Energy Policy: Can Anybody Around Here Do Basic Arithmetic?

May 09, 2016/ Francis Menton

On Bernie Sanders’ website, there is this statement of the utopian future of energy:

Transitioning toward a completely nuclear-free clean energy system for electricity, heating, and transportation is not only possible and affordable; it will create millions of good jobs, clean up our air and water, and decrease our dependence on foreign oil.

OK, let’s see what that means: no fossil fuels, no nuclear, undoubtedly no or little hydro.  What’s left?  Basically wind and solar.  Sure enough, there’s this:

We will act boldly to move our energy system away from fossil fuels, toward energy efficiency and sustainable energy sources like wind, solar, and geothermal because we have a moral responsibility to leave our kids a planet that is healthy and habitable. 

And don’t get the idea that Bernie is alone in these fantasies.  In the same March speech where she said “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” Hillary also added that her energy policy would “bring economic opportunity—using clean, renewable energy as the key—into coal country.”     

Can anybody around here do basic arithmetic?  These ideas can’t possibly add up unless the government subsidies necessary to induce the development of wind and solar power are treated as completely costless free money.  Government as the infinite source of costless free money — actually that’s the essence of progressivism, so I don’t know why I should have expected anything else from these guys.

Over at the Manhattan Institute, Robert Bryce is out with a new report titled “What Happens To An Economy When Forced To Use Renewable Energy?”   Of course, the answer to the question is that so-called “renewable energy” is much more expensive than the fossil fuel alternatives, and the extra costs necessarily have to get piled on the population somewhere or other — in higher electricity prices, in higher taxes, in lost jobs or economic opportunities, or something else.  The world “leaders” (if we want to call them that) in so burdening their populations are the big countries of Europe, so we can assess the consequences of these policies by comparing the experience of those countries since they started down this road to our own experience.  Really, it’s an unmitigated disaster, particularly in the economic burdens imposed on the lower-income portion of the population.  To take just a few examples from Bryce’s report:

  • Since the EU adopted its Emissions Trading Scheme in 2005, electricity prices in Europe have increased at about double the rate of increase in the U.S. — 63% in Europe vs. 32% in the U.S.
  • But the increases have been far more dramatic in the countries that have intervened the most in their energy markets:  “During 2008–12, Germany’s residential electricity rates increased by 78 percent, Spain’s rose by 111 percent, and the U.K.’s soared by 133 percent.”    
  • “In 2016 alone, German households will be forced to spend $29 billion on renewable electricity with a market value of $4 billion—more than $700 per household.”
  • “Germany’s energy minister has warned that the continuation of current policies risks the ‘deindustrialization’ of the country’s economy.”
  • Spain until recently was famous for the most aggressive promotion of wind and solar of all European countries.  How has that worked out?  “[T]he country’s electric utilities have accumulated a $32 billion deficit that must now be repaid, by adding surcharges of about 55 percent to customers’ bills. High energy costs are only adding to Spain’s economic woes. During 2004–14, Spain’s GDP grew by just 0.6 percent per year, on average, and the country’s unemployment rate now stands at about 21 percent.”

Meanwhile, at the Alliance for Wise Energy Decisions, John Droz today links to an archived 2014 post by a guy named John Weber titled “Prove This Wrong — Wind Makes Zero Sense.”  If you think that wind energy is infinitely clean and free, this post is filled with lots of data and many pictures that show the extent to which the production of wind energy relies on a massive underlying fossil-fuel infrastructure.  The post kicks off from a 2009 proposal from Stanford Engineering Professor Mark Jacobson to provide 50% of the world’s electricity by 2030 by the simple strategy of building lots of wind turbines.  According to Jacobson (who thinks it is a good idea), it would take 3.8 million of the turbines at 5 MWe each to reach the 50% level.  Current humongous wind turbines are only about 2.5 MWe each, so it would take more like 7.6 million of the smaller ones.  Bernie thinks that all power (not just half) should be provided this way, so make that 15.2 million!  Then put aside for the moment that wind turbines only work the far-less-than-half the time when the wind blows at the right speed.  Also put aside the big transmission losses from moving the electricity from where the wind blows to where the electricity is used.  Anyway, Weber’s post just focuses on the large and really unavoidable use of fossil fuel energy in building all these wind turbines.

When you see these things from a distance in the countryside, it’s hard to realize how truly gigantic they are.  Weber gives the following statistics for just one 2.5 MWe wind turbine:  tower height – 100 meters (328 feet); total height to top of blade – 485 feet; total weight – 2000 tons (!), mostly of steel and concrete.  (Source: Kansas Energy Information Network here.)  Here’s a picture of the base of a 2.5 MWe turbine under construction, with some men in the picture to give a sense of the scale.  That’s about 45 tons of steel re-bar:

1462828034844

That base is soon to be filled with a pour of about 1200 tons of concrete.  Then you attach the 328 foot tower.  The tower comes in two sections.  Here’s a picture of the smaller (approx. 120 foot) section arriving on a 208 foot long truck:

1462828565540

To state the obvious,  the whole idea of wind turbines is a non-starter without the enormous underlying fossil-fuel-powered infrastructure to make and deliver the steel, concrete and other materials.  Here is a 2014 post from the Energy Collective acknowledging the same point.

Then there’s air travel — has anyone figured out a way to do that with wind power?  Ocean shipping?  Theoretically, with enough batteries, you could do all-electric cars with wind power.  You can buy a Tesla for around $75,000 today.  But don’t worry, the government has plenty of free money lying around to subsidize that down until the price is competitive with the evil fossil-fuel powered vehicles.

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