After 21 months of wrestling with climate legislation, it appears that the Senate may end up considering the worst-of-all-possible-worlds scenario: a national mandate requiring utilities to produce huge gobs of “renewable energy.”
According to Politico, Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D., N.Mex.), Sam Brownback (R., Kan.), Susan Collins (R., Me), Byron Dorgan (D., N.Dak.) and Tom Udall (D., N.Mex.) are scheduled to unveil the plan this afternoon. The standard will be cribbed from an energy bill voted out of Senator Bingaman’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year and therefore eligible to make it to the Senate floor. It will probably mandate that the country get 15 percent of its electricity by 2021 from “renewable energy.”
But of course there is no such thing as “renewable energy.” The Second Law of Thermodynamics — perhaps the most solid pillar of modern physics — says that energy can’t be recycled. What renewable enthusiasts really mean is that wind, sunshine, geothermal and biomass — the sanctified quadrivium — are inexhaustible, not recyclable.
Unfortunately, they aren’t inexhaustible, either.
Once we start to tap wind and solar energy, we’ll find they are limited not by the amount of sunshine and wind that bathe the planet, but by the amount of land required to gather them. Both are extremely dilute when compared to other energy sources. It takes about 20 square miles of precision-engineered solar panels to collect the same 1,000 megawatts you can get on one square mile of a coal or nuclear plant. Wind is even more dilute, requiring 125 square miles for the same 1,000 MW — or 450 square miles if you count the time the wind isn’t blowing.
Nevertheless, Congress may insist that we use these sources.
It’s hard to imagine anything that could sink the American economy faster. Look at what has happened in California. The Golden State has been pursuing the will-o-the-wisp of renewable energy since 1980s and what has been the result? The most expensive electricity west of Washington, D.C., 12.3 percent unemployment, an economy in shambles, the California Electrical Shortage of 2000 (when supplies failed to keep up with demand), and an out-migration of population for the first time in the state’s history.
Instead of a world run on renewables, California has had a world run on natural gas. Expensive methane now provides 40 percent of the state’s electricity, as opposed to 20 percent for the rest of the country. Another 40 percent comes from across state lines (some even from Mexico), at still higher prices. Coal and nuclear plants in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona run night and day so Californians can maintain the illusion that they’re living on wind and sunshine. (See here) Undaunted, the state has now upped the ante to 20 percent renewables by next year (a goal it can’t possibly meet) and 30 percent by 2020. The press is still singing hosannas.
In the real world, the renewables effort has ground to a halt under technological overreach, bureaucratic delay, and environmental opposition. So little progress has been made that the California Public Utilities Commission now counts contracts signed for desert-solar projects that may not be built for another 20 years — if ever — as part of its “portfolio.” Most new wind farms are now being built in Oregon. Proposition 23 may end this madness in November. It would postpone any further carbon-reduction efforts until state unemployment returns to 5.5 percent for a full year — something that may not happen for decades. At present, the ballot initiative is in a dead heat.
A similar fate awaits the entire country if Congress suddenly turns dewy-eyed and decides that a national renewable standard would be a beautiful, painless way of getting on the right side of climate legislation and ushering in the new solar economy.
Hang on to your hat. It’s going to be an exciting ride.
William Tucker is editor-at-large for Nuclear Townhall, in which a longer version of this story appears today.