Debating Greenpeace on “Green Energy”
- The economics of solar and wind.
- The “green” opposition to nuclear power.
- A free-market, individual rights approach to pollution.
- Free-markets vs. central planning in energy.
- The true meaning of “green energy.”
My goal tonight is to get across three ideas that have helped me to understand the “green energy” issue.
The first idea is that the green energy movement isn’t trying to outcompete our leading sources of energy, it is trying to ban them.
The second idea that our leading sources of energy, whatever their problems, are economically and environmentally indispensable.
And the third idea is that support for “green energy” is rooted in ideology, not economics or science.
I’ll introduce these points with an analogy.
Imagine a medical activist group introduced a bill to ban antibiotics–even though antibiotics have eradicated dozens of deadly diseases. Why ban antibiotics? Because, the group says, antibiotics are “dirty remedies”. They have all kinds of problems–and some of the problems they cite are true. For example: Antibiotics can make diseases stronger and more resilient. They can cause serious allergic reactions and side effects. And so on.
But what about the benefits of antibiotics? Don’t worry, the group says, these benefits can be replaced with better, more natural, “green remedies.”
Would we buy this argument and ban antibiotics? Of course not. We would recognize that it is easy and common for people to attack good things by just focusing on their problems. It’s easy to exaggerate problems instead of trying to solve them. And it’s incredibly easy to make up a “superior solution”…in your imagination.
We would wish “green remedies” luck in proving their case to consumers. But under no circumstances would we ban something that, in the full context, is so crucial to life.
At least we wouldn’t in medicine. In energy, my field, I believe that the “green energy” movement is demanding the equivalent of banning antibiotics.
It is claiming, with no proof that “green energy,” mostly solar and wind, can power entire societies. And it is relentlessly attacking the only three proven, practical sources of industrial-scale energy–fossil fuels, nuclear, even hydroelectric.
Some attacks are based on genuine concerns, such as: coal plants emit undesirable pollutants.
Many attacks are outright falsehoods, such as: nuclear power plants cause cancer and genetic mutations.
And many attacks revealingly have no clear connection to health or economics, such as: hydroelectric dams should be stopped for the sake of “free-flowing rivers.”
On the basis of these attacks, which focus on all negatives and no positives, they are fighting for total or partial bans on fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydro.
Take Al Gore, a leader of the “green energy” movement. In a landmark 2008 speech, Gore claimed, without evidence, that he knew how “green energy” could give us the equivalent of $1 per gallon gasoline.
But instead of starting a business to make billions on what would be the greatest energy breakthrough in decades, Gore proceeded to call for a ban on all fossil fuel electricity by 2018.
In fact, he implicitly called for an eventual ban on virtually all forms of energy. The only forms of power generation Gore supported as truly “green” were wind, solar, and geothermal energy–which today produce a meager and extremely expensive 2% of our nation’s electricity.
Gore’s plan, and other plans that resemble it–such as Barack Obama’s plan to cap fossil fuels 85% over the next several decades–are, taken literally, catastrophic and are unlikely to pass. But it’s important to understand that to whatever extent these ideas make it into law, it will be terrible for both our economy and our environment.
If this seems implausible, it’s because we have been taught to take modern life for granted.
Our lives are amazing. No one in history could have imagined a society in which the average person lived to 80, and, even more importantly, where there was so much vitality possible in those 80 years.
Look at what we have access to: endless fresh food and clean water; racks of clothing; climate-controlled, weatherproof shelter; cures for practically every ailment; state-of-the-art hospitals; transportation anywhere in the world; thousands of career choices; boundless learning opportunities; endless social options; hour after hour of leisure time; and a lifetime worth of exciting things to do.
Because this is what we know, it seems guaranteed. But it’s not. It can be lost. Because it is completely and utterly dependent on our ability to produce energy.
Our energy is our capacity to do work–and the more work we can do, the more productive we can be, the longer and more happily we can live. The reason that the historical life expectancy is 30–is that human muscles and animal muscles aren’t sufficient to do the work necessary for a high standard of living.
The breakthrough of all breakthroughs was the development of industrial energy–energy used to power machines that could do super-human amounts of work. This is not an easy task, as evidenced by the fact that we know of only three ways to achieve industrial-scale power generation: hydro-electric, which harnesses the power of large amounts of downward-flowing water (though such locations are limited); nuclear, which uses the power of the split atom, and fossil fuels, which use the power of concentrated plant and animal matter.
One of the most underappreciated benefits of industrial scale energy is the environment it has produced. We’re taught to think of our environment as something that starts out healthy and then we make dirty. The opposite is true. Nature does not give us a healthy, sanitary environment to live in.
To see this, just visit a village in Africa that is still living in more “natural,” pre-industrial times. Try breathing the natural smoke of a natural open fire burning natural wood or animal dung—a form of pollution that kills 1.3 million around the world annually to this day.
Try getting your water from the nearest brook–which can be a five mile walk away for many–that is naturally infested with the natural germs of all the local animals.
Try keeping your home environment clean without “unnatural” indoor plumbing, sewer systems, and garbage collection.
To live a truly human life, we need to radically transform nature using industrial-scale energy to create a truly human environment.
Can solar and wind do all these things? At this point, not even close. For sure, there’s an enormous amount of energy in sunlight and in wind. But that energy is not very concentrated in any one place–so it takes a lot of land and resources to collect. Worse, the energy doesn’t come in as a reliable flow, it comes in on-and-off, intermittently. There are all sorts of fantasy schemes for making intermittent energy reliable, but none are remotely cost-effective. That’s why “green energy” is driving up fuel prices in Britain and helping to bankrupt Spain, where they spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars per “green job.”
Our response to “green energy” hype should be the same as our response would be to “green antibiotics”; if you’re idea’s so good, then prove it–but keep your hands off my livelihood. Billions of lives hang in the balance with energy production. In the past two decades, hundreds of millions of people have risen out of poverty because fossil fuel energy production has tripled inIndia and quadrupled in China. 1.6 billion people have clean drinking water who didn’t 20 years ago. These gains will disappear if the practical energy underlying them disappears. If we pass “green energy” policies, we will have blood on our hands.
“Green energy” has nothing to do with protecting the human environment. The way to do that is through real energy along with clear laws protecting individuals and their property from pollution and endangerment.
But such laws must be rational; they cannot demand that energy production generate no waste or carry no risk, because waste and risk are inherent in life.
At any stage of development, the energy needed to improve our environment is going to have waste products. Some of these, such as particulate matter from coal, will in isolation have negative health impacts even though the technology overall is a boon to human health.
And over time, prosperous individuals have more time and technology to create progressively cleaner ways of generating energy. In generations past, people had to inhale horrible amounts of coal smoke in their homes, because it was either that or live an even more noxious life on the farm. Thankfully, that’s not longer necessary; today’s coal is hundreds of times cleaner than coals of generations past.
What about climate change? As in so many issues, we need to look at the full context. Now part of that context, future prediction of how the greenhouse effect interacts with various hypothetical feedback loops, is very uncertain.
There is one certainty that is almost never mentioned, though. The livability of a climate, any climate, is directly proportional to its amount of industrial energy–which creates air-conditioning, heating, sturdy homes, etc.
Consider the last 80 years. We hear about an allegedly alarming one degree temperature increase, yet who knows that the number of weather and climate related deaths decreased by 98%? If you care about the climate’s effect on humans, you must embrace fossil fuels–and you certainly must demand that our legal system take a rational attitude toward clean, safe, CO2-free nuclear power.
Nuclear power emits virtually no CO2 and no particulate matter. The material inside a nuclear power plant can’t explode.
Not one individual has died from radiation due to a modern nuclear power plant. The material inside a nuclear plant is a million times more concentrated than any other form of energy.
That means it has exciting economic potential, if it weren’t so controlled by government. And it means that the waste it generates is small, and, as France has shown, easy to deal with.
But the progress of this truly clean energy has been stopped by decades by the “green energy” movement, which claims that nuclear energy is going to turn us into cancer patients or mutants despite decades of Nobel-Prize winning physicists trying to educate them.
Which raises the question: Why are advocates of “green energy” so hostile to the technologies that make a truly livable environment possible? That is one of the many questions I look forward to addressing over the course of the evening.
(For more on this question, see my MasterResource post, “Go Industrial, Not ‘Green.’”)