Published April 22, 2010
This Earth Day, Obama renewed his call for “comprehensive energy and climate legislation that will safeguard our planet, spur innovation and allow us to compete and win in the 21st century economy.” In lockstep with environmentalists, Obama has previously said the ultimate goal of legislation is “a hard cap on all carbon emissions at a level that scientists say is necessary to curb global warming--an 80% reduction by 2050.”
But this raises the question: What is going to replace the coal, oil, and natural gas that we use to heat our homes and offices, fuel our cars and airplanes, power up our computers, and light up the night?
“Green energy!” the Greens tell us, as they wax poetic about the promise of solar panels, wind turbines, “smart grids,” etc.
Fact: there are three proven categories of industrial-scale energy: carbon-based, which produces about 86% of the world’s energy; nuclear, which produces roughly 6%, and hydroelectric, which produces another 6%. Revealingly, most environmentalists oppose nuclear and hydroelectric (both emissions-free) as insufficiently “green”; in the last several decades they have successfully made nuclear plants nearly impossible to build and shut down hundreds of dams.
That means a meager 2% of energy is produced by “green” sources such as wind, solar, and plant/animal materials (“biomass”). Is this a case of promising technologies denied a chance to develop? Hardly; they have been heavily subsidized in the United States for decades. Consider: In 1977 Jimmy Carter proclaimed that he would “develop permanent and reliable new energy sources. The most promising, of course, is solar energy, for which most of the technology is already available.”
“Green energy” has failed because it lacks the physical properties necessary to provide industrial-scale power: a combination of abundance, high energy concentration, and reliability. For example, where coal, oil, and natural gas can be burned whenever power is needed, at the exact quantity needed, wind and sunlight can be harnessed only when the weather cooperates--and electricity can’t be stored for a rainy day. Thus, they are always used as supplemental, not primary, sources of power on electric grids. Statistics about Denmark getting 10% or 20% of electricity from solar and wind are misleading; that is the maximum they can get without seriously endangering the grid with power outages and electronics-frying power overloads.
The call for a carbon cap is really a call for an energy cap. So, on Earth Day, let us ask environmentalists the following 6 questions:
1. Once that 80% cut in emissions becomes permanent, which hospitals will you shut down?
2. How much fuel will you allot us to drive to work?
3. How much computer time will we get?
4. Can we afford air-conditioning below 90 degrees--or heat above 40?
5. Will the hospital have electricity when we need it--or will we have “sustainable” hospitals like the ones in Africa that are powered by solar panels, where doctors must choose between refrigerating perishable medicines and powering the operating equipment?
6. And what about the 1.5 billion people around the world who are suffering and dying for lack of electricity--will they renounce coal, oil, and natural gas for the sake of a static global temperature?
Environmentalists don’t trouble themselves over such questions. Their focus is not on understanding what kind of energy industrial capitalism requires, but on inventing problems with industrial capitalism. Consider that some environmentalists oppose even the purest “green energy” projects, such as solar installations in the Mojave Desert and windmills off the coast of Nantucket, because of their “footprints” on nature. Just as 20th-century socialists savaged capitalism for all the world’s ills and offered worthless “five-year plans” as a replacement, so today’s environmentalists savage industrial energy and offer us “green energy plans” that they assure us will work--once we give them the power to forbid everything else that has already been proven to work.
Such a world is far scarier than any remotely plausible prediction of climate change and its effects. Because, while humans using industrial-scale energy can cope with floods, temperature fluctuations, and droughts, we cannot cope with a government-created drought of energy.
Alex Epstein is a Fellow with the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C.
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