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Energy Density: Robert Bryce’s Powerful Energy Message

Editor note: Del Torkelson of The American Oil & Gas Reporter covered Robert Bryce’s address talk to the Permian Basin Petroleum Association at its annual meeting in Midland last October. Torkelson’s  summary is reprinted with permission.]

“One of the reasons I wrote Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future (Public Affairs: 2010) is that our discussions are fundamentally wrong-headed,” author and journalist Robert Bryce told the Permian Basin Petroleum Association.

“Politicians generally do not understand the issues of energy and power, and in particular, the issues of scale.”

Bryce expounded on a number of key themes, including density, the distinction between energy and power, and the future of natural gas and nuclear generation. He also pointed to signals that suggested ordinary citizens were losing patience with green energy sources.

Green Backlash

Bryce’s comments touched on topics covered in both Power Hungry and an earlier book, Gusher of Lies. The writer riffed on a number of subjects pertinent to oil and gas producers:

  • On his insistence that the density of traditional fuels made them more environmentally friendly than so-called green energy sources, Bryce calculated, “A well producing 60 Mcf a day–by definition a stripper well–has a power density of about 28 watts a square meter, 23 times the power density of a wind turbine. If you start with a source that has low power density, you have to counteract the lower power density with other inputs such as steel, transmission lines, concrete, land and manpower.”
  • Regarding the suggestion that natural gas is a bridge fuel, Bryce countered that it was more. “A bridge to what?” he asked. “It is clean, it is domestic, it is relatively cheap. This is the fuel we have been looking for.”
  • As for many alternative energy enthusiasts’ insistence that sources such as solar or wind are poised to replace fossil fuels, Bryce suggested their naiveté seemed to confuse energy with power. He observed that energy was measured by volume while power was measured by rate, and used car shopping as an example. “I have not asked once how many gallons of gasoline a car holds. I ask about the rates: How many miles per gallon it travels, how many miles an hour it can go.”

Bryce also maintained that the push-back against green energy was becoming strong in many areas. “I can point to almost any state where local groups are opposing wind energy projects,” he described. “Europe has 400 anti-wind groups. Canada has about two dozen and the United States has 100.”

He went on to point out backlash even in a country with a reputation for embracing green power such as Denmark, and cited reports that the state-owned energy firm had stopped building wind turbines on Danish land, following protests from residents. “The company’s CEO says it is very difficult to get the public’s acceptance if the turbines are built close to residential buildings, and so the company now is looking into maritime options,” Bryce revealed.

But maritime options offer their own challenges, he observed, recalling how the late Senator Edward Kennedy had long blocked efforts to site the Cape Wind project off Cape Cod.

Aesthetic considerations aside, Bryce pointed out that the electricity Cape Wind would generate also would dig deeper into consumers’ pockets. “The initial cost estimates are $0.21 a kilowatt hour,” he reported. “The average residential cost in the United States is 10.5 cents.”

Such a cost difference ultimately will prove green power’s undoing, he predicted. “Because of green energy mandates in Ontario, consumers will see their electricity bills increase as much as 40 percent during the next five years,” Bryce forecast. “The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power told the city council that its pursuit of renewables could raise electricity rates as much as 50 percent during the next four years. I wonder how there could not be a backlash.”

After citing a number of indicators to demonstrate that the economy still was struggling, Bryce posed, “And yet now are we going to raise the price of the single-most important commodity in the American economy: the price of electricity?”

After all, Bryce concluded, while consumers are willing to pay more for products that are tangibly better, green power offers no such demonstrable advantage. “The electricity I would get from wind turbines or solar panels is no better than the electricity I already have been getting, so where is the benefit?” he wondered. “The resistance is there and it will grow.”


Gusher of Lies was reviewed at MasterResource by Jon Boone.


1 Gregory Rehmke { 01.14.11 at 8:04 am }

This is a great overview and deserves to be widely presented in high school and college science and environment classes (though it won’t be unless done well).

Also though, environmentalist want their green gadgets and access to renewable energy. Decentralizing energy distribution to allow them to opt out of the electricity monopolies gives market-advocates a positive message. Open the doors for alternate energy entrepreneurs to market and sell their energies across neighborhoods. Let them try to compete in the marketplace. Let them innovate and promote green technologies, just as they do in dozens of other fields from organic veggies to hemp clothing.

People waste (i.e. spend) huge amounts of money and time pursuing various projects, from electric cars to raising worms on food waste in their garage (my free-market friend Paul does this for no reason I can understand). We shouldn’t be lecturing them on their preferences, but working both to protect their choices, and to protect ourselves and the public from their preferences being forced on us via green energy legislation.

2 Charles Battig { 01.14.11 at 9:24 am }

Is it “politicians generally do not understand the issues of energy,” or is it willful ignorance, or is it willful political calculation? Hard to know.

Here in Virginia, our conservative governor, facing budget short-falls, has seen fit to spend $100,000 to “support a Renewable Energy Program staff position to assist with establishing a regulatory framework to facilitate the development of clean, renewable, indigenous energy through Permit by Rule.”

The Permit by Rule legislation sidesteps the Department of Environmental Quality mandated oversight of wind turbine projects, overrides the wishes of local authorities, and establishes a fast track permitting process.

This Permit by Rule legislation applies to “small wind energy projects.” How small? 100 megawatts or less. Thus local residents are faced with the prospect of miles of wind turbines on ridge lines and no voice in the matter.

Permit “by “Edict” legislation by a Republican governor sworn to upholding the constitutional concept of limited government and limited central powers. Willful ignorance vs. willful political pandering?

3 Jon Boone { 01.14.11 at 12:37 pm }

As I’ve said many time before, Charles, politicians like Virginia’s governor, by supporting renewable nonsense, give the appearance of challenging the status quo while actually reinforcing it. Nice work if one can get it. $100K for a patronage appointment and a lot of media ballyhoo, paid by tax payers of course, is a bargain basement price for such political insulation.

4 Green Energy Charade | LIKE LICORICE { 01.18.11 at 4:47 pm }

[...] After all, isn’t wind energy and solar energy “free”. Del Torkelson summarizes a speech by Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, before the Permian Basin Petroleum [...]

5 Fossil Fuels Fight Back | Institute for Energy Research { 10.28.11 at 5:22 am }

[...] But what is new is really old. As W. S. Jevons explained so well in his 1865 classic The Coal Question, dilute, unreliable renewables cannot power machinery. Today, the message of energy density is being promulgated by the nation’s leading energy journalist, Robert Bryce. [...]

6 Willem Post { 09.21.13 at 5:07 pm }

We all know, the US and Europe will be an increasingly smaller slice of the world’s energy consumption pie, i.e., what the US and Europe do regarding RE is becoming less and less important.

Certainly, the US and Europe must not do irrationally-expensive RE at 3-4 times grid prices, such as Vermont’s SPEED program and Lowell Mountain ridge line wind turbines, that places them at an increasingly competitive disadvantage versus the rest of the world.

Maximizing EE before RE would be a much quicker, less controversial, less costly, more effective CO2 reduction approach, as the capacities and costs of RE systems would be much less. There are not adequate funds to do both at the same time, as some RE promoters often claim.

The US and Europe already have at least 100 million workers who are unemployed or underemployed, or would like to work and cannot find a decent job, and the percent of working-age people in the labor force has declined.

The developing nations and underdeveloped nations will be using the least-cost ways, i.e., use mostly fossil fuels as long as they are feasible, to become “like us”, i.e., consume similar to developed nations, unless forced to do otherwise.

There is NO mechanism in place to force them to do otherwise, and, according to their reasoning and reported statements, neither do they feel they have to do that much, as it was the developed nations that created the problem in the first place. This is THE conundrum preventing greater EE efforts and RE build-outs.

What Germany is doing, at great cost, regarding RE is possible, because it is rich, although the DER SPIEGEL article I reference in this string states many misgivings about the viability of its ENERGIEWENDE.

Many other, less-rich, developed nations will not follow Germany, i.e., there is no united marching forward by the developed world toward the nirvana envisioned by RE promoters, and there is no moral outrage among people in developed nations to make it happen.

The multi-decade spending of several hundred billion dollars each year by Madison Avenue and its European counterparts to maintain the psychic hold on the public mind to produce and consume is too strong to set in motion the required moral outrage for EE and RE, even in Germany, which happens to be rich enough to afford a relatively minor moral outrage.

One would need a dominant psychic hold on the public mind, similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, i.e., inspire people to do pilgrimages, crusades, go to war, etc., to create the moral force to undertake the great sacrifices and efforts required, AND such a moral force would have to exist worldwide, which, I think, is not about to happen anytime soon, if ever.

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