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Virtual lack of reality

03 Apr 2019 | News Roundup

A new report from the Manhattan Institute warns that the laws of physics make a green energy revolution impossible. Advocates, it says, dream of a transformation like that in computing and communications that gave us the Internet. But they need to look up from their screens at the physics of moving people and things, which is very much unlike the physics of moving data.

One of the most damning statistics in the report is that “So far, wind, solar, and batteries—the favored alternatives to hydrocarbons—provide about 2% of the world’s energy and 3% of America’s.” After all the hype, the subsidies and the genuine good will, that’s it?

Besides, as Michael Shellenberger asks in Forbes, “If solar panels and wind turbines became so much cheaper, why did the price of electricity rise instead of decline?” It’s not that conventional power became more expensive (including because plants were shut down). Rather, he blames “[t]heir fundamentally unreliable nature. Both solar and wind produce too much energy when societies don’t need it, and not enough when they do. Solar and wind thus require that natural gas plants, hydro-electric dams, batteries or some other form of reliable power be ready at a moment’s notice to start churning out electricity when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining. And unreliability requires solar- and/or wind-heavy places like Germany, California and Denmark to pay neighboring nations or states to take their solar and wind energy when they are producing too much of it.”

Bjorn Lomborg recently wrote “We’re constantly being told how renewables are close to taking over the world. We’re told they are so cheap they’ll undercut fossil fuels and reign supreme pretty soon. That would be nice…. Unfortunately, it is also mostly an illusion…. The misapprehension that renewables are just about to take over makes many believe that we have all the technologies needed to go to zero CO₂. That we just need more political will. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.” He then quotes James Hansen (“Al Gore’s climate advisor and the scientist who literally started the global warming worry in 1988”) that “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”

As the study author, Mark P. Mills, told The Federalist Radio Hour: “You have to recognize what Mother Nature, the physics, permits and doesn’t permit. New discoveries will come from basic science, not from subsidies for yesterday’s technologies. We didn’t get the internet by subsidizing the rotary phone.”

In the face of brute facts, one possible reaction is to have hysterics. Thus one of the craziest statements in recent days is that “A small handful of companies are responsible for the overwhelming majority of fossil fuel emissions”. Not us, the people who use them. The sinister capitalists. So give them the smackdown, possibly via legal action, and once Scrooge & Marley are driven out of business the rest of us will be fine.

Suffering? What suffering? That author went on to say of fossil fuel emissions that “Their effects are visited worst upon the poor. Repeated studies have shown that the global poor – left without stockpiles, without armies of private firefighters – are the most exposed to the immediate effects of climate change.” But what is actually visited worst upon the poor is the effect of not having reliable energy: breathing dung smoke, drinking dirty water and watching their children starve. (Thus over in China they’re going all in on coal despite their smooth talk at environmental conferences, which isn’t surprising since their government tends to lie a lot and they’re desperate for energy.)

The reason companies sell fossil fuel is that consumers need it to avoid a collapse in well-being in the developed world and to escape misery in the undeveloped world. As we have repeatedly observed, until a reliable replacement comes along the real alternative to fossil fuels is no fuels. Thus as we have also noted, it’s a reality thing. What matters isn’t where bits of coloured paper go or don’t. It’s where energy goes or doesn’t.

Environmental Defence welcomed the carbon tax as a way to make people richer, explaining that “Because revenues from industrial fuel users will be added to the rebate pool, the rebate will usually be higher than any costs paid by households.” That people will pay more for the products from such users was missing from their analysis as was the absolutely fundamental point that if fuel becomes more expensive it hurts the economy.

Awkwardly, Enbridge wants to hike consumers’ gas bills by 11% because of the new carbon tax. It may not get permission. But ultimately it’s not about the money. It’s about having or not having fuel.

You can’t run a modern economy on wind. You just can’t.

2 comments on “Virtual lack of reality”

  1. You reiterate a common half-truth: you can't get wind power when the wind isn't blowing. The whole truth is twice as bad as that: you can't get wind power when the wind isn't blowing, OR when it is blowing too hard. Wind turbines are fragile things, what with all that torque and all. When the wind blows too hard, they have to be shut down so that they don't destroy themselves from the violent spinning of the blades.

  2. The other thing to remember is that the trend since the beginning of the industrial revolution has generally been to move to higher and higher energy density fuel sources: wood to coal to oil to natural gas to uranium. Solar and wind power in contrast are very low density sources which means that large areas of the earths surface need to be committed for each unit of energy generated. Not a major problem in Canada perhaps, but I saw some calculations for the UK that showed amazingly large areas of the old country that would need to be covered with windmills if all energy was to be so generated.

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