Hard Facts On ‘Renewable’ Energy

Pearson op-ed in the Washington Times.

Imagine that you inherit a sizable chunk of money and, following your broker’s advice, invest it in a particular stock, which promptly tanks. Undeterred, your broker recommends digging into your savings and plunging more into the same stock. You lose that, too.

How long would it take before you (a) fired your broker and (b) stopped investing in that one stock?

Probably not too long. But that’s almost exactly what the United States has been doing with regard to so-called renewable energy sources over the last 21/2 decades.

Power from sunshine, wind, water, the internal heat of the Earth and biomass make up the range of renewable energies often touted as alternatives to oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy. The advantage of such renewables is that they are clean and safe. No carbon dioxide emissions. No oil spills. No strip mining.

For these reasons, understandably, people like the idea of renewable energies. But as the Senate takes up the energy package passed by the House, it is important to confront some hard facts about soft energy.

In the past few decades, the federal government and the various states have spent between 30 billion and 40 billion dollars promoting soft-energy alternatives, from windmills to solar panels. But after spending that mind-boggling sum, renewables only account for a small amount of U.S. energy consumption. Non-hydropower renewables have been particularly poor performers. They account for only 2 percent of our electricity generation.

Still, there is a chorus on Capitol Hill and in the media insisting that the government continue pouring good money after bad. Every time the Department of Energy budget comes up for review, and we are confronted with the underperforming state of renewable energy research, these same people say we need to go double or nothing, as if the payoff is right around the corner.

Renewables still occupy a small place in our diverse mix of energies. And some, like hydrogen-based fuel cells, show real promise for revolutionary changes in how we create and use energy, though they are still many years down the road.

The regrettable performance of renewables needs to be pointed out, though, to give some perspective to the energy debate currently engaging the nation. Among the pervasive myths bandied about is the idea that renewables alone will solve our nation’s energy ills. But the sad fact is that soft energies are far from adequate at meeting today’s demand, much less what our demand will be 20 years hence.

Those future numbers should be quite sobering. The Energy Information Administration estimates that the United States will need roughly one third more energy in the year 2020 than it does now.

The idea that we will meet our future energy needs with soft energy alone makes little sense considering the drawbacks plaguing renewables — high costs, spotty and unreliable power, and grave environmental questions.

Generating electricity from solar power, for instance, costs roughly four times what it costs to generate electricity from combined-cycle natural gas. And then there is the question of land. One megawatt of production requires five to 17 acres of land, compared with 1/25th of an acre per gas-powered megawatt.

Wind power suffers from similar cost problems, and is at least twice as expensive as fossil fuel power generation. Moreover, wind power is as unreliable as the wind itself. A wind farm typically can’t operate at more than 23 percent of maximum capacity.

Just as disturbing, wind turbines kill birds by the score. According to a specialist with the California Energy Commission, birds are five times more likely to die near wind turbines than they are away from them. Also, wind power requires from 30 to 200 times as much land as a natural gas plant in order to produce the same amount of energy.

It is important that we investigate alternative fuel sources for future needs, though not at the expense of millions and millions of taxpayer dollars, and not while ignoring our needs right now and in the coming few decades. That kind of tradeoff will hurt more than help in the long run.

Looking to the next 20 years, we must increase energy production from all quarters. The contribution of renewable energy, still in its infancy, in helping meet these needs should not be dismissed. But neither should the idea that renewables alone will rescue us (or that we can mandate progress through massive subsidies) be allowed to prevail.

Putting all of your energy eggs in one basket is never a good idea. Just as you wouldn’t keep investing in a perpetually underperforming stock, we shouldn’t blow millions of taxpayer dollars on energy promises that have yet to yield any returns.

Copyright © 2001 The Washington Times