Posts tagged with: alternative energy

Blog author: lglinzak
posted by on Thursday, July 7, 2011

Political news changes quickly, and now reports are coming out of Washington DC that Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has been leading the way in killing the ethanol subsidy and tariff, has struck a deal with Senators Amy Klobuchar and John Thune, two stalwarts for protecting ethanol. While the rumored deal does not indicate the repeal of the blending mandate it is a step in the right direction.

However, while we wait on Congress and the President for action, the Brazilian ethanol industry is eying the U.S. ethanol market. Repealing the tariff will allow Brazil to expand its ethanol industry. Many questions need to be answered before ethanol is imported into the U.S. from Brazil.

In a previous post I posed concerns about whether ethanol can meet both U.S. and Brazilian demands. Furthermore, what are the environmental consequences of ethanol? Reports are showing deforestation in the rainforest. Finally, what will happen to food prices?

It is unfortunate that there are even more questions that need to be answered.

Like the corn based ethanol in the U.S., Brazil’s sugar based ethanol is a false market created by the government. Brazil doesn’t subsidize ethanol; instead it resorts to high taxes. Brazilian gasoline taxes are at 53 percent while the tax placed on ethanol is much lower making ethanol cheaper than gasoline. The question is how long can an industry last and actually be sustainable when it is propped up by the government and is a false market?

It is also important to note that the Brazilian ethanol industry needs a large sum of new investment, about $80 billion worth in the next ten years, to meet global demand. In an industry that is heavily dependent on the government one must wonder, who will pay for these new investments?

Another potential hazard of relying on ethanol is crop shortages. Such crop shortages may occur for a variety of reasons, one of which is out of our control: the weather. What happens when fuel relies on crops, and there is actually a shortage in the harvest? How much of the crop goes to fuel and how much goes to the food supply? Both are important. Food nourishes, however, fuel gets people to their jobs where they earn a salary which they use to purchase food. Brazil may be forced to answer these questions this year as sugarcane production is currently down 25 percent as compared to last year. The lack of production is due to bad weather and aging plants.

However, because of the lack of production sugar prices are on the rise as they saw a 14 percent surge in June. While some are sounding the alarm, other analysts are remaining calm, such as Eli Mamoun Amrouk of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization:

El Mamoun Amrouk, sugar analyst at the Rome-based FAO, said: “It’s difficult to predict exactly what’s going to happen to the sugar price because the market’s so volatile and so any new information can have a big effect on price. The speculation is still there, exacerbating the trend and changes in the dollar also play a part.

“But the signs are that production is growing significantly and, especially in India and Thailand, the prospects are very positive, so we should see the price start coming down in the summer,” he said.

Whether sugar prices do come down or not, we still face a critical question. If we continue to pursue an energy plan based on biofuels, what happens when we do face a shortage in crop production? The world will be faced with not just rising food prices but also with rising fuel prices. How do people in developed countries, who already have a difficult time affording food, feed themselves when the food supply is actually going into the fuel supply?

Blog author: lglinzak
posted by on Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Everywhere we look we are facing rising prices. We find them at the gas pumps and now we see them at our supermarkets. Food prices are climbing, and just like gas prices, they are having broadly felt adverse effects on Americans.

The Wall Street Journal sat down with C. Larry Pope, the CEO of Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer by volume, to discuss the rising food prices and how they are affecting his business. Pope attributes the increase in food prices to corn prices and the ethanol industry:

It’s also a business under enormous strain. Some “60 to 70% of the cost of raising a hog is tied up in the grains,” Mr. Pope explains. “The major ingredient is corn, and the secondary ingredient is soybean meal.” Over the last several years, “the cost of corn has gone from a base of $2.40 a bushel to today at $7.40 a bushel, nearly triple what it was just a few years ago.” Which means every product that uses corn has risen, too—including everything from “cereal to soft drinks” and more.

It is also important to note that, while Pope does not go into great detail, he points to the depreciating dollar as playing a role in inflated food prices.

Pope says the majority of his customers will be hurt by rising food prices:

“Maybe to someone in the upper incomes it doesn’t matter what the price of a pound of bacon is, or what the price of a ham, or the price of a pound of pork chops is,” he says. “But for many of the customers we sell to, it really does matter.” Workers can share cars when the price of oil rises, he quips, but “you can’t share your food.”

As food prices rise, what are most people expected to do? Many are on a limited budget and where will they cut back? Increasing food prices may also result in people turning to cheaper less nutritious food. Lora Iannotti, public health expert and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, explains how rising food prices lead to nutritional problems for everyone—especially the most vulnerable:

“During a food price crisis, households moved away from ‘luxury’ food items such as meat, fish and dairy products to poorer quality food,” she says.

Data from nationally representative household budget surveys show that during a food crisis, calorie intake is reduced by an average eight percent from pre-crisis levels, equally affecting rural and urban areas.

“We are particularly concerned for families with young children,” Iannotti says. “When you have a reduction in calories and critical nutrients for kids under 2, there are long term consequences such as stunted growth, cognitive deficits, lower educational attainment, and reduced future productivity.”

Like many other critics of the ethanol subsidy, Pope calls for an end to these subsidies. That would be a significant aid to reigning in the high food prices:

…Mr. Pope says, get rid of the ethanol subsidies and the tariff. “I am in competition with the government and the oil industry,” he says. “It’s not fair.” Smithfield’s economists estimate corn prices would fall by a dollar a bushel if ethanol blending wasn’t subsidized. “Even the announcement that it is going away would see the price of corn go down, which would translate very quickly into reduced meat prices in the meat case,” he says. Imagine what would happen if the mandate and tariff were eliminated, too.

Gary Wolfram, economics and public policy professor at Hillsdale College, offers a similar message. Wolfram points to the sharp increase in food prices, the inefficiency of corn ethanol, and calls for the end of ethanol subsidies:

World food prices are on the rise. In the United States, retail food prices rose .6 percent in February and are up 2.3 percent from February of 2010, the highest 12-month increase since May 2009. Part of the reason for the revolutionary fervor in the Middle East is rising food prices. Yet our government provides a $6 billion per year subsidy to turn the U.S. corn crop into gasoline. Ever gallon of ethanol refined into gasoline receives a 45-cent per gallon subsidy.

[…]

But this inefficient use of corn does more than just cost taxpayers’ money. It is part of the problem of increasing food prices. Ethanol makes up about 8 percent of U.S. fuel for vehicles, but uses up about 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop. The Economist estimates that if all the American corn crop that goes into ethanol were used as food, global corn food supplies would increase by 14 percent.

And as an article in Investors.com argues, ethanol has failed to achieve many of the goals that its proponents claim it would achieve.

Acton’s criticism of the ethanol subsidy is not new. In 2008, Ray Nothstine was interviewed and articulated the moral problems with the ethanol subsidy, the unintended consequences, and inefficiencies of ethanol that are now coming to light. Readers can listen to the interview here.

Rising food and gasoline prices are causing people to bear economic hardships, and, with limited household budgets, these trends cannot continue. Many leaders and economists are correct in calling for a reevaluation of our ethanol policy.



The blame game in Washington is heating up on skyrocketing gas prices. Republicans are criticized as being in the back pocket of the oil industry and partaking in crony capitalism. The Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee is even cashing in by hosting a fundraiser that is based on what has been the House Republicans “decade long relationship of protecting Big Oil taxpayer giveaways, speculations and price gouging…” However blame is also placed on Democrats, with accusations of placing barriers to prohibit domestic drilling. The debate has also centered around how we can be better environmental stewards. We may find ourselves asking questions such as whether green energy promotes environmental stewardship, and if oil drilling results in a dramatic harm to the environment?

An article published by the Washington Examiner contains disturbing numbers that will not be received very positively. Oil production in the Gulf was lower than predicated by the Energy Information Administration (EIA); however, imports were up:

While oil production in the Gulf is down more than 10% from April 2010 estimates, net crude oil imports are up 5%. At $83 dollars a barrel (the approximate average price of oil in the fourth quarter of 2010) that means Obama’s oil drilling permatorium increased American dependence on foreign oil by about $1.8 billion dollars in the fourth quarter of last year alone. The numbers only get worse as Obama’s permitorium further cuts into production. A Wood Mackenzie study predicts that for all of 2011 the permitorium will result in the loss this year of about 375,000 barrels of oil a day.

More imported oil also means higher prices at the pumps. The EIA explains: “Retail gasoline prices tend to be higher the farther it is sold from the source of supply.” It costs more money to transport oil to your gas station from the Persian Gulf than from the Gulf of Mexico.

On April 26th, President Obama wrote a letter to Congress calling for “immediate action to eliminate unwarranted tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, and to use those dollars to invest in clean energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” The tax breaks President Obama is asking to be removed are worth $4 billion per year. This isn’t the president’s first call to action. His 2012 budget proposal also calls for the removal of the “subsidies.” But some have pointed out that the oil industry does not receive direct subsidy payments in the way that some farmers do. The president’s proposal specifically states:

Eliminates Inefficient Fossil Fuel Sub­sidies. Consistent with the Administration’s Government-wide effort to identify areas for sav­ings, the Budget eliminates inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to address the threat of climate change. Approximately $4 bil­lion per year in tax subsidies to oil, gas, and other fossil fuel producers are proposed for repeal.

Here at the Acton Institute we have spoken in opposition to true subsidies, such as subsidized farming (articles can be found here, here, and here) and health care policy (a related article can be found here). In the past we have articulate the problems with subsidization. The language in President Obama’s budget proposal appears to be vague and does not specify where the oil industry will no longer be, in his words, subsidized. Is it in drilling? Does it affect gas prices? Ray Nothstine notes in his commentary, “High Gas Prices are Devastating to Poor” our moral obligation to the vulnerable and how the high gas prices are affecting them. With gas prices continuing to climb precautions should be taken to prevent even higher prices.

Brian Johnson, the American Petroleum Institute’s senior tax policy advisor, provides insight on the proposal in the president’s 2012 budget. Johnson explains that the president is proposing to remove the intangible drilling cost provision, which is the oil industry’s ability to deduct drilling “costs associated with labor, architecture, design and engineering; basically the building of an oil rig, a platform or any structure that allows the industry to get into the ground and find oil or natural gas.” Johnson claims this process helps in planning for the next stage of development and construction. Furthermore, Johnson claims the oil industry is already paying its fair share in taxes with an income tax rate at 48 percent. Whereas other S&P Industrials average a 24 percent effective tax rate. Stephen Comstock, also from API, responded to President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, articulating problems with the president’s call to end subsidies for the oil industry.

While the call to end the oil subsidies is being criticized by some, others are supporting such an action. Bill Becker, a Senior Associate with Third Generation Environmentalism and an energy and climate specialist at Natural Capitalism Solutions, argues the subsidies place the United States at a competitive disadvantage to China and India in the competition to champion alternative energy:

If we are looking for ways to chip away at the budget deficit, to keep America competitive and to use market-based mechanisms to build a competitive clean energy economy, then subsidy reform should be near the top of the list.

Think of it this way: Imagine an Olympic marathon in which the U.S. team has to run on a steep and continuous uphill slope, while the teams from China and India run on a level track. That’s what “winning the future” will be like for the United States if we keep our perverse energy policies.  Direct and indirect taxpayer support for fossil energy, which far exceeds government support for emerging green energy technologies, almost certainly makes winning the future a futile race.

Becker also cites a report by the Government Accountability Office that claims “taxpayers are losing tens of billions of dollars in royalty payments in part because the Department of Interior doesn’t have sufficient capacity to monitor oil and gas production on public lands.”

In his letter address to Congress, the president calls to reinvest the $4 billion per year that the oil companies receive in subsidies into clean energy. The problem with current alternative energies is they are inefficient, not cost effective, and cause many unintended consequences (related articles on the inefficiency and unintended consequences of various alternative energies can be found here, here, here, and here).

Yes, we will need to develop good alternatives to oil over the long haul, but spending money on energy sources that are not effective is not a wise investment or a sign of being good financial stewards. If the tax provision and subsidies for the oil companies are to be cut, and taking into account the budget crisis the United States is currently facing, it may better serve the country to not reinvest the money and cut it out of the budget completely.

My commentary this week focuses on the how the rise in prices at the pump is impacting the poor. Currently, in many areas of the country a gallon of gas is now priced over $4. I also argue that we need a more coherent energy policy coming from leaders in Washington. Part of the argument against drilling in ANWR (Arctic Refuge) over a decade ago was that the oil wouldn’t hit the market for 10 years. That’s a very shortsighted way of thinking about meeting our energy needs. We need leaders in Washington to work for us not against us.

Perhaps now a forgotten event, former Senator Jesse Helms in 1982 waged a dramatic battle against a federal gasoline tax hike of five cents. The tax hike had bipartisan support, including the support of President Ronald Reagan. However, Helms fought virtually alone with only a small cadre of tax opponents. He eventually lost on the measure but as he was traveling back to North Carolina he stopped at a rural Hardees restaurant. Truckers recognized Helms and he was greeted with thunderous applause for his efforts. Helms stood up not just for business interests like the trucking industry, but the rural poor, who are hit hardest by increases in gas prices. The current federal tax on a gallon of unleaded gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon and the mean state tax on a gallon is 26.6 cents. My commentary is printed below:

High Gas Prices Devastating to Poor

by Ray Nothstine

Religious leaders staging a fast over budget cuts on social spending have not offered to fast over higher gas prices, even though the impact on the poor is devastating. In fact, there is very little focus on the rise in energy costs, with political and religious leaders remaining largely silent. Yet, when they speak on the issue, they often do not have your best interests in mind.

At a recent visit to a wind turbine plant, President Obama responded to one questioner’s concern about rising prices by laughing and saying, “If you’re complaining about the price of gas and you’re only getting 8 miles per gallon, you might want to think about a trade-in.” The president didn’t say which vehicle he was talking about. But a 2003 Hummer H2, rated among the worst for gas mileage, scores 10-14 miles per gallon.

But for most people a truck that is getting 8 miles per gallon is the one that delivers their food. This is true too for charitable food banks as delivery costs cut into the number of people they can feed. Food banks also depend on volunteer drivers to deliver meals to shut-ins.

Many individuals and families are already curtailing discretionary spending to save for gas. In turn, more money and jobs exit the U.S. economy for oil exporting countries.

The national average for a gallon of gas is currently $3.79. Some American cities are well over $4 per gallon. The price, up almost a $1 since last year at this time, has some experts forecasting $5 for Memorial Day.

While oil markets can be complex, free market alternatives offer better relief than heavily subsidized “green energies” propped up by government. A new study in the United Kingdom by Stuart Young Consulting and the John Muir Trust again pointed out what previous studies have found: Wind output is often less than anticipated and is an unreliable source of energy.

Likewise, electric cars are rejected by consumers shopping for fuel economy—even though they are subsidized with tax credits. Rachel Slobodien of the Heritage Foundation points out that people are instead buying more affordable super fuel economy cars with traditional engines that get upwards of 50 miles per gallon.

Some lawmakers from both parties in oil producing states are asking for more domestic drilling, more refineries, and uniform state standards on gasoline mixture requirements. All of these proposals will help lower prices and could add hundreds of thousands of American jobs.

President Obama has responded by saying an increase in domestic drilling “will help some.” He also signaled he may be willing to tap more of the Canadian oil sands, but at the same time, he wants to cut oil imports by one-third.

High prices at the pump can offer a moment to pause too and remember a spiritual truth. The price of gas not only draws attention to the Middle East, but it draws our attention back to the Garden of Eden that tradition places in that oil-rich region.

Oil itself is decayed vegetation and plankton that has seeped into the ground, forming over millions of years. At one time wildlife was abundant and forests were especially lush in the garden. In the creation story we are reminded that after the fall of man, we have to toil for resources (Genesis 3:19).

While we are bound to labor, 17th century Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry reminds us, “Let not us, by inordinate care and labor, make our punishment heavier than God has made it; but rather study to lighten our burden.”

Similarly, John Paul II declared, “Besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.”

This is good advice. The free market helps to sort out those effective alternatives, encouraging us to drill for oil responsibly at home, and protecting us from costly utopian schemes that drive up energy prices. The market is also our best hope for developing renewable energy technologies that are economically feasible.

We know too well that leaders in Washington reflect the fall of man, but they are not working to lighten our burden right now. As the price of gas approaches $5 per gallon, perhaps its rise may help us to refocus on new ways to meet the needs of those who have the most to lose from rising fuel costs.

Last week President Obama gave an address outlining his new energy policy. In light of the tragic events in Japan, the speech was much anticipated especially considering the president’s prior commitment to nuclear energy.

As expected President Obama continued advocating for a greener energy policy while continuing to push for the country’s independence from oil. However, the President’s speech, an article by Reuters points out, was “short on details on how to curb U.S. energy demand.”

Furthermore, the President’s call for a path towards greener energy and energy independence will not be easy. The New York Times appropriately states, “The path to that independence — or at least an end to dependence on the Mideast — could well be dirty, expensive and politically explosive.”

President Obama continues to voice his support for alternative fuels and green energy. He argued for energy from wind, solar, natural gas, biofuels, natural gas, and nuclear. However, as I have argued in the past, these alternative fuels have costly subsidies, unintended consequences, are not cost effective, and have proven to be largely inefficient (I address the unintended consequences of ethanol here, here, and here and the unintended consequences with wind turbines here).

The president is calling for more government regulation. He gave a glimpse of a new energy standard he is going to pursue this summer, “This summer, we’re going to propose the first-ever fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks. And this fall, we’ll announce the next round of fuel standards for cars that build on what we’ve already done” he said. In an economy that is looking to rebound from a recession, businesses do not need another costly government mandate forcing them to change their transportation fleet. Instead, the President should rely on the market. Businesses will upgrade their transportation fleet naturally through the market when it is efficient and more cost effective for them to utilize heavy-duty trucks that are more fuel efficient.

The president also stated that we need to look to other countries, such as Brazil, for oil. However, an article published by Real Clear Markets is very critical of the President’s pursuit of Brazilian oil:

Now, with a seven-year offshore drilling ban in effect off of both coasts, on Alaska’s continental shelf and in much of the Gulf of Mexico – and a de facto moratorium covering the rest – Obama tells the Brazilians:

“We want to help you with the technology and support to develop these oil reserves safely. And when you’re ready to start selling, we want to be one of your best customers.”

Obama wants to develop Brazilian offshore oil to help the Brazilian economy create jobs for Brazilian workers while Americans are left unemployed in the face of skyrocketing energy prices by an administration that despises fossil fuels as a threat to the environment and wants to increase our dependency on foreign oil.

Furthermore President Obama’s talk of expediting drilling permits is not wholly accurate. The Obama Administration has not been friendly to offshore domestic drilling since the BP disaster last year. As the above quoted article from Real Clear Markets explains, there has been a seven-year offshore drilling ban on Alaska’s continental shelf and in much of the Gulf of Mexico. That has not changed under the Obama Administration. The Heritage Foundation pointed out in February:

Putting aside calls from some who want to increase domestic exploration to areas in Alaska and elsewhere, President Obama has completely shut down the existing oil drilling infrastructure in the U.S. At least 103 permits are awaiting review by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. The federal government has not approved a single new exploratory drilling plan in the Gulf of Mexico since Obama “lifted” his deepwater drilling moratorium in October 2010. Obama also reversed an earlier decision by his administration to open access to coastal waters for exploration, instead placing a seven-year ban on drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts and Eastern Gulf of Mexico as part of the government’s 2012-2017 Outer Continental Shelf Program.

As expected the president’s energy speech is not receiving much praise from the oil industry. Obama claimed that the oil industry is sitting on leases instead of using these for oil production. Ken Cohen, Exxon Mobile Corp.’s vice president of public and government affairs addressed the President’s claims and reflected on his speech in a Wall Street Journal article:

Said Mr. Cohen: “90% of the words sound relatively right in line with what you’d hear us say,” in terms of enhanced use of natural gas, increasing energy efficiency, more research and development and more domestic production. But the speech didn’t address policies that Mr. Cohen said are hampering oil development, such as opening areas that are off limits to the industry, and insisted on uneconomic mandates for renewable fuel. Moreover, the mention that oil companies are hoarding unexploited leases is off the mark, he said.

“The notion that there’s some economic incentive to sit on a lease is wrong,” Mr. Cohen said, particularly when oil prices are above $100 a barrel.

Despite the recent tragic events of Japan’s nuclear power disaster, it was relieving to see the president not call a halt to nuclear energy. While it will most likely take time for nuclear energy to rebound from the catastrophic events, the president looked at the situation pragmatically by continuing to voice support for nuclear energy while requesting a Nuclear Regulator Commission safety review to make sure all existing nuclear energy facilities are safe.

Despite the criticism, it is still important to keep in mind that we are all stewards of the Earth and need to take care of the planet God has given us. We do not get a replacement and we must see that future generations have a planet they can live in without problems created by our generation. The President’s call to not waste energy should be applauded, and advice we should all heed. However, as the United States continues to define its energy policy it is also equally important to keep in mind we are called to not just be environmental stewards, but also financial stewards. Our energy policy should be for the well-being of the planet but also economically feasible without being burdened with costly subsidies and unintended consequence.

Full text from President Obama’s speech can be found here.

The American Enterprise Institute also provides and insightful critique on the President’s speech which can be found here.

Kenneth P. Green, of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), recently examined green energy in Europe in an essay titled, “The Myth of Green Energy Jobs: The European Experience.” Green thoroughly analyzes the green industry in Europe while seeking to discover the reasons behind its current downward spiral. As readers discover, this is largely due to the green industry being unsustainable while heavily relying on government intervention and subsidies.

Green uses the failing green industry in Europe to forewarn the United States that its policies, if continued, will bring the same unfruitful results. If the green industry is going to succeed it should not be a government supported industry, as Green states:

…governments do not “create” jobs; the willingness of entrepreneurs to invest their capital, paired with consumer demand for goods and services, does that.

All the government can do is subsidize some industries while jacking up costs for others. In the green case, it is destroying jobs in the conventional energy sector—and most likely other industrial sectors—through taxes and subsidies to new green companies that will use taxpayer dollars to undercut the competition. The subsidized jobs “created” are, by definition, less efficient uses of capital than market-created jobs. That means they are less economically productive than the jobs they displace and contribute less to economic growth. Finally, the good produced by government-favored jobs is inherently a non-economic good that has to be maintained indefinitely, often without an economic revenue model, as in the case of roads, rail systems, mass transit, and probably windmills, solar-power installations, and other green technologies.

Spain, according to Green, destroys an average of 2.2 jobs for every green job created, and since 2000, it has spent 571,138 Euros on each green job which includes subsidies of more than 1 million Euros per job in the wind industry. Italy also is experiencing problems. If Italy spent the same amount of capital in the general economy as it does in the green sector, then that same amount of capital that creates one job in the green industry would create 4.8 to 6.9 jobs for the general economy.

Green further explains a feed-in law instituted in Germany which requires utilities to purchase different kinds of renewable energy at different rates. The feed-in law requires utilities to buy solar power at a rate of 59 cents per kilowatt-hour when normal conventional electricity costs between 3 and 10 cents, and feed-in subsidies for wind power were 300 percent higher than conventional electricity costs. The implementation of wind and solar power did not even save German citizens money in energy rates because the household energy rates actually rose by 7.5 percent.

Denmark is also experiencing its fair share of problems. According the CEPOS, a Danish think tank that issued a report in 2009:

[the] CEPOS study found that rather than generating 20 percent of its energy from wind, “Denmark generates the equivalent of 19 percent of its electricity demand with wind turbines, but wind power contributes far less than 19 percent of the nation’s electricity demand. The claim that Denmark derives 20 percent of its electricity from wind overstates matters. Being highly intermittent, wind power has recently (2006) met as little as 5 percent of Denmark’s annual electricity consumption with an average over the last five years of 9.7 percent.”

Denmark currently has the highest electricity prices in the European Union, but while Danes are paying such high prices, one would imagine that there is a cost benefit factor occurring, such as great environmental benefits and a lower carbon footprint.  However, Green explains that the greenhouse gas reduction benefits are actually slim to none: “The wind power consumed in Denmark does displace some fossil-fuel emissions, but at some cost: $124 per ton, nearly six times, the price on the European Trading System.”

With large inefficiencies and high costs in subsidies being paid in Europe, Green warns American policy makers not to follow in Europe’s footsteps. So the question is what should the U.S. Government do? The answer, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is nothing.

In an editorial recently published the Las Vegas Review-Journal examines the costs of subsidies and support dollars per megawatt hour the U.S. spent in 2008. According to the Energy Information Administration, oil and natural gas received 25 cents per megawatt-hour, coal received 44 cents, Hydroelectric received 67 cents, nuclear power received $1.59, wind power received $23.37, solar power received $24.34 and refined coal received $29.81. The editorial also published comments from John Rowe, CEO of Chicago based Exelon which is the nation’s biggest nuclear power producer. In the editorial Rowe articulates a resonating message to President Obama and Congress concerning green energy policy:

…in trying to boost “clean” energy — wind, solar, nuclear and natural gas — Congress and the states have enacted or proposed bills that would burden consumers, cripple markets and increase federal debt but do little to clean up the air.

In a speech to the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Rowe said his message to lawmakers is simple: “I’m asking that Congress do nothing.”

Mr. Rowe said utilities across the country are turning to “cheap” natural gas to generate electricity and do not need a clean energy standard proposed by President Obama.

With the surge in oil prices, there’s renewed interest in alternative energy options. Numerous countries have gradually taken steps to promoting renewable or clean energy technologies, and it seems the United States is drifting more towards favoring alternative energy options as the Obama Administration is looking at banning off shore drilling along the continental shelf until 2012 and beyond. However, before we move farther down this road, a critical analysis of the pros and cons is a must.

A more serious assessment is now being applied to ethanol and its effect on food production. There’s now more caution on the use of ethanol, based on both economical and moral arguments, and the same approach also needs to be taken when analyzing clean technologies such as the use of wind turbines.

As a recent article in the Mail Online demonstrates, many countries in Europe are currently seeing the unintended consequences of their policies favoring the use of wind power.

The article notes that the wind turbines are proving to be very inefficient:

The most glaring dishonesty peddled by the wind industry — and echoed by gullible politicians — is vastly to exaggerate the output of turbines by deliberately talking about them only in terms of their ‘capacity’, as if this was what they actually produce. Rather, it is the total amount of power they have the capability of producing.

The point about wind, of course, is that it is constantly varying in speed, so that the output of turbines averages out at barely a quarter of their capacity.

This means that the 1,000 megawatts all those 3,500 turbines sited around the country feed on average into the grid is derisory: no more than the output of a single, medium-sized conventional power station.

The wind turbine’s production of energy not only fluctuates based on the varying speeds of the wind, but is also seasonal. For example, Britain’s wind turbines became largely inefficient in the winter when the weather was mostly freezing and windless, and to keep homes warm Britain was forced to import immense amounts of power from nuclear reactors in France.

Furthermore, the article also notes, each country in Europe is required to produce more wind turbines each year which will result in a higher increase of CO2 emissions because of the need to build more gas-fired power stations to function as a back-up energy source when the wind drops. Due to the unreliability of the wind, these gas-fired power stations must run for twenty-four hours a day to be prepared for any moment when the wind may diminish.

The article is also quick to point out how the production and installation of the wind turbines also brings forth an increase in CO2 emissions:

Then, of course, the construction of the turbines generates enormous CO2 emissions as a result of the mining and smelting of the metals used, the carbon-intensive cement needed for their huge concrete foundations, the building of miles of road often needed to move them to the site, and the releasing of immense quantities of CO2 locked up in the peat bogs where many turbines are built.

It is such unintended consequences of wind turbines that possibly make them counterproductive to their stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Like the production of ethanol in the United States, the production of wind turbines in Europe is a market that relies on the government. Wind turbines are very expensive to build, and often require a government subsidy in order to get them built.

Many countries in Europe are seeing the disastrous effects of relying on wind turbines, and some are even beginning to shift away from their reliance on them. Germany, for example, which has produced more turbines than any other country in the world, is now building new coal-fired stations.

Yes, wind turbines were supported with good intentions: to provide clean sustainable energy while also supporting environmental stewardship. However, wind turbines may be actually counter-intuitive to their original goals. While the rising oil prices are having adverse effects on everyone, when searching for alternative fuels, we need to be critical of the potential of unintended consequences they may bring upon us.

Posts on ethanol production and the ethanol subsidy can be found here and here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 12, 2010

When it comes to energy policy, there is no perfect fuel. But in these debates, as elsewhere, the imaginary perfect fuel cannot become the enemy of the good.

And for the first time in recent memory, this means that nuclear energy, by all accounts a good alternative for the scale of demand we face, might be getting a seat at the table. Coal, which still provides more than half of the energy for the American grid, is cheap and plentiful, but environmentally and politically costly. And according to Popular Mechanics, it can only be “cleaned” up so much. That leaves a huge gap for other sources to fill.

As James B. Meigs writes,

Coal will never be clean. It is possible to make coal emissions cleaner. In fact, we’ve come a long way since the ’70s in finding ways to reduce sulfur–dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and more progress can be made. But the nut of the clean-coal sales pitch is that we can also bottle up the CO2 produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it’s devilishly difficult in practice.

The rest of the piece goes on to argue how we’re really talking about “cleaner” coal, rather than “clean” coal. Remember that debate over whether it was appropriate to call sex with various forms of birth control “safe” or “safer”? We might well see a similar shift in language about coal from “clean” to “cleaner.”

But what about so-called “alternative” energy sources, like geothermal, wind, and solar? Well, as John Whitehead over at the Environmental Economics blog concludes, “…potential supplies of wind and solar don’t appear to be large enough to completely replace oil and coal in the foreseeable future. If that is the purpose, then no, alternative energy can not effectively replace fossil fuels.”

So for the foreseeable future what we’re looking at in terms of the sources of our energy, in the face of growing global demand, is a mélange; coal, oil, natural gas, and yes, wind and solar, all have their place. But so does nuclear, and that’s one of the positive takeaways from President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he commended “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”

The challenging for existing energy firms will be to adjust to providing the right sources in this mixture. One way to do this is to be cognizant of the alternatives and their relative costs and benefits. ExxonMobil’s “Energy Outlook” released at the end of last year predicted that the growth of some of the newer sources, like wind and solar, would grow faster than some of the conventional sources, like oil and coal.

This means that a focus on innovation and efficiency will move some surprising players to fill the demand for cleaner energy, and the vision of increasingly transient reliance on fossil fuels might indeed come to pass.

As I wrote in 2006, “The human stewardship of oil and other petroleum-based fuels entails a responsibility to use the economic opportunities they afford to find and integrate other renewable, sustainable, and cleaner sources of energy, especially represented by the promise of nuclear power, into our long-term supply.”

There are two basic errors that entrap discussants on issues related to environmental stewardship. The first error is that of the uncritical activist, who is always ready to embrace whatever faddish innovation or practice the green intelligentsia casts as the latest solution. The problem with this approach is that in it often results in negative unintended consequences. Call this the error of the “early adopter.”

On the other extreme is that of the reactive critic, who is only too willing to cast scorn upon anything new in the realm of environmental concern (in part due to the over-exuberance of the early adopters). Comfortable in civilized affluence, the conservative anti-conservationist distrusts any claim of stewardship or responsibility that might upset complacency. Call this the error of the “never adopter.”

A characteristic common to both of these extremes is a sort of knee-jerk reaction, either for or against, that is basically un-reflective. Rational argumentation comes in later, if it comes at all, after a side or position has already been chosen. A sounder approach, I believe, is a more thoughtful and reflective environmentalism, a middle way between two extremes, if you will.

This is an approach that appreciates the possibilities for new technologies and innovations, for alternative sources of energy, without prejudice towards any particular project or every prospect in general. It’s an approach to questions of particular policies that values data over nostalgia, effect over sentiment, consequence over intent, even technique over piety. So let’s not uncritically embrace or unthinkingly deride new developments and concerns in the realm of environmental stewardship.

John Stossel must have been on vacation last week.

I caught part of the 20/20 special offering for Earth Day on Friday night. Among the reports was one by Jay Schadler focusing on solar power as an alternative source of energy.

Schadler pointed out that even though the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we consume 25% of the world’s energy. It’s a typical canard trotted out by those who want to depict us ugly Americans as “energy hogs.”

But instead of taking a deeper look at these kinds of statistics, the stats usually appear at the intro of a news piece as a hook leading into some other point about alternative energy.

But let’s take a brief look at the implications of such statistics. Let’s even accept them at face value. What such conclusions about the wastefulness per capita of American energy consumption overlook is the inherent connection between economic productivity and energy usage.

Yes, let’s say America’s share of worldwide energy usage is 25%.

But what is America’s share of the global economy? Somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of gross world product. So just maybe there is in fact a link between economic output and energy consumption.

Another aspect of this relationship appears when you run a historical series comparing per capita CO2 emissions and income growth on Google’s Gapminder software.