Framing the Dialogue

Earth Day 2009 – Take 2

As a follow up to my Earth Day posting I would like to address some of the environmental issues that are frequently in the news.  A common thread of the news seems to be that the solutions are simple “if we spent enough money to promote” whatever solution is being purported.

Take wind power as an example.  I participate in some school presentations as part of my job and I talk about energy.  Invariably solar, wind, or hydropower comes up as part of the discussions.  Most students are taught or at least exposed to the benefits of these renewable sources of energy.  We need to build more windmills.

I usually tell a story about an energy workshop that I attended a few years ago.  One of the speakers spoke about the benefits of wind power.  It is a fairly simple process where wind acts on the blades turning a turbine that will generate electricity.  After his presentation, the speaker opened the floor for questions and easily handled the expected questions about the impact on birds and bats. 

I raised my hand and asked how the turbines generated power on calm days.  The speaker easily explained that customers would be tied into an electrical grid and that on those days “backup” power would be available.  I sensed that he feared my next question.  How is the “backup” power generated?  That is the problem with wind.  I also came to learn that if there is too much wind, the turbines have to be turned off.  Wind may be renewable, but may not be reliable.

Many companies who are attempting to build large wind facilities are finding themselves opposed by environmentalists.  A reality of power generation is that you have to get the power from the source of generation to the customer.  It seems that many NIMBYs do not want these lines in their neighborhoods.  This linked article is about a case in Minnesota and additional examples can be found in this Op-Ed piece

Moving on to solar power, it shares the same transmission issues as wind power, but has a few of its own drawbacks.  While my solar-powered calculator works great the amount of energy to run my laptop may be more.  I also have gotten used to television, a refrigerator and AC on hot days. 

As a resident of Western Pennsylvania, we enjoy around 59 sunny days a year.  I really mean, “enjoy.”  We get so few days that is all we seem to talk about on a sunny day.  We do have more days with sun, but only 59 where we have full days of sunlight.  That does not make solar energy generation using today’s technology particularly viable here or in many other parts of the country.

You also have to consider that we do have this daily occurrence called “night” where efficient solar power generation would be compromised.  Maybe we could simply tie into the “grid” and get power when the sun is not prominent. 

I am reading The Forgotten Man, which is the period of the Great Depression.  One of the types of projects of FDR was dam building to generate electricity.  Hydropower uses water to turn the blades of a turbine to generate electricity.  I had the fortune to visit the Hoover Dam a few years ago and it is an impressive structure.  Roosevelt actually succeeded Hoover into the Presidency and some of his people tried to change the name to the Boulder Dam.  It did not stick and Hoover gets the credit.

The Hoover Dam is a great example of massive power generation using water.  The downside is that you have to build a very big dam to accomplish this task.  Lake Mead, which was created by the Hoover Dam, encompasses nearly 157,000 acres with 550 miles of shoreline.  I would not believe that we could build something like the Hoover Dam with today’s environmental regulations. 

In fact many smaller dams are being removed because they interfere with aquatic communities.  In many environmental circles, dams are now “bad.”  Also, I would expect that shooting fish through a turbine at the bottom of a dam might be hazardous to their health.  I have heard water turbines referred to fish blenders.  It makes me think back to the earlier, funny days of Saturday Night Live and Dan Ackroyd’s Bassomatic Video.

Another “renewable” source is biomass where decomposing materials produce gas that is burned to create steam to turn turbines and create electricity.  Many solid waste landfills are collecting the gas that is generated and using it to make electricity.  Some farmers are even storing manure in digesters that use the gas to generate electricity. 

This sounds good, but the farm facilities are too expensive for most farmers to afford unless heavily subsidized by government (that means that you pay for them).  We often hear about how many landfill there are, but the amount of gas generated really does not amount to a significant amount of energy production.

The reality is that in the United States, nearly 50% of our electricity is generated by coal, around 20% by nuclear, 20 % by gas, 6.5% by hydropower, 3% by oil, leaving less than 1% by renewables.  EPA has a site where you can get an estimate of where your power comes from based on your zip code.  Where I live, nearly 75 % comes from coal and over 20% from nuclear.

I find it interesting that energy debates often ignore where we ACTUALLY get our energy unless it is to deride them.  Windmills and solar cells have been around for decades and have received millions (probably billions) of dollars in subsidies.  You need to ask yourself why they have yet to break through as major sources of electricity. 

If you have read my posts, you know that I believe in market forces.  It is obvious that the technology and markets do not support these alternatives at this time.  I will end this post with another story from my energy workshop.  A feature of the facility where the workshop was held was that they had constructed a small wind turbine.

We all dutifully hiked out to the location to hear the wonders of their windmill.  At the question and answer period, someone asked what the return on investment (“ROI”) would be for the turbine.  The answer was that the turbine would never generate enough power to pay for itself.  In fact it was paid for by a government grant and was an important educational tool.  If I can translate the answer;

“From a business standpoint, we would never have built this if we had to use our own money.”

I am not suggesting that we do not explore alternative energy sources.  I just have a basic mistrust that government can do this fairly and efficiently.  This is especially true at the federal level.  I believe that government gets less efficient the further removed it is from those governed. 

The simple answer is that market forces always seem to work when left alone.

3 CommentsLeave one

  1. Kevin says:

    Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” is an amazing thing. The problem is that this theory requires the government doing next to nothing. The problem is politicians don’t get reelected and gain power by doing nothing and getting out of the way. That is why our founding fathers heavily emphasized less government, even though they were the ones forming this powerful enterprise. The foresight of these revolutionaries is simply amazing, although today, they might be considered terrorists according to this administration.

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  3. Earth Day Plus 40 / Framing the Dialogue says:

    […] employee in the environmental field while balancing my environmentalism with conservatism. In Part 2 I tackled some of the issues surrounding alternative energy and why the energy solution is not easy […]

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