Stimulating Alternative Energy

In his speech on the stimulus package Thursday, President (Elect) Obama promised to double alternative energy use in three years. How likely is this?

Well, for a start we don’t use much alternative energy to begin with – slightly less than 7 quadrillion BTU of the 101 quads we use as a nation annually. Of those 7, 2 quads are related to the use of wood as fuel, something which is not normally viewed as environmentally friendly, and 2.5 are hydropower, an energy source once thought as environmentally friendly but now usually opposed as destructive. Of the remaining 2.5 quads, biofuels provide about 1 quad, and biofuels have become increasingly controversial and opposed – rightly – by many green environmental groups (source for these figures here).

So the more “acceptable” forms of renewable energy – “waste” biomass, geothermal, wind and solar – only provide just over 1 quad between them. Wind provides 319 trillion BTU and solar just 80. If these two forms of renewable energy are going to form the basis of Obama’s promise, the increase in scale needed to provide 7 quads between them in three years is simply inconceivable. A seventeenfold increase in these forms of energy would be a vast achievement, and one that would surely be trailed in the speech. It would presumably also require at least a seventeenfold increase in subsidies ($740 million in 2007 – see Table ES5 here) to about $13 billion annually, about the same as the Detroit bailout.

It seems likely, therefore, that, while there will be some wind and solar investment, perhaps some significant amounts, to meet a target of an extra 7 quads of energy, the only feasible source that is scalable to the intense required will be biofuels, but even that will require a massive expansion, and one that will have significant implications for crop prices, food prices and land use. The consequences may prove unacceptable to all but the agribusiness lobby and farm state politicians.

So it seems likely that the target of doubling the use of renewable energy does not actually refer to the full range of renewables at all, but just to those “acceptable” alternatives. This would imply that the target is only 1 extra quad of renewable energy by 2011, which, while it would represent a significant expansion of those industries, would amount to just a “drop in the bucket” of total US energy use. And, as we hear in the debate over ANWR every time it comes up, a “drop in the bucket” is just not worth doing…

It appears that this part of the stimulus package is, at most, a shibboleth.