May 21, 2009
The Alice in Wonderland World of the GreensBy Peter Glover and Michael J. Economides
"Curiouser and curiouser", said Alice. Not an unnatural response to the wholesale departure from reality she experienced at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. And we have precisely the same head-scratching response to the refusal of green ideologues to grasp the energy realities of our age, especially as they affect a realistic role for renewable energy sources.
The Green Gospel
If any group has set the agenda for Green-ism in our age, it is Greenpeace. In 2007 Greenpeace produced a film ‘The Convenient Solution', which succinctly put the case for renewable energy's ‘urgent' solution before the world. Introducing the film on their website Greenpeace makes this statement, "We all know that, to stop climate change, we need to stop burning fossil fuels". Within minutes of the film getting under way we are informed of the "unnecessary dependence on fossil fuels." What the Green gospel also says "we all know..." is that: mankind burning fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, a ‘polluting' greenhouse gas that significantly contributes to (anthropogenic) global warming. Thus, if we don't quickly change our evil, fossil burning ways dire prognostications will soon befall us.
"We all know ..." Is that so? Because it seems that all the scientists and informed climate observers who signed the Manhattan Declaration clearly don't "already know". Neither do a raft of the world's leading climatologists and scientists in Japan, the UK, Australia, Russia, New Zealand, Denmark, Poland, the United States and hundreds of other prominent scientists, not to mention the 66 percent of Americans who are not convinced. Indeed of the famous 2,000+ who proclaimed to "know" on behalf of the UN's IPCC, it seems a mere 20 percent (yes, around just 400) worked in any climate science capacity. None of which should come as a surprise when even the UN's own objective climate data reveals that the latest cycle of global warming ended in 1998. So when Greenpeace states: "We all know..." what they actually mean is all Green ideologues "know".
Green World/Real World
It is this apocalyptic sense of impending doom created by Greens in tandem with a media with a shameful history of scaremongering ( the latest being the swine flu) that has helped set in motion the panicky international energy-climate renewables juggernaut. The EU has set itself an arbitrary target of 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by the year 2020. That's in just 11 years. President Obama wants to double US renewable energy production within three years, up from under 10 percent at present and up a further 25 percent by 2025. Obama's ultimate goal is to set a course for an 80 percent reduction in fossil fuel use by 2050. The high priest of green alarmism, Al Gore goes way further, demanding the US target 100 percent from renewable energy sources within a decade.
As we have said elsewhere, by the year 2030, while world energy demand is likely to increase by 50 percent, all serious projections agree that oil, gas and coal will still account for around 87 percent of world energy production. Somebody's math somewhere is clearly wildly awry. So let's look at some basic facts.
Wind power is the flagship green energy industry if renewables are to become a serious player in the global energy mix. Wind farms are already a reality and allow green ideologues to provide a romantic picture of endless ‘free' energy from natural sources as easy enough with the right political will. What they play down is the massive high investment and maintenance costs that make wind power such an extremely unattractive proposition to capitalist business investors, requiring constant public finance shots in the arm to maintain itself.
Wind power's inherently low energy returns requires significant further investment in high maintenance gas turbine back-up facilities to cope with its unreliability. Greens cite Denmark, Europe's leading wind power producer as the key example of how wind can play a central role in reducing carbon emissions. But, as the Copenhagen Post recently revealed, the Danish Government is currently under fire over its overblown carbon emission claims. It seems that less than a quarter of the Danish government's 66 million tonnes of carbon cuts (down from 71 mt in 2007) were actually achieved domestically. The highly misleading figure also included climate projects in which Danish organizations were involved overseas and through Denmark's participation in the European Trading Scheme. The truth is, Denmark has one of Europe's highest rates of CO2 emissions per person and has been consistently cited by the European Environment Agency for having "not lived up to the Kyoto criteria".
In December 2008, the UK wind farm industry was forced to halve its over-inflated claims for the benefit of wind power in reducing carbon emissions. What that means in practice is that the UK's 2,400 onshore and offshore turbines would need a further 100,000 turbines to be built to enable it to meet its Kyoto commitments by 2020.
In spring 2008, faced with a vastly expensive "Manhattan Project" for green energy proposals in America, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) sought to standardize the cost of public subsidy per megawatt hour. It found that coal was subsidized at 44 cents, natural gas at 25 cents and nuclear power at $1.59. Wind power came in at $23.37 per energy unit. As high as it is for wind, subsidy for solar, however, is even higher at $24.34 per megawatt hour.
Solar power in particular requires high subsidies because the best solar cells have to be grown from silicon crystals, an extremely slow and costly process. While new solar technologies are addressed, solar power is unlikely to become a commercially feasible source of energy anytime soon. But while reliable solar energy in less sunnier climes is a key drawback, even sunny countries like Spain are finding the high rate of heavy subsidies difficult to sustain.
In the United States, far less than 1 percent of the 7 percent of energy currently produced from renewable sources is achieved from solar sources. Both the wind and solar industries continue to demand more of the public pie. Yet, as a Wall Street Journal editorial commenting on the EIA's standardized figures has pointed out, "Wind and solar have been on the subsidy take for years, and they still account for less than 1 percent of total net electricity generation."
What is clear is that solar energy needs a second-generation technological breakthrough to dramatically reduce its costs, which, for the foreseeable future, continue to price it out of the commercial mass market. And of course, even with such dramatic breakthroughs solar will always suffer from two unassailable facts: it works where there is sun and even there it is a very diffuse energy source, requiring massive and expensive facilities to produce anything of relevant size.
Water (hydro, tidal) and Geo-thermal
Some of the Greens already hate hydroelectric and for certain they would hate geothermal if they knew the type of facilities that it would entail. But even with the more radical characters aside hydroelectric and geothermal are very site specific. One cannot generate new mountains laden with running water nor can a geothermal anomaly with prolific hot water or steam reservoirs can be made to order. There is absolutely nothing wrong with either hydroelectric or geothermal but they happen where they happen and cannot be manufactured anywhere else. Regarding tidal energy, this has been just talk for at least forty years, an academic exercise with little relation to implementation reality.
Biofuel is perhaps the biggest energy scam, ever. People hate to hear statistics like this but biofuels have a negative energy balance: they require more energy to produce than their consumption provides. And even ignoring this science, if we were to use all of the corn grown in the US to produce motor vehicle fuel, without regard to what that would do to food prices, it would still be less than 20 percent of our gasoline demand and a lot of the world would go hungry.
The EIA study mentioned above reported that ethanol and biofuels received a subsidy of $5.72 per BTU compared with just 3 cents per BTU for natural gas and petroleum products.
Environmentalists can't decide whether nuclear power should be classed as a renewable energy. On the whole, most green ideologues are anti-nuclear and thus shoot themselves in their own carbon-reducing footprint. A shame, as the EIA reveals nuclear power, so key to the global energy mix, receives 15 times less subsidy than wind.
An irrational fear of ‘climate apocalypse' has driven nature-worshipping green ideologues in every age generation. Being inherently anti-capitalist they care little whether their demands threaten to bankrupt modern economies, or deny poorer nations the same cheap, hydro-carbon powered industrialization path out of poverty taken by developed nations. For Green World, preposterous self-righteous claims are morally self-evident, Real World facts and reason mere irrelevancies. "The adventures first," said the Gryphon to Alice, "explanations take such as long time."
Peter C. Glover is European Associate Editor at Energy Tribune. Michael J. Economides is Energy Tribune's Editor-in-Chief.