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Four Dirty Secrets about Clean Energy

For years, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has demanded that the U.S. and other industrialized countries cut carbon emissions to 20% of 1990 levels by 2050.

While most countries claim to support huge carbon caps, in practice they have resisted implementing them. The reason is simple: fossil fuels provide nearly 90% of the energy we use--the cheap, abundant fuel that powers modern farming, manufacturing, construction, transportation, and hospitals. The use of fossil fuels is directly correlated to quality and quantity of life, particularly through the generation of electricity ; in the past two decades, hundreds of millions of people have risen out of poverty because energy production has tripled in India and quadrupled in China, almost exclusively from carbon-based fuels. To drastically restrict carbon-based fuels, countries have conceded in practice, would be an economic disaster.

Now, the IPCC claims that the economics are on the side of drastic CO2 reductions. It recently announced that “Close to 80 percent of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies…”

This announcement is the latest claim by a growing coalition of environmentalists, businessmen, politicians, journalists, and academics that we can ban our fossil fuels and have cheap energy, too--through the panacea of “clean energy”--energy with minimal carbon emissions or other impacts. Clean energy advocates claim that a “clean energy economy” will be far more prosperous than our current “dirty energy” economy. Coal, oil, and natural gas supplies are finite and therefore bound to get more and more expensive as they run out, they argue. By contrast, we have an essentially unlimited, free, never-ending supply of sun and wind available to use--“free forever,” as Al Gore puts it.

What if we could use fuels that are not expensive, don’t cause pollution and are abundantly available right here at home? We have such fuels. Scientists have confirmed that enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year. Tapping just a small portion of this solar energy could provide all of the electricity America uses. And enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to also meet 100 percent of U.S. electricity demand.

To those who say the costs are still too high: I ask them to consider whether the costs of oil and coal will ever stop increasing if we keep relying on quickly depleting energy sources to feed a rapidly growing demand all around the world.
By contrast, Gore says, there are “renewable sources that can give us the equivalent of $1 per- gallon gasoline.”

To severely cap carbon emissions, then, won’t be an economic disaster but an economic boon. And it’s not just Al Gore saying this: myriad investors (such as venture capitalist Vinod Khosla), businessmen (such as oil-turned-wind magnate T. Boone Pickens), journalists (such as New York Times superstar Thomas L. Friedman), and politicians (including President Barack Obama), are on board.

The president of the Environmentalist Defense Fund sums up the sentiment: “The winners of the race to reinvent energy will not only save the planet, but will also make megafortunes… fixing global warming won’t be a drain on the economy. On the contrary, it will unleash one of the greatest floods of new wealth in history.”

All that is required, he and others say, is for the government to enact the right “clean energy policy.” These policy proposals vary, but all agree on two things: the government must drastically cap carbon emissions (Al Gore wants a ban on carbon-generated electricity by 2018 ) and the government must extensively fund clean energy research and projects to “unleash one of the greatest floods of new wealth in history.”

But before you pull any levers at the voting booth, you should know that there are some dirty secrets about the campaign for “clean energy.”

Dirty Secret #1: If “clean energy” were actually cheaper than fossil fuels, it wouldn’t need a policy.

Al Gore claims that he knows of “renewable sources that can give us the equivalent of $1 per gallon gasoline.” Then why doesn’t he go make a fortune on it by outcompeting gasoline-powered cars?

More broadly, if other sources of energy are so good, why must the government have a policy to support them and cripple their competitors? Wouldn’t the self-interest of utilities, of automakers, of factories make them more than eager to buy such fuels--and wouldn’t the self-interest of investors make them eager to put billions upon billions of dollars into these game-changing technologies? Energy is, after all, a multi-trillion dollar market in America alone. And if carbon-based fuels are as rapidly-depleting as we’re told, wouldn’t participants in the energy futures market be trying to make a killing by buying coal, oil, and gas contracts? And wouldn’t the rising prices of these fuels make it even easier for “clean energy” to compete?

Energy history is replete with examples of genuinely superior technologies outcompeting the status quo. Petroleum surpassed whale oil and several other now-forgotten products once it could provide the best light at the best price. Natural gas surpassed oil as a source of electricity generation for similar reasons. Can’t new sources of energy do the same?

“Clean energy” advocates often intimate that private investors and existing energy companies are too short-sighted to see the wondrous potential of their products. But this is far-fetched. Oil companies invest billions of dollars in research and development that will only pay off decades into the future. Can anyone doubt that with increasing worldwide demand for energy, they wouldn’t jump at the chance to add new sources of profitable energy to their portfolios? Or even if they are myopic, what about the enormous capital-allocating machine that is U.S. financial markets? Is Wall Street going to pass up on “one of the greatest new floods of wealth in history” by failing to make profitable investments?

But aren’t subsidies needed to correct some unfair advantage possessed by coal, oil, and natural gas? No. Solar and wind are the ones given an unfair advantage; per unit of energy produced, they already receive 90X more subsidies than oil and gas. And they have been subsidized for decades.

The one legitimate argument that energy investment in new technologies, including carbon-free ones, is too low is that heavy government taxation and environmental regulations drive many investors out of the energy sector. But “clean energy policies” such as cap-and-trade bills call for more taxes and regulations, not fewer.

The real reason why activists demand “clean energy policy” is simple: the “clean energy” sources they favor--especially solar and wind--are at present too expensive and unreliable to replace carbon-based fuels on a large scale. The only way activists can hope to have them adopted is to shove them down our throats.

Dirty Secret #2: Clean energy advocates want to force us to use solar, wind, and biofuels, even though there is no evidence these can power modern civilization.

For more than three decades, environmentalists have overwhelmingly favored replacing carbon-based fuels with “natural,” “renewable” energy coming directly from the sun--whether through direct sunlight (solar panels or solar thermal), wind (a product of currents created by the sun’s heat) or biofuels (plants nourished by the sun through photosynthesis.) They have generally opposed carbon-free nuclear energy and hydroelectric energy as unnecessary and insufficiently “green.”

They have acquired billions in taxpayer subsidies for solar, wind, and biofuels, in America and in “progressive” European countries. After three decades, the score is in. 86% of the world’s energy--the energy we use to make food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and everything else our livelihoods depend on--is produced by carbon-based fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). 6% is produced by hydroelectric power. 6% is produced by nuclear power. Thus, 98% of the world’s power generation is regarded as unacceptable by environmentalists. All of 2%--an expensive 2%--is produced by solar, wind, and biofuels. And despite incessant claims that carbon-based fuels will run out, the amount of fossil fuel practically accessible to us has increased greatly as we have discovered new sources for fossil fuels (as well as non-fossil sources such as uranium and thorium)--and if businesses are free to keep exploring, there is no evidence this will stop anytime soon.

So why haven’t solar and wind triumphed? After all, isn’t Al Gore right that the sun gives us more energy than we could ever need, “free forever”?

No. The sun certainly gives off a lot of energy--but harnessing it is anything but free. To harness any form of energy requires land, labor, and equipment. And solar, wind, and biofuels require far, far more resources to harness than other methods of power generation.

One reason is energy density. Most practical energy sources pack a high concentration of energy into a small amount of space, meaning a smaller swath of resources is needed to harness it. Oil, for example, is so energy dense that a gallon of it can move a Hummer and a load of passengers over 10 miles. Uranium has one million times the energy density of oil (though it takes far more complex equipment to extract the energy). 

By contrast, the sun’s energy is highly diluted by the time it reaches earth, and therefore it requires massive quantities of land, equipment, materials, manpower, and energy (provided by fossil fuels, incidentally) to concentrate into electric power. A solar or wind farm takes on the order of 100 times the land, materials, and assembly energy to produce the same amount of kilowatt-hours as an equivalent nuclear or coal or natural gas plant --while a cornfield for ethanol requires 1,000 times the land to generate the same amount of energy, with so much energy required that the whole process loses energy by some estimates. The cost of such resources is why solar and wind have been expensive, marginal energy sources for so long.

Another major problem with solar and wind is that they produce energy only intermittently--wind is extremely variable, disappearing throughout the day; solar varies with the weather and disappears altogether at night. Our whole modern power system requires reliable energy, energy that can be counted on. 

Consequently, any solar or wind installation attempting to generate reliable energy needs a backup source of energy. One hypothetical way to do this is to build additional solar/wind capacity and try to store it. But since this just adds much more cost, and since no compact, cost-effective storage option exists (large, water-pumping hydroelectric facilities are an option in some locations), the default option is to build additional fossil fuel plants to back up solar and wind power. 

A typical case is Texas, where Governor Rick Perry has heralded his state as an archetype of renewable wind-power. But according to those managing the power grids, only “8.7% of the installed wind capability can be counted on as dependable capacity during the peak demand period for the next year.” This means that the wind turbines are hardly doing anything constructive; the natural gas “backup” is doing all the work. Some studies say that the wind turbines only add to CO2 emissions, since natural gas plants are far less efficient and use more fuel when they must cycle to compensate for erratic wind power.

But, you might ask, aren’t there other types of carbon-free energy that are more practical? The answer is yes and no--there are promising types of carbon-free energy, but “clean energy policy” and its environmentalist leaders will always stop or slow them for being insufficiently “green.”

Dirty Secret #3: There are promising carbon-free energy sources--hydroelectric and nuclear--but “clean energy” policies oppose them as not “green” enough.

In 1975, a fledgling energy industry reported that its members were producing electricity at a total cost of less than half of what coal plants could. Better yet, this industry’s technology generated virtually no pollution and no CO2. Better yet still, this industry was in its relative infancy; thousands of scientists and engineers were brimming with ideas about how to make power-generation better, cheaper, more efficient.

If the environmentalist movement--the movement leading today’s “clean energy” campaign--was truly interested in maximum human progress, including making our surroundings maximally conducive to human life, it would have celebrated this industry: nuclear power. Instead, environmentalists effectively destroyed it with lies and propaganda--a tactic they are repeating with the earthquake-and-tsunami-stricken nuclear reactors in Japan.

Environmentalists have always claimed that their concern is safety. But the most reliable indication of a technology’s safety is how many deaths it has caused per unit of energy produced. In the capitalist world, nuclear power in its entire history has not led to a single death from meltdowns, radiation, or any of the allegedly intolerable dangers cited by nuclear critics. This does not mean that deaths are impossible, but as scientists have repeatedly shown, the worst-case scenario for a nuclear reactor is far better than, say, the ravages of a dam breaking or of a natural gas explosion. 

In reality, all the “safety” objections come down to the Green premise that nuclear power is “unnatural” and therefore must be bad. Nuclear power is radioactive, they say--not mentioning that so is the sun, and that taking a walk, let alone an airplane ride, exposes you to far more radioactivity than does living next to a nuclear power plant. A nuclear plant could be bombed by terrorists, and bring about some sort of Hiroshima 2, they say--not mentioning that the type of uranium used in a nuclear plant and a nuclear bomb are completely different, and that the uranium in a plant can’t explode. 

Nuclear power generates waste, they say--not mentioning that the amount of waste is thousands of times smaller than for any other practical source of energy, that it can be safely stored, and that there are many technologies for utilizing the waste to generate even more energy. Still, Greenpeace proclaims: “Greenpeace has always fought -- and will continue to fight - vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. The only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants.”

The practical result of all this hysteria was to make permission to build nuclear power plants nearly impossible to get, to impose an astronomical number of unnecessary “safety” requirements that served only to drive up price, and to make the whole process of building a plant a multi-decade affair. 

Today, environmentalists say, with relish, that nuclear power can’t compete on the market--“Nuclear is dying of an incurable attack of market forces,” says solar-peddler Amory Lovins--even though before their intervention, it did compete, and was winning. Who knows how spectacularly it could produce cheap, abundant, carbon-free energy today--were it not for the opposition of those who claim to be concerned about carbon emissions?

Nuclear power is not an isolated target. Environmentalists have spent the last three decades shutting down as many hydroelectric dams as possible, despite hydro’s proven track record as a cheap, reliable source of carbon-free power (albeit one more limited than nuclear since there are only so many suitable river sites for hydropower).

The reason is this: environmentalism isn’t just about minimizing our carbon “footprint”--it’s about reducing any footprint on nature: on land, rivers, swamps, animals, bugs. Hydroelectric power, while it doesn’t emit CO2, dramatically changes the natural flow of the rivers where it is used. Nuclear power, in addition to requiring large industrial structures, deals in “unnatural” high-energy, radioactive materials and processes. Therefore, it is not, says Al Gore, “truly clean energy.”

Dirty Secret #4: The environmentalists behind clean energy policy are anti-energy.

If you think that there might be some form of practical “clean energy” that could appease the environmentalists--say, geothermal--you’re missing the point. The whole environmentalist idea of a minimal “footprint” is fundamentally anti-energy. Mass-energy production requires making a substantial impact on nature--in diverted land, in power lines, in any byproducts or waste--and therefore environmentalists can always find something to object to. And this includes solar and wind.

For all the talk of “being green,” solar and wind require far greater amounts of land and materials-use than practical energy--their land “footprint” and resource usage is far larger. Huge, 400-foot tall wind-turbines with 150-foot blades and noise known to cause unbearable headaches a mile away do not exactly embody the environmentalist ideal of “living in harmony with nature.” Nor are tens or hundreds or thousands of square miles of solar panels. Nor are the enormous transmission lines necessary to bring energy from, say, Nevada to California. And so while environmentalists are happy to wax about solar and wind in the abstract while opposing existing power sources, once the shovels start hitting the ground, in practice they often oppose it. 

Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the biggest opponent of Cape Wind , a windmill project off the coast of Nantucket. Environmentalists were the first to object to a giant solar project in the Middle of the Mojave Desert in California.

But where are we supposed to get our energy? “Conservation,” environmentalists answer, which is code for “deprivation.” When pushed, the leaders of the movement admit that they think that humans need to live far more modestly, with perhaps a few solar panels on top of our homes (Amory Lovins attempts this, and has acknowledged agonizing over whether he could accommodate a dog for his daughter), that we need to do with a lot less, and that we need to reduce the world’s population. 

As climate-change star Paul Ehrlich says: “Whatever problem you’re interested in, you’re not going to solve it unless you also solve the population problem. Whatever your cause, it’s a lost cause without population control.” 

The Sierra Club advocates “development of adequate national and global policies to curb energy over-use and unnecessary economic growth.” This was written in 1974, when the energy-hungry computer revolution was brand-new. Had we listened to them, it wouldn’t have had the power to get off the ground. And they are no exception to this anti-development mentality: “Giving society cheap, abundant energy at this point,” says climate change star Paul Ehrlich, “would be the moral equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” Or, Amory Lovins: “If you ask me, it'd be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it. We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won't give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other.”

This is the mentality wielding influence over our energy future. Can one imagine any sort of energy that it would find favorable? Consider the prospect of geothermal energy, which would use heat from the inside of the earth’s crust. Al Gore claims to support this. To be used en masse, such energy (as yet unproven) would require drilling tens of thousands of feet deep. Given environmentalists’ opposition to offshore drilling, can anyone imagine they will actually support geothermal energy in practice?

Anyone who genuinely desires even better energy in the future than we enjoy today must cut all ties with the anti-development environmentalist movement and embrace industrial development.

Instead, the entire “clean energy” movement embraces environmentalists as allies. The Sierra Club, Ehrlich, and Lovins are all regular advisors to government on energy policy. While President Obama isn’t as extreme as they are, we can see their anti-nuclear agenda in his energy plan--which is focused on solar and wind, and includes a couple billion in loan guarantees to a single nuclear plant (this is notable only because the 2008 Democratic platform contained zero references to nuclear energy). 

The same is true for “clean energy” advocates such as Thomas L. Friedman and Bill Gates; they advocate nuclear, but only half-heartedly, with infinite regulation. So, in practice “clean energy policy” will mean preserving the draconian controls on nuclear power, stunting its growth, while subsidizing the impractical fuels that environmentalists least object to.

The end result of this is pure destruction. This includes destruction of what “clean energy” is supposed to ensure: a livable climate. The number one precondition of a livable climate is industrial-scale energy. Loose talk of a “climate change catastrophe” evades the fact that industrial energy makes catastrophes non-catastrophic. In Africa, a drought can wipe out hundreds of thousands of lives thanks to that continent’s lack of capitalism and resultant lack of industrial energy. In America, we irrigate so well that deserts have become among the most desirable places to live (Southern California, Las Vegas).

Left free to discover and harness energy, human beings can adapt to changes in weather. Anyone who cares about the plight of the poor must recognize that what they desperately need is not a stagnant average global temperature but capitalism, including cheap, affordable fossil fuels now, and the freedom to find even better fuels later, unhampered by environmental hysteria.

If we want more, better, energy, we should be considering, not policies to control the energy economy, but policies to allow free markets and true competition (not government-rigged stuff). And let the best fuel win.

Alex Epstein is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, focusing on business issues. The Ayn Rand Center is a division of the Ayn Rand Institute and promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.”