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ECONOMIST Debate on Renewable Energy (Part III: Fossil Fuels Triumphant)

[Ed. note: This is Bradley's final statement to: "This house believes that subsidising renewable energy is a good way to wean the world off fossil fuels." After nine days and thousands of votes cast from around the world, the opposition is polling very close.]

“A reliable and affordable supply of energy is absolutely critical to maintaining and expanding economic prosperity where such prosperity already exists and to creating it where it does not.” John Holdren (2000)

“Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.” James Hansen (2011)

Energy density (think energy efficiency) is the most important concept for the House Proposition. Dense energy, carbon-based energy, was an important enabler of the Industrial Revolution and has fueled rapid economic progress and population growth ever since. There is no going back to mankind’s poverty era, when renewable energy had a 100 percent market share.

Diluteness and intermittency explain why wind and solar miscarry economically, operationally, and environmentally as primary energies. These market-rejected energies require government favor to enter the grid and fossil-fuel blending/firming to leave the grid. Industrial wind parks and solar complexes are energy sprawl writ large, with service roads on one end and long-distance transmission lines on the other, all superfluous.

This debate, which harks back to W. S. Jevons, revolves around basic energy physics. The case for the opposition is that dense is less, and less is more.

Fossil Fuel Sustainability

Renewables fail as substitutes for fossil fuels with electricity and for transportation (ethanol, anyone?). As such, the premise of the House Proposition becomes the real debating point.

Simply put, we cannot “wean the world off fossil fuels” without compromising the global economy and risking mass energy poverty—and worse. Nor is there the need to, thankfully.

Oil, gas, and coal have become more sustainable over time, not less. The limits-to-growth argument has been refuted, as current shale resource revolution has pushed “peak oil” and “peak gas” concerns into a distant era when renewable energy technologies might take entirely new forms. Meanwhile, there has been a multi-decade correlation between rising energy usage and improving air/water quality. Hail to Julian Simon’s ultimate resource of human ingenuity applied to the master resourceof energy.

As discussed in my prior rebuttal, real-world warming from increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) has significantly lagged model-predicted warming. The microphysics of climate (which is beyond the capability of models to incorporate) may well hold the secret of why the climate seems to be less sensitive to GHG forcing than computed by model equations.

Anthropogenic warming at or below the lower end of the (disputed) IPCC range reverses the sign of the carbon dioxide (CO2) externality from negative to positive, based on the cost/benefit analysis of Robert Mendelsohn and other climate economists (Bradley, 2003: 86–90). A moderately warmer and wetter world, natural or man-made, is arguably a better world. And an estimated fifty-five benefits of enriched atmospheric CO2must be considered alongside the negative external effects of the enhanced greenhouse effect.

The logarithmic (less than linear) relationship between GHG forcing and global climate means that such emissions have less and less of a warming effect over time at any level of sensitivity. This is both a reason for market adaptation rather than not forced mitigation in the short run, and a reason to discount fears of distant fossil-fuel emissions.

Only by assuming anthropogenic climate disruption—and only by postulating away all analytic failure and government failure in addressing the alleged market failure—can a case be made for government intervention. Without those assumptions, present costs are too high and the future benefits (properly discounted) are too low. Good public-policy intentions are not enough (think Enron then and Solyndranow).

Higher quality, less expensive energy enhances living and avoids unnecessary money (resources) going to wind/solar crony capitalists. This fossil-fuel dividend, if you will, enables a variety of lifestyle enhancements, including those for better health. Wealth is health, and human health should be at the core of environmentalism.

Conclusion

Consumers and taxpayers (not to mention grassroot environmentalists revolting against the heavy footprint of renewable-energy infrastructure) are increasingly uniting against the political/intellectual/business elite responsible for the (artificial) wind/solar industrial boom. Energy sustainability revolves around availability, affordability, and reliability for the masses, and particularly the estimated 1.3 billion people without modern forms of energy. Defined in this way, the major threat to energy sustainability is the statism that makes energy scarcer, less reliable, and/or more expensive. Subsidies to energy losers should be eliminated.[1]

Surrendering personal and economic freedom to a (highly fallible) intellectual/political/business elite is a final reason to reject both the House Proposition and the premise of the House Proposition.

The best energy future belongs to the efficient and to the free.


[1] The International Energy Agency’s estimate of fossil-fuel subsidies—$409 billion in 2010—are mainly developing countries providing below-cost fuel to their citizens. Such welfare transfers can and should be eliminated along with industry-enabling forms of energy subsidies.

3 comments

1 Eddie Devere { 11.16.11 at 11:46 am }

Well put! The case for subsidizing renewable energy has evaporated.
As you’re aware, but some readers might not, the global R/P (proved reserves to production) of petroleum liquids has increased nearly every year for the last 30 yrs. (BP Stat Review of Energy) The R/P of both petroleum liquids and gas is now ~ 50 yrs, and increasing. The global R/P for coal is dropping, but it’s still sitting at over 100 yrs.
Peak oil has been debunked because the R/P ratio is increasing with time.
Climate alarmism has likewise been debunked because the net economic impact of CO2 emission is positive in the near term (though, 50 yrs from now it change from positive to negative because the benefits of higher CO2 start decreasing at ~ 600 ppm, while the economic costs get worse at higher levels of CO2.) But even once we hit 600 ppm of CO2 and have a global tax on CO2 emissions to help those people affected by climate change, the RROI for Natural Gas Combined Cycle may still look better than the RROI for wind, biomass or solar…i.e. it’s likely that it will be better to tax CO2 emissions from NGCC power plants and give that money to people affected by climate change than it would be to subsidize solar, wind or biomass power plants.

2 David Appell { 11.16.11 at 8:45 pm }

Except the Economist’s poll has no legitimacy whatsoever.

3 rbradley { 11.16.11 at 9:29 pm }

David:

I would read the several hundred comments, many of which are sophisticated and critical of wind and solar as industrial-grade energies.

This is a very joined debate, and a fair debate despite five versus one against me with the formal, invited presenters.

Thank you all.

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