Energy Delusions

The 8th annual Clean Energy Summit was held on the 24th of August in Las Vegas. Harry Reid, the outgoing United States senator from Nevada and Democrat minority leader, gave an introductory talk. Reid’s long political apprenticeship took place in a Nevada that featured gambling, prostitution, and the mob. Reid wears sunglasses to hide an eye injured in mysterious circumstances.

Officially clean energy is about generating energy without emitting carbon dioxide. The favorite technologies are wind and solar power. In reality clean energy is about crony capitalism and deluded environmentalists. The government gives subsidies to various useless wind power and solar power projects. The promoters of the projects and allied environmentalists support the politicians. The Clean Energy Summit is a chance for the crony capitalists and the politicians to get together and celebrate their mutual good fortune. Environmental organizations and their followers provide political cover. A political exchange of favors is morphed into a noble crusade to save the Earth from global warming.

The idea that adding CO2 to the atmosphere will cause disastrous global warming is irresistible because it provides endless financial opportunities for extracting money from the government and the consumers of energy. The global warming disaster theory, never strong, has been scientifically demolished by the accumulation of damaging facts such as the failure of the Earth to warm for the last 18 years. But so much money is being handed out that the clean energy industry has become entrenched and politically powerful.

Ironically, it is scientifically clear that increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere helps plants to grow faster and with greater drought resistance. Crops are thirsty for CO2. It is an aerial fertilizer. Operators of greenhouses place CO2 generators in their greenhouses. The 30% increase in atmospheric CO2 during the 20th century made everyone a little richer and made more food available to the poor peoples of the world. Wealthy environmentalists, living in air conditioned splendor and riding $2500 bicycles or $100,000 electric cars, are only too eager to snatch food out of the mouths of babies in the third world. They are in love with silly delusions about saving the Earth from CO2.

CO2 haters, exemplified by the Sierra Club, focus on coal as the most evil form of energy. The Sierra Club is bent on destroying the coal industry. The club makes all kinds of false or exaggerated claims concerning the alleged health dangers of coal. A coal generating plant near Las Vegas was forced to close for supposedly poisoning an Indian tribe. Reid was applauded wildly when he recounted the story of that plant closure.

Senator Harry Reid was named by the organization Judicial Watch as one of the 10 most corrupt politicians in Washington in 2012 and 2013.

The promoters of clean energy, claim that solar and wind power are competitive with fossil fuels. Any reasonable cost accounting would show that these forms of power are completely worthless and have no justification whatsoever, other than the dubious virtue of not emitting CO2. In any case the future trend of CO2 emissions will be settled in Asia, not the United States. U.S. emissions of CO2 are declining due to increased use of cheap, low carbon, natural gas. Natural gas is cheap and plentiful due to the adoption of fracking, hotly opposed by -- who else -- environmentalists.

A true cost accounting of wind and solar has to take into account a number of embarrassing facts. Solar only works during part of the day and only when it is not cloudy. Less electricity is generated in winter. Outside of the sunny desert southwest solar is more useless, if that is possible. Solar is heavily subsidized by the federal government and by some state governments. Since the electric grid cannot depend on erratically delivered solar electricity, solar power plants don’t displace conventional power plants. Those plants must still be present to take up the slack when solar is having a bad day. Every night is a bad night for solar. A solar plant supplies on average of about 20% of its nameplate rating -- the maximum power that can be supplied under ideal conditions, for example at cloudless noon in the middle of summer. The result is that the power lines that take solar power to the grid have to be oversized by a factor of 5 in order to handle the seldom-achieved nameplate capacity. Solar power receives priority due to various mandates; so conventional power plants are forced to throttle back while solar is active. That lowers the duty cycle of the conventional plants and thus increases their capital cost per kilowatt-hour. Solar electricity does not use fuel, so the cost of fuel to power conventional plants is saved when solar is operating. However the value of the saved fuel, about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, does not remotely finance the solar plants. Without subsidies and with a reasonable cost of capital, solar plants will be lucky to supply electricity at 12 cents per kilowatt-hour at the plant gate. Natural gas plants can generate electricity for 5 cents.

A very similar cost accounting applies to erratic wind power. If one is actually looking for a way to reduce CO2 emissions, that objective can be achieved far less expensively by way of nuclear electricity. The future of nuclear is bright with great technical advances in safety and cost on the horizon. Uranium is the cheapest fuel for generating electricity. Nuclear plants have a lifetime of 60 years or more compared to 10-25 years for wind or solar. There is one little problem. Environmentalists hate nuclear power. One of the few things that the Department of Energy is doing right is continuing to pursue nuclear power.

At the Clean Energy Summit, he Secretary of Energy, MIT physicist Ernest Moniz, gave a presentation in conjunction with John Podesta, an important political operator and an Obama crony. It is sad to see an intelligent physicist promoting foolish ideas concerning the energy future of the country. Moniz’s role as the head of the Department of Energy seems to be as a scientific front man who has the job of making the crazy programs and priorities of the government seem sensible. The motivation for the programs is often political – catering to some important interest group like the Sierra Club.

Norman Rogers is a physicist who often writes about energy and climate. He has a website.

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