A Free-Market Energy Blog

Energy Debates in Wonderland: Let's Go for the Kill Against GasWind (Part I)

By Jon Boone -- March 28, 2011

March Hare (to Alice): Have some wine.

(Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea.)

Alice: I don’t see any wine.

March Hare: There isn’t any.

Alice: Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it.

March Hare: It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited.

— From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

Energy journalist Robert Bryce in Power Hungry foretells an electricity future anchored by natural gas that will bridge the transition to nuclear power. With his third book in less than a decade, Bryce is now a leading light of the energy policy debate, appearing regularly on op-ed pages and on news shows.

Bryce recently participated in two debates. In one hosted by The Economist, he argued for the proposition that “natural gas will do more than renewables to limit the world’s carbon emissions.” In a second debate, an Intelligence Squared forum sponsored by the Rosenkranz Foundation, Bryce and American Enterprise Institute scholar Steven Hayward argued against the proposition that “Clean Energy can drive America’s economic recovery.”

The Economist Debate

There’s more evidence that the enchanted Easter bunny brings children multi-colored eggs than there is that those renewable-energy darlings wind and solar can put a dent in CO2 emissions despite their massively intrusive industrial presence.

The first debate was little more than a curiosity. No one mentioned hydroelectric–the most widely effective “renewable” (it now provides the nation with about 7% of its electricity generation)–because it is an environmental pariah to the likes of The Sierra Club and has little prospect for growth.

Nuclear, which provides the nation’s largest grid, the PJM, with about 40% of its electricity, is not considered a renewable, despite producing no carbon emissions; it is also on The Sierra Club’s hit list. Geothermal and biomass, those minor league renewables, were given short shrift, perhaps because no one thought they were sufficiently scalable to achieve the objective.

So it was a wind-versus-gas scrum played out as if the two contenders were equally matched as producers of power.  And here is where I must complain.

Bryce pointed out wind’s puny energy density and its noise harm to health and safety, its threat to birds and bats, and how natural gas’s newfound abundance continues to decrease its costs and price. Fair enough, as far as it goes.

His opponent carried the argument that wind and solar would one day be economically competitive with natural gas, which would make said renewables preferred since they produced no greenhouse gasses. Not only that, renewables were destined to win over depleting gas.

But such a discussion is absurd at a number of levels, mirroring Alice’s small talk with the March Hare. One of the troubling things about the way wind is vetted in public discourse is how “debate” is framed to assume that wind has modern power and economic value. It possesses neither.

Should we debate whether the 747 would do more than gliders in transporting large quantities of freight? Bryce could have reframed the discussion to ask whether wind is better than cumquats as a means of emissions reductions. But he didn’t. And the outcome of this debate, according to the vote, was a virtual draw.

GasWind Waste

Ironically, the American Natural Gas Association (ANGA) is perking up its louche ad slogan: “The success of wind and solar depends on natural gas.” Eureka! To ANGA, wind particularly is not an either to natural gas’s or. Rather, the renewables du jour will join forces with natural gas to reduce carbon emissions in a way that increases market share for all. With natural gas, wind would be an additive—not an alternative—energy source. Bryce might have made this clear.

What ANGA and industry trade groups like the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA, latest paper here) don’t say is that virtually all emissions reductions in a wind/gas tandem would come from natural gas—not wind.

So Bryce as spokesman for energy reality should state that the natural gas industry is basically enabling income shelters (via wind’s tax avoidance power) and getting PR points based upon  deceptive half-truths.

Although natural gas can indeed infill wind’s relentless volatility, the costs would be enormous, while the benefit would be inconsequential. And ratepayers and taxpayers ultimately pay the substantial capital expenses of supernumerary generation.

Beyond Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

The Oxford-style Economist debate, which by all accounts Bryce and Hayward won with ease, nonetheless woozled around in a landscape worthy of Carroll’s Jabberwocky, complete with methodological slips, definitional slides, sloganeering, and commentary that often devolved into meaningless language—utter nonsense.

It was as if Pixar had for the occasion magically incarnated the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, and Humpty Dumpty, who once said in Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Dumpty also said, “When I make a word do a lot of work … I always pay it extra.”

Those promoting “clean” were paying that word extra—and over the top, as Hayward frequently reminded by demanding a clear, consistent definition of clean technology.

Proponents frequently defined clean energy differently depending upon what they chose to mean. At times, they meant acts of commission in the form of “clean coal,” wind, solar, biomass (although ethanol was roundly condemned), and increased use of natural gas.

Indeed, natural gas in the discussion became reified, in the best Nancy Pelosi/T. Boone Pickens tradition, as a clean source of energy on a par with wind and solar. At one time, clean also referred to nuclear—but the topic quickly changed back to wind and natural gas. At other times, clean referred to acts of omission, such as reducing demand with more efficient appliances, smarter systems of transmission, and more discerning lifestyle choices.

Shifting definitions about what was “clean” made for a target that was hard to hit. Bryce mentioned Jevon’s Paradox. Bulls eye. So much for increased efficiency. Hayward demonstrated that the U.S. electricity sector has already cut SO2 and NOx emissions nearly 60% over the last 40 years, and reduced mercury emissions by about 40% over this time, despite tripling coal use from 1970 to 2005. Zap. All this without wind and solar.

Green jobs from clean industry? It would have been fruitful to have invoked Henry Hazlitt’s popularization of the Broken Window fallacy, which illustrates the likelihood of few net new jobs because of the opportunities lost for other, more productive investment. Also welcoming would have been remarks about how more jobs in the electricity sector must translate into increased costs, making electricity less affordable. Such a development would substantially subvert prospects for economic recovery.

In arguing against the proposition that clean energy could be a force for economic recovery, Bryce and Hayward did clean the opposition’s clock (they had, as everyone agreed, the numbers on their side). But they also let the opposition off the hook by not exposing the worms at the core of the proposition.

Yes, the numbers overwhelmingly suggest that coal and natural gas are going to be around for a long time, and that they will continue to be the primary fuels, along with oil, to energize the American economy. (1) They can be, as they have been, made cleaner by reducing their carbon emissions even more. But they won’t be clean. Outside Wonderland, cleaner is still not clean.

The proposition therefore had to fail. Even in Wonderland.

(1) It was fascinating to note Hayward’s brief comment about China’s involvement with wind, no doubt because it seeks to increase its renewables’ manufacturing base and then export the bulk of the machines back to a gullible West. As journalist Bill Tucker said recently in a panel discussion about the future of nuclear technology on the Charlie Rose show, China (and India), evidently dedicated to achieve high levels of functional modernity, will soon lead the world in nuclear production as it slowly transitions from heavy use of coal over the next half-century.




  1. Ed Reid  


    Very nicely done.

    Analysis of the ongoing political theater with regard to “clean energy” would certainly be easier and ultimately more productive were there a unique, clear, concise definition of “clean energy”. Perhaps that is why there is not such a definition.

    There is a fundamental question which I believe must be answered before we begin planning our path towards a “clean energy” future: “What is the specific, detailed, ultimate end point of the effort?” I have seen multiple “wishes” put forth by multiple sources, but there appears to be no single, specific, detailed ultimate “wish”. That fact suggests to me either that no such “wish” exists; or, that the “wish” exists, but our “betters” have decided not to share it with us, perhaps because they believe we could not handle the information or would reject it out of hand.

    Once the ultimate end point of the process was clear, it would be possible to develop a plan, or “roadmap” in current DOE parlance, to move toward the end point. Finally, once the plan had been developed, it would be possible to analyze whether executing the plan would actually achieve the end point; and, at what societal cost.

    The current enviro-political approach appears to be an effort to move us onto the “slippery slope”; and, to not allow us to discover how far “down” is until we get there. I am not a fan of big surprises, especially when they are likely to be unpleasant.

    NOTE: I love “roadmaps”. They are very colorful and contain huge amounts of information, which ultimately become useful only when one knows both where one is currently and where one is going. I accept that we know where we are currently. The intended destination is still undefined, as is the reason for the “trip”. I am not interested in decades of listening to: “Are we there yet?”

    I am reminded of the following from “Wonderland”: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” 🙂


  2. Jon Boone  

    Thanks, Ed. As you point out, it’s difficult to get a bead on the drive for clean or cleaner energy conversion technology. As Rockefeller University’s Jesse Ausubel continues to point out, modern civilization has substantially reduced per capital carbon use over the last 200 years. China, India, much of Indonesia will follow suit over the next half century, given the impetus behind increasing urbanization. So the push has been well underway, without government intervention (although with a lot of government subvention).

    There aren’t many options. Hydro is very effective in areas where large amounts of impounded water exist. Energy diffuse fuels really can’t provide for modern power requirements. So if we want modernity–and real power when we seek it–then nuclear technology, tied with some combination of the various fossil fueled technologies, must be hitched up. All the other gizmos, such as hydrogen fuel cells, a variety of battery storage systems, even geothermal, may play a minor role. But they won’t have the clout or scale necessary to move billions out of grinding poverty, on the one hand, or, on the other, to propel lesser numbers into more advanced uses of space and time.


  3. The Elephant's Child  

    Everything about a “clean, green economy” is predicated on the idea that CO2 is the cause of global warming; that CO2 is a pollutant; that CO2 must be eliminated or sequestered or somehow reduced. This is all nonsense. CO2 increases in the atmosphere follow increases in temperature and thus cannot be causative. How can what we breathe out, and carefully inject into our sodas be a pollutant? If CO2 is indeed a benign, colorless, odorless gas, merely a trace gas in the atmosphere—a basic building block of life, a natural fertilizer for plants, and according to CO2 Science produces 55 beneficial externalities— then why can’t we take off the green spectacles and see the silly little wizard for what he is?


  4. Energy roundup March 29, 2011 | JunkScience Sidebar  

    […] Energy Debates in Wonderland: Let’s Go for the Kill Against GasWind (Part I) by Jon Boone […]


  5. Richard Haydn  

    Ed, Great comment. I too would like to see exactly where the “other side” would put us on the map.


Leave a Reply