The Energy Spectator

Keep the Lights On

The oil spill in the Gulf is no reason to shut down the American economy or remain indifferent to its need for reliable, low cost energy.

By 5.5.10

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The oil spill off the coast of Louisiana is an environmental tragedy that endangers the prosperity of coastal businesses that thrive on the natural environment, such as fishing and tourism. It is not a reason to permanently deny America the jobs and prosperity that come from a vibrant energy industry producing much needed, reliable, low cost energy from all sources. That would be a far bigger tragedy, even graver than the oil spill.

A robust, booming, American energy industry would itself contribute directly to a booming American economy. If America was the world's number one oil producer, just think what that would mean in terms of higher GDP, national income, and high paying jobs. Now suppose America was the world's number one natural gas producer as well, and the number one coal producer, and the number one producer of nuclear power. This all can and should be true.

Moreover, think what that would mean for the prosperity of the economy as a whole. Reliable supplies of low cost energy promote booming economic growth, particularly in the manufacturing sector that so many people profess to be concerned about. Reliable, low cost energy means oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear power.

I am not saying we should not produce renewable, alternative energy as well. By all means, go ahead, knock yourself out. Neither government nor anyone else should stand in your way. If we saw half as much doing in regard to such alternative energy as we see talking about it, we would surely have produced more real progress by now. And I am not saying we are not doing anything.

But as a replacement for the traditional energy sources, long time energy authority Robert Bryce explains why renewable, alternative energy is a delusion in his new book, Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future. That conclusion is a matter of math and science, not ideology. Let me second energy expert William Tucker, who in his review of Bryce's book on this site last week, noted it makes for "endlessly fascinating reading."

Energy and Economic Growth

Bryce writes, "[T]he simple, unavoidable truth is that using oil makes us rich. In fact, if oil didn't exist, we'd have to invent it…as oil consumption increases, so does prosperity. And the correlation is so clear as to be undeniable."

The OECD countries, basically the prosperous, developed countries of the West, generally produce about $25,000 to $30,000 GDP per capita, and use 14 to 16 barrels of oil per person a year. In 2008, U.S. per capita GDP was $48,100, while oil use was 23 barrels per capita. By contrast, the non-OECD countries produce $7,000 to $10,000 GDP per capita, and consume 3 to 5 barrels per person. The countries of Africa and Asia produce $2,000 to $4,000 in per capita GDP, and use 1 to 2 barrels per person.

That is no accident. As Bryce writes, "[T]hanks to its high energy density, oil is a nearly perfect fuel for use in all types of vehicles, from boats and planes to cars and motorcycles. Whether measured by weight or by volume, refined oil products provide more energy than practically any other commonly available substance, and they provide it in a form that's easy to handle, relatively cheap, and relatively clean." Moreover, oil is the only fuel that can power the modern engines of economic prosperity, the diesel engine and the jet turbine.

Besides oil, prosperity is fueled in the world today by electricity. And right now, that means coal, though the future may belong to natural gas and nuclear power. While only Canada among major countries has higher per capita electricity consumption than America, the five countries with the lowest electricity consumption are Gaza, Chad, Burundi, Central African Republic, and Rwanda.

You can see this in your own home. The American kitchen of three decades ago featured a refrigerator, stove and toaster. But today, Bryce writes, that same kitchen will include as well, "a microwave oven, bread maker, coffeemaker, juicer, convection oven, dishwasher and food processor. And a few steps away, where there once was only a small black-and-white television, there is now a giant-screen TV, a DVD player, and digital video recorder, as well as a laptop computer and ink-jet printer. In 1980, the average U.S. household had just three consumer electronic products. Today, it has about twenty-five."

Coal today produces 41% of the world's electricity supply, followed by natural gas at 20%, hydropower (geologically limited) at 16%, and nuclear at 15%. Oil at 6% (old-fashioned for electricity production) is still three times "other" at 2%. Coal's proportion has been increasing since 1973, and will continue to increase at least through 2030.

Every grownup outside of Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club understands what this means. Bryce writes, "The world's developing countries are using their coal for electricity generation, and that electricity is propelling economic growth around the world, particularly in rapidly developing countries such as China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Between 1990 and 2008, electricity generation in those three countries jumped by more than 300 percent." As a result, just the increase in world coal use from 2007 to 2008 produced 25 times as much energy as all the wind turbines and solar panels in America in 2008.

Indeed, Bryce shows that just one modern coal mine in Kentucky, the 35th largest in America, produces nearly as much energy as all wind and solar in the U.S. And the natural gas production from just one state, Oklahoma, produces well over nine times as much energy as all U.S. wind and solar.

Bryce adds, "[I]f we want to help developing countries bring more people out of poverty, we need to help them increase the amount of electricity they generate and distribute." And that means still more coal, as well as natural gas and nuclear power.

Wind and Solar: The Power of the Past

Fancy political propaganda has us thinking that renewable, alternative fuels are the modern energy sources of the future. But just the opposite is true. Bryce writes:

For millennia, humans relied almost completely on renewable energy. Solar energy provided the forage needed for animals, which could then be used to provide food, transportation, and mechanical power. Traveling…was made possible by the wind, human muscle, or animal muscle. And though today's wind turbines are viewed as the latest in technological achievement, land-based systems that captured the power of the wind have been recorded through much of human history.

Indeed, the classic vision of the settlements of the Old West in America involves a decaying, wooden, windmill. Bryce continues, "The use of hydropower likewise goes way back. The ancient Greeks used waterwheels; so did the Romans, who recorded the use of waterwheels in the first century B.C. The use of mechanical power from water continued to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution."

Moreover, "For 265 years after the Pilgrims founded the Plymouth Colony, and for 109 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, wood was the dominant source of energy in America." Coal surpassed wood in 1885. Oil surpassed coal in 1950. Natural gas would be number 2 today if not for political intervention.

Bryce shows the meager existence of those still stuck in the old ways: "The world's most impoverished people have no choice but to cook their food and heat their homes with fuels that have low energy density, such as straw, dung, twigs, wood and leaves. They are denuding the landscape of biomass in their struggle to survive. But in doing so, they are also contributing to deforestation and to the production of airborne soot." Using these outdated energy sources, "often results in the living areas being filled with a variety of noxious pollutants, including soot particles, carbon monoxide, benzene, formaldehyde, and even dioxin."

Bryce concludes, "More oil consumption among the world's energy poor would help save the lives of hundreds of thousands of impoverished people every year who die premature deaths because of indoor air pollution caused by burning biomass." Indeed, these are the reasons why "oil is greener than any of the alternative energy forms that might replace it. No matter whether the replacement is ethanol from corn, biomass -- such as wood, straw, or dung -- or biofuels…the conclusion is apparent. Oil (and if you can get it, natural gas) simply has no peers. Oil provides consumers with both high energy density and high power density…and the number of uses for it are essentially limitless." 

Science and Math

The world changed from wind, solar, and biomass to oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear for good reasons of physics and math. First and foremost are the concepts of energy density and power density. The hydrocarbons and nuclear pack a massively more concentrated punch. The power of solar and wind are very broadly diffused throughout the atmosphere, so more than herculean efforts are needed to collect and concentrate it in usable forms. Hence we see solar panels and several hundred foot wind turbines spread out over square miles, and it still doesn't add up to much.

The South Texas Project nuclear plant produces 300 horsepower per acre of land used, about the same as natural gas, with oil close behind. Wind power produces 6.4 horsepower per acre, solar photovoltaic 36 hp per acre, biomass 2.1. Corn ethanol requires about 1,150 times as much land as nuclear to produce the same horsepower.

The Milford Wind Corridor is a 300-megawatt Utah wind project with 139 wind turbines covering 40 square miles. Manufacturing the concrete to build them used 14.3 million gallons of water in producing 44,344 cubic meters of concrete. That means "each megawatt of wind power capacity requires about 870 cubic meters of concrete and 460 tons of steel." That's 32 times as much concrete and 139 times as much steel as for a megawatt produced by natural gas.

The diffusion problem is greatly compounded by the high variability of wind and solar conditions for power production. Bryce writes, "We want the ability to switch things on and off whenever we choose. That desire largely excludes wind and solar from being major players in our energy mix, because we can't control the wind and the sun. Weather changes quickly. A passing thunderstorm or high pressure system can take wind and solar power systems from full output to zero output in a matter of minutes. The result: we cannot reliably get or deliver the power from those sources at the times when it is needed."

Then there is the problem of storing wind and solar power: "Renewable energy has little value unless it becomes renewable power, meaning power that can be dispatched at specific times of our choosing….And despite decades of effort, we still have not found an economical way to store large quantities of the energy we get from the wind and the sun so that we can convert that energy into power when we want it."

As a result, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas concluded that just "8.7% of the installed wind capability can be counted on as dependable capacity during the peak demand period" and "conventional generation must be available to provide the remaining capacity needed to meet forecast load and reserve requirements." With conventional energy sources needed to back them up completely on short notice, wind and solar are really just vanity supply to make the wasteful rich feel good.

These are the reasons why the world changed, and its not going back. As Bryce explains, before the Industrial Revolution, "while solar, wind, and water power all provided critical quantities of useful energy, they were no match for coal, oil and natural gas. Hydrocarbons provided huge increases in power availability, allowing humans to go from diffused and geographically dispersed power sources to ones that were concentrated and free of specific geographic requirements. Hydrocarbons were cheap, could be transported, and most important, had greater energy density and power density. That increasing availability of power has allowed us to do ever-greater amounts of work in less time." Hence the industrial revolution and modern prosperity, now spreading worldwide.

We Can Do Better

These big coastal oil spills off America's coasts have been limited to one every 20 years. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that from 1985 to 2001, our offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico produced 7 billion barrels of oil, with an oil spill rate of .0001%. A 2002 National Academy of Sciences report found that only 1% of offshore oil discharges in North America are due to petroleum extraction, with 62% due to natural seepage. The current Gulf spill is equal to about 5% of such total annual seepage.

Cuba announced last year an agreement to allow Russia to explore for oil and gas off its coast, as close as 45 miles from American shores. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the field to be drilled includes 5 billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The U.S. Export-Import Bank is lending $2 billion to Brazil for oil drilling off its coast. President Obama has touted Denmark as a model for America because of its wind power production. But Denmark is one of the world's biggest offshore oil producers, due to drilling in the stormy North Sea.

By all means, we should thoroughly investigate the murky cause of the explosion that resulted in the Gulf oil spill, and then apply our most advanced, modern technical skills to do our best to prevent such a spill from happening again. But we should not let environmental extremists continue to hamper American energy production and prosperity. Instead, we must maximize American energy production from all sources, and America's world leading economic prosperity.

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About the Author
Peter Ferrara is Director of Entitlement and Budget Policy at the Heartland Institute, General Counsel of the American Civil Rights Union, Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and Senior Policy Advisor on Entitlements and Budget Policy at the National Tax Limitation Foundation. He served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush.