Obama administration’s renewable delusions

When it comes to future electricity supply, the Obama administration is engaged in an implicit con game. Whether the president knows this, which I doubt, there must be smart people in his circle who understand that the promises he makes about renewable energy simply don’t stand up to the delusions they create. Those people are cynical manipulators and should be exposed.

In his “not-state-of-the-union address” recently, the president said, “We will double this nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years.” Sounds impressive, but is easy peasy. When you start from a small base, doubling is not a big deal. Today, wind and solar power produce a barely significant 1.1% of U.S. electricity, according to Energy Information Administration statistics.

So double that, and double it again, and again, and we are still talking about marginal, at best, contributions to the nation’s need for electricity. Today, as energy journalist Robert Bryce wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal column, the total amount of energy that comes from solar and wind in the U.S. in a year is about the equivalent to the output of one typical underground coal mine in Appalachia.

I’ve got no gripes with wind and solar. My house, which I built in 1989, is passive solar, with large expanses of south-facing glass along a deciduous tree line, a foundation and brick chimney that are excellent thermal sinks, and a backup wood-burning cook stove in the kitchen (as well as a heat pump and ductwork that rarely get used). My farm is very windy. Should I get to the point where I need it, my foundation has electrical heating coils that I can connect to a windmill. That’s the best way I could figure at the time to store wind energy.

But the thought that the U.S. can make some sort of massive shift to renewables in my lifetime (I’m 64) or well beyond that is simply wishful energy thinking. Coal is here to stay, as is natural gas. I also would hope that it would be possible to develop more hydro (the renewable that dare not speak its name).

Bryce, managing editor of the online magazine Energy Tribune, is one of the few energy journalists (including, of course, me) who have taken hard-nosed looks at the current conventional wisdom about electricity generation. He wrote an excellent book, “Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of ‘Energy Independence’” (Public Affairs, 2008). I don’t know how well it sold, but it was a clear case of truth-telling.

The truth is that energy independence is impossible; pursuing it is misleading and dangerous. Energy efficiency and conservation make sense. That strategy worked in the 1980s and will work again.

It’s a fools errand to spend vast sums to try to move away from energy imports at any cost. Autarky is folly.

The costs of most of the technologies that the autarkists have proposed probably exceed the benefits by an order of magnitude. Rather, pricing energy properly and letting those prices clear the markets is likely to be a far cheaper, better, and long-term approach to energy policy.

Selling my snake oil, of course, is difficult. It has far less sizzle than windmills and solar panels and “endless” energy. But I believe that consumers will understand the case when presented clearly, with the alternatives laid out in full. I suspect even President Obama would sign on once he understood the fundamentals.