“We know the right thing to do,” said President Barack Obama at his press conference on energy this afternoon. “We’ve known the right choice for a generation. The time has come to make that choice and act on what we know. . . . We have achieved more in two months for a clean energy economy than we have done in perhaps 30 years.”
Thirty years, that would be . . . hmmm . . . 1979, right? Wasn’t that the year — yes, it was. That was the date when Jimmy Carter finally got his Grand Energy Plan through Congress, setting us the road to corn ethanol, the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, and a host of other harebrained schemes.
Carter Redux, that’s the only way to put it. After 30 years out of power, the purveyors of the Solar and Renewable Utopia are back. We’re going to develop windmills, make solar panels affordable, and redesign buildings so they use only half as much energy — in theory, at least. The subtext, of course, is this — we won’t have to deal with coal, nuclear, or any of those other nasty technologies that aren’t “clean and renewable.”
So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, the problem is that 30 years hasn’t changed the physics of things like the intensity of sunlight or wind power. Nuclear power has 2 million times the energy density of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are again about ten times as dense as wind and solar. Multiply it out and that comes to a factor of 20 million. How does this manifest itself? Well, in the amount of land that will be required to collect all that solar and wind energy before we can begin using it.
All this came home to me again the other night while I was watching Thomas Friedman’s “Green is the New Red, White and Blue” special, which ran on the Discovery Channel. At one point, Friedman finds a hydrogen car running on fuel cells and producing zero emissions. The cars costs a million dollars to build, he notes, but don’t worry, mass production will bring that down. Then he goes to a hydrogen filling station in California, run by Honda. “Where do you get the hydrogen,” he asks. His enthusiasm wanes, however, when he learns about the flimsiness of solar energy. “These solar panels,” he says, “measuring 700 square feet, take a week to generate enough hydrogen to fill one fuel tank.”
Anything solar immediately runs into the same problem. There just isn’t that much energy there to begin with. In January 2009, three leading solar researchers, writing in Scientific American, proposed that by 2050 American get all its electricity from solar panels in the Southwestern desert. All we would require would be 46,000 square miles — about one-third of New Mexico, America’s fifth largest state. Al Gore repeated this proposal before the Senate Energy Committee in February, although he managed to reduce the requirements to 10,000 square miles, based on the untested claims of a California company.
All this may seem like vaporware, but it’s being put into effect in California right now. The state has adopted a “renewable portfolio mandate,” which says that it must get 20 percent of its electricity from so-called “renewables” by 2020. This leaves the utilities in a position of buying anything some budding entrepreneur offers them. Thinly funded companies are furiously drawing up plans to fill California deserts with solar installations, knowing the utilities will have to buy anything they generate.
All this hit a snag last week. California Senator Diane Feinstein announced she would introduce a bill setting 600,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management holdings in the Mojave Desert off-limits to solar projects. “Such development would violate the spirit of what conservationists had intended when they donated much of the land to the public,” she said. “It would destroy the entire Mojave Desert ecosystem,” added David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy, which originally dedicated some of the land to the BLM.
Hmmm . . . endangered species? Environmental impact? Didn’t anybody ever think of these things before? So here’s another consideration. One of the biggest problems solar panels is that they accumulate dust, dirt, and sand, which block their effectiveness. Existing installations have to be washed down continually with water. Has anybody thought of where in the middle of the desert you’re going to find enough water to wash down 10,000 square miles of solar panels every month?
The one path not being pursued by the Obama administration, of course, is nuclear energy. That would be too easy. All we’d have to do is admit that the purveyors of “clean and renewable energy” are living in a fantasy world. Once that was done, we could employ current technology, use the existing electrical grid, and skip all the business of flagellating ourselves about all the harm we do to the planet. We could put tens of thousands of construction workers to work, cut through bureaucracy (we’d have to give up the five-year reviews by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), and let Silicon Valley go back to building computers instead of thinking they can solve world energy problems.
Granted, Susan Hockfield — president of MIT, who introduced Obama this afternoon — did say something about developing “safer and more efficient nuclear technologies,” but that’s always the way. Safe and acceptable nuclear energy is always somewhere over the horizon. In fact, the technology we’ve got now is already safe and efficient. We just have to use it. Energy Secretary Steven Chu spoke for the administration two weeks ago, however, when he cancelled Yucca Mountain. The move wasn’t really that significant, since reprocessing nuclear fuel makes much more sense. (See “There is No Such Thing as Nuclear Waste” in the Wall Street Journal.) But it speaks volumes about what to expect form the Obama Administration on nuclear power.
Jimmy Carter’s Presidency was brought down by his failure to deal with the energy problem. After four years of floundering around with oil price controls and “alternate energy” Carter was overwhelmed by world events.
Is the Obama Presidency headed down the same road? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Of course, the Research and Development Tax Credit — which Obama repeatedly mentioned in his speech, touting the hope it provides for energy research — was the brainchild of the Reagan administration and part of Kemp-Roth Tax Act of 1981. So maybe Obama is learning something.
– William Tucker is author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey.