy sources. Given Mr. Wellinghoff's position, we can safely assume that he will be driving energy policy going forward and that his priorities will be translated into rigid policies that will drive all development of energy sources during this administration, which is a very chilling thought.

As of this date, there is only the remote possibility that solar and wind can even fractionally fill in the yawning gap between supply and demand that will be left when oil, and later, gas supplies go into terminal decline. While solar and wind technologies may have great potential for large-scale power generation, they are at this stage of development creaky, unreliable, and intermittent sources of power that are extremely reliant upon the local weather conditions, and bear hidden costs that haven't been discussed, such as the vast amounts of land necessary for a solar array or wind farm capable of generating even a significant fraction of the power of a typical coal or nuclear plant, or the amount of water a solar plant consumes, which is a major issue in the critically water-short desert states that are the most advantageous locations for a large solar array.

The ethanol bubble has already burst. "A tragic scam,"energy analyst Matthew Simmons called ethanol and biomass, for it has become painfully obvious that a diversion of our diminishing farmland from food production to fuel production, in the amounts needed to produce enough fuel to run even a substantial fraction of our fleet of 200 million autos and trucks, would collapse our food supply and subject us to critical shortages of food that are usually referred to as famines. Yet the current administration is still emphasizing biomass and ethanol development.

None of this is to say that development of renewables should be abandoned in favor of coal and nuclear. Wind, solar, and geothermal need to be aggressively explored and developed, for nuclear is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and every technology that could supply power needs to be developed.

However, to baldly state that renewable energy can completely replace fossil fuels flies in the face of everything we know to be the case concerning the necessities of power generation. We know, for example, that while demand has dropped somewhat due to the economic situation, that we still have an inflexible demand-demand built into the systems we need to run our economy and our lives for massive amounts of power, and that that demand is barely being met by our existing generating capacity. We also know that demand will surely increase, for our population is still unfortunately growing at the rate of 5% a year. We know also that we will need to electrify our transportation if we want to have any, and that alone will cause demand to ramp up steeply. We also know that our existing fleet of nuclear plants is aging rapidly and will need to be replaced very soon just to keep up with current demand, and we know that the cost of coal in air pollution can't be borne much longer.

Wellinghoff and his confreres in the Green movement are perpetrating a scam- a tragic scam-in their insistance that we can run our systems or any significant fraction thereof on "renewables" while still maintaining anything like current levels of consumption. These people have no excuse for not knowing that a major shift to renewable technologies will have to entail a major cut back in consumption, and that is not possible at this point, nor will it be possible at all if we continue to foster the delusion that we can maintain current levels of consumption, let alone increase them, strictly by means of renewable energy sources.

In coming years, as the oil supply problems setting up right now start to bite with a vengeance, we will need every alternative technology devised, including renewables, in addition to stringent conservation and the complete rearranging of our lives, to retain current levels of comfort and amenity. At this date, nuclear power offers our only hope of generating power sufficient for our current and future needs while reducing carbon emissions and toxic pollution. It would be criminal not to explore promising new nuclear technologies that offer much safer generation with new fuels whose supplies can be extended far past the time when Uranium 235 will be depleted, and failure to develop these technologies would be a tragic mistake that would almost surely result in the U.S. becoming another third-world country within 20 years.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post Laura! A heavy emphasis on conservation must be central going forward. I'd like to see a steep tax on gasoline to discourage consumption and sprawl with the revenue going toward passenger rail and making our communities more compact and walkable. You're right about the need for more nuclear (as much as I don't like it) and for calling bullshit on ethanol.

One of the reasons I voted for Obama was my hope that he'd use his charisma and superior communication skills on selling folks on the idea of CONSERVATION. Perhaps there needs to be a crisis before he can have that converstaion. Until then color me unimpressed.

The North Coast said...

I agree with you.

I'm not just "unimpressed" with Obama's energy and transportation policies, I'm disgusted beyond words with his coddling of the auto industry.

Obama, like so many people, equates conservation with economic death and that's why he's coddling the auto industry to the point of offering a $4500 VOUCHER towards the purchase of a new automobile. The bill should clear Congress within the next couple of days. I have no doubt that it will become law because our leadership and population alike are slaves to the fixed idea that the economy has to depend on house and auto sales.

So we will step up our subsidies of auto transportation, instead of rolling them back as we should be doing.

The economic analysts do not get it. What people do not realize is that we would would never have become so auto dependent were it not for the tax monies committed to subsidizing auto transport and suburban sprawl since 1920. Road enlargements, the interstate highway system, the federal housing agencies like FHA that ensured loans to people barely over age 21 back in the 50s for houses in brand new suburbs, AND of course, our extensive military commitments, are all subsidies for private auto ownership.... which would be unaffordable on any terms for about 60% of our population if they had to pay their own way.

One subsidy begets another. The Obama people, like Bushco before them, are bankrupting the treasury, trashing the landscape, and setting us up for complete collapse by encouraging the continuance and expansion of an economy based on building suburban sprawl and automobiles.

The orthodoxy has been so internalized by our leaders that they aren't capable of thinking of an economy that might be, uh, just a little more diversified. They and the population that elected them have too heavy an investment in the way things have been, and no one seems to be able to see that the way things have been for the past 60 years was possible only by means of federal policies backed by federal taxing authority.

At some point, this is all going to start to unwind with ferocious velocity. We've seen the beginnings of the unraveling in the past few years. Events like the collapse of an interstate bridge barely 40 years old in Minneapolis, a dam collapse in Missouri, and the utter chaos and inability to cope on the part of local, state, and federal authorities alike in the Katrina fiasco, may seem like isolated, unrelated events, but to me, they look like the first symptoms of systems failure, indications that things aren't working anymore.