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May 15, 2012

Energy Density in the Driver's Seat

May 15, 2012
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What is driving U.S. energy policy? One might say Obama, Jackson, Salazar, or even Holdren—or any politician whose visible hand redirects the market’s invisible hand.

But on closer inspection, these folk are really just riding the brakes. The accelerator is all about highly concentrated, reliable, dense energy—oil, natural gas, and coal mainly—versus the dilute, unreliable, politically correct energies of wind, solar, and biofuels. This is why fossil fuels command more than 80 percent of the global world energy market today, a market share that is forecast to not significantly decline in the next decades.

Consumers are driving the train. They naturally choose energies that offer the best value. They demand more energy, not less. And they want lower, not higher, prices. As voters, they collectively represent what is being called Obama’s energy problem, dissatisfaction with an Administration that woke up too late to the issue of gasoline (and diesel) affordability.

All the political shouting gets back to good-versus-bad-energy. Energy author Richard Fulmer explains:

When it comes to power, density is the key. Energy density. The reason that solar power, wind power, and ethanol are so expensive is that they are derived from very diffuse energy sources. It takes a lot of energy collectors such as solar cells, wind turbines, or corn stalks covering many square miles of land to produce the same amount of power that traditional coal, natural gas, or nuclear plants can on just a few acres.

Energy scholars from William Stanley Jevons to Vaclav Smil to Robert Bryce have emphasized the primacy of energy density. In the nineteenth century, Jevons explained how England’s land mass was not great enough to grow the plants and house the windmills needed to substitute for coal.

Today, Bryce fills his lectures with examples of relative densities, such as this one:

A well producing 60 Mcf a day–by definition a stripper well–has a power density of about 28 watts a square meter, 23 times the power density of a wind turbine. If you start with a source that has low power density, you have to counteract the lower power density with other inputs such as steel, transmission lines, concrete, land and manpower.

A variety of other examples comparing oil, gas, and coal to wind, solar, and biomass (baby coal) reach a similar conclusion.

Environmental Issue, Too

Dilute energy has environmental problems, not just economic ones. Indeed, the two go hand-in-hand. In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times (April 6), Julie Cart investigated the growing schism between Big Environmentalism and grassroots environmentalism. She wrote:

Big environmental organizations say they have agonized over how to approach the issue. They acknowledge that development can have irreversible effects on ecosystems. But they are reluctant to stand in the way of renewable energy projects they regard as a vital response to climate change, which they consider the nation’s most serious environmental challenge.

A number of testimonials give a face to the growing opposition of true-blue environmentalists to windpower. In My One-Time, Tacit Support of Industrial Wind: A Confessional, Walter Cudnohufsky wrote:

Just over two years ago, I held the same opinion of wind that some of my friends do now. However, investigation of industrial wind has led me to this well-considered conclusion: industrial wind is a total sham! Not only is it horrendously impactful, but it also does not work in any meaningful manner. But efficacy is a subject for another discussion.

In this piece titled Why I Turned against Windpower, Michael Morgan stated:

Sadly, once the layers of woulds, coulds and shoulds were peeled back, I found industrial wind failed to keep its environmental promises….[Thus,] I cannot abide the suggestion that we must sacrifice our environment in order to save it. This is an absurd argument enabling this energy imposter’s invasion of delicate habitat with little return. … Environmentalists must consider the possibility that industrial wind, by its failure to perform to stated goals, does not then qualify for this sacred consideration.

In his resignation letter to the Sierra Club (Canada), Jen Gilbert wrote:

I once believed in the Sierra Club, until the CLUB (an insular bunch of activists who aren’t looking at the entire picture but only at their own agendas) started fully supporting the Green Energy Act (Canada) …. [which] is placing [wind] turbines … in pristine areas, in and around fresh lakes, on mountains, on ridges, on the Niagara Escarpment, near communities…. Everything the environmentalists (including myself for 20 years) have worked so hard to protect, is now being destroyed or in jeopardy.

The Sierra Club is, indeed, conflicted. It was their Los Angeles representative who coined the term that bedevils the wind industry today, Cuisinarts of the Air.

A New Energy Environmentalism

The growing realization of the economic/environmental problems of politically correct energies is causing a sea change in political language. The very terms “clean” and “green” are losing favor with the public. Just as Obama has cooled it with the rhetoric of climate change/global warming, he may soon find himself constrained in using these idealistic terms to describe his energy favorites.

The implications of energy density for reassessing “green energy” are profound. Much of modern environmentalism must be turned on its head. Peter Huber in his book Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists has offered a new paradigm of thought:

The greenest fuels are the ones that contain the most energy per pound of material than 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.[1]

Can well-intentioned “green” energy supporters get back to the drawing board? A number of grassroot environmentalists already have, turning against industrial wind turbines that have invaded their space (and wallets). Solar farms are part of this growing civil war, too.

The on-the-ground environmentalists will increasingly be heard—along with those of consumer/voters—in the elections to come.

[1] Peter Huber, Hard Green (New York: Basic Books, 1999), pp. 105, 108.

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