An Inconvenient Truth

It’s a busy stretch just now: I’ve been putting in long days at work, and will be traveling tomorrow evening. So for tonight, here’s a timely piece by Wellfleet resident John Stossel about the realities of “green energy”. He reminds us that it is unrealistic to imagine that there is anything in prospect anytime soon that is going to replace oil. It’s a sad fact, given the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf, and the hostile Islamic regimes that would fail overnight were it not for our dependence on their only marketable asset, but there it is.

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  1. Chris G says

    I don’t disagree about oil but he’s mistaken to throw natural gas and coal into the hydrocarbon mix. Natural gas can be pretty clean and is sourced locally. Oil is good stuff, but it is definitely being replaced in some instances with renewable, and in MANY instances with cheap, domestically sourced natural gas.

    I laid out $12k and put solar panels on my house. My house is 100% energy neutral and all electric (not so good for cooking!). I’m partners with the local nuclear power plant. I push the electrons along during the day when everybody wants them, and then they push them along at night when the pushing is easy. Yes, my house is an inconsequential “drop in the bucket” but there have been 3 other households on just my street that have done the same thing. The numbers add up here in S. Cal and they’ll eventually add up in other places.

    With technology, the long term supply curve is downward sloping. The more supply, the lower the price goes. The generous government programs created a market for solar panels. Some liberal will add up the price of all the dead fish in the gulf and tack it on to the price of oil when they compare it to solar panels… but I’m not talking about externalities, and human lives, crazy stuff like that. It used to cost over $4/watt in cash to produce solar panels. Thanks to Germany, Spain, and the U.S., solar panels can be produced for under $1/watt. Just like my mac used to cost $3000, now my iphone is 10x as powerful and costs $200. Solar panels are technology. It’s not like if demand rises for solar panels we would have to take a giant boat out into hurricane ally and drill 5 miles below the ocean floor to find more of them (in the old days, to find oil you looked for it seeping to the surface… “come and listen to a story about a man named jed…”).

    The windfarm they put near my old house supplies energy for 10,000 homes. They still need hydrocarbons but the hydrocarbons they burn are domestically sourced natural gas. The generators come online quickly to meet demand. The energy source that was replaced was an oil burning plant. When the wind is blowing, the gas is off. The U.S. and Canada have what appears to be a long term glut of natural gas thanks to a recent technological innovation – the ability to get gas out of tight shale.

    For $9000 I can put a lithium battery in the prius and get 100 mpg. Nissan has a car coming out in the fall called the Leaf that will be charged from my roof. I can order it now and have the guy come install the charger. A local company is making an electric car, I saw it in a parade. They’re taking deposits. It is ugly & very late but it works. Toyota just signed a deal with Tesla (Tesla has cars on the road, but they cost $100k, Toyota will fix that). Cooper and Honda have test electric cars on the roads right now. GM had an electric car on the road, they made a movie about it, & Mel Gibson said it was good.

    There’s a lot to be positive about. If you take the guzzlers off the road, or get them burning domestic natural gas, that will leave plenty of oil for airplanes, and that’s where we really need the oil.

    The reason I’m most optimistic – 100 years ago there was almost zero oil infrastructure in place. Even if it takes a few decades, we’ll get a renewable structure going because the basic ingredients are there. Malthus will be proved wrong yet again.

    Posted May 26, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink
  2. the one eyed man says

    Stossel makes no effort to suggest any solutions to the energy problem, global warming, or environmental dangers. Instead he is content to throw stones at people like Al Gore, who are actually trying to do something to solve the problem.

    It may be true that the amount of energy which is saved by bicycling to work is negligible, but the amount of energy which would be saved if average automobile fuel economy improved even a small amount is far from insignificant. In my view, there ought to be a fuel tax added to gas at the pump, which both raises revenue (which could be offset elsewhere) and changes the national mindset. The inarguable fact is that we cannot drive Hummers and Ford Explorers as much as we want for as long as we want. There simply is not enough energy, and energy companies are being forced to get oil from places which are increasingly dangerous, both politically and environmentally. Hence you have three choices: do nothing; impose government regulation which requires a minimum fuel economy; or use economic incentives. I vote for door number three. At minimum, maybe the soccer Mom in her SUV will think twice before letting her car run while it’s in the parking lot so she can listen to the radio.

    The amount of energy which could be saved by replacing old household appliances and electronics with energy efficient ones is enormous. Ditto for replacing coal and gas utilities with nuclear ones. (To quote Dan Polin: go nuclear!) Solar power: here in California, home-owners who install solar panels can sell their excess electricity back to PG&E, which both reduces the state demands on non-renewable energy and defrays the homeowners’ cost of installing the panels. There is a lot which can be done, and some of it is being done.

    The facts are that we have a finite amount of energy which, barring substantial changes in our consumption, is coming against infinite demand. This has led to environmental damage, global warming, and supporting hostile regimes. This is the textbook example of a problem where government is the only entity which can solve the problem, as a laissez faire approach will inevitably result in our current trajectory of less energy, higher prices, environmental ruin, and wealthy Arabs. While the use of government mandated incentives and disincentives offer the best solution, Stossel and his ilk are so dogmatic about the desirability of weak and hobbled governments – which have probably contributed as much as anything else to the problems we find ourselves in – that they are unable to suggest any meaningful solutions, and instead throw stones at those who do.

    Posted May 27, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Gentlemen, thanks for your comments. I will have to join in later tonight, or tomorrow – I am trying to get work wrapped up in time to catch a train later this afternoon.

    Posted May 27, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  4. bob koepp says

    I find a lot to agree with in the one eyed man’s post, but I think it’s absurd to even suggest that a “weak and hobbled government” bears significant responsibility for the greedy consumption (and not just of petroleum) of its citizens. Uncle Sam can’t be blamed for my extravagances.

    Posted May 27, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    There’s much to agree with in both comments. (I’ll pass over in silence the familiar calls for even more government.)

    The key issue to keep in mind, though, is that while alternative energy sources are attractive options for powering the grid (and Peter knows I have always been a big proponent of nuclear energy), our real dependence on oil is for our vehicles. It is there that energy density becomes critical, and there nothing comes close to what we get from fossil fuel. Even a theoretically ideal solar panel, for example, is limited by the energy density of impinging sunlight, and storage batteries have an awfully long way to go before they can deliver anything like the performance and low cost of oil, if indeed they ever can. (And battery manufacture also has horrible environmental costs.)

    I’ve thought for a while that some sort of fuel synthesis, in which we would use centralized power sources, such as nuclear reactors, to build high-energy-density molecules, would be the best answer. I wonder where that has gotten to lately.

    Posted May 27, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Permalink
  6. JK says

    While I mostly agree with Bob’s point, I’d note two (probably insignificant) things. Putting all the US Navy’s ships in one lump – a gallon of fuel (even on the nukes – and this figure is only applicable to a ship underway) gets the ship nine feet/gallon.

    The average for military aircraft? Eight gallons per mile.

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    Bob: I don’t think that the government is responsible for our profligate energy consumption. V-8’s are a lot more fun to drive than a Prius. My point is that in the absence of government intervention, we’ll happily keep on our current trajectory until there is nothing left. (As if to provide an exclamation point, after I posted yesterday I was at the Best Buy, parked next to a woman in a Ford Explorer with the engine on, as she tapped into a cellphone.) My view is that the problems posed by our present course outweigh the problems posed by an increased role for government.

    Mac: I’m no expert on these things, but I’m down the road from Tesla, and you see a lot of their cars around here. I’m not sure how far they can go without being recharged, but they look great and drive fast.

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  8. Chris G says

    Over 200 miles per charge on a Tesla… but if you’re down the road you owe it to yourself to take a test ride! It’s like being shot from a rubberband because there’s no transmission. Way way way way faster than almost any v8!

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  9. Chris G says

    I hate gov’t intervention but the gov’t is already regulating our transportation system so why not regulate it right?

    It made sense to build a society around cars when oil was seeping to the surface in west texas. It doesn’t make sense anymore. Time to wake up the brain and figure out what does make sense.

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    If we can get electric cars working well enough to serve us as well as internal-combustion engines do, then I’m all for it.

    As oil becomes more and more troublesome, or scarcer, free-market forces will push naturally in that direction also. Once there’s “nothing left”, of course whoever can deliver a useful alternative will be a big winner.

    We’ll see.

    Posted May 28, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink