An Energy Vision Grounded in Reality

May 6, 2010

In 1882, Thomas Edison built the world’s first commercial power station. Naturally, the fuel used to heat the boilers that provided the steam to run its generators was coal.

Nearly 130 years later, what fuel is used to produce the plurality of the world’s electricity?

Coal.

Robert Bryce uses the Edison anecdote in Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future to illustrate that energy transitions take time. Often, lots of time.

The “inevitable” arrival of electric cars, biofuels, and wind power withers under Bryce’s scrutiny. His data and historical perspectives will be devastating to open-minded fans of “renewables.” (Okay, it’s not a big group.) Newcomers to the energy debate will read his book and be appalled at how much time and money have been wasted on sources with minimal environmental benefits and substantial unintended consequences.

Unlike the New York- and D.C.-based pundits who drool over “green power,” “sustainability,” and “the hydrogen economy” on “Charlie Rose” or “The O’Reilly Factor,” Bryce is -- you might want to sit down for this -- qualified to discuss the subject. As managing editor of Energy Tribune, the Texas resident has two decades of experience in the field. Power Hungry is a follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence.

Bryce’s thesis: “All the blather about ‘green’ has fostered the delusion that we can get our energy on the cheap, without any environmental impacts at all. …. But the hard truth is that energy production is not pretty, cheap, or easy.”

Wind turbines? Bryce dissects them as skillfully as their blades slice up raptors. “[T]hanks to its variability and intermittency,” he writes, “wind power does not, and cannot, displace power plants, it only adds to them.”

Cellulosic ethanol? In the works for nearly a century, yet it hasn’t made even a miniscule contribution. If it ever did, the land required would be immense. To reduce U.S. petroleum use by 10 percent would necessitate the cultivation of 42.1 million acres, “an area nearly equal to the size of Oklahoma.” Besides, “there’s no infrastructure available to plant, harvest, and transport the switchgrass or other biomass source to the refinery.”

Electric cars? Again, there’s no infrastructure in place. Charging a vehicle takes many hours, versus the “1 minute and 59 seconds” it takes to fill up Bryce’s 2000 Honda Odyssey. And electric-vehicle batteries “haven’t achieved the orders-of-magnitude improvements that are needed for them to compete effectively with other transportation fuels.”

“All-electric cars are The Next Big Thing,” he quips. “And they always will be.”

Gloom and ridicule aren’t all Bryce has to offer. He praises the enormous efficiency improvements America has accomplished in recent decades. Contrary to greens’ mythmaking, “the United States has been better than nearly every other country on the planet at reducing its … energy use without doing any of the things that environmental groups and renewable energy lobbyists contend are essential.”

Bryce gets bolder when he claims that coal and oil are “here to stay.” Their energy density, “the amount of energy that can be contained in a given unit of volume, area, or mass,” is far superior to diffuse sources such as wind and sunlight. Petroleum is downright magical stuff: “Although we think of oil primarily as a transportation fuel, it’s also a nearly perfect fuel for heating, can be used to generate electricity, and, when refined, can be turned into an array of products, from cosmetics to shoelaces and bowling balls to milk jugs.”

That doesn’t mean coal and oil will dominate forever. Bryce thinks the future is “N2N”: Natural gas to nuclear. “Natural gas and nuclear power plants require far less land than wind and solar installations; both have lower carbon emissions than oil or coal; they emit no air pollutants; and both pass the challenges of cost and scale.”

Deep Thinkers in Manhattan and Malibu show no sign of stopping their silly pronouncements about energy. (If anything, nostrums about wind, solar, and the like seem to be multiplying.) Meanwhile, roughnecks, geologists, pipefitters, tycoons, linemen, engineers, tanker-truckers, and safety inspectors continue to provide the always-on electricity and always-available hydrocarbons America demands.

The nation’s dalliance with “green” nonsense has lasted too long. Equal time is needed. If Power Hungry’s numbers, graphs, and lists are exposed to enough policymakers, investors, and taxpayers, renewable energy will no longer be seen as the catalyst for an environmental and economic utopia. It will be understood as a Potemkin industry undeserving of subsidies.

D. Dowd Muska is a writer, commentator and lecturer. His website is www.dowdmuska.com.

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