The Week That Was
May 4-10, 1998

"Renewable energy," that alleged remedy for global warming, has a nice ring to it, kind of like having a household where you never run out of necessities. The reality, unfortunately, is closer to those trendy communes in the desert, where you get a sink and a cot and pay handsomely for the privilege of living the simple life.

We're about to pay handsomely indeed. Six alternative energy corporations have formed the Renewable Energy Alliance, a kind of green union to grease the skids for more of those taxpayer dollars that have been propping them up for two decades or so. The bankrupt FloWind Corp is racing to reorganize before the current wind energy subsidies expire. Corporations like Houston-based Enron have already gotten federal commitments for a share of the $6.3 billion go-along-to-get-along pot set aside by the Clinton-Gore Administration. Some fossil-fuel companies are investing in solar and wind power subsidiaries for the same purpose.

We've been through all of this before, of course. A quarter-century ago, the Club of Rome warned that the world was running out of fossil fuels and bureaucrats scurried to put together a response. With the Arab oil embargo, the "energy crisis" of 1974, and President Jimmy Carter's brief reinstatement of Richard Nixon's "Project Independence," the public was promised inexhaustible energy on the cheap, and paid through the nose.

Remember solar power-towers in the Mojave desert, hot-rock geothermal, and all of those wonderful schemes for extracting energy from ocean waves, tides, and temperature differences? What about the California wind farms at Altamont Pass and Tehachapi, those glorious monuments to the federal Production Tax Credit for subsidized energy? Wildlife conservation groups now refer to them as "cuisinarts of the air" for their efficiency in chopping up eagles and other birds.

A few years ago, anti-nuke California voters forced the publicly-owned Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to shut down its 900-megawatt Rancho Seco nuclear power plant, opting for solar panels instead. Today SMUD has the largest photovoltaic energy system in the world--all six megawatts of it!--linked to an electric grid system. SMUD also installed 450 rooftop solar units and budgeted up to 100 additional rooftop units a year.

Utility customers who ask for the rooftop units get to pay $4 a month for a system that feeds electricity into the grid, not into their homes. And all SMUD customers, even those who don't want solar panels on their roofs, are paying for solar energy anyway via higher utility rates. You have to wonder if these customers were aware of the cost when they voted for solar power. Or did these naive Californians just assume sunlight was free?

The April 1998 issue of The Energy Advocate, a newsletter published by Professor Howard Hayden at the University of Connecticut, shows a photograph of the Rancho Seco nuclear installation. The array of photovoltaic panels next to it, which augment the rooftop installations, occupies more land than the 900 megawatt nuclear plant, but produces a mere 2 megawatts. In full sunlight at noon, the amount of land needed for photovoltaic panels would have to be increased 500-fold to produce as much electricity as Rancho Seco. It would have to increase 2500- to 3000-fold to produce as much electricity around the clock, and that's assuming no cloudiness, no snow, and no debris or dirt covering the panels.

All this may sound rather shortsighted, but, as usual, the Europeans are jumping in with both feet. Environment ministers from the G-7 nations and Russia, following a recent meeting in Leeds Castle, England, issued a statement claiming global warming was "the greatest environmental threat to the world's sustainable development, public health, and future prosperity."

We beg to differ: The Kyoto Accord is a lose-lose proposition. Applied only to industrialized nations, it cripples business, imposes additional energy costs (which hit the poor and the elderly hardest), and effects no change on greenhouse gas concentrations. Applied globally, it also suppresses development in the Third World and creates havoc with efforts to raise public health standards. Instead of improving sanitation, spraying for mosquitoes, and providing clean drinking water for the 40 percent of children and adults still living, in effect, in the 13th century, international bureaucrats will funnel those billions into changing the climate.

Green activists in government stridently claim it's worth it, but the accuracy of their reports hardly instill confidence. To give but one example, Climate Change, a report by the UK Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Robert May and rushed into print for the Kyoto meeting, rehashes the IPCC Policymakers Summary and touts Britain's track record for cutting CO2 emissions. Sir Robert, a zoologist, can be forgiven perhaps for being a bit vague about atmospheric physics, but he's rather too enthusiastic when it comes to adding up IPCC scientists. Al Gore pads the list to 2500 (failing to mention that only a hundred or so are climate scientists); Sir Robert doubles that to 5000 IPCC scientists. Perhaps environment officials should sit down, and, for a change, listen to economists, who we hear are better at crunching the numbers.

Besides, the natives are getting restless, even in Britain. A column in the April 6 Times of London, headlined "Real Friend of the Earth," lauds Dr. Peter Hodgson of Oxford University for pointing out that Sir John Houghton, the politically correct IPCC co-chairman, has given nuclear power short shrift. "Nuclear plants are really the only practical way of keeping the lights on while cutting the amount of CO2 emitted," says Hodgson. "Nuclear is a well-tried and reliable source, whereas the alternatives are mainly wishful thinking."

Dr. Chauncey Starr of the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, explains: To satisfy demand for electricity, and stabilize CO2 by the middle of the next century at the same time, we would need to replace all of the world's 2000 oil- and coal-fired power plants with nuclear reactors, and construct an additional 10,000 electric power generators of 1000 megawatts each. That's roughly 250 plants a year or about five a week. If the Greens insist on renewables, that works out to one million windmills, or 1000 square miles of solar panels, each year.

SEPP President Dr. Fred Singer put it another way in an article in the Wall Street Journal a few years back: to meet U.S energy needs, he said, each household (three persons, on average) would require an area the size of a football field covered with solar cells. Multiply that by roughly 100 million households and you get the picture; we're not preserving the environment, we're creating an eyesore.

But the Greens keep beating the drum for renewables, and parasitic alternative energy corporations, with little to show in the way of progress over the years, remain on the government dole. For those interested by the way, Harvard University will offer this coming July a one-week, $8,500 "Executive Program on Climate Change and Development." We're curious as to just what insights Harvard will pass along to justify the cost of such an "executive" program. If recent history is any indication, perhaps the sales pitch will be: "We're raking it in on global warming; you can too!"

Ah, but we're becoming cynical. Until next week...

This issue of TW^2 was compiled by SEPP Research Associate Candace Crandall

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