Why the "green energy revolution" has been indefinitely postponed

Several local bloggers have been wailing and gnashing their teeth because their favorite boondoggle has not been sufficiently funded by the State of Delaware. I've long been skeptical of "green" or "renewable" sources. Most of them are net energy losers, are too expensive, do not scale or a combination of those. I believe the way to a cleaner energy source is to use much more nuclear energy. Thorium is plentiful, cheap and safe. It has its own drawbacks but they are far better than the alternatives. I also believe that we can use the resources we have more wisely and continually work on polluting less and less. I don't like the idea that we are so firmly wedded to a hydrocarbon economy from a risk standpoint more than anything else. In terms of resources usage we've been rather foolish and wasteful. There are many ways we could substantially improve our energy efficiency that we're not doing for various reasons. Some are political, some aesthetic and some are practical.

Nuclear energy is politically unpopular. Some blame the echoes of Three Mile Island, Silkwood and Chernobyl. I think the latter looms larger than the other two. Unfortunately, Chernobyl is a case study in what not to do if you're running a nuclear reactor. (Wikipedia has a longer explanation)

From an aesthetic point of view, we have houses that are largely (or wholly) subterranean. Underground structures have much lower heat variances. If more houses in the US were built this way we would only need to use heating and cooling a fraction of what we use now as you would only be heating or cooling the space by a few degrees. It's almost 100 degrees today. That means your A/C is going to have to do some serious work to get it down to whatever you have it set for. Conversely, how does your basement feel? We don't live this way because people want natural light and windows and it would probably be claustrophobic for some and just plain ugly as viewed from the curb.

On the practical front, solar cells are very expensive, uneven providers in most markets and do not scale enough to lower ROI to a point that makes them competitive. I suppose they have more value in places like Arizona, New Mexico and Texas where they get much more sunshine than say, Seattle. Still they're not able to compete without significant subsidies.

But solar is both clean and renewable, right? Not so much:

A recent Washington Post article, however, has revealed that China’s booming solar industry is not as green as one might expect. Many of the solar panels that now adorn European and American rooftops have left behind a legacy of toxic pollution in Chinese villages and farmlands. The Post article describes how Luoyang Zhonggui, a major Chinese polysilicon manufacturer, is dumping toxic factory waste directly on to the lands of neighboring villages, killing crops and poisoning residents.

So it's clean for us but very much not clean for Chinese people. This problem also extends to electric vehicles. Electricity isn't a power source. It's generated by power plants. So while electric vehicles don't emit pollution where they travel, they merely transport it to the plant where the power is generated. Prius owners (now with 22% more Smug!) either don't know or don't care about the environmental damage the creation of their batteries has wrought on China.

As for wind, which we've heard endless droning on about here in Delaware; it's not all it's cracked up to be.

In California, the wind turbines have turned into bird chopping machines:

The green killer: Scores of protected golden eagles dying after colliding with wind turbines

California's attempts to switch to green energy have inadvertently put the survival of the state’s golden eagles at risk. Scores of the protected birds have been dying each year after colliding with the blades of about 5,000 wind turbines.

So we have a trade off. "Clean" energy or rare birds. Enough to tie an environmentalist in knots (pardon the pun).

But wind is good because it's reliable and free. Right? Not so much: Britain is running out of wind

According to government figures, 13 of the past 16 months have been calmer than normal - while 2010 was the “stillest” year of the past decade. Meteorologists believe that changes to the Atlantic jet stream could alter the pattern of winds over the next 40 years and leave much of the nation’s growing army of power-generating turbines becalmed.

Great. Now you're stuck with some very expensive pinwheels.

Sadly, in other news biodegradables are worse for the environment than regular trash:

There is increasing interest in the use of biodegradable materials because they are believed to be “greener”. In a landfill, these materials degrade anaerobically to form methane and carbon dioxide.

Additional simulations showed that for a hypothetical material, a slower biodegradation rate and a lower extent of biodegradation improve the environmental performance of a material in a landfill representative of national average conditions.

Environmentalists don't like these types of facts because it conflicts with their vision for the future. A future where we all live in splendid harmony with nature, all our trash is recycled, all our power is renewable and pollution free and we all have cool jobs and everything is designed by Apple. If only reality would stop getting in the way.

Lastly, we have an article that should have received much more attention than it did. It passed without a blip on the national radar because it points us in a direction that they don't want to go:

Everything you've heard about fossil fuels may be wrong:

If gas hydrates as well as shale gas, tight oil, oil sands and other unconventional sources can be tapped at reasonable cost, then the global energy picture looks radically different than it did only a few years ago. Suddenly it appears that there may be enough accessible hydrocarbons to power industrial civilization for centuries, if not millennia, to come.

So much for the specter of depletion, as a reason to adopt renewable energy technologies like solar power and wind power. Whatever may be the case with Peak Oil in particular, the date of Peak Fossil Fuels has been pushed indefinitely into the future.

Without massive, permanent government subsidies or equally massive penalty taxes imposed on inexpensive fossil fuels like shale gas, wind power and solar power may never be able to compete. For that reason, some Greens hope to shut down shale gas and gas hydrate production in advance. In their haste, however, many Greens have hyped studies that turned out to be erroneous.

In 2010 a Cornell University ecology professor and anti-fracking activist named Robert Howarth published a paper making the sensational claim that natural gas is a greater threat to the climate than coal. Howarth admitted, "A lot of the data we use are really low quality..."

Howarth’s error-ridden study was debunked by Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations and criticized even by the Worldwatch Institute, a leading environmentalist organization, which wrote: "While we share Dr. Howarth’s urgency about the need to transition to a renewable-based economy, we believe based on our research that natural gas, not coal, affords the cleanest pathway to such a future."

There are a few caveats here. We don't know enough about some of the economies of scale for these technologies so the author rightly makes note of them. Oil sands are already online and pouring cash into Canada. I for one, am glad our neighbors to the north are pumping as much oil as possible. I'd like to see our country buy from friendly nations like Canada, Brazil and (nominally friendly) Mexico. That wouldn't prevent oil from funding horrible regimes or terrorism, but it would help break OPEC and their ability to fix artificially high prices for oil.

Would I rather live in a world of clean, green energy? Of course but right now we cannot possibly switch from one to the other. I would like to see us transition there as quickly as possible. We can mitigate risk by having multiple concurrent energy sources competing for market share. Let them compete fairly. No cash subsidies and let the states decide if they want to give tax incentives to lure the businesses. I don't think there's going to be a one size fits all solution for a nation as large and varied as this one. Let the market decide. Let the States experiment.


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