What follows is an article from the April 25, 2011 issue of Forbes magazine, written by two Senior Fellows of the conservative Cato Institute. I’ve commented paragraph by paragraph as an instructive exercise in identifying deceptive rhetoric as used by conservatives. This particular piece is, I feel, an excellent example of sloppy and shallow thinking parading as serious thought under the aegis of a respected, if suspect, conservative think tank, and a magazine devoted to little more than making money and reducing government to nothing more than a tool of the corporations.
[The article text is indented.]
The Green Energy Economy Reconsidered
Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren,
The last we saw such an economy was in the 13th century.
"Green" energy such as wind, solar and biomass presently constitute only 3.6% of fuel used to generate electricity in the U.S. But if another "I Have a Dream" speech were given at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, it would undoubtedly urge us on to a promised land where renewable energy completely replaced fossil fuels and nuclear power.
Odd choice of image. Why the MLK speech? Why reference that at all, as it is completely unrelated to the topic? The trope of the ‘promised land’ is completely accessible without referencing that speech. This suggests a certain sloppiness of thought, or more darkly, an attempt to inject a note of white supremacy by adopting a sarcastic tone towards ‘promised land’ and the civil rights movement. The authors appear to be using a speech and movement denigrated by the white financial power structure and associating it to the environmental movement, which they are about to trash. They are also using the idea of a ‘dream’, in the sense of something being impractical pie in the sky.
What may be more likely is that the authors simply didn’t give the matter much thought. They needed a ‘promised land’ trope and grabbed an easy one. But it is interesting that they grabbed a racial one that is irrelevant to their topic.
How much will this particular dream cost? Energy expert Vaclav Smil calculates that achieving that goal in a decade–former Vice President Al Gore’s proposal–would incur building costs and write-downs on the order of $4 trillion. Taking a bit more time to reach this promised land would help reduce that price tag a bit, but simply building the requisite generators would cost $2.5 trillion alone.
Who is Vaclav Smil and why should we trust him? According to the authors he is an ‘energy expert’. That may be so, but consider the following from Deep Climate:
Here’s an astonishing segment from a recent interview with futurist Vaclav Smil, conducted by New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin. Smil claims that there has been “no global warming in the past ten years” and appears to suggest that we can safely ignore the problem of climate change because it won’t hit with “full force” any time soon, and its full impact is as yet unknown.
The authors Taylor and Van Doren found an ‘expert’ whose view contradicts the work of legitimate climatologists, thus supporting the argument they are building. He’s got chops in various areas, but he’s not a climatologist, and apparently is not inclined to believe the overwhelming evidence of climatology in the matter of global warming.
And of course Al Gore is widely accepted among the financial cognoscenti as either a) a joke or b) a dangerous threat to profits. The authors, as we will see, are concerned only with profits, with putting money into their pockets, into the pockets of the already wealthy.
The $4 trillion dollar figure the authors give may be true, or may not. There’s no basis to judge, other than the already suspect word of Smil. But it is also irrelevant.
Let’s assume, however, that we could afford that. Have we ever seen such a "green economy"? Yes we have; in the 13th century.
Ah, peasants. Barons. Lords. Kings. Feudalism. Huts and castles. Serfdom. Ignorance. Bad times.
Also, no electricity. No electronics.
And yet they fed themselves and produced what they needed to live, even to thrive. They lived in complex social structures. They had technology sufficient to their needs.
Their economy was ‘green’ because it was the only economy available, and it worked reasonably well for them. And they adjusted and adapted as needed.
It is misleading to judge the 13th century by our times.
Renewable energy is quite literally the energy of yesterday. Few seem to realize that we abandoned "green" energy centuries ago for five very good reasons.
There was no intentional ‘abandonment’ of ‘green’ energy. There was a gradual evolution from one way of doing things to other ways of doing things. The people learned from experience and adopted ways that worked better for them.
The authors will now go on to list five reasons why humans ‘abandoned’ so-called green energy, as if a decision were made in some council chamber to quit the old ways and adopt the new ways. Perhaps the authors are tricked into such thinking by the way they and their peers normally go about their business – decisions made in boardrooms by a CEO and corporate directors and handed down to the rest of the company from on high.
First, green energy is diffuse, and it takes a tremendous amount of land and material to harness even a little bit of energy. Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment and senior research associate at Rockefeller University, calculates, for instance, that the entire state of Connecticut (that is, if Connecticut were as windy as the southeastern Colorado plains) would need to be devoted to wind turbines to power the city of New York.
Jesse Ausubel, another expert dragooned into the authors’ argument, also has some academic chops. But he is also against green energy:
Renewable does not mean green. That is the claim of Jesse Ausubel of the Rockefeller University in New York. Writing in Inderscience’s International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, Ausubel explains that building enough wind farms, damming enough rivers, and growing enough biomass to meet global energy demands will wreck the environment.
Ausubel has analyzed the amount of energy that each so-called renewable source can produce in terms of Watts of power output per square meter of land disturbed. He also compares the destruction of nature by renewables with the demand for space of nuclear power. "Nuclear energy is green," he claims, "Considered in Watts per square meter, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors."
It is certainly debatable that nuclear energy is green. One need only examine the wreck of Chernobyl or the ongoing catastrophe at Fukushima; or consider the enormous costs of nuclear plants and the vast energy that goes into creating them; or think about the massive problem of dealing with radioactive waste from these plants. Nuclear ‘green’ glows in the dark. Without looking at all the costs of nuclear, and all the dangers of nuclear, Ausubel’s statement about ‘Watts per square meter’ having a huge advantage is meaningless.
While it is true that wind farms take acreage, they are not the only source of renewable energy. Tidal, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric: all are on the table, all are being improved. And while wind turbines are familiar to us as giant towers with three bladed fans, there are other forms and structures being developed that are more efficient and less acreage-intensive.
Second, it is extremely costly. In 2016 President Obama’s own Energy Information Administration estimates that onshore wind (the least expensive of these green energies) will be 80% more expensive than combined cycle, gas-fired electricity. And that doesn’t account for the costs associated with the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of new transmission systems that would be necessary to get wind and solar energy–which is generally produced far from where consumers happen to live–to ratepayers.
It is interesting that the authors are willing to consider ‘all the costs’ of a green energy establishment, but ignore all the costs of nuclear energy.
Third, it is unreliable. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine when the energy is needed. We account for that today by having a lot of coal and natural gas generation on "standby" to fire-up when renewables can’t produce. Incidentally, the cost of maintaining this backup generation is likewise never fully accounted for in the cost estimates associated with green energy. But in a world where fossil fuels are a thing of the past, we would be forced–like the peasants of the Dark Age–to rely upon the vagaries of the weather.
It could be said fairly that any specific energy source may not be available all the time. But just as nuclear, coal, oil, and gas sources are available, there are a variety of renewable sources available, as well as fossil back-ups, and new technologies for energy generation are being investigated and developed. It can also be said that the fossil sources are unreliable in terms of availability and cost. Demand for oil is growing rapidly in an unstable global economic and political environment, driving prices up and down (mostly up), and pitting nation against nation in the oil markets. Add to that the decline in fossil fuel stocks – oil in the near term, then coal and gas – and the image of fossil fuel reliability isn’t as pretty as the authors would like us to believe.
Fourth, it is scarce. While wind and sunlight are obviously not scarce, the real estate where those energies are reliably continuous and in economic proximity to ratepayers is scarce.
All humanity can fit into the state of Texas, according to somebody or other who did the math. That leaves a lot of room. But the giveaway to the thinking of these two authors is the phrase ‘economic proximity to ratepayers’. Ultimately, as we will soon see, that is all they care about.
Finally, once the electricity is produced by the sun or wind, it cannot be stored because battery technology is not currently up to the task. Hence, we must immediately "use it or lose it."
That paragraph is bogus from beginning to end. Electricity generation is demand based. When you flip on your light switch, the generators spin a little faster. Flip the switch off, the generator slows down. That’s the simple version. We do not store such generated electricity in batteries now, generally speaking, other than in small rechargeable ones. And electricity produced by sun or wind or any other means is the same as electricity generated by fossil fuels. Electricity is nothing more than the movement of electrons through conducting materials. The source is irrelevant. All electrons are alike.
And battery technology is indeed up to the task of storing generated electricity. Ask any homeowner who has installed solar panels or uses a wind turbine to power his home. The power generated is stored in batteries. These installations are often sufficiently powerful and technologically sophisticated to the point that the homeowner can disconnect entirely from the commercial electrical grid; or he can sell his excess electric power to the commercial grid.
So here the authors are either lying or they are ignorant of the subject they are writing about. That they are not trustworthy is evident here, and nothing else they say should or can be trusted. They expect, however, the reader to take them at their word because of who they represent themselves to be, that is, Senior Fellows at the Cato Institute, a right wing ‘think’ tank. Given the lack of thought in this article, one might be forgiven for thinking that the authors are indeed in the tank for the fossil fuel corporations.
Fossil fuel is everything that green energy is not. It is comparatively cheap. It is reliable; it will burn and produce energy whenever you want it. It is plentiful (we use only a tiny bit of oil in the electricity sector). And you can store fossil fuels until you need them.
Mostly true. Except for the ‘comparatively cheap’ part. Fossil fuel can only be considered cheap if one ignores the tremendous costs to the environment – to the air we breathe, the water we drink, the oceans we pollute, the health costs of polluted air and water, the destruction of species and their habitat. Apologists for fossil fuel, generally people who seek or stand to profit from their continued use, will never speak of those costs. If they did, if those costs were honestly factored into the price of using fossil fuels, there would be a wind turbine on every block of every town and city.
Proponents of green energy argue that if the government can put a man on the moon, it can certainly make green energy economically attractive. Well, notice that government was not trying to get a man to the moon profitably, which is more akin to the challenge here. Even before the Obama presidency began, about half the production costs of wind and solar energy were underwritten by the taxpayer to no commercial avail. There’s little reason to think that a more sustained, multi-decade commitment to subsidy would play out any differently. After all, the federal government once promised that nuclear energy was on the cusp of being "too cheap to meter." That was in the 1950s. Sixty-one billion dollars of subsidies and impossible-to-price regulatory preferences later, it’s still the most expensive source of conventional energy on the grid.
But according to the New York Times:
But an examination of the American tax code indicates that oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks available at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process.
According to the most recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, released in 2005, capital investments like oil field leases and drilling equipment are taxed at an effective rate of 9 percent, significantly lower than the overall rate of 25 percent for businesses in general and lower than virtually any other industry.
Not to mention, of course, the subsidies and impossible-to-price regulatory preferences handed to the oil industry.
The same article notes that the oil industry gets tax breaks of $4 billion a year. Undoubtedly some of that money supports the legions of tax lawyers and lobbyists who fight to see that the industry gets more subsidies and pays as little tax as they can convince their bought-and-paid for Congressmen to hand out to them.
It would be instructive to note that the challenge to put a man on the moon was not, as noted, intended to produce a profit. It was a program developed as part of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, a program intended to push American science to the limits by putting men safely and efficiently on the moon.
What our intrepid authors fail to note is the great number of spin-offs from NASA programs, which is a government program, that have produced profits for private companies that benefited from technology and discoveries:
Applications on Earth of technology needed for space flight have produced thousands of "spinoffs" that contribute to improving national security, the economy, productivity and lifestyle. It is almost impossible to find an area of everyday life that has not been improved by these spinoffs. Collectively, these secondary applications represent a substantial return on the national investment in aerospace research.
The fundamental question that green energy proponents must answer is this: if green energy is so inevitable and such a great investment, why do we need to subsidize it? If and when renewable energy makes economic sense, profit-hungry investors will build all that we need for us without government needing to lift a finger. But if it doesn’t make economic sense, all of the subsidies in the world won’t change that fact.
And here’s the nub of it. Profit. If they can’t make a profit, they won’t do it.
Unfortunately, not doing it condemns the earth, condemns human civilization, condemns virtually all of the current biosphere to end. Not doing it means pouring more carbon and methane into the air and the seas, raising the temperature of the planet to levels that will not sustain complex life.
Perhaps we should have waited for profit-hungry investors to build the atomic bomb; or the interstate highway system; or create the TVA. Those were major felt needs which only the government could manage, yet private companies profited to one degree or another from those projects.
Civilization faces a fatal catastrophe brought on by our ignorant and profligate use of fossil fuels. There is no legitimate debate over the matter. Continue to fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses and life on earth, as we know it, will cease. Humanity will end. We are as subject to the laws of physics as the rest of the universe.
Only massive involvement by government, by all governments, has a chance of preventing the disaster. And it can be done, according to the latest report from the IPCC:
Renewable energy could account for almost 80% of the world’s energy supply within four decades – but only if governments pursue the policies needed to promote green power, according to a landmark report published on Monday.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of the world’s leading climate scientists convened by the United Nations, said that if the full range of renewable technologies were deployed, the world could keep greenhouse gas concentrations to less than 450 parts per million, the level scientists have predicted will be the limit of safety beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible.
And yet all these two writers can see is the need for profit. One must assume, since they know they are writing for people who read Forbes, a magazine for the wealthy, that they have an entire constituency of readers who agree with them.
Apparently none of them can see that to accept the argument Taylor and Van Doren present means an end to profit, an end to greed. Indeed, these two writers present a prescription that undermines completely the very system they are so enamored of.
But beyond the particulars of the argument, it is important to note that failing to critically examine what they say, as so many people do, can easily lead one to accept their argument as true and an acceptable basis for policy decisions. As we have seen, it is full of distortions, deception, and lies, the tools of the Conservative trade.
None of that is to say that the other side doesn’t use similar tools, though it seems evident over time that the progressive side uses them considerably less often, and generally from a motive to benefit all of society rather than to enrich a small segment.
We have to read carefully. We have to think about what we are reading, about who is writing what we read, about why they might be writing it, and about their sources.
We can no longer accept information as given. We must think about it. We must analyze. And when we come across pieces like the one analyzed here, we must speak out. To do otherwise is simply to let ourselves die, on more than one level.