Alternative Energy and the King Canute Strategy

For two centuries the American economy has been driven by ever cheaper energy, from the steam engine to modern coal and nuclear electric power, and of course petroleum-based transportation.  As costs of production and transport declined, incomes rose.  Now environmentalists seek to reverse the process.  They propose to raise the cost of our cheapest and most important energy source, coal.  Subsidies for production of wind and solar energy already in place induce investment in much higher cost solar and wind power energy.  Since the most efficient locations for solar and wind energy do not coincide with concentrations of population and energy demand, transmission costs must be added to costs of production.  It is the Industrial Devolution of the 21st century.

Proponents of so-called "renewable energy" suffer from the delusion that it can replace a large share of our coal, oil, and nuclear energy.  They ignore or deny the consequence: a decline in real income.  In the United States, only nuclear or hydrocarbon fuel (mainly coal) can provide either base power or peak load power.  In Brazil, hydro is an alternative.  The sun does not shine at high noon in a cloudless sky 24 hours a day, nor does the wind blow forever at designed speed.

Basic and peak load capacity requirements for coal or nuclear power will not be reduced, but their costs will rise.  Least cost per kilowatt hour production requires a constant energy output close to plant capacity, hence low daily and seasonal variation.  The intermittent use of wind and solar energy reduces the level of capacity utilization of coal and nuclear plants, and increases  variation in daily and seasonal ratio of output to capacity.  The larger the share of intermittent energy supply, the greater the increase in cost of producing basic energy via coal (or oil, gas, nuclear), whatever the cost of variable energy.  The farther from the equator, the larger the share of coal or nuclear power supply needed relative to alternative sources.  A carbon-free energy economy means nuclear.  All those electric vehicles in our future recharging at night may require an increase in carbon or nuclear peak load capacity..

A requirement that public utilities purchase available renewable energy raises the cost of energy in two ways: the price of renewable energy exceeds the cost of production of the utility, and the utility's own costs will rise.  Introducing a carbon tax or an emission permit which must be purchased is a third source of energy cost increase.  Unless a carbon tax exceeds the cost differences between renewable and coal power, its only effect on coal use is through a decline in business and consumer demand for energy.

The leading candidates for renewable energy are wind power and solar power.  They are expensive in part because their installed capacity must be several times that of coal or nuclear plants to generate the same total output.  They are idle much of the time, waiting for the sun or the wind.  They also require more land.  Research cannot do much about either cost factor. Only wind and solar are truly renewable energy sources.  Potential wind capacity in this country at affordable cost is too small to meet our needs, apart from its undependability.  Only solar has both the capacity and the permanence.  It is also the most costly. But since neither can provide  base or peak load power, their potential to meet our needs is very small.

The problem with most other sources of renewable energy is, first, they emit carbon dioxide; and second, their production requires much land, reducing the supply of other agricultural products, driving up prices.  Our capacity to produce biofuels is too limited to meet our needs for transportation alone, much less for energy.  Current production is already raising food prices.   Corn is an inefficient source of ethanol. 

Biofuels are not perpetually renewable.  Much of the topsoil in the Midwest is now in the Gulf of Mexico or silting the Mississippi River, increasing the need for fertilizers, levees and causing floods.  Irrigated land is slowly being salinated to eventual self-destruction.  Hydro power reservoirs silt up too.  

Ah, but subsidies for research will drive the cost of renewable energy to or below that of coal!  It will expand production capacity to meet our needs!  Dream on!  But first do the research. and don't forget to count all the costs.  Research is not an assembly line production schedule, on demand or desire.  We should continue research, but invest on the basis of results, not on  hope and speculation.  The productivity of coal power plants has experienced large gains and research continues.  There is no assurance that the cost of renewable energy will converge on that of coal this century.  Someday large scale long term low cost power storage or low cost long distance transmission lines between distant time zones and across hemispheres may render renewable energy available when needed.  Who knows?  Perhaps more attention should be given to the enormous increase in per capita energy consumption and how it may be reversed.   

There is time. We are not going to run out of hydrocarbon deposits, whether coal, oil, or natural gas, in the next several hundred years.  We will simply have to exploit deposits of declining quality or increasing cost of extraction.  The efficiency of conversion of sunlight into usable energy will continue to increase until it can compete with hydrocarbon energy.  Only then should we invest in solar power on a large scale, perhaps first near the equator, where the differences in sunlight between seasons are small.  Wind power, which at this time is considerably more efficient than solar, can become competitive earlier.

All our current and proposed self-inflicted cost is intended to avoid returning to the climate of a thousand years ago, enjoyed by the Vikings practicing dairy farming in Greenland, or five thousand years ago, when Washington DC was a cypress swamp and writing was being invented in Sumer.  Climate is not national. King Canute got his pants wet. There are better reasons to contemplate transition from exhaustible to renewable resources.  There are better ways of proceeding.  Our future standard of living is at stake.