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November Energy Futures

Will green turn red? Robert Bryce shows why it should.

By 4.26.10

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Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future
By Robert Bryce
(PublicAffairs, 416 pages, $27.95)

The dividing line in next November's elections will be between those who think the information needed to run the economy can be concentrated in Washington and those who think it is best run by millions of Americans tending to their own business and living their own lives.

Right now the Obama Administration's philosophy is that Washington is the center of all wisdom. Doctors, hospitals, medical patients, insurers, bankers, venture capitalists, electric utilities, energy investors -- all will perform better if they dance to the tune played in the nation's capital.

Robert Bryce stands apart from this regulatory beehive. A native of Texas and managing editor of the Energy Tribune, he takes his perspective from Austin rather than the Potomac. As a result, what he says does not jibe well with what you read in the newspapers or see on television. His facts and opinions are unorthodox, if not heretical.

You mean we're not on the road to Green Energy Utopia? Windmills are not our energy future? We're not about to run out of oil? Nuclear power is a manageable technology? These are the kind of statements that get you in arguments at cocktail parties. Still, Bryce seems to know what her is talking about.

Briefly, Bryce's position is this. At this moment in history, oil is an indispensable resource. Almost all our transportation runs on it. Still, we're not in such bad shape. Only 15 percent of our oil comes from the Persian Gulf and consumption levels have not changed much for the last 20 years. What has driven our imports to ever-increasing heights is a decline in domestic production, driven basically by the federal government's refusal to allow drilling where oil is most likely to be found.

Since the federal government got involved in running the energy economy in the 1970s, almost everything has turned out wrong. All the environmental folderol of the Carter Administration simply extended the life of coal. Coal burning was actually leveling off in the 1970s until Carter revived it, mainly by squelching nuclear power. Whereas coal provided 18 percent of our primary energy in 1973, it provides 25 percent today. Ten states still get more than 80 percent of their electricity from coal. These "coal states" form an almost impenetrable political barrier in Congress. Where are the "nuclear states"? There are none. So since politics rules, coal stays and nuclear stagnates.

Natural gas production has managed to break through the Washington straitjacket with the discovery of huge shale resources in the Eastern part of the country. The location is crucial because federal ownership of land is not a factor as it is in the West. Recent discoveries in Texas, Arkansas, and behind the Appalachian Mountains have expanded our gas supplies so we now have at least a century's worth of current consumption. But we shouldn't be converting everything to gas. Shale wells are showing a tendency play out early, so it will pay to be cautious.

What muddies the picture completely is the ludicrous notion of environmentalists and Democrats that agricultural crops and windmills are going to play a significant role in our energy future. All of this will be squandered investment. While ethanol may substitute for some gasoline -- and rather poorly at that -- nearly all the nation's freight runs on diesel. Jet fuel also takes a large portion. As a result, substituting ethanol for gasoline has not reduced imports, since refiners still need crude oil for these "middle distillates." Trying to extract diesel or jet fuel from "bio-diesel," on the other hand, would involve absurd amounts of organic material. We could convert the entire soybean crop (our second largest and biggest export) into jet fuel and still replace only 20 percent of demand.

Bryce is particularly withering in his analysis of Denmark's supposed success with windmills. The Danes, he notes, pay the highest electricity prices in Europe, 25 percent higher than second-place Holland and four times what we pay in the United States. This is the cost of putting up windmills. Even then the Danes must import all their coal to back up the windmills when the wind dies down. Although they claim to get 13.4 percent of their electricity from wind, they have not been able to retire a single coal plant. What keeps them afloat, Bryce notes, is their aggressive development of North Sea oil. In fact the Danes are the most oil-reliant people on earth, getting 51 percent of their primary energy from petroleum.

Power Hungry is filled with little tidbits like this that make endlessly fascinating reading. For instance:

• In 1971 we consumed twice as much energy from natural gas as from coal, but coal made a comeback under Carter and overtook natural gas in 1986. Since then they have run about even.

• The technology of oil and gas exploration has improved so much that whereas wildcatters hit paydirt only 10 percent of time 30 years ago, they now strike paydirt on 50 percent of their wells.

• The ash and scrubber sludge removed from coal plants is three times the volume of all the municipal garbage in the United States.

• A 1000-MW nuclear reactor produces only 20 cubic meters of waste annually, while in one year the U.S. coal industry produces 2,200 times as much solid waste as our nuclear fleet has produced in the last four decades. Yet nuclear waste considered the bigger problem.

• The concrete and steel requirements for windmills are 9.6 and 11.5 times as great as nuclear reactors and 32 and 139 times greater as natural gas plants. That is what makes wind so expensive.

• Gasoline has eighty times the energy density of the lithium-ion battery, the latest in battery technology. Even old newspapers have thirty times the energy density of batteries. This makes the widespread use of electric vehicles unlikely.

• In the Tesla roadster, the electric whose performance supposedly matches that of gas engines, one-third of the weight of the car is in the battery. The Tesla has a range of only 220 miles and requires four hours to recharge.

• One Kentucky coalmine produces more energy in one day than all the solar panels and windmills in the country.

• If the 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide from coal plants were captured and compressed to 1,000 pounds per square inch in order to be stored underground, its volume would match that of the world's annual oil production.

• Capturing carbon adds a "parasitic load" to a coal plant equal to 28 percent of its output.

• Although Texas now leads the country in wind production, engineers at ERCOT, the state's grid operator, estimate windmill electricity is available only 9 percent of the time.

• Constantly adjusting the power level of gas turbines to compensate for wind's vagaries ends up burning more gas than if there were no windmills in the first place.

• When measured on per-output basis, wind and solar energy get 15 times as much in federal subsidies as nuclear power.

• Almost all "green" technologies, from solar panels to windmills to electric cars, are dependent on two rare elements, neodymium and praseodymium, which have unusual magnetic properties needed to amplify electric currents. China has a de facto monopoly on these rare earths. The lithium for lithium-ion batteries also comes from only three countries -- Argentina, Chile, and China. By contrast, 90 different countries are producing oil and 21 produce more than a million barrels a day.

I could go on like this all day but suffice to say, Bryce has compiled a catalogue of hard facts and statistics that puncture just about every myth you will read in breathless accounts of the coming "Green Economy."

As Bryce sums it up: "One of the greatest challenges in the making of a smart, forward-looking, no-regrets energy policy in American is the paucity of knowledgeable people in positions of power on Capitol Hill and in Washington who truly understand energy." Or to put it more simply, nuclear has succeeded in France because "France is run by engineers. The United States is run by lawyers."

After November, we may hope to have fewer lawyers and more engineers running our energy economy.

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William Tucker is news editor for