Brief Primer on Energy Literacy

by Steven F. Hayward

Okay, I hate to take issue with my own peeps at National Review and elsewhere, but the latest issue of the magazine perpetuates a basic confusion about energy. The second item of “The Week” in the April 4 issue, discussing the hysteria about Japan’s nuclear situation, has everything right until the last sentence, which reads: “The United States should continue to pursue nuclear power as an alternative to Qaddafi oil.” (Don’t feel bad, NR: I also heard my good pal Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal, who I am sure knows better, say much the same thing on Fox News early Saturday afternoon. This is a widespread cliche on both left and right.)

Wrong. We could double our nuclear plants overnight, and carpet the nation with windmills and solar panels if you prefer “green” power, and it would do virtually nothing to reduce our oil imports for a simple reason: we do not use oil to generate electricity. (Okay, if you want to be a stickler, a very tiny amount — less than 1 percent of our total — comes from oil, chiefly in peculiar circumstances. See this item explaining how we “got off oil” a long time ago as far as electricity generation is concerned; at one point in the 1970s, oil was our second-leading source of electricity generation. High oil prices made us shift rapidly to coal and led to increasing the output of our existing nuclear plants.)

We use oil overwhelmingly for our transportation needs, and as such, until someone develops really good electric-vehicle technology (don’t hold your breath), neither nuclear nor any other of the favorite gizmos will change our need for oil. The real alternative to Qaddafi’s oil (and Saudi oil etc.) is to drill more here at home. By all means we should build more nuclear power if the economics of it make sense, but not because it will help us “get off foreign oil.”

I would hope that conservatives would leave this kind of energy illiteracy to the windmill heads and sun-worshippers on the left.

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