TCS Daily

The Two Jimmies

By Herbert Inhaber - March 5, 2002 12:00 AM

In the run-up to the Senate debate over the President's energy proposals, Senator Jeffords of Vermont has proposed an amendment to the Democrats' bill. He would require that all electricity in this country be 20% renewable - wind, solar, or geothermal - within 18 years. The numbers match up quite nicely: -20 by 2020.

The main Democratic Senate bill - Senator Jeffords is nominally an Independent - proposes a 10% level. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. About 7% of U.S. electricity is hydro, generally counted as renewable in government accounting. In the first half of 2001, 1.7% of electricity is biomass, most of which comes from burning bark and wood waste to power paper mills. About 0.4% was generated from geothermal. Add up the percentages, and a superhuman effort is not necessary to meet the Democrats' goals. But that is precisely what would be needed to meet Sen. Jeffords' target.

You would think that the definition of "renewable" would be as clear as a summer day in Nevada, but it isn't. For example, a number of states bordering Canada have "renewable energy portfolios," such as what the Democrats and Jeffords propose. That is, their utilities are required to have a certain percentage of renewables, even if they cost more than conventional energy sources.

The Canadians want to export their abundant hydroelectricity to the U.S. But some of states have said, no, hydro isn't really renewable. Solar industry advocates in those states don't want their allocation taken over by the hydro industry.

Both the Jeffords amendment and the Democratic bill classify geothermal as renewable. Is it? Geothermal is basically a reservoir of steam or hot rock underground. When all the economic heat energy is extracted, the site is abandoned, much like a depleted coal mine. There is not any way to "renew" it.

In these ways, the very definition of "renewable" is twisted beyond recognition, much like a former President asking what "is" is.

Vermont's milk-Marxist has offered almost exactly the same proposal was made over 20 years ago by Jimmy Carter. He said that we should increase renewables to 20% of U.S. electricity by the year 2000. Again, the numbers have a certain ring to them, but not much else.

What was accomplished? Carter's proposal was never written into law, much to his disappointment. He installed a solar hot water heater on the White House roof, later removed by President Reagan without much public outcry. All sorts of plans were drawn up for the glorious day in 2000 when the goal would be achieved. But the proportion of renewable electricity actually fell over the two decades. No new hydro dams were built, and the proportion of hydro - by far the largest component of renewable electricity - fell.

If Senator Jeffords could draw on studies that indicated why the Carter plan failed and draw some conclusions from them, his amendment might have a bit of validity. As far as I know, he doesn't. He merely restates what failed two decades ago.

Do the Jeffords or Democratic proposals make sense? He says that it will produce a better environment, create of new jobs, and reduce volatility in electricity markets. Greater reliance on renewables will clearly reduce emissions from the fossil-fuel plants they replace. But the same effect can be achieved by new nuclear plants, which are a known quantity. Studies show that nuclear is cheaper than almost all renewables, with the clear exception of hydro. But we're not building any new hydro dams.

Renewables will create more jobs than the fossil fuels they might replace, but that in turn raises their costs compared to competing fuels. Then again, we could create millions of new jobs if we chucked all computers into the sea and went back to armies of clerks, but most people would regard this as going backwards, not forwards.

Finally, would renewables reduce volatility in electricity prices? If they were widespread enough, they might, considering that most of their costs are upfront, not spread out over time. But we would be trading volatility in electricity prices for volatility in the supply of energy, which is much more serious. Coping with times when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow could either increase renewable costs substantially or increase reliance on the very fossil fuels they are designed to replace.

Suppose Sen. Jeffords were to say on the floor of the Senate, "I propose a big boost in renewables. In the American tradition of putting my money where my mouth is, when I retire, I will put a substantial part of my savings and pensions into small solar and wind companies, most of which need more capital. I couldn't do this now, because of conflict of interest, of course." If the Senator were to say, this, he might have enough moral stature to pass his amendment.

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