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Posts from — March 2012

Rocket Science is the Easy Part: How Government has Grounded Space Propulsion

“The Apollo moon landing was 42 years ago, and at the time many Americans thought it only a matter of time before they made their way to the next frontier. Is it simply that the problem of space travel is too difficult technologically? No–it’s that government policy has made it too difficult politically.”

Ever floated through space, 200 miles above the earth’s surface at a comfortable cruising speed of 17,500 miles per hour, while watching the earth whirl beneath you in a full revolution every 90 minutes?

Ever stood on the surface of the moon and gazed at the tiny blue-green ball where you had spent most of your life, nearly 240 thousand miles away?

Neither have I. To date, only a handful of super-wealthy individuals, paying enormous sums of money, have experienced the thrill of a trip into low earth orbit. And only a handful of stratospherically-subsidized astronauts have made it to the moon.

But if the history of capitalism tells us anything, it is that under economic freedom, yesterday’s impossibly expensive luxury can become today’s affordable commodity. Terrestrial flight was once available only to the wealthy but eventually its price came down enough that most Americans can now afford it–why not space flight? The wonderful world of space could become an affordable vacation destination. Wouldn’t you like to buy a ticket to the moon?

A New Resource Frontier

The possibilities of affordable space travel go well beyond recreation, as space is a literal and figurative gold-mine of mineral resources. For example, near earth asteroids are known to contain massive stores of platinum and other similarly valuable materials, which could potentially be mined and exploited for cheaper and more extensive application on earth (see John S. Lewis’s Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets).

One company, Promethean Enterprises Inc., is already proposing to embark on the venture of space mining. As exotic and far-fetched as this sounds, space-mining could make a real difference in your life.

Consider a rare metal such as platinum, which is incredibly valuable–about $26,000 per pound (as of March 23)–not primarily for jewelry but for its vital industrial applications. [Read more →]

March 30, 2012   11 Comments

‘Human Achievement Hour’: Leave the Lights On and Celebrate this Saturday March 31st

“During Human Achievement Hour, enjoy the benefits of capitalism and human innovation. To celebrate participants need only to spend the 8:30pm to 9:30pm hour on March 31 enjoying the benefits of free enterprise and human innovation: gather with friends in the warmth of a heated home, watch television, take a hot shower, drink a beer, call a loved one on the phone, or listen to music.”

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) is a feisty bunch. Their global warming realism team of Marlo Lewis, Myron Ebell, Chris Horner, and William Yeatman is crack.

And really, who would you rather have a beer with: Marlo Lewis or that guy Joe Romm over at Climate Progress? Heck, Marlo might bring his Mandolin and Old Town Tradition band to entertain you!

I think we win the ‘good guys’ award in the highly contentious global warming debate, not only the intellectual case for climate livability and public policy inactivism.

And so I bring attention to the worthy initiative of Fred Smith and CEI to counter the silly turn-off-the-lights Earth Hour with its 4th Annual Human Achievement Happy Hour this Saturday March 31.

Leave the nights on, and celebrate in the intellectual tradition of Julian Simon, by all means!

Here is the invitation announcement. [Read more →]

March 29, 2012   4 Comments

‘Wind Farm Realities’ Website

Two years ago, I launched Wind Farm Realities, subtitled “Going Where the Evidence Takes Me.” Here’s how I describe my website.

“The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be.”  Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

This web site is in the unenviable position of being a messenger of bad news about wind energy. And wind energy was, at least intuitively, so promising!  Most of us know we can’t keep doing what we’re doing – burning through all the fossil fuels we can find – and wind seems to promise a carbon-free, inexhaustible, and benign source that doesn’t send money overseas.

As much as all of us, including myself, would want this rosy picture to be true, the actual evidence so far paints a far different picture.  I understand that many people will resist hearing this bad news, preferring to label me a NIMBY, a Luddite, unscientific, oil-industry-loving, climate-change-denying, jealous – anything to dismiss me.

I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’m simply someone who thinks evidence is a better guide to reality than wishful thinking.  And the existing evidence says to me that wind energy has no redeeming value, while its downsides are substantial.

The first indication that I had of the failings of wind energy was when I had the temerity to actually read the references that the wind industry used to “prove” how beneficial and benign wind was.  As an example, if you read AWEA’s “Fact Sheet” on 20% by 2030, it claims a savings of 825 million tons of CO2.  [Read more →]

March 28, 2012   4 Comments

“More of the Above” Energy Policy

“American energy has become remarkably cleaner in the past twenty years; the marketplace, not government mandates, are driving today’s ingenuity in the energy sector; consumer cost and grid reliability are not of less concern than environmental goals; and no sensible energy policy moves us forward by leaving fossil fuels, hydro, and nuclear behind.”

Senator Jeff Bingaman’s Clean Energy Standard (CES) notably improves upon his earlier push to require utilities to generate 20% of their power from renewable sources such as solar and wind power (but not existing hydroelectricity and nuclear power, much less what might emerge from carbon capture technologies at coal plants).

This time around, there is a wider range of energy technologies to bring down the sticker shock of mandating politically correct (but market incorrect) energy to American electricity users. Still, the CES is a step back from a free market and thus a burden to consumers, taxpayers, and the overall economy.

What is ‘Clean’ Energy?

A real debate over clean energy, as opposed to renewable energy, is one that should have been had two years ago (and really back in the 1970s, when the current debate first got underway). Instead, in an effort to push politically popular technologies such as solar and wind, the congressional energy debate seemed to overlook technologies with much greater practical importance for America’s long-term energy future. They include:

  • Emission-free nuclear power, to the extent it is commercially viable;
  • Fossil-fuel technologies, including coal-fired power production, exponentially cleaner in the past twenty years (with the possibility through carbon capture of making even greater gains); and
  • Hydropower, an often overlooked technology that is capable of adding significant megawatts to the grid with positive air-quality implications.

The truth is that no American energy future exists without contributions from some combination of these sources. To keep pace with energy demand, while maintaining the reliability and price that consumers deserve, the answer can’t simply be ‘all of the above’; it must be ‘more of the above.’ [Read more →]

March 27, 2012   9 Comments

Oil Obama: Political Misdirection (remember Al Gore in 2000)

“As long as I’m President, we’re going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure, and we’re going to do it in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people. We don’t have to choose between one or the other, we can do both.”

Will Obama’s audacious oil play prove to be a Dukakis-in-a-tank moment, as his political opposition believes? Whether it is or not, the climate-alarmist Left is steamed. Why? Because the President’s paean to petroleum sets back the idea that big bad oil is on the way out. Game-set-match for the robust continuing carbon-based energy age.

We have come full circle from George W. Bush’s anti-oil moment in his 2006 State of the Union speech when he opined:

We have a serious problem. America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.

Joe Romm, a perennially angry guy over at Climate Progress, is getting convoluted over the fracturing opposition to dense energy. His latest broadside, “Obama’s Worst Speech Ever: “We’ve Added Enough New Oil And Gas Pipeline To Encircle The Earth”, is reserved for his beloved President:

Obama will … be remembered for a failed presidency simply for failing to seriously fight for a climate bill. And this [Cushing] speech certainly guts any possible claim for a climate legacy.

Remember Albert Gore?

Al Gore as presidential candidate had his ‘Cushing moment’ back in 2000. He said:

I have made it clear in this campaign that I am not calling for any tax increase on gasoline, on oil, on natural gas, or anything else. I am calling for tax cuts to stimulate the production of new sources of domestic energy and new technologies to improve efficiency. [Read more →]

March 26, 2012   3 Comments

Diminished Climate Alarmism: Lessons from L’Affair Heartland

“Without being a trained climate scientist, I can read the various blogs and try to parse the academic papers, but ultimately I have to rely a lot on the good faith and judgment of the scientists themselves. The Heartland affair has reassured my earlier conviction that the case for climate alarmism is far weaker than the alarmists have been telling us.”

As an economist who has done some research on climate change policies, I am often asked questions along the lines of, “Is the science right or is it really a hoax like Rush Limbaugh says?” My standard reply is to acknowledge first of all that I’m not trained in the field, but to say that from my outsider perspective, it seems that the people warning of imminent catastrophe are vastly overrating the likelihood of their dire forecasts.

The behavior of Joe Romm and other famous climate-change alarmists during the recent Heartland Institute affair beautifully illustrates my position.

The Heartland Affair: A Quick Recap

I am assuming most readers are familiar with the basics of the Heartland Institute affair, but for those who aren’t, I highly recommend Megan McArdle’s blog posts on the issue (1, 2, 3, and 4). Not only did McArdle keep up with each new development in the saga practically in real-time, but she herself was one of the active participants in unraveling the mystery of the initially anonymous leaker, who turned out to be climate scientist (and advocate of rapid government intervention) Peter Gleick. [Read more →]

March 23, 2012   34 Comments

Solar is Not An Infant Industry (Part II: Twentieth Century)

“The range of energy possibilities grouped under the heading ‘solar’ could meet one-fifth of U.S. energy needs within two decades.”

- Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin, “The End of Easy Oil,” in Stobaugh and Yergin, eds., Energy Future, Report of the Energy Project of the Harvard Business School (New York: Random House, 1979), p. 12.

”I think … the consensus … is after the year 2000, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of our energy could come from solar technologies, quite easily.”

  – Scott Sklar, Solar Energy Industries Association (1987).

“Before maybe the end of this decade, I see wind and solar being cost-competitive without subsidy with new fossil fuel.”

- DOE Secretary Stephan Chu, Address to Pew Charitable Trusts, March 23, 2011.

Yesterday’s Part I on the long history of solar power ended with two quotations from energy historian Wilson Clark in his 1974 book, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction:

“In 1908, [Frank] Shuman formed the Sun Power Company and convinced English financiers to back his efforts to build larger plants using the flat-plate collectors. In 1911, he demonstrated a plant in Philadelphia with more than 10,000 feet of collector surface. It produced 816 pounds of steam per hour and was used to operate a steam-driven water pump” (p. 365).

“Between the turn of the century and the 1930s in the United States, the first widespread commercial use of solar energy came into being with the installation of solar water heaters in California and Florida. . . . Tens of thousands of these heaters were sold in both states until the middle 1950s” (p. 370).

The rest of the century would be the story of certain tried-and-true applications (water heaters), a lot of better-but-not-nearly-good-enough technological progress, and hype and failure in the political energy era (1970s-to-present).

1930s Solar [Read more →]

March 22, 2012   6 Comments

Solar is Not an Infant Industry (Part I–Pre-Twentieth Century)

“Not satisfied with such direct benefits as he derives from sunshine, man has developed numerous ways of utilizing solar radiation indirectly and of appropriating energies other than his own.”

    – Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industry (Harper & Brothers, 1933), p. 43.

“Although much interest in the scientific community has been focused on solar energy at various times in history, widespread development of solar power equipment has never been achieved—primarily because of the high cost of developing solar power compared to that of technologies utilizing cheap fossil fuels.”

     - Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 379.

Solar electricity has a long history, not unlike its cousin windpower. The infant industry argument does not apply, and solar’s diluteness and intermittency suggest that this off-grid starter energy will not be an on-grid resource this century if not far beyond.

But the hype continues. Yesterday at Climate Progress, Stephen Lacey argued in The Real Impact of Loan Guarantees: “Solar Is Now Bankable” and “Becoming Part of a Much Broader Capital Market“:

With panel prices hitting record lows and performance of projects steadily improving, solar photovoltaics have become increasingly attractive to large investors. Investment in solar has surged to unprecedented levels due to interest from large Wall Street banks, investors like Warren Buffett, and technology firms like Google.

Does Mr. Lacey want to get into the weeds of the cost and reliability of solar power, or is his just cover bluster for a politician of his liking to get overbig green lie” Solyndra?

Here are some quotations that put solar in its proper historical context, just in case President Obama does not share any during his visit today at the 48-megawatt Copper Mountain Solar 1 facility in Boulder City, Nevada. Part II tomorrow will look at solar’s history in the twentieth century–and the hyperbole of solar when energy politics entered the scene in the 1970s.

17th Century Solar [Read more →]

March 21, 2012   7 Comments

U.S. Has 60+ Times the Oil Reserves Claimed by Obama

“With only 2% of the world’s oil reserves, we can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices,” President Barack Obama said in his weekly address March 10. “Not when we consume 20% of the world’s oil.”

The claim is, if not blatantly false, at best grossly misleading. If the President didn’t know this, some advisors should be dismissed. If he did, he needs to accept the blame and formally correct it.

As Investors Business Daily explained,

… the figure Obama uses—proved oil reserves—vastly undercounts how much oil the U.S. actually contains. In fact, far from being oil-poor, the country is awash in vast quantities—enough to meet all the country’s oil needs for hundreds of years.

The U.S. has 22.3 billion barrels of proved reserves, a little less than 2% of the entire world’s proved reserves, according to the Energy Information Administration. But as the EIA explains, proved reserves “are a small subset of recoverable resources,” because they only count oil that companies are currently drilling for in existing fields.

How much recoverable oil does the U.S. have in addition to the 22.3 billion Obama had in mind? Start with the Green River Formation in Wyoming: 1.4 trillion barrels—sixty-two times as much as Obama counts. [Read more →]

March 20, 2012   7 Comments

Lower Climate Sensitivity Estimates: New Good News

“A collection of research results have been published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature in recent months that buoys my hopes for a low-end climate sensitivity.”

One of the key pieces to the anthropogenic climate/environment change puzzle is the magnitude of the earth’s climate sensitivity—generally defined as the global average temperature change resulting from a doubling of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2).

One of the reasons that the “climate change” issue is so contentious is that our understanding of climate sensitivity is still rather incomplete. But new research efforts are beginning to provide evidence suggesting that the current estimates of the climate sensitivity should be better constrained and adjusted downwards. Such results help bolster the case being made by “lukewarmers”—that climate change from anthropogenic fossil-fuel use will be moderate rather than extreme, and that an adaptive response may be more effective than attempts at mitigation.

In its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), released in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provided this general guidance on the climate sensitivity:

[The equilibrium climate sensitivity] is likely to be in the range 2°C to 4.5°C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C. Values substantially higher than 4.5°C cannot be excluded, but agreement of models with observations is not as good for those values.

In IPCC parlance, “likely” means an expertly assessed likelihood of an outcome or result with greater than a 66% chance of occurrence. “Very unlikely” means less than a 10% change of occurrence.

Visually, the IPCC’s assessment of the climate sensitivity based on its interpretation of the extant literature at the time of its assessment is shown in Figure 1. The IPCC routinely includes studies which conclude that there is a greater than a 10% possibility that the true climate sensitivity exceeds 6°C and some which find that there is a greater than 5% possibility that it exceeds 10°C.


Fig 1. Climate sensitivity distributions retained (and in some cases recast) by the IPCC from their assessment of the literature. Note that the distributions fall off much more slowly towards the right, which indicates that the IPCC considers the possibilities of the climate sensitivity having a very large positive value (that is, a large degree of global temperature rise for a doubling of the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration) to be not inconsequential (source: IPCC AR4).

If the true value of the climate sensitivity does turn out to exceed 6°C, then we will be in for what will probably turn out to be fairly disruptive climate change. Heck, even if the climate sensitivity lies much above 4.5°C, coming climate change will be substantial. I for one, would hope that it lies below 3°C, and actually turns out to be closer to 2°C.

A collection of research results have been published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature in recent months that buoys my hopes for a low-end climate sensitivity. Here are some salient quotes. [Read more →]

March 19, 2012   21 Comments