The Greeening of Thomas Friedman

He's trying hard to save the Earth, but he doesn't much know what he's talking about.

By 10.6.08

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America
By Thomas L. Friedman
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 438 pages, $27.95)

Poor Thomas Friedman, he tries so hard. He wants to explain everything -- energy, poverty, world climate catastrophes -- and offer a comprehensive solution as well. The only problem he doesn't much know what he is talking about.

Hot, Flat and Crowded is the latest of Friedman's reports from his globetrotting for the New York Times. The "hot," of course, means global warming. Friedman is a devotee and does present some pretty convincing research that we are setting off changes in the earth's climate that may be hard to undo. The "flat" is a reference to Friedman's previous book, The World Is Flat, in which he tried to convince liberals that globalization isn't such a bad thing after all. "Crowded" is warmed-over Paul Ehrlich in which Friedman frets about world overpopulation. (In fact, the numbers are generally expected to level off at around 8-10 billion in 2050. Europe and Japan are already depopulating.)

These concerns don't really hang together but no matter, Friedman has the solution to them all -- America must "go green." We should develop wind, solar and other "renewable" technologies, promote conservation and a build a "smart grid." "[T]he best way to re-energize America, rebuild its self-confidence and moral authority, and propel it forward as a society is by focusing on the green agenda....Green is the new red, white and blue!"

Now don't get upset, Friedman is not one of those coercive utopians such as Al Gore who want people to take to the streets shutting down coal plants. He actually likes "markets" -- or thinks he does, at least. Having made numerous processions through Silicon Valley, Friedman acknowledges that free enterprise has its virtues.

Code Green...is a "quintessential American opportunity."...It requires enormous amounts of experimentation -- the kind you find in our great research universities and national laboratories; it requires lots of start-up companies that are not afraid to try, risk fail, and try again;... it requires thousand of people working in their garages, trying thousands of things.

All this is in quest of the Holy Grail -- "Clean Electrons" -- and like some Huey Long of the Age of Facebook, Friedman is ready to tie his solution to everything:
Give me abundant, clean, reliable, and cheap electrons and I will give you a world that can continue to grow without triggering unmanageable climate change....Give me abundant, clean, reliable, and cheap electrons, and I will put every petrodictator out of business. Give me abundant, clean, reliable and cheap electrons, and I will end deforestation from communities desperate for fuel and I will eliminate any reason to drill in Mother Nature's environmental cathedrals.

Unfortunately, he confesses, "no one has yet come up with a source of electrons that meets all four criteria: abundant, clean, reliable, and cheap." But that doesn't mean it can't be done!
[I]t is precisely [this] kind of innovation we need to be, and can be, stimulating right now to overcome the technological barriers that prevent existing wind and solar systems from being cheap, abundant, and reliable -- today. The way to stimulate this kind of innovation...is by generous tax incentives, regulatory incentives, renewable energy mandates, and other market-shaping mechanisms that create durable demand for these existing clean power technologies.....That kind of [progress] will come about only if government uses its power to set prices, regulations, and standards to reshape the energy market and force utilities and other big players to either innovate or die. [Emphasis added.]

So there you have it. Friedman really doesn't like markets at all. What he likes is government manipulation of markets forcing people to adopt technology. Only a collection of carrots and sticks can goad this dumb donkey-cart of an energy economy onto the proper pathway.

In case you haven't noticed, it's already happening. You would be amazed at the number of windmill and solar projects popping up all over the country in response to the maze of federal and state mandates and incentives, to push us in that direction. None of these projects make sense economically and none will ever produce much useful energy, but what else are government mandates for?

WHAT FRIEDMAN DOESN'T understand is that markets are a network of information. They inform us, in rapid and uncompromising fashion, about the availability of resources and the rewards for turning them to specific uses. Windmills and solar collectors remain a very bad investment for one reason -- they produce very little useful electricity. As an example it is only necessary to note Friedman's sorrowful history of First Solar ("Read it and weep!"), an Ohio company that invented thin photovoltaic films to capture solar energy on buildings. Although the company was funded at one point by John Walton, it eventually relocated to Germany in order to take advantage of a German law that forces utilities to buy solar electricity from any provider at a government-fixed price. "That is a no-brainer," exuded Mike Ahearn, First Solar's CEO.

But a no-brainer for whom? When we finally get down to details, it turns out that First Solar's annual production target is 25 megawatts worth of electricity. The average coal or nuclear plant now produces 1,000 MW and the newer ones get 1500 MW. It would take more than a hundred square miles of First Solar cells to match the output of the average power plant. The market is telling us that solar and wind are hideously expensive and then don't produce much electricity anyway. Every time the wind dies down or the sun goes behind a cloud the power goes out.

Of course that doesn't mean that Americans won't indulge in such folly. Late last month, Republican Governor Charlie Crist of Florida announced the cancellation of a 700-MW "clean coal" plant in favor of 10 MW of thermal solar power. The installation is supposed to expand to 300 MW at some point, although "a site has not yet been chosen."

The uniform disadvantage of all forms of solar energy is that they must consume vast, almost unthinkable, amounts of land. Biofuels suddenly tanked last winter when it was recognized that they are consuming one-third of America's corn crop, leveling whole tropical forests, and causing a world food shortage -- all to replace 3 percent of our oil supply. In fact, the only technology that can match fossil fuels while creating far less environmental disruption is nuclear power.

SO DOES NUCLEAR enter Friedman's field of vision? Tolerant fellow that he is, Friedman is not ready to condemn nuclear to outer darkness. He even mentions it once or twice as a "clean alternative," although with no visible enthusiasm.

To build a new nuclear plant costs a minimum of $7 billion today, and would take probably eight years from conception to completion. Most CEOs have about eight years in office, and there are not a lot of utility CEOs who would bet $7 million -- which might be more than half the company's market cap -- on one nuclear project.

Nevertheless, there are now more than a dozen license applications for new reactors before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Whether or not these proposals go anywhere will depend entirely on whether the general public achieves a better understanding of the technology. Concerned as he is with petrodictators, global warming, and world energy shortages, you'd think Friedman would spend more of his own time learning how "abundant, clean, reliable and cheap" nuclear technology can be.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.