You increased my electric bills!

Letter to Oregon Legislators that have forced renewable anergy solutions on the power companiesas reported in OregonLive here.

Dear Jim,

While it is easy to predict that our electric bills will rapidly double with the current push for large amounts of renewable energy to replace the tried and true power sources we presently use, the real issue is what are we getting for our money?

First of all, how can we be certain that the present course we are on will double our bills? That’s easy. “Renewable” sources have a wholesale cost per kilowatt-hour that is many times that of conventional sources like hydro, coal, natural gas, or nuclear. If only a tiny fraction of our generating capability comes from these “renewable” sources, then the effects on the ratepayer will be the relatively minimal increases so far. But as soon as legislators force power companies to expand from one or two percent to ten or twenty percent coming from extremely costly sources, watch out. Electric bills have to increase greatly or the power companies will go broke. Legislators can hide some of the pain by shifting a fraction of the burden to taxpayers, but the public will quickly figure out that taxpayers and ratepayers are the same individuals – us! In other words, the crazy mandates for extremely expensive power will take a huge toll on our society and destroy our once substantial competitive advantage of cheap power here in the Northwest.

But let’s ask for a moment if we are getting something for all the money we are spending. One of Bill Bradbury’s aids admitted to me that Global Warming might be a hoax, but argued that we are justified in continuing with it because of all the wonderful changes it is forcing in our society. Presumably, windmills, solar cells, and ethanol were high on her list of wonderful accomplishments. But all of these are energy and economic disasters for us.

Here’s why:

All energy takes some energy to produce. Let me call this ‘overhead.’ It takes energy to drill an oil or natural gas well, additional energy to pump or truck what comes out of the ground to a refinery, still more energy to refine the crude into useful products and transport it to market. But the whole process produces a vast amount of net energy, as well as a vast amount of high quality energy. That means we get somewhere with such an undertaking, because our overhead is relatively low.

But as even Al Gore has discovered, we get nowhere with ethanol made from corn. It requires about as much high quality energy to produce as we ever get out of the inferior product. You might as well just burn the natural gas and diesel fuel directly and shutdown the elaborate process that is today converting these into ethanol. That would also help our food prices that have risen dramatically as a consequence of the diversion of a significant fraction of our corn crop to fuel production. That has had devastating consequences in the Third World that has long depended on our agricultural surpluses. The UN World Food Program estimates that a billion people now go hungry thanks to our very misguided ethanol ‘experiment.’

Solar cells are a similar boondoggle, but without the horrendous social consequences. It takes about as much electrical energy to maanufacture silicon solar cells as will ever be returned by them over their typical twenty year lifespan. In some applications, the use of high quality energy (electricity) to make more high quality energy is justified, if the solar electricity is extremely valuable. Satellite applications are a good example. But if solar cells merely replace grid power, then they cannot be considered high quality power, because they do not produce electricity when the Sun is not shining. That gets us into the issue of back up power which is necessary for all intermittent sources. Hydro and natural gas generating plants work well for back up, if they have excess capacity. But if new natural gas plants need to be built just to back up solar, then it is very difficult to justify the expense. You would be considerably better off just building the natural gas plant and foregoing the solar.

Windmills are perhaps the worst boondoggle of all because they require much more high quality energy to manufacture, install, maintain, and backup than they will ever produce. And in fact the electricity they produce is far inferior to that from a conventional power plant because it is so erratic. With solar, we can at least depend on the Sun shining most days in appropriate locations. The same cannot be said for wind. The erratic nature of wind places a huge strain on the electric grid, if we expect our power to continue 24/7. Continually bringing huge generators up to speed and then shutting them down just to accommodate the wind shortens their life considerably. The same argument can be made for the large generators used in huge windmills. Substantial environmental problems with windmills also suggest that they are a problem not a solution.

I would hope that our State Senators and Representatives would take the time to learn something about the generation of electricity, because they are forcing changes that even by their standards are a disaster. I say “by their standards” because they are claiming carbon dioxide, energy independence, and environmental dividends that simply do not exist.

With high costs and no demonstrable benefits, we need to abandon this bandwagon in favor of real solutions for our energy needs.

Gordon J. Fulks, PhD

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