The first of two rebuttal phases of the ECONOMIST’s online debate on renewable energy is up. My opening statement focused on energy density by resurrecting the timeless wisdom of William Stanley Jevons. My rebuttal below (against Matthias Fripp of Oxford University) expands the energy density argument to stress that environmentalists must reconsider (not assume) climate alarmism to stop the assault of government-enabled renewables on the environment.
With growing grassroot opposition against industrial wind parks, the supply-side strategy of forced energy transformation is in real trouble. Wind power is not much of a supply source, which raises the question about why anti-fossil-fuel types have not embraced nuclear power.
To play devil’s advocate, is the real strategy of anti-industrialists to purposefully restrict supply to force conservation via high prices? Is the real enemy cheap energy itself? After all, it was Paul Ehrlich who infamously said, “Giving society cheap energy at this point would be equivalent to giving an idiot child a machine gun.” (1)
(1) Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power,” Federal Academy of Science Public Issue Report, May-June 1975, p. 5.
Part II’s rebuttal by yours truly follows. Part III of our debate will follow this weekend.
“In many countries and in the EU itself climate and energy policies and programmes are already being adjusted or abandoned. This includes … reduced plans and incentives for massive offshore wind farm development, delays in investments in large-scale electricity grids and interconnections, including so-called smart grid projects, and reduced subsidies and lower feed-in tariffs for solar and wind power.”
– Andrew MacKillop, “Europe’s Green Energy Chaos,” European Energy Review, October 31, 2011.
Europe is reaching the economic and political limits of subsidizing renewable energy. Government-engineered price inflation is straining the commoners, and state budgets are in deficit. The environment is also being compromised by the infrastructure required for dilute, intermittent energy. The only clear winners are the crony capitalists, the rent-seekers, who run their business on special government favor. Remember Enron, which in the 1990s set out to become the world’s leading renewable energy company?
Despite the failed experiment in forced energy transformation, the affirmative engages in a post-modernistic narrative about how a massive scale-up of wind and solar power will magically bring affordability and reliability. But you can’t make up by volume what is lost per unit. Other alternatives, such as gas/nuclear, are worth evaluating in place of wind/solar from even a climate-alarmist perspective.
The physics of energy is controlling. The stock of the sun’s energy over many millions of years (carbon-based energy) is overwhelmingly superior to the dilute energy flows directly or indirectly generated from the sun. What W. S. Jevons surmised in the nineteenth century, the subject of my original statement, remains relevant.
A New Environmental Standard?
There is a joke making the rounds. “When is an environmentalist not an environmentalist?’ The answer: “When it comes to renewable energy.”
Why? Because substituting wind and solar for fossil fuels to any significant degree coats vast surface areas with machinery and infrastructure. The growing grassroots backlash in the United States and in the Britain against industrial wind parks (and controversy over solar parks in the western United States) is indicative that renewable energy is reaching its environmental limits, not only its fiscal limits.
In Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists (Basic Books, 1999), Peter Huber calls for a new environmental energy standard:
The greenest fuels are the ones that contain the most energy per pound of material that must be mined, trucked, pumped, piped, and burnt. [In contrast], extracting comparable amounts of energy from the surface would entail truly monstrous environmental disruption…. The greenest possible strategy is to mine and to bury, to fly and to tunnel, to search high and low, where the life mostly isn’t, and so to leave the edge, the space in the middle, living and green.” (pp. 105, 108)
This gets back to relative energy density. The economic advantage of oil, gas, and coal translates into a less-is-more advantage in important environmental dimensions.
Climate Alarmism Reconsidered
“Environmentalists against climate alarmism” should be a new movement given the practical problems of renewables. The intellectual arguments against climate pessimism are there.
A growing amount of observational evidence—as opposed to (problematic) model-based determination—is pointing to low-end values for the climate sensitivity to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The rate of rise in the global average temperature (both at the surface and in the lower atmosphere) in recent decades—a time during which the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases has grown by two-thirds—has consistently fallen beneath climate model projections (Santer et al., 2011). In fact, for nearly the past decade and a half, global temperatures have not risen at all (Brohan et al., 2006, and updates; Mears and Wentz, 2009, and updates).
While, much research is currently being undertaken to better understand the reasons behind this dearth of recent warming, it would seem that a higher-than-expected climate sensitivity is not among them. A low climate sensitivity can also been inferred from recent work on cloud behavior (e.g., Spencer and Braswell, 2010; Lindzen and Choi, 2011), paleoclimate studies (e.g., Chylek and Lohmann, 2008), and ocean circulation (e.g., Swanson and Tsonis, 2009), while other research erodes the possibility of a higher- than-expected climate sensitivity (e.g., Annan and Hargreaves, 2009; Frank et al., 2010; Lemoine, 2010).
While the final answer remains elusive, recent observations of the earth’s climate system suggest that we are on a pathway towards less, rather, than more, global warming—and a fading of the case for climate alarmism.
The above balance of evidence is good news for economics and the environment given the physical nature of energy in light of societal needs for material sustenance and prosperity.