Zito, Gretzky, and Renewables

By Kennedy Maize

The Wall Street Journal’s estimable environmental and energy blogger Keith Johnson reports that the Sun Day Campaign, a solar advocacy group, claims that renewable energy has topped nuclear energy in the total U.S. energy mix.

Misleading math prestidigitation, as Johnson points out.

One way to describe this is “hoax.” Another phrase is “intellectually dishonest.” I prefer the second, as I don’t believe these folks are perpetrating what they believe is false information. I believe they are pushing information that they haven’t examined, and don’t want to examine, or perhaps are incapable of examining, for its veracity.

The sun worshipers point to U.S. Energy Information Administration data that purports to show that renewables in April 2009 “exceeded the amount contributed by nuclear power” to total U.S. energy production. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Time out.

As Johnson notices, that figure includes both electric generation and fuels used for transportation – cars, and trucks and airplanes, etc., which are scored against electric-generating nukes. We’re talking apples and hand grenades here.

Of course, nukes don’t generate transportation fuels, as the sun devotees ought to know.  Some renewables – notably ethanol, now required to be blended at 10% will all U.S. gasolines supples – are part of transportation fuels, whether that make anything other than political sense or not. On the renewables side, the scoring also includes hydroelectric generation, which is verboten among most clean greens, but not by the more level-headed analysts at EIA.

Johnson observed, on the money, that  “adding the total energy contribution of things like hydropower, wind power, and biofuels and comparing it to nuclear power is a little like celebrating the fact that Barry Zito has won more Cy Young awards than Wayne Gretzky.” For the sports-impaired among our readers, Barry Zito is a terrific baseball pitcher, and the Cy Young Award is the top award for pitchers. Wayne Gretzky is the greatest hockey player of all time. He’s never thrown a pitch in a major league baseball game.

The Sun Day campaign has been around since 1992, based in Takoma Park, Md. (which some refer to as the People’s Republic of Takoma Park, as it once declared itself a “nuclear free-zone” and also once launched a plan to capture rogue rats in “have-a-heart” traps and exile them to the Maryland suburbs). The Sun Day organization’s stated goals begin with: “phase out the use of nuclear power;” suggesting that it is more interested in killing nukes than promoting solar. So be it.

The group’s further policy advocacies: “eliminate the need for oil, natural gas, and other energy imports, stabilize climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60-80%; and enhance national security, provide good-quality jobs, and improve environmental and public health” These do not mention solar power, so it appears reasonable to question what the sun has to do with the “Sun Day” organization. Strangely, given its other statements, the group does not mention coal. Do they assume that coal is simply off the table to start with?

Nevermind. Not politically correct.

It’s indisputable that nuclear power plants, as the WSJ Johnson blog observes, generate about 20% of U.S. electricity efficiently and with a safety record at least as good as coal and natural gas, which also have very low injury and fatality rates. Renewable energy resources also have very low worker safety problems. The electric generating industry has long known about its risks to workers, and has done a great job of dealing with worker safety.

As for the contribution of renewables to the energy mix, there is a lot of a fudging and finagling of data. Many greens don’t want to count big hydro as renewable energy. But, according to EIA figures, of the 10% that renewable electricity that makes up in the U.S. renewable energy electricity contribution, most of that (70%) is big hydro. So only a tiny increment consists of wind and solar and geothermal and biomass (this is something those of us who have followed the issue for many years have known, but it doesn’t get much attention).

The WSJ’s Johnson says, quite correctly, “For all the buzz” about renewable electricity generation, “it’s still a minnow – accounting for 0.015% of American electricity generation so far this year.” That means that small increments of increase look like major percentage jumps. The increases are often what gets reported, and it’s difficult for uninformed readers, listeners, or viewers, to understand. A major percentage jump of a very minor share of the market doesn’t represent very much at the end of the energy day.

According to many analysts, scoping out the current economy, the market share for renewables in the rest of the year could decline, not grow. Financing costs of new renewables and transmission infrastructure – mostly for wind – are daunting and the price of natural gas is declining. That’s why Boone Pickens has scrapped his highly-touted wind and natural gas plan, and is looking for a fire sale for the $2 billion in wind turbines he has on order.

On the other hand, nuclear generation isn’t likely to grow either. The financial costs of new nuclear power are overwhelming (see my colleague Bob Peltier’s blog at MasterRecources), and the government doesn’t look like it will step in to guarantee financing. The loan guarantees in the 2005 Energy Policy Act have proven chimerical.

So the only growth in generating capacity is likely to be in backup power, and that means gas peaking generation. Welcome to the late 20th century. In the words of the great American philosopher Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”