TCS Daily

Powering Fantasies

By James K. Glassman - March 25, 2002 12:00 AM

Wind. Sun. Hydrogen. They are odorless, tasteless, invisible and abundant. And they can be harnessed to generate electricity, power cars and heat homes. So, hey, let's stop dallying! Replace those shameful fossil fuels with clean renewables. What is taking so long?

That was the gist of a series of passionate editorials in the Dallas Morning News during the past several weeks. Read them, and you might wonder what is wrong with those blockhead politicians and energy executives.

But there is a reason that renewables, despite a history of generous government subsidies stretching back to 1982, haven't made a dent in the dominance of oil, gas and coal - which together account for 85 percent of the energy used in this country. The reason is cost. As energy sources, wind, sun and hydrogen are hugely expensive and inefficient. Fossil fuels aren't.

In fact, thanks to new technology and better management, oil and gas companies - many of them, of course, based in Texas - have figured out how to bring fossil fuels out of the ground and refine them more and more cheaply. That is good, not bad. Abundant, low-cost energy is the key to prosperity, and prosperity is the key to cleaner air and water, as numerous studies, including a survey of 117 countries by the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, have shown.

The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal, and places like Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico have tremendous potential for oil and gas exploration, which now has minimal impact on the environment. Yes, there is a lot of wind and sun here, too - not to mention hydrogen. The problem is turning those fuels into usable power.

Let's not deceive ourselves. At this point in history, renewables aren't a serious source of energy. While we should encourage more research, we shouldn't succumb to the wishful fantasy that the wind or the sun will power America's toasters.

Scientists Mike Oliver and John Hospers, writing in the American Enterprise magazine, use an apt analogy: "There are untold millions of tons of gold in the earth's oceans. Why aren't we taking this gold from the seas? It is the dilution that stops us. If we can't obtain at least $8 worth of gold from a ton of water, we will go broke from the costs of extraction."

Wind, solar and hydrogen are examples of dilution in the extreme. Wind is so intermittent and tough to harness that a wind farm that could produce 1,000 megawatts from thousands of those ungainly propeller-driven turbines ("eagle choppers," as some wags call them) would extend, according to Environmental Protection Agency research, over 400 square miles. A similar coal plant would take up just 10 acres.

Sure, the sun is bright in the California desert, and that is why a solar plant was built at Barstow a few years ago. It occupied 75 acres and cost $200 million to build, yet it generated only $1.7 million worth of energy a year - until the companies and government agencies that subsidized it shut it down.

The United States now generates 8 percent of its power from a category that the Energy Information Administration calls "renewables." But nearly all of that power comes from water and "biomass," mainly wood. Wind and solar each represents less than 1 percent - not of the total power but of the power generated by renewables!

Denmark, as the Morning News editorials pointed out, gets "a remarkable 13 percent" of its electricity from the wind. True, but the real story, reported earlier this month by the Economist magazine, is that Denmark has soured on the experiment, and "plans for three offshore wind power parks have been dropped" by its new government.

Similarly, the Morning News wants to subsidize solar cells "in the manner of Los Angeles Power and Water." But the Washington Post reported last year that this noble experiment to make Los Angeles the "solar capital" of the world, with 100,000 roofs covered by solar electric panels, has been a dismal failure. In the first year of the program, only 40 homes adopted the panels, despite subsidies averaging $8,000 per family.

Why? According to the Post, "In the real world, most systems don't pay for themselves in a few years, as some advocates claim, but take 20 years or more to return their initial cost in the form of reduced utility bills."

The truth is that, at least for the next few decades, renewables like wind, solar and hydrogen fuel cells will be boutique sources of energy - curiosities available only to the few who want to pay the exorbitant cost or to those who live in states where politicians are willing to socialize those costs by making all taxpayers shoulder them.

The economic rewards for making wind, solar and hydrogen commercially viable are immense, and many companies - often with government aid - have sunk billions into the attempt. But the science and technology just aren't there. We don't need more subsidies and special breaks for the renewables industry.

Nor should the fossil fuels that dominate the energy scene be demonized. The companies that find them and turn them into electricity, gasoline and diesel fuel aren't owed any favors, but neither should they be denigrated or embarrassed. They are fueling the main engine of the world's economic growth - growth that leads inexorably to cleaner air and water, better health and more comfortable and productive lives. Texans should know that story better than anyone else, and they should be proud.

This article also appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

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